Now poet: Dmitry Golynko and the new social epic
Dmitry Golynko writes about the now. Since his debut in the early 1990s, Golynko’s ear has been tuned with extraordinary sensitivity to present linguistic conditions. His subject has been current social and political experience, which he studies with precise, close concentration. His writing — honed responses to his environment — constitutes a critical analysis, or perhaps an anatomy, of contemporary subjectivity. And as social and political reality, both in Russia and globally, has grown over the past two decades by stages more agonizing, more charged by crisis, and less obviously leading to any predictable or desirable future, Golynko’s work has engaged more and more intensely with this work of critique.
A consideration of the fading utility of the term “post-Soviet” can disclose something of the specificity of Golynko’s writing. For the past half-decade at least, this term has appeared more and more exhausted and less and less capable of grasping the present. The “post-Soviet” both never arrived, and now is emphatically past: the socialist world failed to enter the neoliberal heaven that was promised in the early nineties, and nevertheless (or perhaps precisely for this reason), social, cultural, and political experience has now moved on. But Golynko was never “post-Soviet” in any sense anyhow. Let me explain. Golynko began to publish only in the 1990s (his earliest publication appears to have been the selection of poems published in the journal Smena in 1992), and he therefore may be taken as a representative figure, symptomatic (but never typical) of the poetic condition of the 1990s and beyond in Russia. Certainly, then, he is a poet who took shape outside of the Soviet literary landscape. So why can’t he be said to be “post-Soviet”? Because, in distinction from the great majority of poets who have been described with this term, many of whom began writing in the underground long before the fall of the Soviet Union, Golynko has never defined his practice or his object of inquiry in opposition to Soviet realities. As with any other proclaimed “post-” (including that other ghost of the 1990s, the “postmodern”), the term “post-Soviet” tends to memorialize as much as it does bury, retaining the superseded past as a spectral presence. The post-Soviet generation was composed of poets whose writing continued to depend on the ironic deflation of Soviet official culture, or who sought self-consciously to differentiate themselves from Soviet aesthetic practices by discovering an anti-ideological language, a new sincerity, etc. Golynko, in terms of both biography and poetic voice, is anything but “post-Soviet” in this sense. While others were still fighting old battles, he was picking new fights, both aesthetic and political. From the start, his work aimed to present an unobstructed view of the present and its specificity.
Perhaps, though, we should connect Golynko not only with the present tense, but with the future. The legacy of the early twentieth-century avant-garde is more and more present with us today — not as a result of any specific aesthetic shift, but as a result of the sudden opening up across the globe of what Jürgen Habermas, following Reinhart Koselleck, refers to as the “horizon of future expectations.” Not since the early twentieth century has the future appeared so ill-defined, so unpredictable. After a half-century during which the global political imagination was nothing but a conflict between known futures, alternate programs to be implemented, followed by a decade in which the neoliberal present seemed to have captured all of the future in its predictability, suddenly we have been cast again into the temporal condition that the historical avant-garde occupied a century ago. Propelled out of a past from which ever greater technical possibilities and unresolved political ferment well up, often violently, situated in a present that is characterized by unpredictable, ongoing waves of global crisis — financial, ecological, political — we face a future that is radically unpredictable, that is throwing problems, one after another, at humanity. The avant-garde answers this challenge by means of a radical critique of the present, and the search for new forms, new shapes for future life. Golynko’s answer, over the past decade, has taken the form of what he describes as “applied social poetry” — a poetry that is capable of channeling the raw energy of contemporary language towards its own critical self-disclosure. In other words, Golynko’s portrait of the contemporary is pregnant with futurity.
Before describing where Golynko has arrived most recently with the poem included with this publication and others of his recent works, let’s briefly take account of his past poetic trajectory. Golynko’s work divides into three periods. In the 1990s he wrote what might be described as a form of glam poetry. Much of Golynko’s writing of that decade focused on an urban youth scene of drinking, sex, drugs, gambling, pop music, casinos, etc. His language featured an extraordinary cosmopolitan inventiveness, charged with slangy neologisms and modish-sounding foreign borrow-words that both reproduced the mad influx of non-Russian (largely English) lexicon and went one better with over-the-top multilingual puns (an uncharacteristically translatable instance: “Mickey-Mauser”). One wants to apply the description of a character from his “flagship” work of the 1990s — the long poem “Sashenka; Or, the Diary of An Ephemeral Death,” (1994–1995) — as a definition of Golynko’s own authorial persona of this period:
Here stoops Hermann H., jack of all spades, as of late Count Nullius,
misallied with an elderly countess for the sake of her granddaughter.
He summates in himself Harry Haller and Humbert Humbert
and Svidrigailov, of course — though he’s barely taller than Thumbellina.
Вон валетом пикирует Герман Г., нынче - граф Нулин,
он вступил в мезальянс с престарелой графиней ради её внучки.
Сплюсовались в нем Гарри Галлер и Гумберт Гумберт,
и Свидригайлов, конечно, — а себя-то в нём с нос гулькин.
Here, Golynko self-consciously displays his various literary pedigrees, Petersburgian on the one hand and world-lit-derived, on the other, both of which he tilted towards a stance of decadence, literary and social playfulness, and dandyism: from Pushkin he references the avaricious German from “The Queen of Spades,” from Dostoevsky we get amoral sexual monsters like Svidrigailov, from Nabokov, Humbert Humbert; from Hesse, the multi-planar personality Harry Haller.
The social world that Golynko captured in such works as “Sashenka” was a stylized, hyperbolic version of urban life of the 1990s, taken to extraordinary extremes that allowed for its ironic distancing and aestheticization. Yet he also imprinted, as in a photographic negative, a lyric intensity and elegance that belied the ironic, punning structure of his writing. Golynko’s strategy was in fact the use of the modish, amusing, yet ultimately sterile tropes of sophisticated textual play, amid the social and cultural chaos of that decade, as a screen against which lyricism might recover a degree of intensity that would appear either naïve or ironic if delivered directly. Like Natasha in Tolstoi’s opera house, the falsity of what happens on the stage allowed the innocence of the heart to ring true. Here, at the start of his career, Golynko’s concerns were resolutely presentist. This was about portraiture of 1990s social life and subjectivity, not about ironic deflation of the vanquished heroes of Soviet official culture, or recovery of the poetic traditions of the past. He was also rather optimistic about the potentials of the present for the new creation of human values. If history entered into his writing, it was a neutral history, a ruined past that, although charged with the traumas of the abruptly terminated grand historical narratives of the “short” twentieth century, had no power over the postmodern carnival of the present. And likewise, if the present in poems like “Sashenka” could be described as a kind of ruin, it was simply a ruin, rather than a ruin of the Soviet: a ruin in the midst of which new lyricism and new life were free to grow in a sort of chaotic, feverish fecundity.
Yet this sense of wild, lyric hopefulness failed to outlast the 1990s, either in social reality or in Golynko’s poetry. As the social scene of the 1990s was overtaken by a new model, so too Golynko made what appeared as a sharp left turn in his poetic practices around the end of the 1990s. The signal achievement of this second period of Golynko’s work was the poetic cycle “Elementary Things.” This is an extended series of short lyric meditations on an entity that constitutes a strange hybrid of personhood and philosophical abstraction of materiality. Golynko’s elementary things at times act like people, but at others behave like some sort of enigmatic, cosmic “ding an sich.” This device allows the poet to pursue a concerted exploration of what appears to be a category of extrasocial being. In the first of the series, “EV1,” Golynko offers us one of many definitions of this entity:
don’t take up a lot of space
that must be the formula of modernity
not to take up a lot of space
if the place is procreative it
will come into contact with something foreign
if the place spews smoke without fire or cause
it’s handier for it to come into contact with nothing
that’s why the elementary thing is such a ninny
as if it got kept half its life in the nuthouse
though with elementary things it’s not so easy to
send ’em packing, lock ’em up in the slammer
they change their places of residence
before the places manage to cover over
like gametes they are
много места не занимают
видно, это формула современности
занимать места немного
если место причинное оно
соприкоснется с чем-нибудь посторонним
если место задымлено без огня без причины
ему сподручней с ничем соприкоснуться
потому-то элементарная вещь такая дурында
будто ее полжизни держали в дурдоме
окончательно сбили с панталыку
но элементарные вещи не так-то просто
сбагрить с рук и упечь в кутузку
они меняют места проживанья
прежде, чем место себя заметает
подобно гаметам они
These poems might be characterized as a thought experiment in what remains after the social is extracted — an investigation of the category that Agamben refers to as “bare life.” Or, paradoxically, they might also be seen as an investigation of the precise parameters of social subjectivity, once the illusion of human agency and feeling is extracted from it. In a political and social environment that was at that time increasingly becoming normatively restrictive, one might think of this conflation of a turn at once to the material and the metaphysical as a form of protest. This conception of what the poet was up to here can help to bridge back towards his earlier practices, which may not be as distinct from these later poems in their deeper critical and affective work as they appear to be in their poetic strategies. One may see in the alterity of the “elementary thing” an analogy to the lyric alterity in the works of the 1990s. As the social conditions that formed the basis for Golynko’s poetics in the 1990s were themselves superceded by other, less frenetic and more limiting ones, the poet found in the elementary thing, which “it’s not so easy to / send […] packing, lock […] up in the slammer,” a different avenue for escape than through the rabbit hole of lyricism, one that led to no less vital possibilities for affective and poetic fertility. In this second period, one is again struck by Golynko’s remarkable freedom from the weight of history. With the “elementary thing” he found and took on his social targets in the present, without the burden of a historical experience that extended before the chaos of the 1990s. Indeed, the impulse here was towards transcendence of all experience: this was writing outside of not only the Soviet and the post-Soviet, but beyond the social in any sense.
Golynko achieved important technical innovations in this second period of his creative work, which are crucial for comprehension of his latest poetry, illustrated by the new translation published with this essay. Golynko’s writing had always been attuned to the “word of the other” and to the specificity of contemporary language — the language of youth, of the street, of the television and radio of the 1990s — which he subjected to elaborate transformations and alchemical recombination. Yet in his earlier writing the overall linguistic and poetic fabric was defined by a transhistorical and transcultural fund of literary tropes and topoi, which formed an armature on which the vocabulary and social subjectivity of present experience could be hung. In the 2000s, Golynko began to appropriate the language of the everyday in more complete, discursive units: “the elementary thing makes dishes clatter / using a high-class liquid.” This is a form of discourse poetry, in which Golynko rewove the “elementary things” that make up the contemporary prison house of language to show precisely how it is shaped at a rather deeper level than he managed with his fantastical ethnographic excursuses in the 1990s. Golynko’s other technical discovery of the early 2000s was the device of seriality. “Elementary things” was just one of several extended series of compositions (the “Faun” series; the “Respected Categories” series) in which the extended repetition of a single linguistic formula figures as the basic material of a poetic experiment, carried out on a grand scale. The principle of seriality was crucial to Golynko’s critical project, allowing him to mark out the outlines of contemporary subject positions through obsessive iterations of a single nodal point in language and in social discourse, refracted through various angles of attack.
Both of these innovations have been applied in a more intense and focused form in Golynko’s most recent poetic production, which rises organically from the previous period, yet also marks a distinctly new phase. Whereas in the “Elementary things” the word of the other, inserted into the nearly abstract grid of Golynko’s poetic system, is ratcheted up to nearly metaphysical significance, in works like “Whip It Out,” the metaphysical potential (and now it remains only a potential) of the hammering, mantra-like repetition of key elements of the composition — the title phrase and the image of a “man in a black raincoat” — is brought into a far sharper focus, a higher degree of critical resonance, by the extraordinarily abject nature of Golynko’s borrowed utterances, apparently “found” language (the words of multiple, anonymous voices), that form the disquieting basic material of the poem. Golynko’s achievement lies in his extreme stance of attentiveness to language. He has passed far beyond a simple import of neologistic slang, street language, or advertising jingles into poetry, where such “fresh lexical items” can be denatured and turned into a fetish of authenticity, while remaining in general constrained by the poet’s voice and textual authority. Golynko has instead ceded a great deal of poetic authority to the voice of the other, in all the foreignness of its alien politics, erotics, and violence. It’s really a matter of control. Golynko has invited the voice and subjectivity of the other into the heart of his verse in a completely novel manner. As a result, his poetry goes places that literature, nice folk, and refined conversation have seldom been before:
whip it out, yeah, dig it
a man in a black raincoat
looks at the hands of a woman
Asiatic, thin, without a single
blemish, if you blow off the dust
of impunity, everything
is ground to dust, flakes to the floor
the style: doggy
вынь да положь, да наверни
человек в черном плаще
смотрит на руки женщины
азиатки, тонкие, без единой
родинки, если сдунуть с них
пыль безнаказанности, то
все перемелется, труха будет
на полу, стиль собачий
At the start of this essay I wrote that Golynko’s current writing may be seen as a diagnostic procedure applied to contemporary social and political reality. Like many medical procedures, this is a painful one, in which the reader hears the disturbing interior voices of the era.
The purposefulness of this new phase is startling — whereas in his earlier periods, Golynko was oriented towards a certain poetic transformation of the social, in this current phase his work can be better described as a call to arms or even a form of action. If in his earlier poetry he was concerned with the precise description of social realities, his more recent poetry adopts an activist stance that is oriented towards revelation of the lacerations and wounds of contemporary social being. The poet himself has proposed that this new phase might be described as “poetics of sharpened precision” (2006), or an “applied social poetry,” yet I would propose the term “new social epic.” In some ways, my use of the term “epic” is in dialogue with the “new epic” poetry proclaimed in the middle of the last decade by Fedor Swarovski. As in Swarovski’s leading examples of the “new epic,” Golynko’s recent writing operates in a non-lyrical mode (that is, it is not based in the subjective experiences of an authorial persona) and presents a sweeping portrait of an entire scene of human existence and happening. As in Swarovski’s conceptions, Golynko’s writing is grounded in the intuition that the authorial lyric, as such, is a compromised and limited vehicle at present, both for literary and ideological reasons. Yet unlike Swarovski, Golynko’s writing is dedicated to a unique reality principle that links his works to the here and now in no uncertain terms — this is a new social epic. For whereas in his earlier work Golynko was remarkably free from the phantasmatic burdens of past history, in his current period he offers a remarkable, epic historicization of the present.
One of Walter Benjamin’s most influential formulations was his concept of radical history as the backward glance of the Angelus Novus, capable of comprehending the failures, silences, victims, and wounds of the past. In Benjamin’s conception, only such a history of ruins could present an authentic and effective tool for overcoming the inertia of a historical process geared to repetition and reinscription of injustice. Golynko’s most recent work may be described as just such an “effective history,” conducted in the present tense, on an level epic in both scale and political import. This work painfully probes the wounds of the present by means of close scrutiny of contemporary language, combining this disturbing portraiture with an equally disturbing evocation of the absent transcendent moment — whether this takes the form of the historical subject, the grand narrative, or even innocent pleasures, lyric or erotic. The titles of his long serial works of the last years demonstrate, in the mode of “baring the device,” the operations of this negative metaphysics by means of their punning structures, that typically reduce formulae that strive to evoke transcendence — “The Keys to Heaven” («Ключи от рая»), “Acts of mercy” («Акты милосердия») — to awkward references to fallen material objects that both encode the desire for transcendence and frustrate it — “The Keys to Yonder” («Ключи от края»), “Products of Mercy” («Продукты милосердия»).
Yet another absented path to transcendence concerns the poet’s novel aesthetics of radical ugliness. In his past work, as mentioned above, sheer lyricism presented a path to redemption of Golynko’s at times chaotic or disturbing social portraiture. His most recent work resolutely refuses to offer poetic beauty as a justification or legitimization of the social pain he explores. These works present an unblinking inquiry into the painful, the illicit, the immoral, the unethical, the corrupted, and the revolting. Yet Golynko’s rejection of the beautiful does not signal his rejection of the aesthetic — in fact, this radical gesture acts to renovate the aesthetic as a socially potent instrument. Since the fading of the avant-garde project of artistic transformation of the social world in the middle twentieth century, poetic language has too often been restricted to the elevated realm of the reflection and contemplation of the beautiful — a sort of ghetto of the beautiful. The few exceptions to this rule (that for some reason applies to poetry more than any other literary or visual art) include conceptualist works, in which the beautiful is typically replaced by the ironic or the clever, or the works of a few radical voices, such as that of Charles Bukowski, for whom the exploration of frequently obscene settings of social marginality became something of a transcendental quest in its own right — a quest for authenticity or for social realism. Golynko’s recent work, like Bukowski’s, explores the unsightly extremes of social experience, yet he has nothing of the romantic lyric subject that ennobles Bukowski’s quixotic quest. Instead, Golynko offers an unrelenting, epic immersion in the dark matter of present social reality. For this very reason, his work has regained the activist force of avant-garde writing. In parting company with the beautiful, the aesthetic is revealed in these poems as a category of formal richness that is pregnant with analytical potential and future modes of life, understanding, and meaning. The reader has no choice but to meet these worlds of pain head on, in all of their desperation, in a radical baring that must be taken as a call to arms or to action.
We may take “The Keys to Yonder,” which is offered here in translation, as a representative sample and manifesto of Golynko’s latest achievements. The poem is constructed around the opposition between a grotesque everyday reality and the aspiration for its transcendence. The latter is communicated in the obsessive return to the formula of the “keys to yonder” at the start of each stanza, presenting them as mysterious riddles, instruments promising release that somehow always lies just out of reach. The former — the everyday — is presented through a pastiche of borrowed phrases, which present a world of violence, depravity, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness. Via this opposition we gain a glimpse into the nature of present-day social and historical experience — our feeling of being trapped in the inescapable realities of a world afflicted by social disorders of various scales, of having lost our bearings (which way leads forward?), coupled with a perpetual desire to discover new ways to see around our situation, new “keys” that might lead to release from this awful present. No keys are forthcoming, of course. Unless a lucid vision of our present situatedness can be described as a key. For in each of his successive phases of work, Golynko has made possible a critical examination of our existential and political condition. In this most recent phase, he allows us to glimpse the urgency of our wounded, troubled present. He is a poet of the now.
2. Interestingly, in Golynko’s own overview of contemporary Russian poetry, he lucidly identifies the civilizational “hangover” of the preceding generation of poets — without, tellingly, articulating his own poetic position in any relationship whatsoever to that historical condition. See his essay with Evgeny Pavlov, “A Poetics of Intense Precision,” Landfall (New Zealand), no. 213 (May 2007): 52–59.
4. For other accounts of Golynko’s poetics, see: Илья Кукулин, «Исчезновение спектакля (траектория поэтического сознания)», introduction to: Дмитрий Голынко-Вольфсон, Бетонные голубки (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2003), 5–20; Eugene Ostashevsky, “Dmitry Golynko-Volfson and New Petersburg Poetry,” Shark, no. 1 (1998). Also see my more complete account of the earlier periods of Golynko’s poetics in Кевин М. Ф. Платт, «На границе литературоведения, за пределами постсоветского опыта: Дмитрий Голынко-Вольфсон», Новое литературное обозрение, no. 89 (2008): 213–220.
8. See a description of Golynko’s shift at the start of the 2000s in Дмитрий Бак «Сто поэтов начала столетия. О поэзии Дмитрия Голынко-Вольфсона и Тимура Кибирова», Октябр, no. 9 (2011): 173–179.
10. The refrain “man in a black raincoat” responds to the line “who are these people in black raincoats,” from the 1999 work “Partial Objects” by Golynko’s fellow St. Petersburg poet Aleksandr Skidan. As Artemii Magun has pointed out, Skidan’s line, in turn, refers to Descartes’ musings on how one may know that other thinking beings are concealed beneath clothing, rather than automatons, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, where it forms a part of the derivation of the cogito. From this starting point, Golynko’s poem may be seen in dialogue with Skidan’s concerning the conditions of modern subjectivity. See: Артемий Магун, «Слои сетчатки», Новое литературное обозрение no. 81 (2006): 318–319.
12.See Golynko’s “A Poetics of Intense Precision,” and Дмитрий Голынко-Вольфсон, «Прикладная социальная поэзия: изобретение политического субъекта», Транслит, no. 10/11 (2012): 180–82.
13. See Федор Сваровский, «Несколько слов о “новом эпосе”» Журнал “РЕЦ”, no. 44 (2007): 3–6. Also see Илья Кукулин «От Сваровского к Жуковскому и обратно: О том, как метод исследования конструирует литературный канон», Новое литературное обозрение, no. 89 (2008): 228–39.