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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).

Reactions to Basil King's work

Basil King. Photo by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte.

I.

I’m flying.  Curious, in the speed of language, even when the talking seems ordinary / flat, there are echoes — wait a few lines down — words like Quasha and cumquats come up and leave, leaving floral pieces,    and   sky.    Words  a-float  ,/ ,,/ Aegean gods have a kind of influence, and there are the colorful ghosts
                                                                          dark-lined
                                                                             hovering
in and out of boxes
inhabitants of between
the                     lines
                                     where language
                                               circles

I’ve been rereading Basil King’s work
                                                             words, images
ever since
                         (since I was there, since this began, the promise, the reaction, which now, enfin, finally, I realize canNOT a be a “criticism” or “review” but just this: saying    and leaving spaces for   what   his pages   elicit (draw out / yes, dr-a-w))

from my eyes and mind and hands;     causing me to feel as if I rise above   page after page
not intoxicant
not from trickery
but in a new kind of habitation &
                                                 moving forth,
                                                                            he
                            draws the reader / the viewer (seeing / reading / seeing) this way
and other ways as
well.     He doesn’t “discover” but does reveal what the reader finds.
 
He doesn’t “discover” himself  either,   there in his pages, though, or
any place
            except   occasionally     as if he came  up
                                                                                        with   the words    for himself
but forever
inventing himself                      he seems amused
                                                             by the questions
his words and images raise.

So are we (I mean so am I, but I like to presume the plural after all these years of possibilities in the presentation of his work):  so are we amused way beyond the pleasure inherent.


II.

Paint and canvas, lost and found, names to remember, sudden conversations, inside recollections.    The surreal comes so easily because it arrives inside the (seemingly) mundane, the quiet tones of familiar conversation;  but there is Blackburn and there is Cezanne, there are Baz King’s mother and father too, and Ernest Shackleton who taught him endurance — in the environment, and Steve Jonas suddenly calling King JEW JEW;   and here is Chaucer entering so easily, and we have been on the road with Basil King and his colleagues;  and here are some theories about painting mixed into an overnight in the bushes of New York City or an ironic encounter with highway policemen in Boston.    Identity is a title, but a search for identity is not the issue of Basil King’s work.    He knows, “we know where we are going,” he knows / the speaker knows / who the speaker is, and he can include artists of long ago/  of inside his sweeping gesture.   Just as he knows dots, colors, how they can all connect.   “Paint and canvas”  :   in a few words / in pages of print and reprint / in prints of his images / Basil King gives wisdom larger than …   “War, domesticity, political injustice.”   Basil King the painter / the gardener / the   poet   comes back from “the garden of the Lost and Found” where one book began, and comes around, to tell who-will-listen / who-will-see-the-colors / who-will-join-in-a-knowing   what he can let us know over and over, with Chaucer and Marsden Hartley and “Primrose” (who is Primrose, is that Martha, to begin and end? is that another notion of roses and colors and entering rooms where there are packages that people want to lose?).    No matter what the reader cannot “know” as at a table or a conference:  ENTER the room (or the garden, or the place of “Lost and Found” or a journey from Black Mountain in North Carolina or Basil King’s childhood or NOW) …  enter, listen to the repetitions, follow, and you will find more than Basil Cohen knew, and as much as Basil King may reveal, may strew;   join him as he follows the dots.


III.

Repetition — of phrases or words — is not for music or for a cute “I am a poet” stance:  it serves musing (sometimes a-musing) and inclination.     Sometimes there is simultaneous disavowal — as if the speaker affirms and denies, or thinks and doesn’t think, or  believes and doubts.    Like in life!

Does he exist, this writer / artist?   A little boy Cohen, born in England on the verge of war (and danger, no need to point out he’s a Jew;   it comes up later in Identity anyway);   comes to the US deprived — of what he had reached high up and wasn’t allowed to keep;   but deprived over all of place and identity and meaning.   Ergo:  the play of words is a playing with words as crucial — as what there is, only — like a ground, maybe? a grounding?   Paint also.   Color is prismatic, bold, lines draw out (or in) a magic.   There is only that gesture.   (Later the lines will repeat “Paint on canvas.”)

Writing and painting were a way of establishing, grounding, creating.    Not “discovering” but revealing what is deep, what is somehow known.    Breaking the boundaries of who the boy Basil Cohen was, becoming Basil King (his father’s son, his father’s chosen name) here.     An arrival does not have to be announced.     Ideas do not have to be declared.     They are simply spoken.     Insights are quietly included.


Brooklyn Bird, from Basil King’s My Brooklyn series. Mixed media on canvas, 38" h x 50" w, 2003.

Breaking boundaries is itself a cliché that must be bro-ken.  Ken?  Yes, bro’.  (Apologies for playing along, Basil makes me/   allows me   to play!)  Corny?    So what: sew parts together:  gather all, Baz reminds you of knit — didn’t he travel with the weaving teacher? — no need to keep in stitches, not even thoughts, thoughts worth their while (worth a while, a whiling away of time or no-time) are un-even, even ragged, like good muffins or pinafores.   Hems, they skirt a few issues;  many issues return in a package of new ideas.

You require attention.   There is a fine line between cash payment and rugged (or rigid) attending.   To the minutia of most lines.   Skip a few, he won’t be mindful, but you’ll go back, as I have done, time and again (damn, another song coming to mind:  this is no singing matter or any arrangement, certainly not rhyme;  but Baz makes ideas rhyme in new rolling ways, even overboard / cap — sizing and swimming along under currents — a current of political trends, a prophesy for poetics, new art in the clime   where colors gain the roseate glow of an eastern dawn.   (Can I dare say Athenean just because I’m rereading The Odyssey while I’m rereading Basil King?)

Boiling over and yet he goes so easy.   It’s not the repetitions that make him witty, but the wit that allows even the most mundane to crackle, finger-snap.

Quick!    How to describe the rhythms of Basil King’s written work:    like alabaster mixed with the silver of blades?    No …  like alabaster or the feathered albatross?   No …  like the white of background and the dark white of a good solid ground.    Ground and sky, but smooth and rocking and then, sometimes, suddenly, jumping.   As in dot / dot / follow the dots.     Rhythms:   pastels calming into the right places for figures — even the ominous, like up from some other kind of graves, not European, the daring of dark lines where there might have been clouds now there are forms and figures as in wherever he writes these phlogesteron figures go — waft! wafting.   Yes, but they settle also.

I never know where I am when I read him (his work, maybe that is “him”) or where the lines are going, but this is (I know) something to follow.   When I am bored, I dig the hole and climb in the line and there is another ladder — or a tiny painting of someone emerging   from a box.     Not into someplace like cherry blossoms or hibiscus or clematis, but like clouds of distant spring colors / fragrances, flagrant onomatopoeia.     Basil King — how long ago — allowed not everything but some chosen things and one more — into what one finally sees is the poem and all that while you knew it was prose (and yes, you knew it was a poem) lying flat on the line.   Did they know at Black Mountain that prose and poem can be …  What did they allow?   What did they not allow?


Notes

Quoted lines taken from the following works by Basil King:

Identity: Text and Art by Basil King (Cathedral Station, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 1998)
Learning to Draw / A History
, ed. Daniel Staniforth (Skylight Press, 2011)
“Prologue,” from {poems} Basil King
Warp Spasm
(Cathedral Station, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2001)