Brodsky the Parasite-Poet

May 24: Joseph Brodsky was born on this day in 1940 in Leningrad (formerly, and now again, St. Petersburg). In his essay "Less Than One," Brodsky notes that the omnipresence of Lenin in his childhood -- his image or inspirational message on "almost every textbook, every class wall, postage stamps, money..." -- was character-defining:

I think that coming to ignore those pictures was my first lesson in switching off, my first attempt at estrangement. There were more to follow; in fact, the rest of my life can be viewed as a nonstop avoidance of its most importunate aspects.

Brodsky's skepticism was not compatible with the official alternatives. By age twenty-five he was in prison, wrapped in cold, wet sheets as a cure for "having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism … except for the writing of awful poems." The following is from a transcript of the trial taken down in shorthand by a Soviet journalist and sent to the Western press:

Judge: And what is your profession in general?

Accused: Poet-translator.

Judge: Who recognized you as a poet? Who listed you in the ranks of poets?

Accused: No one. Who listed me in the ranks of humanity?

The lines below are from "May 24, 1980," Brodsky's poem on his fortieth birthday, now looking homeward from exile in America:

…I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,

worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,

planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,

guzzled everything save dry water.

I've admitted the sentries' third eye into my wet and foul

dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it's stale and warty.

Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;

switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.

What should I say about my life? That it's long and abhors transparence.

Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.

In his 1987 Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, Brodsky reflected that he was once again standing on the shores of the Baltic Sea, though this time across from his hometown, and that his route had been "one hell of a way to get from Petersburg to Stockholm."

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.

The Promise of Hope

Killed last year in the infamous terror attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall, Kofi Awoonor was a national treasure in his native Ghana.  His career began in 1964 with Rediscovery, and this magnum opus serves as a tribute to his entire long journey charting his beloved nation's course through his accomplished poetry.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots

A pair of linked stories finds that, as translator Ann Jefferson relates, "[Pierre] Michon's great theme is the precarious balance between belief and imposture, and the way the greatest aspirations can be complicated by physical desire or the equally urgent desire for what he calls glory."