Andrée Chedid and the contradictions of translation

One is the first positive odd number, an integer not evenly divisible by two. Odd, from the Old Norse oddi, point of land, triangle, the odd point sticking out, not lining up. As Dr. Math explains, the words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes.[1]

In English, the numeral 1 resembles the letter I. The picture I makes is the shape of first person, singular. When spoken, the shape of the mouth draws apart, one’s two lips separating in what looks to be either the start of a smile or one’s initial pain.

To write what translates as I in French requires two letters: j and e. Placed side by side, these letters compose je, which takes the place of I, but is not quite the same. The transaction is more approximation than equal exchange. If I were a mathematician, I might illustrate with equations:

j + e = je
j + e ≠ I
≈ I

If I were a linguist, I might note a difference of phonetics, how je ends with an open silence, a sound some might interpret as that which is possible, an invitation, infinite.

When spoken, the shape of je resembles the start of a kiss. I will not diagram that, not yet.


The one who is this American I first met the poet Andrée Chedid in France, a country to which neither of us is native but to where both of us were drawn. Born in 1920 in Egypt and of Lebanese descent, Chedid “was known to many in Paris as La dame des deux rives: the woman who came from the banks of two rivers, the Seine and the Nile. Raised in three languages — Arabic, English, and French —” Chedid lived in France from 1946 to the end of her life in 2011.[2]

Did I say she was alive when we met? If it is true that our work survives our deaths, I suppose Chedid was — and remains — very much alive. In her 1987 book, which was placed into my 2013 hands, Chedid felt to me as vivante as any living friend I made in France.

During those sixty years in which she made Paris her home, Chedid wrote the millions of words that would be published in over twenty collections of poetry, a dozen-odd novels, eight plays, nine children’s books, and seven books of short stories. One of the novels, Le Sixième Jour, was adapted for film.

In 2009, Chedid was appointed a Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur. Then-president Sarkozy paid tribute to her as one of the “generation of cosmopolitan intellectuals who chose France as their adopted land after the war, helping bring about a literary renaissance in our country.”[3] The literary prizes awarded to Chedid by her adopted country number twenty-one, including the Prix Goncourt — awarded twice, once in 1979 and again in 2002 for her entire works of poetry.

The first of those works, On the Trails of My Fancy, was published in Cairo in 1943, shortly after Chedid completed a degree in journalism at the American University and married her life partner, physician Louis Chedid. This book was published in English under the pen name A. Lake, but when Chedid and I met, I could not yet read the language in which she published after that. Even so, I recognized it. And perhaps it recognized me, even as I was and was not who I was before.


« Tu présides à toute naissance » reads the line addressed to a face that might have been translated into English as “the first one,” but is not. All the translations I’ve seen render « Visage premier » as “Primal Face.” Primal, easily confused with primeval, resembles a shortened version of primordial. Webster’s English defines it as original, primitive, first in importance, primary.

In mathematics, a prime number is a positive integer that has exactly two positive integer factors: 1 and itself. Three is the first number that is both odd and prime.

When divided by two, an odd number will result in a fraction. In other words, something other than one of two categories, not either/or, one or the other, but a quality of something else entirely — some third entity, something inter, something both, something merged. “Primal face, you preside at every birth.”[4]


In 1965, the year I was born, Chedid published a collection titled Double-Pays — in English, Dual Country. It is in such a place where one branches into change. “When extended to the limit of all our lives / You will disappear on the crest of extreme metamorphosis.”

Chedid’s contemporary, Yves Bonnefoy, might call such a place “L’Arrière-pays,” the title of his 1972 pivotal work, sometimes translated as The Land Beyond (and sometimes not translated at all, as in the 2012 English translation by British poet Stephen Romer).[5]

Paul Ricoeur, another contemporary of Chedid, might liken such singular duality to translation itself, whereby we “approach the mysteries of a language that is full of life, and at the same time [give] an account of the phenomenon of misunderstanding, of misinterpretation.”[6]

Yet a third contemporary, Édouard Glissant, writes of this place as the one in which the dissolution of the self engenders mergence with the Other: “When the poet travels to the ends where there is no country, he opens with the more deserved relation, in that space of an absolute elsewhere in which each can attempt to reach [her].”[7]

For Chedid, such doubleness resides not only in two countries, Egypt and France, but two states of being: inner and outer, oneself and another, quotidian and dream. The dual country represents “the convergence of experience lived simultaneously on earth and in the psychic ailleurs, or elsewhere of the poem.” This is how translator Judy Cochran notes Chedid’s poetry working as it links personal experience with collective memory.[8]

In Chedid’s translated words, “I have felt, from a stable core, determined to pursue a route that flares into multiple paths, branching. From unity to complexity and back … All human adventure seems to me drawn between these two poles.”[9]

In the language of numbers, such a doubling might be drawn like this: [22 >], which is to say two-squared is greater than.


In Webster’s English, odd is first defined as being without a corresponding mate, left over after others are paired or grouped.

In Collins French, the first offering for odd is strange: bizarre, curieux (or -euse, if the odd one is female). As a number, odd is impair [which to an American ear sounds less than, <]. Also: left over; not of a set; the odd one out, l’exception, feminine.


In 1949, Chedid published her first collection of poetry in French, Textes pour une figure. One translation of figure is picture or diagram. Another is face. A figure de rhétorique is a figure of speech.

If I were a rhetorician, I might be using Roman numerals. Or maybe if I were a philosopher — say, Gaston Bachelard — who uses them in The Poetics of Reverie and lived in Paris during many of the same years as Chedid.[10] I am neither of these, though I do as the Romans do because I am not from here when I am in France. Je ne suis pas d’ici. When I am in France, I am from somewhere else, une étrangerère, a stranger, odd, curieuse. Collins might also translate my state as inconnue, meaning not known.

In France, there is a practice of publishing the photographs of authors on the spines of their books. I noticed this one day when looking for any book by Andrée Chedid and seeing only rows of male faces. Curious stranger, who are you looking for, one who looks like you? On this shelf of books, spines facing the world, where is a face that resembles your own visage premier?


I did not find Chedid in a bookshop, but in the library of a man whose face does indeed grace the cover of a book. But it was a woman who introduced us when asked who were among her favorite poets. She was a woman I met in France, a woman who raised children, works a day job, and reads and writes when she can. She spoke as little English as I did French, but she wrote down Chedid’s name in my little notebook/carnet. This interchange might be expressed as P:F, meaning the field P extends the field F.

This may also be written as P ≥ F.

In this case, F might stand for figure or face, or maybe femme. It might stand for foreign. It might be understood as friend. In this case, P is the initial of the woman’s first name.


We did not meet in translation. Even our introduction took place in another tongue. But three poems in the book that came to be placed into my hands spoke immediately as belonging to two countries at once: the language in which they were composed and the language of the stranger. The étrangère I was in France recognized these poems at once, even though she could not yet read them. Form was the bridge of recognition.

Valéry might explain its crossing: “What is ‘form’ for anyone else is ‘content’ for me.”[11]


In fact, we met by accident. Call it roundabout if you like, or maybe kismet. I had travelled to France in search of a poet who wrote there centuries before either Chedid or I arrived. Like both of us, however, Christine de Pizan was native to another land. Maybe she was waiting for at least one of us to find her.

Born in Venice in 1365, Christine was brought to Paris as a child after her father was summoned by the court to serve as an astrologer for King Charles V. It was in this court that the young Christine was educated at her father’s knee. After his death and that of her husband, Christine put this education to practical use, writing poems commissioned by royal patrons to secure the financial protection of her three small children, elderly mother, and a niece left in her care.

Between 1394 and 1418, Christine produced over forty manuscripts that are still being read and translated today.[12] It was in one of these translations that I first saw the poem that would bring me to Chedid.

In 1418, the violent events of the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war caused Christine to flee Paris and her public writing life for sanctuary at the Dominican abbey of St. Louis at Poissy, where she remained until her death in 1430. It is here that Christine wrote what scholars believe to be the first poem to relay the triumphant victory of Jeanne d’Arc at Orléans: Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc.

Le Ditié is one of two known poems in this period of an otherwise twelve-year silence. Its form takes the shape of brief, sequenced prose lyrics linked by Arabic numerals. It is the exact form of the poem I recognized in Chedid’s book, composed over 500 years later. It begins: Je, Christine.

Scholars believe it to be the last poem of Christine’s life. Did I say Christine was dead when we met? The last phrase of section 1 translates as: I begin now for the first time to laugh.


In his 1996 address, “Translation as Challenge and Source of Happiness,” Ricoeur linked the complexities of translation to the title of Antoine Berman’s 1984 work, L’Épreuve de l’étranger: “These difficulties are accurately summarized in the term ‘test’ [épreuve], in the double sense of ‘ordeal’ [peine endurée] and ‘probation’: testing period, as we say, of a plan, of a desire or perhaps even of an urge, the urge to translate.”[13]

And so Christine begins to laugh her happiness in section 1, but she does not drop the challenge of happiness’ charge before arriving at its source. The poem must still be written, the effort endured. So too in translation, in which not only the translator is tested, but also the translated.

Chedid claimed épreuve as a “touchstone” word and translated it not as test but as proof, something more elastic, contingent, and enduring. She explains her choice of the word as the title of her 1983 collection Épreuves du vivant: “The resources of the word ‘proofs’ are infinite. How can we not be reminded of photography, of images being inverted? How can we fail to delve into this word so rich in exhortations, risks, pathways to be explored? Poetry reveals itself in our destinies by repeatedly making appeals to life; poetry is all at once the spur, the hope, and the proof of the Living.”[14]


As a member of the Living, the étrangère may share the desires, hopes, and tests of the native-born, but she is not to be entirely trusted, nor are any kin under the stranger’s purview. As Jane Hirshfield points out: “Translated works are Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion. They open the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds. Mistrust of translation is part of the instinctive immune reaction by which every community attempts to preserve its particular heritage and flavor: to control language is to control thought.”[15]

If one were in Rome, Hirshfield notes, she might very well be thus accused: “Traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor).”

For the potential betrayal that resides in translation, Ricoeur proposes linguistic hospitality as a remedy: “I am inclined to favor entry through the foreign door, that is for sure … [W]ithout the test of the foreign, would we be sensitive to the strangeness of our own language? … [W]ithout that test, would we not be in danger of shutting ourselves away in the sourness of a monologue, alone with our books?”[16]

The mathematical symbol that resembles an 11 is used to indicate both parallel relationship and incomparability. It is by way of this symbol that a host might become both parallel to and incomparable with a traitor:


And it is in this very way of seeing oddness doubled that makes possible both the offering of an invitation and its acceptance: “Linguistic hospitality, therefore, is the act of inhabiting the word of the Other paralleled by the act of receiving the word of the Other into one’s own home, one’s own dwelling.”[17]


When I was in France, I had a hard time keeping track of the hour. The French use a twenty-four-hour clock, and I’m terrible at math.

Compound a lack of numerical facility with unfamiliar sound combinations, and you might imagine the cacophony of time in which I wandered my host city of Tours. A simple request could toss me into linguistic panic: À quelle heure? Did a correct response involve subtraction or addition? Was I to arrive at dinner at vingt heures quarante-cinq or vingt et un heures moins le quart? And what was a quart of time? Another way of saying quinze minutes, which translated to fifteen minutes and which still required some sort of equation for me to function in a socially acceptable manner?

If the proving grounds of this particular étrangère were to include math tests, perhaps it should be known that during my high school algebra exam, I was the one to faint out of her chair.

Midi kept me upright, centered. Smack dab in the middle of the day — shops closed, cafés open — I could look up in the noon-hour sky to know exactly what time it was. Avant, après, I could count from there. All at once circle cut by radius, midi offered a figure I could read. The words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes.


Little wonder Chedid’s “Au midi des contradictions” seemed to wave to me from its pages in the volume located finally in the library of the man with his photograph on the cover of at least one book. Not only was the structural form of the poem familiar, so too were the shapes of the words in the title: midi and contradiction.

If I were Walter Benjamin, I might designate such qualities as translatability, “which is not to say that … [certain works] be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.”[18]

If I were Jane Hirshfield, I might consider mystery as an accompaniment to form: “The act of writing is a making but also a following: of the mystery of source as it emerges into form. … Translation asks a similar leap of faith. It becomes possible only if we trust that poetry lives both in its words and beyond them, and that at least some portion of this ur-poem can cross the abyss between one verbal body and another.”[19]

It’s true I possessed the desire to find the poet adored by my new friend P, but that this desire would be realized in this particular form is a mystery that Chedid herself speaks to in explaining the genesis of the name of the book I now held in my hand:

For two collections, which cover forty years (1949–1991), I chose these two titles: Texts for a Poem and Poems for a Text, wanting to say that poetry, which forms one body with our existence, remains — in the same way as life — free, moving, never cordoned off. No key can open the mystery of one or the other.[20]

For several weeks I had been an odd one out, searching for faces I might call friend. Now that I held the first of these collections — Textes pour un poème — in my hand, mystery intermingled with desire to bring the text I could not yet read into a shape I could comprehend. In this case, Chedid’s title would prove absolutely correct: texts for a poem; or, more exactly, the act of constructing a text would bring me to the poem.

Where ⋈ indicates a natural joining:

desire ⋈ mystery ⋈ form ⋈ body ⋈ text ⋈ existence ⋈ poem


The form I held in my hand was not its first incarnation. As contextualized by translator Renée Linkhorn, “Au midi des contradictions” first appeared as part of a longer sequence titled Terre et Poésie, published separately in 1956 and later included in the 1972 collection Visage premier. Fifteen years later, it resurfaced in the book I now held, no doubt bearing the mark of its original face.[21]

In revising Terre et Poésie for the 1987 Textes pour un poème, Chedid divided its seventy-eight stanzas into three sections: “La poésie, le poème”; “Les vivants”; and “Au midi des contradictions.” For this last, Chedid settled on twenty-three sections. As Linkhorn explains, Chedid “eliminated a few passages and made minor stylistic changes in others.” What she did not do was change its primal form.


Nor did Chedid depart from the poem’s images, intrinsic to form as they find shape in words. In the words of Bachelard: “In their splendor, images effect a very simple communion of souls. Two vocabularies should be organized to study knowledge and poetry. But these vocabularies do not correspond. And it would be useless to compose dictionaries to translate from one language to the other. The language of the poets must be learned directly and very precisely like the language of the souls.”[22]

Even without a dictionary, the splendid images of the poem’s title had already placed me in the brilliant center of contradiction, a country that in its naming offered both the fullness of midday and a wide embrace of opposing forces. The soul who had gathered these images was one whose house I wanted to enter.

The man in whose library the book was found allowed me to take it from his house into my own. And there, in a cozy room in a country other than my own, I undertook a correspondence of language, which is to say: a correspondence of self and other, étrangère and native born, personal and collective. In the words of Chedid: “an inner freedom that defies definition.” She continues:

As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, we are “real and unreal,” and if we do not combine the real and the unreal, we are traumatized because we are incomplete. Through writing we bring together our body and our mind. Poetry is an act of love, and love gives you inspiration. This is not just love between two people, but universal love.[23]

This is what I was trying to do. But I did not know that then. Only later. For now, I set to work, constructing Chedid’s text in the language of my stranger’s house.


“Au midi des contradictions” resides on page 137 of Textes pour un poème; in her division of the longer sequence of which it was a part, Chedid ordered “Au midi” as the last of three sections. I examined again the title of the whole: “Terre et poésie.” Poésie seemed evident enough: poem or poetry. Terre, too, I thought meant earth, as in terra firma. I thought, too, of the English word, territory, its implications of ownership and invasion. But Collins relayed that terre can also be translated as soil, land, ground, that into which something is planted — in some contexts, a kind of clay.

In “Proofs of the Face,” Chedid asks: 

Quel visage
Viellant par-delà sa vue
Nous restitue
Quel visage
Surgi du fond des nôtres
Ancré dans l’argile
S’offre à l’horizon?

What face
Past vision
Stands in vigil
For our face
What face
Of our face
Feet of clay
Beholds the horizon

This particular translation, a beautiful one by Lynne Goodhart and Jon Wagner, was found in a book published in my own land, my own city, in fact — Los Angeles — by Green Integer Press. Introducing her work, the translators note:

Chedid’s uprooting and replanting in herself and her poetry a certain spirit she wishes to carry forward seems to us an excellent model of the translation process we experienced while working with her poems. More broadly, that process itself reflects her consistent realization that dialogue with the Other, that deliberate act of allowing oneself to be called into question, requires continual destruction and recreation of forms.[24]

Later I understood that this particular proof might be translated differently. But for now, wearing this face of the stranger, with the two words terre et poésie, I understood poetry — and by correspondence, translation — required a vigil, vision, risk. It required, too, and at once, a firm stance in the deep clay of one’s being and a generous offering to what lay beyond.


In “Au Midi des contradictions,” under the number 1:

Il n’y a pas de vague plus fatale que la mer; pas d’arbre plus illustre que la forêt.

First, there was something that was not, that was sure. Fatale I understood as death; mer recognized from the 1946 chanson, « La mer »; and forêt resembled the English word forest. Illustre — something with pictures, illustrated, or illustrating — an image. Certainly, the splendor of these images offered a risk I was willing to enter. My desire to follow the promise of their vision exceeded any fear of wandering into unknown, possibly unfriendly, territory. Somewhere beyond the sea … Collins lay before me, a friend in what Ricoeur names the “construction of the comparable.”[25]

As I searched the dictionary’s entries, this is the construction that emerged:

There is no wave more fatal than the sea; no tree more illustrious than the forest.

A construction built by comparing that which is at once opposite and of the same family, at once foreign and related. A poem wrought by a comparison of the incomparable, which is to say a poem translates the untranslatable.

Which is to say: “So there remains a final untranslatable that we discover through the construction of the comparable.”[26]

Which is to approach congruence, whose mathematical symbol parallels approximately equal.

≅ ∥ ≈

[See step one of this proof for a prior example: je ≈ I]

Which is to say I am and am not who I was before — the infinite possible, untranslatable.


This transformation is, likely, a natural function of inviting poetry into one’s house.

The mystery of it occurs in poems in one’s own language. And it occurs always in those poems that find their way to us across language and across time. That is why they find us. As Antoine Berman notes in Novalis’s 1797 letter to A. W. Schlegel: “One translates out of a love for the beautiful and for the literature of one’s home country. Translation is as much poetry as the creation of one’s own works — and more difficult, more rare. In the final analysis, all poetry is translation.”[27]

Chedid explains the phenomenon in a dialogue conducted in English in 1997:

Poetry is asking questions at the deepest level, an attempt to get to the bottom of things. The act of writing is a moment of purification, deployment, and self-condensation during which the writer is balanced on a thin wire strung between alpha and omega.[28]

In the language of Dr. Math, this might be represented as aleph-0:

{0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, …}

Where appears as an aleph, it represents an infinite cardinality: ℵ–0, which looks like No but means all, yes, everything.


In relaying the simultaneity of all and nothing that is poetry, Jane Hirshfield quotes Sung dynasty poet Yang Wan-li, as translated by Jonathan Chaves: “Get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.”[29]

In “Au midi des contradictions,” Chedid conveys the confluence of disappearance and presence as a function of love: « Ceux qui s’aiment dénouent, en leur saison privilégiée, toutes les amarres » (Those who love each other unknot, in their finest season, all moorings).[30]

It is this sort of unknotting that allows one to set out into the sojourn of the strange: « Étrange et doux espace. S’entremêlant, les fleuves chantent déjà la mer » (Strange & tender space. Intermingled, the rivers already sing the sea).

And it is only in such a remote place where the figure of love, and all she has to offer, can be pictured: « C’est uniquement dans l’arrière-pays qu’elle peut prendre substance; puiser, plus tard, un avenir » (Only in the country beyond can she take shape; draw later, a future).


How to track that which has no material being? Cardinal numbers are for counting things, and, in the words of Dr. Math, the finite ones are “also great for ordering.” As anyone who has ever waited in a long line knows, sequencing is all: two plus zero might be understood as two, but if we are talking placement then 2 + 0 might just as well equal 20.

And if we were to extrapolate this concept of sequence to the alphabet, the order of two letters might mean the difference between nonsense and one who is able to venture into the world.

e + j = 0 – 1
j + e = je

Chedid might say this ordering of the world is a search je undertakes with another: « L’eau d’amour donne les mots qui confondent l’impossible; mais il nous faut la trouver ensemble et pour la même durée » (The waters of love yield words that confuse the impossible; but we must find them together & at the same time).

Ricoeur might liken such a search to “the arc of translation [that] epitomizes this journey from self through the other, reminding us of the irreducible finitude and contingency of all language.”[31]

In other words, one ventures as a stranger into the remote world and finds another. This can be oneself or an autre, perhaps a friend one brings back to her house, both strange and familiar.


And so it was one afternoon, I met a new friend — let’s call her S — in the land in which I was étrangère. In fact, we met in three places that day: S’s apartment, constructed sometime during the age of Christine de Pizan; my cozy rooms a few blocks away; and a small garden in the middle of a busy intersection of Tours, where we were living at the time. In none of these locations did we speak the same language, and yet the stories we shared proved absolutely otherwise.

We talked of our lives, the ones we had loved, and loved still, what it was to be a woman alone and attached in the world. We shared a table set with chocolate and tiny strawberries and un apératif. I set out also a small dish of pistachios, green flesh protected by white shells. I had found them in a neighborhood grocer and smiled when I read the package: Aux États-unis. Back in California, pistachios were a dime a dozen, but their voyage here cost their compatriot a tiny fortune. No matter — S and I both adored them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, S and I had been introduced by the man with his photograph on the cover of a book. As afternoon meandered into evening, I showed S the book of Chedid’s he had loaned me. S admitted to not reading much poetry, but when she regarded “Au Midi” she asked if she might borrow the book when I was finished. Somehow Chedid’s was a language we both understood. But this, too, was not surprising: the language was love.

There is a mathematical symbol for such occasions. It consists of three dots arranged as a triangle sometimes used in proofs before logical consequences; for example:

understanding ∴ love

Which is to say, understanding is a logical consequence of love. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Which is to say, the one who faints out of her chair during a high school math test might not be the best candidate to resolve une épreuve de l’étranger. Better to serve as a linguistic pistachio host.


I have no photographs of that afternoon, only a clear trace, an impression of the souvenir. It is proof enough, perhaps.

Chedid arranged “Au Midi des contradictions” using Arabic numerals as an ordering system, and how this form translates is as a sequence of related events, not random occurrences, but a series of uncovering. Each passage functions at once with its own integrity and as linked with the others that come before and after — as does each one of us, les vivants (the living), wherever we journey in the world. Each one can be counted and each one counts. And it is in this dual nature of counting that the fullness of the picture is revealed.

Imagine a constellation as dot-to-dot drawing. Or maybe imagine again the word proof, whose resources, Chedid reminds us, “are infinite. How can we not be reminded of photography, of images being inverted?” Imagine an image as it emerges on Polaroid film, snapped by a Land Camera in, say, 1956:

Le dénué d’amour trace partout des cercles dont le centre n’est pas.

It is an image that can be rendered into another form not by “an equivalence of meaning,” but only through a “construction through the comparable,” which is to say the imagination. Le dénué d’amour: equivocally speaking, Collins defines dénué as “lacking in, devoid of.” But, as the man with his photo on a book explains, such choices lack nuance. « Dénué implique quelque perte légère, comme un déshabillage — l’idée de nu, de pauvreté, et aussi de pureté (nudité — dénuement) », which I translate to mean: “Le dénué involves a slight loss, as an undressing — the idea of nakedness, as in poverty, as well as purity (nudity — destitution).”[32] In Collins, the entry just above dénué is dénuder: to bare. Chedid’s construction seems to be one of adjective, noun, and verb.

And so I make my choice to construct this picture:

The baring of love draws circles everywhere whose center is not.

To imagine love revealing us as it is revealed in turn. To imagine its baring and its being born. To imagine it being carried into the world, stripped pure, enduring and endured. Bare love, unadorned. I think these images are not outside the realm of what Chedid might have wanted for us to see. As for the circles, look up. Imagine the widening arc of a compass, radius extending beyond diameter. Imagine circles of les vivants being dawn together by le dénué d’amour. Imagine two lovers kissing in the midday sun —


— the brightness confusing dénuement with denouement, defined by Webster’s English as “the outcome of a complex sequence of events.”


Did I say I could look up to know the time of day? Did I suggest you do the same? Silly me, or maybe I am simply what the French would call une folle d’amour. One could not look up into the noonday sun, for to do so one would be blinded.

To see anything clearly — circles, lovers, the hour — one might look better to what Chedid names as “this extraordinary mystery” immersed in “all these fleeting moments with others that nourish life, the force without which we would sink into the void”:[33]

« L’amour est toute la vie », il est vain de prétendre qu’il y a d’autres équilibres.

« Love is all of life » it is useless to claim other balances.

I keep French quotation marks because they look like double greater and lesser signs in reverse. They look like the shape of encompass. The words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes. Such an equation might look like this:

love = life x mystery x ∞

As far as time goes, vingt-trois heures corresponds to eleven o’clock. The hour just before the last, but not. In American time, the eleventh hour is also idiomatic for the last possible moment, which might be taken to mean: the last hour and the fullest. Contradiction. Composed of two together and a third thing entirely — 2 + 3, sequenced one after another.

Imagine looking into the sun for a number such as that! Somewhere I can hear Christine’s je as she begins to laugh. Or maybe Chedid, constructing a bridge in the land beyond:

The heart makes light at the absurdity. Her truth is in the noon of contradictions.

« Le cœur se rit de l’absurde. Sa vérité est au midi des contradictions. »

[which means end of proof; in Latin: QED, or quod erat demonstrandum, originating from the Greek, analogous to hóper édei deîxai (ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι), meaning which had to be demonstrated]




In the Noon of Contradictions

Andrée Chedid
excerpted from Terre et poésie, 1956

Translated from the French by Marci Vogel, 2013



There is no wave more fatal than the sea; no tree more illustrious than the forest.


Neither silt nor star; we take after one & the other, both at once.

Opposites overrun our paths; our way is made by the slow pace of choice.


The angels alone are without shadow; their light is nothing to us.


Breath short, we walk by stopping places; the gaze impatient, we know not how to stay.

Move forward, recover joy, brave obstacles, perhaps defeat, then begin afresh: such present our possibilities.

Let us love the rays of a threatened sun; precious for us is the pond that retains its share of sky.


In our grown children quiver sailboats of impatience; our drawing back for their open passage gifts another birth.

Our place is no longer where their duel begins.


Beauty is never as beautiful as its image. By fair measure, ugliness is never as ugly.


Old age will come.

May she rise from a fierce earth to secure the living; a land of high grass provides the future.


Uncertain of our sources, what will we have to give over to the night?

Perhaps those faint lights that denounced the opaque, perhaps the blue trace of happiness is fleeing.


Our unknown realm is composed of thousands of roots, too tangled for the cutting of a single path.

There, the original flower risks its lifetime chance.


A feather of hope, and there we are left crop dusters skimming the avarice of time. A spot of shadow, and here we are captives of brambles that rivet the heart.


However much — as the tree born wise — we suspect the grimaces of destiny, we have not yet learned to smile at simple injuries of the heart.

The storm lays us down, opens the flesh of happiness.

But new water invents the mornings.


Rather the claws of the falcon than the trawl net of the sly.


May we shield those who failed us the whole mystery of their face. Injured and at fault, we are thereby judges, donning the bitter mask.

The weaknesses of others, when they scratch our tender skins, press us to deny all past accord. Turned toward possession, we are without vision and without pardon.


Sometimes absent — the other side of notice — , we leave as guaranteed bonds our ancestral features, reassuring as habits.

But the journey is not measured by distances; and the look back barters neither uncultivated regions nor impassioned lands.


The unreasonable is our fundamental flower. The reasons are our keys.


« Love is all of life » it is useless to claim other balances.

The baring of love draws circles everywhere whose center is not.


If love’s passion is like the wandering foam, nothing but born — swallowed by the sands — here she dies soon.

Only in the country beyond can she take shape; draw later, a future.


Those who love each other unknot, in their finest season, all moorings.

Strange & tender space. Intermingled, the rivers already sing the sea.


In spite of the numerous, loneliness reigns, & so perhaps are men calling without ever consenting — with green hearts — to listen.


The heart makes light at the absurdity. Her truth is in the noon of contradictions.


Without a companion who speaks our language, the spring is without mercy, the road unenchanted.

The waters of love yield words that confuse the impossible; but we must find them together & at the same time.


To look, to listen, they are a bit the same: passionate attention to the translucence of a friend.


Love is like death — that sails out of time — smoothing our brows, refining our faces.

At the edge of what is vast, the gaze no longer wanders; & the breath, accomplice of anguish and of days, finds at last her peace.




Au midi des contradictions

Andrée Chedid
[extrait de Terre et poésie, 1956]



Il n’y a pas de vague plus fatale que la mer; pas d’arbre plus illustre que la forêt.


Ni du limon, ni de l’étoile; nous tenons de l’un et l’autre à la fois.

Les contraires embroussaillent nos chemins; notre avance se réalise à la lente cadence du choix.


Seuls les anges sont privés d’ombre; leur lumière ne nous est rien.


Le souffle court, nous ne marchons que par étapes; le regard impatient, nous ne savons pas séjourner.

Avancer, reprendre joie, défier l’obstacle, peut-être le vaincre, puis aller de nouveau : tels sont nos possibles.

Aimons les rayons d’un soleil menacé; qu’il nous soit cher l’étang qui retient sa part de ciel.


En nos enfants grandis tressaillent les voiliers d’impatience. Nous écarter pour leur ouvrir passage, c’est leur faire don d’une autre naissance.

Notre place n’est plus où commence leur combat singulier.


Le beau n’est jamais aussi beau que son image. Par un juste rachat, le laid n’est jamais aussi laid.


Viendra la vieillesse.

Qu’elle surgisse d’une terre acharnée à se garder vivante; une terre d’herbe forte qui crédite le futur.


Incertains de nos sources, qu’aurons-nous à livrer à la nuit?

Peut-être ces lueurs qui dénoncèrent l’opaque, peut-être la trace bleue d’un bonheur qui fuit.


Notre domaine inconnu se compose de milliers de racines, trop enchevêtrées pour le coupant d’une seule route.

La fleur originelle y court chance de vie.


Un duvet d’espoir, et nous voilà parties à rase-mottes effleurant l’avarice du temps. Un grain d’ombre, et nous voici captifs des ronces qui rivent le cœur.


Nous avons beau — comme l’arbre qui est né sage — soupçonner les grimaces du destin, nous n’avons pas encore appris à sourire des simples blessures du cœur.

L’orage nous terrasse, entame la chair du bonheur.

Mais l’eau nouvelle s’invente des matins.


Plutôt les serres du faucon à la nasse des roués.


Sauvegardons à ceux qui nous ont failli le mystère entier de leur visage. Blessés et en cause, nous voici juges, les affublant du masque odieux.

Les faiblesses d’autrui, quand elles égratignent notre susceptible peau, nous poussent à renier tout un passé d’entente. Tournés vers la possession, nous sommes sans perspective et sans recours.


Parfois, absents — de l’autre côté du regard — , nous laissons en gage d’alliance nos traits de chair, rassurants comme l’habitude.

Mais le voyage ne se mesure pas aux distances; l’arrière-regard ne marchande ni ses régions incultes, ni sa lande passionnée.


La déraison est notre fleur capitale. Les raisons sont nos clefs.


« L’amour est toute la vie », il est vain de prétendre qu’il y a d’autres équilibres.

Le dénué d’amour trace partout des cercles dont le centre n’est pas.


Si la passion d’amour est semblable à l’errante écume, rien que de naître — engloutie par les sables — la voilà morte bientôt.

C’est uniquement dans l’arrière-pays qu’elle peut prendre substance; puiser, plus tard, un avenir.


Ceux qui s’aiment dénouent, en leur saison privilégiée, toutes les amarres.

Étrange et doux espace. S’entremêlant, les fleuves chantent déjà la mer.


Puisqu’en dépit du nombre la solitude règne, c’est peut-être que les hommes appellent sans jamais consentir — d’un cœur naissant — à écouter.


Le cœur se rit de l’absurde. Sa vérité est au midi des contradictions.


Dépourvu du compagnon qui parle notre langage, le printemps est sans clémence, la route décharmée.

L’eau d’amour donne les mots qui confondent l’impossible; mais il nous faut la trouver ensemble et pour la même durée.


Regarder, écouter, c’est un peu la même chose : une attention passionnée à la transparence de l’ami.


L’amour comme la mort — qui naviguent hors du temps — lissent nos fronts, affinent nos visages.

Au bord de ce qui est vaste, le regard n’erre plus; et le souffle, complice de l’angoisse et des jours, trouve enfin sa paix.

Andrée Chedid, “Au midi des contradictions,” in “Terre et poésie,”
Textes pour un poème (1949–1970), © Flammarion, reproduced here with permission.



1. The Math Forum @ Drexel/“Ask Dr. Math” is an online source hosted by Drexel University. Additional information about mathematical symbols found at Wikipedia’s “List of Mathematical Symbols.”

2. Marco Werman and Lisa Mullins, “Franco-Egyptian Poet Andrée Chedid Dies in Paris,” Public Radio International, February 8, 2011.

3. Ibid.

4.Andrée Chedid, Fugitive Suns: Selected Poetry of Andrée Chedid, trans. Lynne Goodhart and Jon Wagner (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999), 59.

5. Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-Pays, trans. Stephen Romer (London: Seagull Books, 2012).

6. Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan, introduction by Richard Kearney (London: Routledge, 2006), 24.

7. Édouard Glissant, Poetic Intention, trans. Nathalie Stephens (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 17.

8.Andrée Chedid, Selected Poems of Andrée Chedid, ed. Judy Cochran (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), viii.

9.Andrée Chedid, qtd. in Bettina Knapp, Andrée Chedid: Collection Monographique Rodopi en Littérature Française Contemporaine (Amsterdam: Rophie, 1984), epigraph.

10. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, trans. Daniel Russell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).

11. Paul Valéry, “A Poet’s Notebook,” in The Art of Poetry, ed. Jackson Matthews, trans. Denise Folliot (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 183.

12. See for example Nadia Margolis’s An Introduction to Christine de Pizan (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2011). Scholar Karen Green recently makes an excellent case for Christine taking refuge not at Poissy but in another region of France. Wherever she remained secluded in the years after 1418, Christine did not return to Paris or her public writing life before her death. See “Was Christine de Pizan at Poissy? 1418–1429?,” Medium Aevum 83, no. 1 (2014): 93–103. For an English translation of Le Dité de Jehanne d’Arc, see The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, trans. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 252–262.

13. Ricoeur, On Translation, 3. The work to which Ricoeur refers is Antoine Berman’s L’épreuve de l’étranger, translated into English by S. Heyvaert as The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

14. “Proofs of the Title,” in The Prose and Poetry of Andrée Chedid, trans. Renée Linkhorn (Birmingham: Summa Publications, 1990), 92.

15. Jane Hirshfield, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation,” in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 55.

16. Ricoeur, On Translation, 20.

17. Ibid., xvi.

18. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1955), 71.

19. Hirshfield, “The World Is Large,” 57.

20. Andrée Chedid, qtd. in Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry by Women, ed. and trans. Martin Sorrell (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995), 64–65.

21. Andrée Chedid, Textes pour un poème: 1949–1970 (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).

22. Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, 15.

23. Chedid, interviewed by Martine Leca in “An Inner Freedom,” The UNESCO Courier 50, no. 11 (November 1977): 48–50.

24. Goodhart and Wagner, Fugitive Suns, 24–25.

25. Ricoeur, On Translation, 38.

26. Ibid.

27. Berman, The Experience of the Foreign, 105.

28. Chedid, “An Inner Freedom.”

29. Hirshfield, “The World Is Large,” 57.

30. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of “Au midi des contradictions” in this essay are by the author.

31. Ricoeur, On Translation, xix.

32. Email communication with Alain Borer, whose face appears on the cover of the novel Koba (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

33. Chedid, “An Inner Freedom.”

Alexander Vvedensky's 'The Soldier Ay Bee See'

The poetry of Alexander Vvedensky, cofounder of Russia’s last avant-garde group OBERIU, became available to Russian readers only a half-century after his death under arrest in 1941. Inheriting the utopian energies and ideas of the avant-garde, his work also provides the earliest example of its functioning after the collapse of the avant-garde project. His realization that the language of his time was indelibly compromised by outside power, and his success in coaxing truths out of such suspect material, make his experience particularly relevant for today.

English translations of Vvedensky’s late writings open my OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism. This year, NYRB Poets put out An Invitation for Me to Think, a selection of Vvedensky’s poems that Matvei Yankelevich and I have translated. Under this short note you will find “The Soldier Ay Bee See,” which he composed in late 1937 or early 1938 for his newborn son.

Born in 1904 in Saint Petersburg, Vvedensky began to write poetry in the decade following the Russian Revolution when avant-garde art positioned itself as the laboratory of a new language for a new world. He and the young poets Daniil Kharms and Nikolai Zabolotsky led a group devoted to radical formal experimentation and inspired, to considerable extent, by the ideas and practices of Kazimir Malevich. They called their group OBERIU, an acronym for Association of Real Art (“real” here serving as the antonym of “realist”).

Founded in 1927, OBERIU folded three years later, a casualty of Stalin’s campaign to place cultural production under the management of the Soviet state, with propaganda as the end, and an idealized, easily legible mimeticism as the only permissible style. Vvedensky and Kharms spent the years 1931–1933 under various forms of internment for the inclusion of nonsense in, primarily, the children’s poetry they composed to make a living.

Their lives as poets in the Stalinist culture of the 1930s took place out of the public eye, and in the company of friends with whom they conducted conversations that were both philosophical and ludic. Holding terms, notions, tropes, and positions in common, they were developing a philosophy whose distrust of one-truth models was driven by disgust with the language of Soviet power. The work consisted in what Vvedensky called “the poetic critique of reason” (or else, of language), as well as phenomenological analyses, whimsical forays into scientific thinking, and, last but not least, the shared conceptual mythology of messengers, neighboring worlds, and the manifold nature of reality. Kharms and Vvedensky died after arrest by the panicking secret police during the German invasion of 1941.

Much of Vvedensky’s work has vanished. “The Soldier Ay Bee See” was preserved by his last wife. She said he sang their son to sleep with the song at the end of it. It starts with a lower-case letter and ends mid-word: a fragment, but perhaps by design rather than by accident of history.

“The Soldier Ay Bee See” is shockingly lyrical. It is about language, loneliness, and love. Also about how nothing fits: neither words to things, nor things to things, nor people to people. And so everything is alone, even everything that loves. Also, it is about time, the suddenness, totality, and irreversibility of temporal change.

In Russian the soldier is called Az Buki Vedi, the archaic names of the first three letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. Together, they mean something like “I know letters,” with the first-person singular present vedi also invoking the name of the author. Actually, it does more: it connects “Vvedensky” with the old verb vedeti, which in the Russian tradition links poetry and prophecy.

The soldier’s name is not the only word game of the original. “The shore of the sounding sea” that Ay Bee See walks on cites book IX of The Iliad, with its setting of authority in crisis. Conversely, in the next and more jarring sentence, “He had a main directing thought about nuts,” the double adjective “main directing” comes from the phrasebook of Stalinism, where it stands for top-down, centralized leadership, and means, literally, “fundamentally hand-guiding” (as in “directing the hand of ...”). Stalin famously called the Bolshevik Party “the main directing force in the system of the dictatorship of the proletariat” (1926). During industrialization, “directing” became the term of choice for what management did: for example, on October 29, 1937 Stalin raised a toast to the “directing workers … of the metal and coal industry,” meaning factory bosses.

Vvedensky renders the Stalinist expression “main directing” both apt and absurd in several ways. Modifying “thought” returns “directing” to its literal meaning, since thought governs the motion of one’s hand, especially for a writer. But Vvedensky takes the “directing” part into redundancy: “He walked deep in … the main directing him thought about nuts,” that is, deep in the thought that was his main one and that was directing him. The fact that the thought concerns something as unheroic as nuts (see below) subverts the metaphor of leadership even further. Whatever politics the poet might be intending here, his poetics are those of estrangement of language and from language. (Although Vvedensky knew Shklovsky and his concept of estrangement, his linguistic operations here are more redolent of Andrey Platonov, whom he did not know.)

Most of Vvedensky’s linguistic games, however, are more philosophical than immediately political. Take the combination which I rendered as “They intently ate.” The adverb that “intently” is translates from, pristal’no, describes the act of looking — it is the “intently” in “they looked intently at him.” It cannot describe the act of eating. The five fishermen who are intently “looking and/or eating” are named Andrey, Bandrey, Bendrey, Gandrey, and Kudedrey. Their daughters are named Lialya, Talya, Balya, Kialya, and Salya. The first member of each series is a common, even banal, name in Russian, but the rest are constructed by increasingly complex addition or substitution of elements. Although the names have a fairy-tale feel, they also evoke the iterative motion of machinery generating ever stranger results, growing more and more abstract and dysfunctional.

The seas likewise form a series of five: “sounding,” “black,” “caspian,” “mediterranean,” and “adriatic.” Their series starts with a common adjective (“sounding”), progresses to one that may be either common or proper (“black”), and then proceeds with three proper adjectives increasing in syllable count and lexical complexity. The seas are said to be uniform and interchangeable, at least inasmuch as it does not matter which one the fishermen sail. The fishermen are also more or less interchangeable. When four of them address Ay Bee See, the text clinches their uniformity by employing past-tense verbs in the singular: postuchal rather than postuchali. In English this violation of syntax is impossible: the verb is the same whether he knocked or they knocked. (I compensated by introducing a singular pronoun: “rapped his fist”).

Serial membership makes the fishermen, their daughters, and the seas they sail resemble logical constructs more than really existing objects. The soldier Ay Bee See lives in a world alienated by human reason and language. Human reason and language cannot convey particulars but operate only in general categories. They try to describe the world but keep contradicting and correcting themselves, producing ever more copia, ever more generalities. The painfully and/or risibly convoluted sentences, vainly gesturing to explain when the fishermen live at home and when they light candles, engage in excessive specification that provides nothing other than redundancy. Human reason and language are exhausted. The world, which consists only of particulars, eludes them. It plays Eurydice to their Orpheus.

Such a world cannot be held subject to laws, since the essence of law is, as Kant asserted, generality. Hence “The Soldier Ay Bee See” casts doubt on not only linguistic reference but also logical inference when it asks whether something called a “nut song” must be about nuts. The answer — “it is far from being so always, but in this case it follows” — renders each instance of “following” a unique event that has no obligation to repeat. This Hume-like gesture is characteristic not only of Vvedensky, but of his whole group, manifesting itself most clearly in Kharms’s treatment of numerical succession.[1]

The particular and the general again come to blows in the nut song itself. Admittedly, the soldier compares two species, and therefore two general constructs — the Brazil nut and the walnut (“American” and “Greek nut” in Russian, respectively). Yet it is an issue for Vvedensky and his friends that the procedure of comparison foregrounds commonality while eliding irreducible uniqueness, necessarily misconstruing the objects being compared. Hence Kharms, in a fragment that starts with “numbers are not bound by their order,” argues that no natural object is the same as any other. Therefore Ay Bee See’s song primarily concerns the inexhaustibility of difference, rather like the Mad Hatter’s riddle of the raven and the writing desk.

Finally, the soldier’s transformation into a father, although clearly autobiographical, is shaped by the same philosophical attitudes. In being irreducibly unique, every event is sundered from those before or after it, with linear time becoming yet another error of generalization. On the philosophical level, it is this discontinuity between what his friends called “intervals” that Vvedensky expressed in the abruptness of the soldier’s change that, even more strangely, reverses in the last line of the piece. On the psychological level, I take this experience of temporal absurdity to be a familiar one.

 Perhaps my readers have noted the correspondence between the philosophical tendencies briefly delineated here and the ’pataphysics invented by Alfred Jarry as “the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general.” No direct influence of Jarry can be traced on Vvedensky and his friends; rather, they share a skepticism with respect to both scientific methodology and its rhetorical employment in putting forth truth claims. Such skepticism lends a political sting to even the more abstruse philosophical themes in the writings of Kharms and Vvedensky. In the situation where political power presents itself as the inevitable result of the laws of history, any critique of law, inevitability, or generality may be construed by an outside observer as critical of the regime. Although the arrests of Kharms and Vvedensky cannot be used as evidence that the critique was either intended or understood — plenty of perfectly loyal people were executed or perished in the camps — the authorities that were seeking out ideological resistance appear, in this case, to have found it.

An earlier draft of this translation appeared in A Public Space. Another has been included in An Invitation for Me to Think. This version introduces several new corrections.



1. Eugene Ostashevsky, “‘Numbers Are Not Bound by Order’: The Mathematical Play of Daniil Kharms and His Associates,” Slavic and East European Journal 57, no. 1 (2013): 28–48.

Arkady Dragomoshchenko: Poet and photographer

When Arkady Dragomoshchenko died in September 2012, his many friends, readers, admirers, and fellow poets expressed both immense sadness at the loss, which felt terrible and sudden, and a sense of wonder at his rich accomplishments. Few Russian poets, probably few poets anywhere, have left us a legacy of such intense cooperation across countries and continents. For weeks in late summer and early autumn, the Petersburg poet and critic Alexander Skidan posted favorite poems by Dragomoshchenko on Facebook, often daily. It was a powerful way of keeping him alive, of holding him in our imaginations and, at least figuratively, of holding him close.

Skidan also posted a number of Dragomoshchenko’s photographs, and he continued to add photographs after Arkady died. The hope of keeping him alive was gone, but a different fantasy took its place: that there would be new work to discover, that a poet whose vast creative and intellectual energy had sustained so many people would, even after his death, continue to send forth new provocations to thought and to our own creative work.

It is the provocation to thought that stays with me as a defining trait of the work, and by “work” I mean to include poems and photographs. Both challenge us to reflect on how thoughts unfold, and both register the work of the mind in comparable ways. The poems and photographs become translations from the discourse of philosophy, which permeates Dragomoshchenko’s creative work in ways both obvious and barely visible. Making things visible is the work of photography, so I begin with the images as a way to set up readings of the poems. One poem is discussed here in detail, and readers will find fresh translations of others in the accompanying selection.

Dragomoshchenko is a familiar name to many readers of Jacket2, but perhaps it is still worth reminding ourselves of some basic biographical facts, particularly as they help us define his rather unusual position in the context of Russian poetry. He was born in Potsdam in 1946, studied at the Leningrad Institute for Theater, Music, and Film and, like many who came to the capital for their education, remained in the city his whole life. He participated in the poetry underground beginning in the late 1960s, but he also stood apart.[1] He won the first Andrei Belyi Prize, awarded in 1978, an extravagantly marginal event created by underground poets, but for prose (Viktor Kruvilin [1944–2001] won in poetry that year). The prize was awarded for his novel Disposition among Houses and Trees (Raspolozhenie sredi domov i derev’ev), circulated in typescript (“published” feels almost too grand a word for the carbon-copied pages) in 1978 as an “addendum” to the underground journal Chasy (Clock). A facsimile of the text is posted to a website for Chasy, and it is a thrill to find scanned images of those slightly blurred typed pages.

Dragomoshchenko went on to publish nine books of prose and poetry in Russian. His work has been translated into multiple languages, most prominently English, with the participation of American poets, particularly Lyn Hejinian. Their long-standing relationship of mutual translation and rich conversation is one of the most interesting facts of American-Russian poetic cooperation in the late twentieth century.[2]

His deep affinities with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were grounded in personal connections with the poets. His work resembles theirs in important ways: he rejects ideas of a unified, singular authorial voice; resists rhyme and meter as supreme poetic markers (and explores prose poetry); probes sensory experience and the workings of consciousness. That last is crucial: Dragomoshchenko tests philosophies of mind and phenomenology, alongside literary, cultural, and linguistic theories.[3]

His last book was Tavtologiia, which means Tautology; the previous book’s title was the word for Description.[4] These terms point to the role of abstraction, to the work of thinking in categories, in Dragomoshchenko’s poetry, and also, I believe, his photography. Early in his long poem To Xenia, Dragomoshchenko wrote “poetry is not a confession of love / to language and the beloved / but an inquiry” (“poeziia ne / priznan’e v liubvi ‘iazyku i vozliublennoi,’ / no doznanie”).[5] To say outright that poetry is not a confession of love is to distance this poem, which is presented as direct address, from traditional love poetry; but to say that it is not a confession of love for language is to reject poetic traditions, which could motivate a poet like Joseph Brodsky to say of poets, casually but also proudly, “we all work for the dictionary.”[6] For Dragomoshchenko, there is no such employer.[7] Poetry as inquiry is in a sense poetry as philosophy. How to understand the nature of that inquiry? My hypothesis is that it is an ontological inquiry, an inquiry into the nature of self and other, an inquiry into the place of the self in a world of otherness.

In emphasizing philosophy, I have in mind a particular strand of contemporary philosophy, led by the pioneering, enduring work of Stanley Cavell. He often described it as anti-philosophy. I follow Cavell into a contemplation of a kind of philosophy with affinities to Emerson, Thoreau, and especially Wittgenstein, who was important to Dragomoshchenko. It is a kind of philosophy associated with skepticism. Cavell described the skeptic as “craving the emptiness of language, as ridding himself of the responsibilities of meaning, as being drawn to annihilate externality or otherness.”[8] That “emptiness of language” is paradoxically the center of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry, where it is often expressed by sudden changes of motif or theme, and thus by a kind of cognitive restlessness. Art, Cavell argues, shows us how to resist skepticism. The turn to art is thus ever a hopeful turn, and that intonation is also pervasive in Dragomoshchenko’s work — it is surely one reason for his huge body of work, and for his extensive correspondences with poets and others.[9] That paradox of hopeful skepticism was expressed well in an essay about Cavell by David Rodowick: skepticism “opens the possibility of once again being present to self or acknowledging how we may again become present to ourselves.”[10]

Dragomoshchenko searches out those moments when self-presence seems possible. He takes such tasks seriously, but he is not a systematic or consistent philosopher. He invokes philosophical terms and ideas, but not so as to build a system of truths. He circles around philosophical truths, he entertains them, living with them long enough to write a poem, and then he writes another poem. Or revises one — his changeability in this regard is legendary. That unfinalizability of creative work, that sense that all is always in process, is more readily clear in the poetry than in the photography, but even there, Dragomoshchenko is often seeking what Neil Hertz called, in another context, “figures for the unrepresentable.”[11] How to get that mass of sensation, impression, perception, and memory into visibility?

In photography, Dragomoshchenko often explored texture, as in the safety pin and netting that created the cover of Tavtologiia. Its gently draped, off-kilter bit of netting takes what might otherwise be the suggestion of a grid, a repeating intersection of horizontal and vertical lines, and makes instead a pattern of tiny square demarcations that never seem fully to straighten out.

the pin (tautology), © Arkady Dragomoshchenko

The image is most marked by its small tear, an inverted v-shape that is repeated in the safety pin piercing the net, open but hanging securely. The safety pin could emblematize repair, the work of reconnecting torn bits of fabric such as the hole seen next to the pin. But it is open, the gesture of repair refused, and we might read that detail as Dragomoshchenko’s way of including, indeed praising, the element of flaw, or what he calls in his poetry “error.” He writes, for example, in the poem “Accidia” that “everything begins in an error of vision.”[12] The capacity to savor deviations and mistakes is consonant with the Formalists’ argument that poetic language is deformed language, and the photograph encourages such an argument in visual terms. Our eye is drawn down the image toward the pin, and then still further, traveling to the two horizontal white stripes that seem to ground the image, stabilizing its thin, flimsily material nature.

One can especially appreciate the airiness and insubstantiality of the netting when it is compared to another beautifully textured image, one that Dragomoshchenko called “dry snow.”

dry snow, © Arkady Dragomoshchenko

What is most mysterious and beautiful about this image, to my eye, is its indeterminate solidity. The debris and leaves seem not so much stuck into hardened snow as paused on a surface of foam.

This spongy texture should be considered for its potential likeness to the workings of the mind. Elaine Scarry has written memorably about the capacity of verbal instruction to elicit mental images in us, and she emphasizes flowers as having just the right texture and thinness for easy representation.[13] Dragomoshchenko is after something more resistant to imagination, and when he gives us filmy surfaces, as in the next image, he often complicates our reception of them by introducing something almost inappropriate. Both these forms of insisting on the unexpected recur in the poems; the photographs can teach us to be better readers of such incongruities.

goodbye tissues, © Arkady Dragomoshchenko

In this beautiful black tissue overlay, the allegory has less to do with the mind’s work than with an aesthetic principle, of stopped time in photography. The image obscures but also doubles time’s captured instant: the dim circle of a watch face at the bottom of the image creates a sense of time’s echoing reverberations, if not its repetitions. Here is time plus textile, time crumpled as the surface of the filmy blackness is crumpled, the differing shapes and designs of light caught at odd angles suggesting process, movement rather than any arrest of chronology.

Something similar happens in the filmy and reflective surfaces in this next image, although by a different method: here, the photograph separates out textile from glass, giving us two surfaces, one rippling and one smooth. Both let us “see through” to the outside.

dress / window, © Arkady Dragomoshchenko

Like the image of dry snow, this photograph wants us to think about the uncertain nature of surfaces, which are layered here, soft against hard, flowing against flat. Like the safety pin and netting, the dress image seems stabilized by the horizontal bar of buildings at the bottom and the wires above them. Those telephone wires are duplicated by the lines of the wire hanger, a visual metonymy that surely pleased the poet. But the water on the window glass catches our attention more firmly if we look closely at the picture’s bottom. Similarly, the crossbar of the window, which should hold things firmly, is blurred at the center, softening its powers to stabilize. The dress itself, like the tissue surface over the watch, barely covers what is behind it, but we are looking at something far less abstract. The dress suggests not just a bit of fabric, but a person. The dress is held up to the light as a translucent shape of fabric that would envelop the body. The dress seems to measure the light against the absent person, whom it would clothe.[14]

Again, we confront the work of imagination, very much like Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book, with its account of language’s ability to get us to picture textures, folds, and depths. Dragomoshchenko’s photography, at least in these examples, displays not the impulse to use photography to catch something that is (Roland Barthes’s definition in Camera Lucida). Rather, it’s always a kind of second-order representation in the photograph, so that the photograph is the idea of the thing, the representation of our mind’s work. Each photograph becomes a mind’s assertion of its own reality.[15] Each photograph projects a world of the imagination, a play of surfaces and textures, of haptic as much as visual power. Photography is doing ontological work for this poet, asserting the pleasures and the spaces of being.

We are a long way from knowing in any depth the nature and role of place in Dragomoshchenko’s poetic world. It is no mere geographical space, that’s for sure, as we could tell from the title of his 2005 book, On the Shores of Unfounded River (Na beregakh iskliuchennoi reki). I want to look at one poem from that book. It begins with the assertion that there is no escaping the place where one is. That place is the place of the page and of the camera, which is to say there is no escaping who one is, a man who makes things hunched over a page, a man who pecks at letters, making poems, who has “all sorts of photo cameras.” Tellingly, nothing specifies the place of poems and cameras. Many signals of landscape description can be found in Dragomoshchenko’s poetry, but in this poem they are reduced to “shadows” and “green leaf.”

And it’s not like I can run off somewhere. First,

 I’m poring over the page this is written on.

 Second, all sorts of photo cameras, silver spoons, shadows.

 Letters that are pecked out among shadows, various …

 reflections even, just in case. Also I see

 a window. And I have a headache. And I have more of a headache.

 “Not like I can run off somewhere” becomes

 a kind of opera singing. Why should I even need to

 run off somewhere. Better my head split “in two.”

 To sing — better, without seeing anybody — something like “farewell”

 then, it’s faster and easier that way. And occasionally some wine

 and a green leaf. To feel it in my hands,

 and then light up a cigarette.

 Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky


A мне и не убежать никуда. Во-первых,

 рассматриваю страницу, на которой это написано.

 Во-вторых, разные фотокамеры, серебряные ложки, тени.

 Буквы, которые расклеваны между теней, разное …

 даже и отражение на всякий случай. Я вижу еще —

 окно. И у меня болит голова. И она болит сильнее.

 «Не убежать никуда» становится

 неким оперным пением. А мне и не нужно

 никуда убегать. Лучше — чтобы голова «пополам».

 И петь, а лучше никого не видеть, типа «прощай»

 тогда, — быстрее и легче. А иногда вина

 и зеленый лист. Подержать в руках,

 а потом зажечь сигарету. 

The poem invokes photography, not by means of ekphrasis, thus not by recreating or instructing us to think about a photograph, but by referring to “all sorts of photo cameras.” To draw attention to the machines that make pictures is to invoke the key aesthetic argument about photography, whether it is art at all because it relies on the work of the machine rather than the will of the artist.[16] But Dragomoshchenko takes the question of will elsewhere. These cameras deny agency no more than the implied keyboard that lets the poet peck out words. Neither can be escaped; both compel the poet toward creation. The silver spoons and shadows revive the possibility of ekphrasis, instructing us to imagine two elements of a photograph that would gleam and darken before us. The objects that make poems also make photographs: reflecting surfaces, more shadows, a window. The window points to an outside world, but the poet closes off any escape, closed in by the sense that he is locked inside his own head, a head he knows by its pain.

When words from the first line are repeated, like a refrain but in quotation marks, we realize that the poet is having a conversation with himself. The head splitting in two serves as an image for that internal conversation (we note how much, elsewhere, there is conversation and letter-writing in Dragomoshchenko’s work),[17] but here the chatter is lonely, a wish to say farewell to someone unseen. The desired speech act is in fact a song, an opera song.[18] It could be any aria, or it could be the famous aria that emphasizes that word “farewell” / “proshchai” — Lensky’s aria in Eugene Onegin.[19] For Dragomoshchenko, the specificity of the source is less important than the phenomenology of the event, and we would be well to remember the account of singing, especially of the aria, offered by Stanley Cavell, as conveying “the sense of being pressed or stretched between worlds.”[20] The poet fantasizes singing the perfect operatic word, farewell, out into dark nothingness, performing an act of valediction. We should resist the temptation to read this poem, published seven years before any sign of illness, as if Dragomoshchenko know we would be mourning him. Pain and death hover, but only as they always do when questions of being are contemplated.

The sung word is more than a distraction from an aching head, because its immediate force is to return the poet to himself, but to a self seen as if from afar. As we could have predicted from Cavell’s argument about skepticism, the poet is quickly and easily, as his own adverbs have it, brought to an immediate apprehension of his own being. He looks to his hands, to his accoutrements of wine and cigarettes, for which the hands seem almost to reach.[21] Not Keats’s living hand, reaching toward readers, insisting on the word’s supreme power to live on, but the poet’s reminder to himself of his own capacity for touch, the sensation that his photographs explore.

The poems published alongside this short essay will allow you to follow similar pathways, inspired by the photographs, through Dragomoshchenko’s poetry. In “Dreams Photographers Appear To,” the poet foregrounds the paradoxes of place, not unlike the evasions of “And it’s not like I can run off somewhere.” He locates the poem in a place of transit, a “Casablanca” of the movies but also of the mind. The prose poem “Agora” presents a different paradox, of cultural public space for conversation but also the space for an exchange of ideas. “Dreams Photographers Appear To” reaches across aesthetic boundaries, but “Agora” reaches across time, back to the ancient world where philosophy was born. Its strongest emblem of second-order representation is the photograph, a found object that is doubly distanced from its subject, lines of poetry. Nowhere more than here, the poems loop back and forth between the verbal and the visual and, like the photographs, they take up metaphors for translation — between art and philosophy, between cultural eras, between tangible realities and imagined myths. American readers will get another occasion soon to read more poems — I take this occasion to express my gratitude to Eugene Ostashevsky for sharing his knowledge of Dragomoshchenko with me, and for allowing some of the translations forthcoming in Endarkenment to appear here.[22]



1. Dragomoshchenko’s name turns up in histories of the famous Leninground Cafe Saigon, and his work appeared in the well-known samizdat journal Chasy, created by members of the Leningrad Underground, more on which see below. But he was more associated with the theory-oriented journal Kommentarii, and he was closely connected to Mitin zhurnal and its editor, Dmitrii Volchek.

2. Their connection informs two chapters of Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature, 1st ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). See also Jacob Edmond, “‘A Meaning Alliance’: Arkady Dragomoshchenko and Lyn Hejinian’s Poetics of Translation,” Slavic and East European Journal 46, no. 3 (2002): 551–63.

3. Many L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were also engaged with issues of political critique and social justice; Dragomoshchenko rarely followed suit, in part because of the very different associations for political poetry in the heavily ideologized spheres of official Soviet poetry. But he did evince a concern for matters of power and hierarchy, often represented by his layering of linguistic registers and by the kind of “characters” fleetingly created in his work.

4. Description was also the title chosen by Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova for their translated volume of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry: Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Description, trans. Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova, 1st ed. (Los Angeles, Calif.: Sun & Moon Press, 1990). For the Russian books, see Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Tavtologiia: Stikhotvoreniia, Esse (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011). Also Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Opisanie (St. Petersburg: Gumanitarnaia Akademiia, 2000).

5. Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Xenia, trans. Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova (Los Angeles, Calif.: Sun & Moon Press, 1994), 11; Dragomoshchenko, Opisanie, 150.

6. Joseph Brodsky, “The Condition We Call Exile,” in On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 33.

7. Thus, Dragomoshchenko can write, in a poem from Xenia, “To speak of poetry is to speak of nothing” / «govorit’ o poezii oznachaet govorit’ o nichto» (Dragomoshchenko, Xenia, 28; Dragomoshchenko, Opisanie, 162). That poem goes on to include a line that would make Brodsky roll over in his grave: “The words are repulsive” / “Slova otvratitel’ny” (30, 163).

8. Stanley Cavell, “Benjamin and Wittgenstein: Signals and Affinities,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 3 (Winter 1999): 235–46, qtd. from 237.

9. Elena Fanailova had this quality in mind when she wrote, in response to Dragomoshchenko’s death, that he was a peerless educator («kak prosvetitel' ne imeet ravnykh»). See Fanailova, «Velichie smerti i ee zhe nichtozhnost',» Colta (September 13, 2012).

10. D. N. Rodowick, “Ethics in Film Philosophy (Cavell, Deleuze, Levinas),” nd, 3. It can be found on a site maintained by Rodowick.

11. Neil Hertz, “Some Words in George Eliot: Nullify, Neutral, Numb, Number,” George Eliot’s Pulse (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 284.

12. Dragomoshchenko, Description, 83. The citation comes from a poem dedicated to Hejinian. Dragomoshchenko only published the Russian version once, in an almanac: see Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, “Accidia,” in 25 Tverskoi Bul’var: Golosa Molodykh (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1990), 216–21.

13. Scarry writes about literary texts, but her account of images’ suitability to mental representation is an apt approach to the photography work of a poet like Dragomoshchenko. I would argue that the same is true of poet and photographer Anna Glazova. See Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).

14. It bears mention that persons appear often in Dragomoshchenko’s photographs: actual persons — friends, acquaintances — and masks, substitute persons. For many more images, click here.

15. For a different approach to the poet’s photographs, and a much more detailed and sustained account of the work, see Dennis Ioffe, “Arkady Dragomoshchenko’s Photography: A New Visuality and a Poetics of Metaphysical Inebriation,” Slavic and East European Journal 55, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 583–613.

16. That original argument, by Roger Scruton in 1981 and Kendall Walton in 1984, is compactly presented and challenged in Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen, “Introduction: Photography Between Art History and Philosophy,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 4 (Summer 2012): 679–94.

17. Another theme could be discussed here at length, signalled by Cavell’s work on companionship and ethical conversation. Both are, I believe, critically important in Dragomoshchenko’s writings, but I leave this topic for another occasion.

18. That operatic performance shows Dragomoshchenko doing something else that is typical of his poetry — enacting a translation, in this case between art forms, a translation of the voice from the conversational to the singing register. Note that the poet does not drift into praise of song as something beautiful, as we would find in Symbolist and post-Symbolist poems where music is the emblem of art’s highest achievements.

19. As noted by Julie Buckler, in response to an earlier version of this paper.

20. Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises, Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 144.

21. Those wine and cigarettes are typical signs of the writing life, shown often in the poet’s photographs. See Ioffe, “Dragomoshchenko’s Photography.”

22. Endarkenment: Selected Poems appeared in January 2014 from Wesleyan University Press.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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:

elementary things
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
discombobulated completely
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[6]

элементарные вещи
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.”[7] 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.[8]

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.”[9] 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[10]. 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[11]

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.”[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.



1. Eugene Ostashevsky, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Dmitry Golynko, As It Turned Out, trans. Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebecca Bella, and Simona Schneider (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), ix–xiii.

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.

3. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity’s Consciousness of Time and Its Need for Self-Reassurance,” in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 1–22.

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.

5. Trans. Eugene Ostashevsky, in Golynko, As It Turned Out, 17.

6. Ibid., 27.

7. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

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.

9. Trans. Eugene Ostashevsky, in Golynko, As It Turned Out, 28.

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 Alexander 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.

11. Trans. Rebecca Bella Golynko, in Golynko, As It Turned Out, 123.

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.

14. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257–58.

15. On effective history, see Habermas, “Modernity’s Consciousness of Time,” 18.

Poetry after the Siege of Leningrad

Montage, ekphrasis, allegory

The theme of war should be named as one of the most urgent and, ironically, productive, for contemporary Russian poetry. We find its various incarnations in the works of such striking and dissimilar poets as Elena Fanailova, Mariia Stepanova, and Stanislav Lvovsky. These poets are primarily preoccupied by the new wars of Russian empire such as the Chechnya campaigns as well as by the unmediated, continuous wars of memory — among which the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany still remains one of the hottest spots both culturally and politically, producing new interpretations and representations.

After one of my recent talks in the US about the culture of the Siege, I was approached by a polite elderly gentleman who asked me a question that at first struck me with its absurdity and then with its absurd sharpness — “has the Siege of Leningrad ended?” he asked. The Siege of Leningrad, a calamity that claimed up to two million lives, one of the most dramatic and controversial military events of the last century, was lifted in January 1944 — and yet, in many ominous ways it is still going on, and morphing, producing new meanings in the imagination of Russians. It has been exhaustively described and discussed, yet it remains a troubling, problematic episode of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany: on par with Stalin’s labor camps, the Siege remains one of the most problematic zones of Soviet history.  

In history and memory of the Siege, categories of dramatic historical magnitude emerge from juxtaposed narratives: order (both allegedly imposed from Moscow and established by the local Party hierarchy) and chaos (the rise of criminal activity of all kinds, from the black market to cannibalism) turned the Siege of Leningrad into a zone of societal repression and taboo, shielded for half a century from sober historical examination or artistic readdressing by the official terms, heroism and stoicism, that obscured grim reality like a funeral shroud. Sociologist Lev Gudkov claims that late Soviet society was glued together by the myth of the victorious war and victorious nation, and that this still remains the case today.[1] Any confrontation or deconstruction of this account elicits radically negative reactions from the majority of Russians. As one young pro-Putin critic puts it in his response to publication of the texts I discuss below: “You won’t resurrect your dead. In the case of two million blokadniki [Siege victims and witnesses] — you can’t understand them, you can’t hear them. But you can pray for them, ask for forgiveness and keep your silence.”[2] Any attempt at frank dialogue with the national past(s) is apt to be received with antagonism, denial, or both, and a quasi-Heideggerian notion of silence turns into an instrument for the control of national memory. One of my interviewees expressed this view sardonically, thus summing up the opinion prevailing in Russia today: “Don’t dare to touch their wounds, since they don’t have any wounds anyway.”

Yet precisely out of spite, inspired by their disagreement with the politics of silence, contemporary Russian poets choose to write about the Siege; the most interesting of these attempts aim at bringing the modern reader closer to the experience and subjectivity of blokadniki: how did they conceive of their situation? What did they feel, see, and hear? What language(s) were coined in that experience, and, crucially, how can these languages be transposed or translated into today’s poetics?

In the present essay I look at the several contemporary poetic texts dedicated to the Siege, analyzing various takes on the task of such a historical gesture as well as the formal qualities adopted by today’s poets for their post-Siege contemplations. The latest publication, Sergei Zavialov’s montage-text “Christmas Fast,” appeared in the leading journal New Literary Review and is directly connected to such phenomena of historical data as the Siege archive, the mass of unprocessed source materials (diaries, letters, works of fiction) still awaiting archiving, publication, reading, interpretation. Zavialov’s quest for an adequate form is inventive, insistent, sometimes humbling, sometimes frustrating — everything that such a complicated search for diction might involve. His piece presents a panoramic montage of various Siege languages. In a bold dialogue-play with the urgency and necessity of authenticity, he reproduces and recombines various layers of the Siege logomorphic machine: 

He said:

                   Alimentary dystrophy is a pathological process, which from the
clinical perspective should be interpreted as a nosological unit. Yakov
Rappoport suggested that this illness has gastrogenic origin. Building on
the contemporary ideas about the diverse functions of the mucous
membrane of the stomach and its role in the nervous and humoral
regulation of the vital processes, the author sees disturbance of the
stomach’s mucous membrane to be the crucial link in the pathogeny of the
alimentary dystrophy.

 She said:

 I am lying here sick. And they: gobble gobble gobble gobble.

 You said:

 Oh, how splendid was the snowfall at dusk,

 The snowflakes that blur the outlines of space.

 Disappearance of lines, fading of shadows, numbing of sounds.

 They said:

                   Yesterday night fragments of the Southern front sector of the
Soviet army under General Kharitnov’s command breached the
fortifications of the Nazi Army and occupied Rostov. General Kleist’s
group is fully annihilated with more than 5,000 dead.

 And then we sang:

 We remember his death,

 We proclaim his resurrection,

 We await his coming in glory.

 Jesus, Lamb of God: have mercy on us.

 Jesus, bearer of our sins: have mercy on us.

Jesus, redeemer, redeemer of the world: give us your peace.[3]  

This striking collage-medley combines discourses of religious hymns, food rations, personal diaries, official communiqués about the glory of Soviet weaponry, and echoes of underground Siege poetry never intended for publication. From this combination a peculiar double effect emerges that blurs in a reader’s mind sensations of “presentness” (as in being “there” and “then”) and estrangement. From a retrospective point of view, radically different ways of Siege sense-making both contradict and highlight each other. This effect of multiglossia, an orchestrated chaos convincingly reproduced by Zavialov, figures in many Siege diaries. The dialogue-defying confidence of official propaganda’s language is contrasted acutely with the sublime diction of poetry that Siege subjects use as “spiritual crutches” and with the aphatic decay of Siege subjects’ consciousness from hunger, disease, and mental decline. The corruption of language in a situation of historical trauma becomes an inevitable stumbling block for anyone who engages the Siege archive: the effect of suffering on language is difficult to ignore. One can observe in the documents how hunger devours the tissues of speech as it does muscle, one grammatical category after another: gender, time, and number fade from view.

How do we sense that Zavialov’s writing is poetry? He builds his text whimsically, brutally, and yet, rigorously, through parallelisms and repetitions that engender new connections, sounding out allusions as in an echo chamber. His task is to approach the meaning and sound of a Siege liturgy. Importantly, Zavialov never imposes the form of religious harmony from outside of the historical process, retrospectively, but rather locates and develops it within the Siege existence where, as various sources demonstrate, intensity of religious practice rose dramatically. Churches functioned in the city even during the months of winter when bakeries, hospitals, and morgues “froze” in stillness.

In his attempt to find ekphrastic expression for the trauma of the Siege, Zavialov follows the Siege figurations of Elena Shvarts, often called one of the central poetic voices of the Soviet underground since the 1970s. Not long before her untimely death in 2010, Shvarts authored the cycle Portrait of the Siege through Genre, Nature-Morte, and Landscape,[4] which attempts to work with this historical material, not via discursive accumulation and sound poetry as Zavialov does, but as vision:

A twilight of rubbish splashes into the window.
The boy hunches up: he has no patience.
The boy checks the boiling pot, its gurgling sounds:
What do we have today? We have a cat!
When she asked, he said “Rabbit.”
When she ate, he laughed. Wildly, madly.
He died soon. And you on the air
Sketch with the charcoal nature morte (yes, indeed!).
A candle, a fragment of carpenter’s glue,
A bread ration, a handful of lentils.
Rembrandt! I want to live; I want to pray.
Even if turning into ice, into salt, into stone.
(“Nature Morte”)

In order to comprehend Shvarts’s imagery, it is crucial to position the event of the Siege not only within the history of “Soviet Petersburg” (Leningrad, that is) but within its aesthetic mythologies. A city of paradoxes since its conception, it combined two categories of (self-)description — “danger” and “beauty.” Within this paradigm, the Siege became the radical, nightmarish expression of this aesthetic oxymoron.

Many thousands of visual images of the besieged city were created during the Siege in every possible style and technique. Most of these strikingly daring works collect dust to this day in small historical archives of Petersburg. Studying them, one is struck by a reconceptualization of traditional genres’ meaning and significance.

For example, in the Siege diary of Tatiana Glebova, disciple of Pavel Filonov — a paradoxical and proud bearer of the traditions of Russian avant-garde — we read about her seeing new meaning in famous Flemish still lifes in the Hermitage, opulent and glimmering. Through hunger and despair, Glebova finds new meaning and new spirituality in the sensual shapes and colors of food — Shvarts addresses this longing with tragic irony. Her nature morte is one of authenticity rather than of fantasy, of painful lack rather than of dreams and white lies inducing only madness, but, principally, it’s of creative transcendence — the survivor needs only air to conjure up, to organize her somber composition. And Rembrandt appears here for good reason, omnipresent in both writing and as an influence on images that depict the Siege period: the master of the fat shadow and meager light materially existed in the city mostly in his imaginary and mnemonic manifestations. For example, while famous Rembrandts (Danae, Prodigal Son, Saskia as Flora, et al.) had been evacuated from the Hermitage in October 1941, in the winters that followed Hermitage tour guides receiving food from a sympathetic sailor or other visitor would repay this kindness by describing in florid detail the absent paintings, all the while gesturing towards their empty frames.

The dead and empty nature of the Siege existence induced visions that Shvarts sensed and reframed acutely. Shvarts’s quest to represent the Siege as an historical and aesthetic visual event, as a spectacular urban catastrophe, is strongly rooted in the sensibilities of the Siege artists: one of the most interesting creative outcomes, or products of this disaster, to use the distancing notion of Maurice Blanchot, were the hybrid diaries in which artists who had never written expressively before the Siege (and writers who had never sketched) would use the “alternate” artistic mode in order to reconstruct a creative psyche shattered by trauma. Many witnesses of their city’s undoing choose to transgress the border between the visual and the discursive, hoping thereby to preserve their impressions within the dialogic ekphrastic system where the meaning of one’s own trauma can be captured only through the voice of the other or the other voice, i.e., a sign system. (The phenomenon of the compensatory Siege account was exercised widely by the witnesses: ekphrastic diaries by Akeksandr Nikol’skii, Igor’ Chaiko, and Yakov Rubanchik have become crucial bodies of documentation of the Siege tragedy.) Compensatory language operates through detailed description of an evasive symbolic subject (i.e., the lighting of the besieged city), pervaded with traumatic associations. For Shvarts, ekphrastic writing again becomes a tool to register the surface terror of the Siege, to define this time and do so aesthetically.

One should note that in terms of reception, both Shvarts’s and Zavialov’s projects went largely unnoticed by the general reading audience. Recently, however, the following peculiar text, a revisionist Siege interpretation by Vitaly Pukhanov, turned into a media event in the Russian blogosphere:

In Leningrad, on Marata Street
In 1943
Somebody ate a plate of soup.
Thus the order of things was broken.

Two cars of militia men emerged:
You shouldn’t eat!
You’ve broken the rules!
We don’t eat meat here.

We are here in defense.
We are here counting the days of war.
We have no interest anymore
For some cat or some crow.

Terrific hunger — the murderer
Defends Leningrad today.
Terrific city — the grave-digger
Scares the enemy away.

Leningrad is disappearing
From the enemy’s vision.
Where’s the Hermitage? Where’s the Summer Garden?
Welcome to a different dimension.

Neither awake, nor dreaming
Can you be here alive?
We will win
Because we won’t eat! 

At the end of time,
Our flesh will turn into stone.
Our enemy will remember
Our transfiguration.[5]

Pukhanov’s text was one of the hottest themes in the blogosphere that week — an uncommon level of buzz for Russian poetry today. Comments were extraordinarily mixed. Some derided the poet for opening the “sacred wounds of history,” while others congratulated him, with equal ardor, on finally allowing Russian poetic diction to distance itself from the historical masquerade of sentimentality, shame, and mnemonic paralysis. Two central factors that disturbed readers the most were the poem’s form (a rhythmic pattern used usually by nursery rhymes) and its uneasy, absurdist allegorical construction of self-induced hunger. Pukhanov uses the allegory for his epistemological purposes: rather than attempt to reenter the event, he toys with it according to the rules of his provocatively ahistorical game. Reading this witty, paradoxical poem of self-induced, self-preserving cathartic experience, one learns things about Siege mythology today (a value in itself) rather than about the Siege as a historical phenomenon. And yet I see this provocation as a healthy gesture: in order to heal the wounds of Siege shame, one should treat them with an attention and humility that cannot exclude that purifying horrific laughter often evident in the texts of blokadniki themselves. These three very different ways to depict the Siege — Zavialov’s quasi-archival montage, Sharts’s morbidly beautiful spectacle as well as Pukhanov’s grotesque allegory — strike me as a very hopeful tendency towards breaking the silence and daring to look back, to speak about and to the historical trauma at the times when the state is trying again to avert its gaze from the many wounds of all kinds that it has inflicted.



1. Lev Gudkov, “Pamiat’ o voine I massovaia identichnost’ rossiian,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas (2005), 40–41.

2. Vadim Levental, “Vospalenia I izverzhenia,” Sol’ (September 27, 2010).

3. Sergey Zavialov, “Rozhdestvenskii Post,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie 102 (2010).

4. Elena Shvarts, “Portret blokady cherz zhanr, natiurmort i peizazh,” Dikopis’ poslednego vremeni (Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii Fond, 2001).

5. Vitalii Pukhanov, “Kak-to utrom na rassvete,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie 96 (2009).