Matvei Yankelevich

_____________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!

Field Notes on Russian-American Poets and the Question of Bilingual Poetry; Volume One : Philip Nikolayev, Eugene Ostashevsky, Ilya Bernstein, and Genya Turovskaya

 

 

Editor’s Note: This essay is the first installment in an ongoing series of field notes on particular Russian-American poets. Future installments written by Matvei Yankelevich will appear in subsequent issues of Octopus.

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The term "Russian-American Poetry" can be applied to such a wide array of aesthetic, generational and linguistic varieties, not to mention differences in bilingual ability or preferred writing language, that its use cannot be but suspect. What would appear to be a small coterie is really a prism reflecting most theoretical debates between poetic schools that exist in the American as well as in the Russian context. It defines a group that is breaking out in different direction through the boundaries of its defining term.

"Poetry of the Russian Emigration" is usually reserved for Russian language poems written by Russians in emigration, particularly those in Europe (such as Ivanov, Poplavsky, Bozhnev, and countless others) in the earlier half of the century. The term "émigré poetry" implies, at least in the Russian context, an adherence to the language and an emphasis on the culture as it is preserved abroad in communities of émigrés. It also implies exile, or that a feeling of exile, sometimes manifested in profound nostalgia, is part and parcel of the community's self-identification and of the poetry produced by its poets. Emigre poetry is a vast topic that is not the subject of this investigation. There are, no doubt, better-equipped specialists to tackle that incredibly large body of work[1].

Then there are bilingual poets, who may or may not write in both native and acquired languages. Some of these poets are bilingual to the degree that it is unclear which language is their native tongue, despite the obvious chronological fact.

But what is bilingual poetry? Can it really exist? There are, of course, multi-lingual poems—the later work of Czech poet Ivan Blatny comes to mind—and yet, it seems that émigré poets choose to write poems in either their native or the host language, taking one or the other more seriously. Some switch back and forth, writing differently in the different languages. Others translate their own work, in effect re-writing it.

The poetry of bilingual poets is often born out of the awareness of bilingual experience—the split, the dichotomy, and double vision. “Russian-American” seems suited, to some degree, to describe a kind of poet that is—more or less—consciously aware of his or her unusual place in English-language literature.

The current investigation is an on-going project. It's hard to imagine where and when it will end, and whether or not its findings will uphold any preliminary postulations. Primarily, it is concerned with Russian-Americans who are writing poetry today, and primarily with their English-language work, the way it relates to their varied Russian backgrounds, the time and circumstances of their emigration, and how it fits into and is influenced by the (very different) poetic traditions of Russian and American poetry. In this and forthcoming installments of this investigation I will choose poets who—in print and in performance—make us wonder about issues of accent, of "Russianness," of bilingual experience, of representations and marketing of identity.

*  *  *

The current situation in Russian-American poetry cannot be surveyed without taking into account the tremendous and odious celebrity of Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky came to New York in the early 1970s and continued to write verse primarily in Russian. The most important part of his oeuvre was known to American readers only through translations (which he often made with the help of American poets). However wide his readership in the United States, Brodsky assumed a popularity of cultish proportions in the Russia that had banished him.

The Nobel laureate, and U.S. Poet Laureate spoke (and wrote) in English with an indelible and unapologetic Russian accent. Though clearly rooted in the Russian Modernist tradition (Akhmatova, Mandelstam, etc.), and written primarily in Russian, Brodsky's poetry changed definitively in his Western exile. The Russian word “kabak” became easily substituted by the English “bar[2].” His transitory life continued: in hotels, (like the Barbizon Terrace in Washington D.C.) and rented New York City flats, in the stead of Leningrad apartments, prisons, and exile in northern Russian provinces. Moreover, it could be argued, that in his exile to the West, Brodsky’s poetry acquired a center, and a perspective.

The exiled poet became a medium for Russian readers who could not leave the Soviet Union but who could memorize poems in which New York, Cape Cod, or collegiate New England, as well as the sights of Western Europe, were becoming everyday geographies. His émigré readership could identify with his plight as well as with the American scenery, but the poetry was not addressed to them specifically. One of Brodsky’s most recurring modes is the letter home. Whether lyrical or political, Brodsky’s poetry seems always to address someone across the ocean. Sometimes explicitly, his poetry took the form of a letter to a friend, a past lover, a fellow poet (alive or long dead), a past life. Like a partially jammed radio station, his poetry relayed scenes of Western life to the younger Soviet generation whose ability to travel abroad seemed uncertain at best. His poetry acquired a worldliness, a voice of experience that was larger than Russian poetry, pushing its borders out beyond what the Iron Curtain could handle. Brodsky didn’t need to go back—his poetry did that for him. As a result, Brodsky in exile had a much stronger effect on his audience from without than he could have achieved from within.

Indeed, Joseph Brodsky tried his hand at writing poems in English. Unsurprisingly, his English poems continued the formal preoccupations of his Russian poems, but were less innovative. His attempts at writing poetry in English garnered little attention from critics. In fact, it would be true to say that were these poems not written by the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, but by some other Russian immigrant, or even by an American author, they would not have garnered interest from either readers or publishers. The maîtres of English poetry for Brodsky were Frost and Auden, and he attempted to imitate—as best he could—their example.

Yet his sensitivity to English is inconsistent. For example in the sentimental poem "A Song," Brodsky uses "I wish you were here, dear" as a refrain—a line that no American poet would even try to pass off for poetry (not without an ironic wink) as it would no doubt elicit in their minds the popular Pink Floyd song, not to mention the cliché sound of the sentiment so expressed. This lack of cultural sensitivity kept Brodsky from becoming a poet of the English language. His rhymes in English are often either trite or awkward, and the whole of his English language output is old fashioned and derivative of other poets. No doubt, Brodsky was aware to some degree of the ineptitude of his English verse, as most of his writing in English took the form of the essay.

 Even a great Russian poet like Brodsky, with all his knowledge of English poetry and proficiency in writing English prose and criticism, could not become a Russian-American poet. Nor, perhaps, would he have wanted to—he was content with being a foreigner. The Russian side of his mind outweighed the American. Though he mastered it, English remained foreign to him, like an appendage grafted onto the body, unwieldy and limited in its functions.

*  *  *

 

 

PHILIP NIKOLAYEV: IDENTITY WHO?

 

Philip Nikolayev is a bilingual (at least) poet living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and co-editor (with his wife, Katia Kapovich) of Fulcrum, an annual literary journal. Nikolayev, (like Genya Turovskaya, who will be discussed later) leans toward the "experimental" or "Language" trends in contemporary American poetics. Monkey Time (Verse Press, 2003), Nikolayev's first collection published in America, was the winner of the 2001 Verse Prize chosen by Lyn Hejinian, a torch-bearer of Language poetry.

Nikolayev's poetry is more stylistically varied, and also more political than most of the poetry I've endeavored to review in these pages. Through various linguistic collisions, Nikolayev seems to advocate the smorgasbord of world-culture in which the poet has access to all modes of speech. In his boldly eclectic poems, high rhetoric and philosophical jargon are mixed up with street slang, Ebonics, ethnic pronunciations, and gangster rap idioms. At times, Nikolayev—like many Russian-American poets that will be considered in these pages—uses end-rhymes and traditional forms; yet, Nikolayev often rhymes in the service of humor (as do Eugene Ostashevsky and Ilya Bernstein, whose work will be discussed below). Grammar gets broken up with exacting force, as the English language encounters foreign speakers, so that Nikolayev, in effect, deconstructs the very idea of the native speaker and "correct" English. His poem "My Aeroflot" illustrates this point. The section below begins with an "s" that stands in for an "as", imitating accented speech, as throughout this poem Nikolayev is speaking in a hightened accent, with foreign diction (presumably a Russian-immigrant diction, not unlike the kind Nabokov parodies in Pnin):

[…]  s I become

fluent many language

fountainpen in fact of language

& God I always mean God

since I com

from my ethnic background in Eastern Europe

& I make ye my own English

& I make ye mine type of English

& then some

b&its moon tuna

East European cuisine i.e.

vodka for breakfast on empty stomach

what does your furniture mean to my soul

my Slav root bag problems

& two or three regurgitated stereotype

forget it

also to forget

bondage of grammar

which constrain true think

I no prob make myself underst&al

ladies & gentlemen

so now open

wh@ you see your left

2 fly bits of the friendly skies

recline your chair

magic opener of pilots drift

upward in the atmosphere of language yow

I'm taking you couple hundred lexemes higher

into stratosphere of we language[3]

 

In Nikolayev's Monkey Time, it is typical for a terse metaphysical poem made up of neat quatrains in short, tight, metrical lines, rhymed in a simple ABAB schema, to be followed by a cacophonic poem made up of chaotic lists of words—or only parts of words—proper names, vulgar expressions, slang, snippets of advertising, trademarked products and other refuse of a contemporary cultural mash. The metaphysical poem, taking "It Never Leaves[4]" for example, may be reminiscent of Tyutchev, Dickinson, or Laura Riding. The list poem is more like the poetry of contemporary lyric poet David Trinidad, or the Language poetry of Bruce Andrews, or a Burroughs/Gysin cut-up. The immense incongruity of these two kinds of poems existing side by side in a single collection should seem natural, or positions itself as self-evident, in the context of postmodern writing, with which Nikolayev identifies. In one such chaotic list poem, "An Antique Modern Cool for T.S. Elliott," he signs off:

Yrs, eminently postmodern

and deadly, Philip Nikolayev[5]

 

In a message to the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, dated July 8, 2003, in answer to Tom Bell's questions about the Russian avant-garde poets published in Fulcrum, Philip Nikolayev wrote this negative description of himself:

            I don't see myself as a Russian poet because I don't write anything literary in Russian, nor do I particularly identify with any sort of "Russian sensibility" (whatever that means), although people are already beginning to pigeonhole me into that (to my slight annoyance) […] Although [I] love Russian poetry, am on friendly terms with many Russian poets, and am "steeped" (love that word) in Russian culture […] I don't really consider myself a part of any sort of Russian émigré "community" or "identity," although I have no objection to them either. The whole business of national identity/mentality is quite foreign to me. I couldn't care less for such things.

Nikolayev makes an important claim here, and his intentions in avoiding Russian "identity" are good ones. His annoyance at being "pigeonholed" is entirely "underst&al," and his disdain for "community" is perfectly coherent with the trend of many Russian-American poets, or poets from Russia living in the U.S., to distance themselves from narrowly defined cultural communities that would hamper their growth as new settlers in the New World.

However, Nikolayev's position runs the risk of backfiring, as it leads to a professed (one might say posed) ignorance of characteristics peculiar to the specific culture—or émigré subculture—that do indeed run through much of today's Russian-American poetry. In fact, such poetic globalization tends to suppress regional and ethnic poetry and to strip authors of the identity which makes their poems, their subject matter, and their linguistic approaches to the English language, meaningful, i.e. readable. (There's no way you can read "My Aeroflot" without noting that the airline's name is as Russian as the author's.)

The thought that one might now write "world poetry," especially in English, stands on a slippery slope toward imperial hubris. Unfortunately, one of the holdovers of Russian intelligentsia thinking, in line with Brodsky's worldview, is that poetry might attain to a universal poetic language that transcends the confines of the specific (in this case, Russian) language, its peculiar history, sound, and struggle. (When Velemir Khlebnikov made such a claim for poetry, he had in mind a sound poetry un-attributable to a single language.) During a panel on Russian Diaspora Writing at the 2005 AWP conference in Vancouver, the acclaimed young poet Ilya Kaminsky made similar gestures toward the falsehood of labels such as "Russian-American," yet his English poems are published in a collection titled "Dancing in Odessa" (Tupelo Press, 2004). It is my opinion that identity may not matter for all immigrant poetries, yet it cannot be ruled out or brushed over in cases where that identity is paramount to the understanding of the poetry or poets in question, and perhaps even to the very rhythms and images and influences which propel its writing.

The notion of identity, which Nikolayev puts forward in his message to the Poetics Listserv and in certain poems[6] in his award-winning book, however, stands a world apart from the ethos of numerous books that employ Russian "identity" and immigrant identity in general as an explicit subject or subtext. Nikolayev seems to dismiss "identity" as an important cultural and even poetic problem, laughing at his own "Russianness," especially in poems like "My Aeroflot" quoted above. This sorespot fuels much of the work, and at times, as in the poems "Pushkin," or "A Black Square, in Memory of Kazimir Malevich," or even "American Farmers Visit A Russian Collective Farm," concretely informs it. The brilliance of Monkey Time is that Nikolayev is as apt for parodying Elizabethan clichés as he is Russian ones. It is refreshing, too, that he is as comfortably versed in American and English poetic traditions as he is in the traditions of his native tongue. This gives Nikolayev undeniably impressive versatility in subject matter and style.

It is understandable that a Russian-American poet might wish to be rid of the stigma and stereotypes of the Russian immigration. However, it is difficult to escape the fact that Russian-American identity and, especially, bilingualism serve as points of departure, as content, providing the background for insurgence or conformity.

Nikolayev himself admits, in the above-mentioned Listserv mailing, describing contemporary Moscow poets Lev Rubinstein and Dmitri Prigov, that their brand of conceptualism is peculiar to the Russian circumstance[7]. These writers indeed created a poetry that was inextricably tied to the Russian language and culture (as was Pushkin's) and thrived on the critical deconstruction of Soviet speech. The bulk of their writing was peculiar to the Soviet situation, which makes its worth and meaning difficult to comprehend in English translation (just as Pushkin's poetry—so full of beauty and meaning for a Russian—often falls flat on the ears of an English speaker.)

Nikolayev further addresses his bilingual biography in the prose poem, or lyric essay, titled "Can You Hear Me[8]." Here Nikolayev writes of the dysfunctionally bilingual home where he grew up, addressing his father:

…and Mom is taking those tranquilizers because of me, I'm being a pedagogical disaster, you are the only adult I can really talk to, but Mom is against English because she feels it alienates me from her, and she is right, and I stupidly ask her, can't you just learn it yourself so you can understand, and she just cries…

 

Like this autobiographical poem, the blurbs on the back of Monkey Time contradict Nikolayev's assertion of non-identity, most likely to the authors "annoyance," insisting that Nikolayev's Russian—if not Russian-American—or, at least, foreign identity inform the book's innovative verse.

English is constantly being destabilized by an awareness of Russian, Hindi, Bangla… (W.N. Herbert)

 

His ears are wide open, international… (Robert Kelly)

 

His is a poetics in cahoots with a self-created idiomatic Russian-American English that, like Nabokov's, adds to the possibilities of the word, of the line, of the overall form of expression in the text. (John Kinsella)

 

One wonders, were it not for the obviously Russian sound of his name, if Nikolayev would be portrayed as something other than a Russian or Russian-American poet, since the languages interspersed in these English poems include French, Latin, Hindi, computer programming languages, American street-speech, as well as and as much as Russian. But Russian writers of English, with few exceptions, can't help being compared to Nabokov, Brodsky and the like, otherwise their aesthetics and attitudes are seen as outgrowths of Russian Futurism, or other peculiarly Russian movements. Should the blame fall on the critics who rely on the poet's connection to Russia as a key to a lock that might be opened otherwise?

Whatever the case, there seems to be something about the Russian literary tradition that won't let go of its progeny, and won't let them forget where they come from, even if the author should travel thousands of miles to get away from his cloying parent. Of course, Russianness in American poetry, as I will try to show, is not the same across the board. Each poet approaches the problem of his or her Russian-American predicament in a different manner, with varying intents. There are traditionalist Russian-American poets and avant-garde Russian-American poets, of as many colors and shades as perhaps there are in the overall American poetic culture.

 

 

*  *  *

 

EUGENE OSTASHEVSKY: NO LANGUAGE BUT MANY

Eugene Ostashevsky, born in 1968, was 11 when he arrived in Brooklyn. He began writing very young, in Russian. But who would read his work apart from his parents and their Russian friends. Throughout the 80s, when Ostashevsky was coming up, the choice of English seemed increasingly obvious: there was no hope of going back, or even of communication with the Russia he came from. Therefore, writing in Russian would limit his possibilities of publishing in the world he had to make a life in. Moreover, it would separate him from that world. To emulate Brodsky would be to be lost among a vast substratum of imitators who would all inevitably lose out to the original. So, Ostashevsky’s poetic route was cut out for him—in English.

Surprisingly, Ostashevsky bears some resemblance to Brodsky. Not that he falls under Brodsky’s influence—in fact, on one of the many fronts attacked by his writing, Ostashevsky seems to strike against the Brodskian tendency in Russian poetry. But there are curious motifs that are common to the two poets of diametrically opposed generations.

Metaphors involving mathematical figures abound in Ostashevsky’s work (often as an acknowledged echo of OBERIU poetry), as they do in Brodsky’s. Of the horsemen in “Group Portrait with Massacre[9],” Ostashevsky writes “Our number was circular; if you squared it / It would end in itself, even for the visually impaired.” Later in the poem, he discusses tic-tac-toe in the context of “binary arithmetic” and combinatory math:  “It’s like flipping 9 pennies / And 9 is 32, my maties….” The name of one of the horsemen is “17,” a prime number.

Ostashevsky's "DJ Spinoza Fights the Begriffon" contains a battle between two comic-philosophical entities, one of whom is described as follows:

The Begriffon looks like 

                                   

x²  _   y²    1  

a²      b²            

                                               

Whereas, DJ Spinoza's fighting style is described as "more geometrico."

Brodsky argues against Euclid in one poem[10] and in a section of “Parts of Speech,” he postulates that “when moving from place to place, the sum of small items is more unrecognizable than zero[11].” Like Ostashevsky, Brodsky uses an almost scientific language in discussing objects, particularly in “Naturmort[12],” in the discussion of the physics of dust and of “things” that are “hermetically sealed.”

The poems of Ostashevsky's that could be called love poems favor crassness over delicacy, as do many of Brodsky’s. The effect of “To a Woman Who as a Young Lady was a Frequent Heroine of my Verses[13],” which contains couplets such as “Your body flopped around like a sturgeon, / though 5 minutes before you were a virgin,” rides on the poet’s frankness about sexual desire and emotional lack. Ostashevsky’s “…like sister & brother / we loved others fiercer than we loved one another,” and “…before we bed / I count the gray hairs on your head,” remind me of Brodsky’s intentionally abrasive manner of speaking of sex, or addressing his past lovers, and the way that crudeness lends energy and meaning to a genre that is for the most part ridden with cliché. The image of the sexual act as “legs placed on shoulders,” for example, occurs unapologetically several times in Brodsky's poems—half-metaphorically in the well-known poem beginning “I have often repeated that fate is a game…[14]” and quite literally in the third part of “Lithuanian Divertisement[15].” A more subtle example would be the motif of the pants and the light switch in Brodsky’s poem “Love[16].”

Brodsky’s erudite poetry is replete with references to classical literature and philosophy while incorporating street language and cursing into his delicately crafted verses. Ostashevsky, who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Stanford, and whose studies were heavy in philosophy with a dissertation on the concept of "zero" in Renaissance culture, peppers his creations with Latin phrases, yet is unfettered in his use of the “lower” lexicon, often adopting for poetic usage the a-grammatical syntax, swear words, and contractions common in rap lyrics and urban ghetto-speak. This taking on of different lexical personas is a central aspect of Ostashevsky’s poetics, and is rooted in his bilingualism, which Ostashevsky describes as having “no native tongue[17]."

Quite opposite of Brodsky's heavy name-dropping, the various academic references and philosophers’ and writers’ names which pop up in Ostashevsky’s poems undergo a constant attack of laughter and parody. Often this comic subversion of the canon occurs through a kind of murder by rhyme: “doing circles around Stuy Park or / studied NAUSEA by Jean-Paul Sartre.” The humor of his rhymes is often foregrounded by an over abundance of syllables in one of the two paired lines—what might be called cramming—which creates a kind of unnatural rhythm and metrical awkwardness that accentuates the forced nature of the rhyme.

On Esquiline hill

Death paused on my windowsill

 

She was not as the other Eugene has

a stately lass     she had no class

 

in fact she had nothing even resembling tits and ass

so I must fix my pronoun     It was

 

a common death, a winged skeleton

Down stuck to its bones as if they were gelatin[18]

 

This technique is also much used in hip-hop lyrics, where the verbal artist will speed up when speaking a many-syllable line in order to match it with its rhyming partner of much shorter length.

Indeed, when performing his own work, Ostashevsky often takes on the persona of a somewhat deranged immigrant rapper, swaying back and forth sometimes in a manner reminiscent simultaneously of davening Jews and hip-hop videos. To this mix he adds a holy-fool intensity, the stagger of either a drunk or a fanatic speaking in tongues, meanwhile stretching his voice to its limits. In performance, Ostashevsky will often employ this speeding up and slowing down, creating dramatic tempo dynamics and metric variation. Or else, Ostashevsky will keep the metrics stoically stable but will mangle English word order to get a rhyme in:

In smashed copses

They burn corpses

No scent worse is[19]

 

  While showing off an erudite knowledge of intellectual history (in poems about Boethius, Sextius Propertius, number theory, etc.) Ostashevsky plays irreverently with the names he drops. Spinoza becomes a DJ and a kind of comic-book hero, who duels with the Begriffon (a combination of Heidegerian concept and fantasy monster)[20]. In "The Second Part of This Poem," the Begriffon tries to convince DJ Spinoza as to language's flacidity:

Listen DJ Spinoza I had enough of your logocentrism

Words are justifications only

 

Only physical power

adjudicates the quizzical hour

 

Only the fist

differentiates between resist and desist

 

Did you ever see giraffes

hold a symposium?                                                        

 

The consciousness of animals is pure time

untrammeled by the vagaries of Sic probo

 

Let us meet man to man

in the style of the whooping crane

 

or the praying mantis

Let us dismiss words

 

in toto

as the unionized janitors of reality!

 

DJ Spinoza replies

 

Listen you, чудо-юдо заморский Begriffon

I don’t care for your praying mantis

your whooping crane

eagle or monkey

 

 

Ostashevsky breezily fuses Russian and Latin into English verse. The inter-language rhymes add to the linguistic comedy of the poem. The multi-lingual moments of his poetry heighten the feeling of foreignness that Ostashevsky flings in our face, rather than subdue it.

 

The Begriffon, who we find out is a stand-in for the author, is dressed as follows:

The front of his T-shirt says

i am ambivalent

 

The back of his T-shirt says

i am not ambivalent

 

Ostashevsky often plays with duality, utilizing puns, word play, contradictory statements, verbal ambiguity, as well as double personas. For example, in a poem called "Language," Ostashevsky writes:

You say,

 

Know reads No

 

That’s all you know

That’s all you do not know

 

The homonyms of "know" and "no" are one of the more obvious ambiguities of spoken English, one that emigres find baffling. The title of his forthcoming collection, Iterature (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005), is itself a play on words which mixes up oral speech and writing. Ostashevsky is hinting at the classical cohesion of literature and oral culture, playing with the postmodern Derridian debates on the subject of theories of linguistic primacy.

Ostashevsky often throws around bad or obvious rhymes, or slips into children's nursery rhyme. This projection of children's verse onto "serious" literature is much akin with the OBERIU writers of the 1920s and 30s—an important influence on Ostshevsky's work—who transferred their inventions in children's literature to their philosophical poetry. In "Zoe's War," Ostashevsky knowingly makes poor rhymes stacked in a random series for the sake of infantilizing his poetic voice: "Here's an elephant / He is really fat // Here's a hippopotamus / Show your bottom to us." In the same poem: "On the ground mice hurry / They're in a hurry // In the air birds fly / They cry, Bye bye."

For the sake of such "bad" or funny rhymes, Ostashevsky might bend—or break—the rules of English grammar, making himself sound like an immigrant, the immigrant we expect him to be. In the poem, "I Found My Thrill," the narrator describes the scene of his death as follows:

Please God O God pretty pretty please

you who does not exist

 

make this Death my Death

don’t make me a witness to another’s death

 

I would rather fall on the floor in my elbow a saber

than figure out life from the agony of my neighbor

 

Right as I finished just saying No

there appeared a very big Crow

 

In its beak there was a serrated row

and as it was going to bite me in t.w.o.

 

I again cried, No!

Take my neighbor, take her for here or to go,

 

Table on that body I once did know

very intimately, until it grow

 

into the main ingredient of Sloppy Joe™

Pull out her bluish intestines real slow

 

chop her up into Caesar so

cheeze fly through the air like crimson snow[21]

 

The barrage of rhymes centered around "No" demands that Ostashevsky go against grammatical constraints with the phrase "until it grow." The long "o" is a splendid choice, as the poem sarcastically references Edgar Allen Poe, specifically his poem about the raven, which here is transformed in to "a very big Crow" (the letter "C" capitalized in the Romantic fashion). The poem also references Nancy Reagan's anti-drug campaign and American fast food alongside classical death-symbolism. The language is anything but—even antagonistic to—the classical mode we might expect form a poem that begins on one of the seven hills of Rome (echoed by the "Seven planets" later in the poem) with the cliché image of death pausing "on my windowsill." The poem ends on Judgment Day, at which time the narrator rises from the dead to the call of the trumpet, "swaying my hips like a cobra": a bawdy image—it calls forth House music and club dancing—that emphasizes the incongruities of the poem's language and subject matter, horror movie imagery combined with an ethical dilemma surrounding death and sacrifice.

Ostashevsky uses certain techniques in his English writing that come directly from Russian poets whom he has studied closely and translated with great zeal. Most influential, perhaps, has been Alexander Vvedensky, an author of the OBERIU group of the 1920s and 30s. Vvedensky's rhymes are not only aural effects, they in fact move the poem by generating the text. For Vvedensky, the necessity of rhyming was not conformism to traditional verse forms, which were still prevalent in Russian Modernist poetry. Rather, rhyme gave Vvedensky a tool with which to poke fun at the expectations placed on poetry, and to parody traditional verse. By giving us the rhyme as the glue that held the poem together, Vvedensky was able to veer away from typical poetic subject matter, from regular syntax, and logical continuity. In Vvedensky's poems, the first of two lines is the progenitor of the second by way of the end-rhyme. So the second line, having been thus spawned, is often connected to the first by end-rhyme only. One does not follow the other logically, or in image-based continuity. With this technique of the self-generating text, Vvedensky was able to move his poetry beyond logically connected sentences toward an a-logical poetics. Vvedensky understood this project as a "critique of reason more powerful than that of Kant."

We have already seen the effect this method exerts on Ostashevsky's poetry in the form of obviously forced rhymes which trivialize or poke fun at the connections—made by metaphor or otherwise—between one line and the next, like "doing circles around Stuy Park or / studied NAUSEA by Jean-Paul Sartre[22]." Such poetry-making uncovers (or deconstructs) the process of versification and directs the reader's laughter at the poet's revealed ineptitude, pointing to his Emperor's clothes, as it were. In this way, Ostashevsky makes a gesture like that of a man pointing to his own foolishness—and thus kicks the sublime rank of the Poet down a notch or two from his pedestal. (The old-fashioned Russian intelligentsia would frown, and Brodsky would disapprove.) We find examples of this kind of rhyme-play all over Ostashevsky's work:

At the time I was assailed by insects

as well as outsects

My defenses were implausible

My scratching

would have entertained a turntablist

(from "At a Temp Agency"[23])

 

In the poem "Zoe's War":

In came a man with long mustaches

Along his pantlines were red sashes[24]

 

Further in the poem a General appears by the name of Pete.

You got a call from a general named Pete

He says his feet are enveloped in concrete

 

This move in the poem's narrative could be interpreted as another instance of the same randomizing rhyming game. Yet the "general named Pete" could well be a comic reference to Peter the Great, belittled by the diminutive version of his name and by the banal description of the statuary that is supposed to represent him as "Great," also a hero of Vvedensky's "The Stone Guest" [Kamennyj Gost'] which in turn plays off Pushkin's famous "Bronze Horseman" [Mednyj Vsadnik].

Another effect Ostashevsky has learned and borrowed from Vvedensky is that of using rhyme to justify illogical substitution. The poem "Zoe's War" begins:

She looks over her shoulder

She looks over her older

 

Later in the poem:

She looks over her boulder

She looks over her colder

 

This kind of substitution is metaphorically rich at the same time as it shirks logic and syntax. One cannot look over one's "older," or one's "colder" simply because these are comparative adjectives and not nouns. Yet, in the process, the original "shoulder" takes on new qualities, because the shoulder is also heavy as a "boulder," and it is also "older" and "colder"—as in giving somebody "the cold shoulder"— than in its first instance.

Ostashevsky has published his poetry in several American literary journals which focus on what is deemed the "experimental" and "avant-garde" side of American poetry, including Fence, Combo, The Germ, to name a few, as well as in online publications with some reputation in the poetry world. His translations of Alexander Vvedensky and other OBERIU authors have appeared in some of the same magazines, as well as in more academically geared literary journals, like New American Writing. His public face is of a dual nature: both poet and translator. The two seem to go hand-in-hand for this Russian-American poet, translation being a helpful step on the road to publication of such an author's own creative work. And the translations often bear the stylistic markings of Ostashevsky's own poetry, partly because the objects of his translation projects are poets that have influenced his writing and thinking (Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Osip Mandelstam, Alexei Parshchikov). By using his intimate knowledge of his preferred Russian poets acquired through translation, Ostashevsky is able to bring fresh ideas into the writing of English poetry. And his own poetic talents, thus exercised, help serve his translations, which share with his poems a unique and unusual-sounding English.

In a poem called "Senselessness for Vvedensky[25]," Ostashevsky addresses the poet that has inspired much of his work, a poet whose work is almost unknown to American readers. He ends the poem:

You've lost your ear, you can't distinguish

plosive from surd, Russian from English,

 

you comprehend nothing. Accept this verse then

from a Eugene trying to be a horseman.

 

The horseman referred to here is the "poor horseman," the hero of Vvedensky's famous "Elegy," in turn modeled on a series of horsemen in Russian literature[26]. The horseman, for Vvedensky and Ostashevsky, is a poet of action. The "you" of the poem is Vvedensky, though at this point in the poem, it stands for Ostashevsky who also has "no native tongue."

The inability to distinguish between languages is a metaphor that Ostashevsky often recreates in his poetry to signify his linguistic and poetic displacement, the mark of a truly bilingual poetics, and a subject of much concern for Russian-American poets. This between-ness breeds self-reflexivity, an almost unhealthy self-consciousness which fuels much of Ostashevsky's poetry about writing poetry, a self-awareness which he uses to invest his lyrical voice with comic insecurity:

In my head I heard melodies,

I deformed rhymes, misscanned syllables,

 

but I have no native language,

I can't judge, I suspect I write garbage.[27]

 

In the "Brief Biography" following that poem, Ostashevsky says of himself half-joking, "[h]e refused to take ESL in Junior High and is still trying to catch up." In the last poem of The Unraveller Seasons chapbook, "I Struck Rhetorical Poses[28]," he writes:

I would like to know I would like to know

the difference between yes & no

 

knight & night, Kurd & curd

what L means in the word WORLD

 

Most of the world in Ostashevsky's poetry is the world of words. Rather than describing a concrete world, or a concrete experience, the subject of his work is the world as it is represented in language. His poetic vision is more a vision of the page than a vision of the world.

Ostashevsky creates surprising hybrids of humorous, self-questioning lyrical poetry and a more metaphysical and meta-literary poetics derived from his studies in philosophy, as well as the influences of Vvedensky and Russian poetry (with its emphasis on sound) on one hand, and contemporary postmodern poetics on the other. The hybridization of language, the duality of self, processes that mirror the operation of translation, make for the striking oppositions that make Ostashevsky's work dynamic, funny, and yet earnest. He revels in the poem's ability to come so close to being "garbage," yet makes something interesting out of the linguistic detritus. His poetry is always attacking itself, as much as it attacks the conventions and banality of poetry.

 


 

*  *  *

 

ILYA BERNSTEIN: RE-VERSE

 

Ilya Bernstein is more “traditional” than Ostashevsky, or Nikolayev. For the most part, his poems follow traditional meter and rhyme schemes, erstwhile old-fashioned to his peers. But he is in now way classical. His poems adhere neither to the confessionalism predominant in mainstream American poetry of the last 50 years, nor to the meta-linguistic play of Language school poetry, which sprouts from a combination of Modernist poetry (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Objectivists) and post-modern philosophy and remains the example most emulated by younger poets attempting to stave off and steer clear of the contemporary mainstream. At the same time, Bernstein is by no means an "academic," nor even a "Neo-formalist" in the vein of that oddly contemporary American movement. It is simply that the arbitrary constraints of formal poetry are for Bernstein a way to “keep [him]self interested[29]” in the process and craft of writing the poem. I would also suggest that form is the Russian net that catches his English.

Bernstein’s poetic models are mainly pre-modern: 19th century English poetry, the Transcendentalists, Melville, Classical Greek and Roman poetry, and the Metaphysical poets are all invoked or traceable in his first book, titled with a slightly classical affectation, Attention and Man (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003). He pays homage to the classics often with a grain of salt, honoring them with his winking eye. One poem in the collection is modeled after CatullusLesbia poems. It builds on the humor of Catullus and his openness to the more animal sides of human behavior, while infusing the Roman rhetoric with modern speech and American jokes. Here is the first stanza:

Let us live, Lesbia, and let us laugh.

Let us crack up at countless jokes,

Asking “How many Neapolitans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

And “Knock knock, who’s there?”

Slapping our knees with our hands and shaking

Under the pressure of laughter.[30]

 

The naïve insight of some of the poems with their short rhythmic lines verges on children’s poetry. The poem with the slapstick refrain “My body is my buddy,” is pure entertainment, yet underneath the silliness of the poem’s conceit lies a development of the classical materialist philosophy of the skeptics, and of hedonism. The first two stanzas follow:

My body is my buddy

I like to treat it well

And, smiling, always listen

To what it has to tell.

It gives me all the answers

That I could ever need.

My body is my buddy

And my true friend indeed.

 

My body is my buddy.

It always pleases me

To feel it knocking dumbly

Into a rock or tree.

And there is no disaster

Disastrous enough

To make me and my buddy

Ever fall out of love.[31]

 

Bernstein’s take on evolution is set forth in the poem called “Farther Along.” It expresses the poet’s wonderment at nature’s ingenuity—in this case the co-operation of flowers and flying insects—a central scientific (and classical) concern of Bernstein’s poems. Here are the first and last stanzas of “Farther Along”:

From the beginning it had been decreed:

Plants cannot move nor go wherever they please.

Yet plants found ways of piloting the seed

When they attached themselves to beetles and bees.

[…]

No longer merely engines for the world,

They managed to rejoin the animal line

Farther along when, in new unions twirled,

Their independent fates were intertwined. [32]

 

The collection is full of such work—the poems of an urban naturalist[33]. This attitude toward the natural world is an important factor in 19th century American poetry, and extends from Emerson and Whitman to their unlikely heir, the Russian-American émigré poet Bernstein. Bernstein however steers away from his poetic predecessor’s transcendentalism and romanticism, in favor of more practical, almost scientific reasoning.

By using traditional verse forms, softening them with metrical variations that make for a more relaxed syntax (“beetles and bees” for example), employing the gentle humor of off-rhymes and the bouncing rhythms of children’s poetry, implementing a functional, street-wise vocabulary, and by investing many of the poems with anecdotal structures and common-sense, sometimes Yiddish-inflected humor, Bernstein arrives at a light verse that is devoid of pretension or sarcasm and never hits the reader over the head. One poem, for instance, consists simply of instructions on buying milk at a neighborhood bodega[34]. Another poem addresses the way a young person’s tastes for food change over time[35]. Such light verse, popular in other historical periods is rarely to be found today on the pages of either The New Yorker, or of specialized poetry journals in the United States. The light-verse tradition has remained popular in Russian poetry, and has been famously employed by such poets as Nikolai Oleinikov (with his many pseudo-serious poems about insects) and more recently by the comic poet Igor Irteniev and the "occasional" poems of Timur Kibirov.

Bernstein exhibits a wide palate for humor, which can be traced genetically back to classic American jokers (“My spiritual / Thirst can be relieved / by the Marx Brothers[36]”), to Russian children’s poetry (he has translated Daniil Kharms’ poetry for children), and as far back as the jibes of Catullus. His fable-like poems often have a moral to them, driving home a single astute observation not unlike a rabbi’s well-told joke.

Perhaps because his influences lie so heavily in the poetry of English, very few of Bernstein’s poems directly address the author’s foreign extraction, or his émigré status. Some, however, hint that the poet’s perspective is that of an outsider, or a passer-by. Bernstein begins an untitled poem:

I was walking down a wood road

And I came to a spot, by and by,

Where another road merged with mine

Unexpectedly.[37]

 

The idea of the two roads is not at all “unexpected” for the American reader. What is unexpected is Bernstein’s courageously direct engagement with the most widely anthologized American poem, Robert Frost's “The Road Not Taken.” Perhaps also the phrasing is a little surprising to the English ear: “a wood road” is not a typical English expression. (These little freedoms are simultaneously the freedoms taken by a poet and by a foreigner.)

Not only does Bernstein play with the Frostian rhyme scheme and subject matter, but also with the very essence of the original poem: the matter of choice.

[…] and I thought:

“Someone going the other way

Might someday stop here for the sake

Of deciding which path to take.”

But my direction lay where it lay.

And walking on, I felt a sense

Of wonder at that difference.

 

Apart from its pleasantly prosaic statement, which in effect deflates the pathos of Frost’s choice of the less traveled path, it can be extrapolated from the poem that Bernstein’s path “lay where it lay” because that path was immigration. And if the two roads are two possible linguistic trajectories, it is in English that he must walk on. If they designate vocational paths, as they do for Frost, then the poetic route is for Bernstein not a choice, but a direction already chosen for him. The poem juxtaposes Frost to Bernstein—“Someone going the other way”—setting up an antinomy between the two. The “difference” in Bernstein’s poem is not the difference made by a choice, as it is in Frost’s, but the difference between the one who chooses and the one who just keeps walking.

 

 

 

*  *  *

 

GENYA TUROVSKAYA: HERE AND THERE

 

Formally and stylistically, Genya Turovskaya, chooses a very different path from that of Bernstein. Her formal influences lie mostly in 20th Century American poetics of the “Language school” orientation. In contrast to many Russian-American poets, her audience (at readings, and in print) is made up of more Americans and few fellow Russian-speakers. She was recently selected by Ann Lauterbach to be featured in Conjunctions as an emerging voice of her generation of American poets.

Turovskaya's poetry is made up of visually sparse, unpunctuated lines of free verse. Its non-narrativity, gaps and breaks, and its use of cut-ups and found language, sets Turovskaya’s poetry firmly in the experimental camp, on the other side of Bernstein’s quirky traditionalism, and completely opposite of Katia Kapovich's stylish storytelling. In sharp contrast with nearly all of the poets I'm investigating here, Turovskaya’s reading style expresses blankness, a truly faint accent lurks behind a placid and barely emotional voice that smoothes over the already serene surface of her poems.

Turovskaya’s poetry addresses far away subjects, such as an imaginary expedition to Mars in “Red Seaway,” or her childhood Soviet hero, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and the space station MIR, in the poem “Cosmic Naught, Kazakhstan.” Despite the abstract forays into a meta-linguistic world, Turovskaya seems very often to address her bilingual and bicultural past. Her poetry seems to be a reconciliation of her two sides through gestures that always point at a divide.

In her poem-series Calendar[38], childhood is evoked more than once, beginning with the first poem, “January,” which opens

this is the first month also

the month I was born

 

Already in the first line there is an antithesis created by the sharp line break: “the first month also” contains a subtle paradox, for their cannot be two first months. The next line follows with abrupt autobiographical data, leading the reader into a dead-end of autobiographical references. As if to confound an autobiographical reading, the next line stands alone: “everything is still the same”.

Several childhood memories are stacked atop each other to establish the poet’s difference, or otherness.

in the interim we move across the desert

with our libraries strapped to our backs

valuables hidden in our underwear

 

These lines refer minutely to a scene that might have occurred during the family’s immigration, a customs inspection, for instance. The desert recalls the predicament of Soviet Jewry in its metaphoric re-enactment of the Exodus[39].

 Next comes a sequence in which the poet remembers emigration through a child’s (and childishly selfish) perspective:

when I was six I pulled my hair out

 

my parents unlearned how to read

 

they were no help to me

 

deciphering instructions

to board games

 

The wide spacing between these lines insists on a slow and disjointed reading. The “unlearning” she refers to describes the sudden immersion in a foreign language—a language that is no longer readable. A child of six may just be grasping the idea that there are other languages. The six year old only needs to know how to play the game, but her parents become useless. The poem ends: “this is why I don’t know how // why I have a second face / keeping vigil at the back of my head.” The “I don’t know how” refers to the board games, but is somehow larger than that, since playing the game also connotes the larger problem of integration. The second face is looking back, to the past, and also looking out for danger. It is a sign of vulnerability. And it is a personal description of bilingualism, in which looking back (at the parents and the language left behind) and looking forward (to the new language) are contiguous.

The poem “February” ends with the following exchange:

 

he asks me how I get from here

to there I answer

magic carpet

seven league boots

 

These modes of travel are taken from children’s stories. The second of them is a peculiarly Russian one. The question posed thus refers to the travel between Russia (or Russian) and America (or English).

This poem tells of a border guard who “sleeps / in his dog’s / embrace,” an airplane flight, and letters which “always came late.” Turovskaya writes: “there is a moon there,” and the question arises: where? The poem describes with uncertainty, as if describing a dream, the other side, what is seen “through winter / in the window”—and in Turovskaya’s case, I can’t help but think of this other side as Russia, or the uncertain landscape that is childhood, making the two synonymous. Note how Turovskaya's repeats "there," the tone of "there" always implying that the addressee, the "you" that asks the question, is "here" with her – unconsciously mirroring Brodsky's ever-insistent "here" in poems describing "here" for those that are still over "there."

 The poem begins in media res:

 

that would be one way to reenter

through the space

between the ribs

 

Exactly what “that” way might be remains hidden from view.

Scattered throughout Turovskaya’s work we find direct, literal references to the instruments of the poet: the throat, the mouth, teeth and tongue (which create the voice), and the hand, handwriting, “toothmarks on the stubbed pencil[40],” pen and paper, the page, the dictionary, the library, words themselves, and even the signature “orphaned of its hand[41].” The landscape of her poetry is an abstract place (in the mind, or often in a dream) where the physical world is equal to, or even loses out to the linguistic world.

 

is it snow

the salt plain

or

a page[42]

 

In the poem “Cosmic Naught, Kazakhstan,” which is composed using found material from an article about the defunct space station, MIR, Turovskaya writes, in MIR’s voice, “Mir was just a page.” This is one of several instances of bilingual punning in Turovskaya’s work, and as usual it is funny and serious. The pun ["mir" meaning "world" as well as the space-station] turns the whole world into a page, which seems to figuratively imply the more trivial sentiment that it is fleeting, like the turning of the page, but—more importantly—points to its blankness, as if the world is to be written on and the poet writes it.

The “I” in her poems is imbedded in a web of maps and the lines that divide them. “Lines,” “boundaries,” “borders,” and even “border guards,” appear frequently. In “Five Winters to Vladivostok,” a poem that might be poorly paraphrased as a love poem addressing the difficult affair between people of different worlds (Russian and American), Turovskaya writes—referring to the woman in the equation—“the body reached its border.” The poem continues describing “his body” which is obviously uncomfortable outside its borders, which are Russia’s borders:

abroad his body grows

heavy

as a ship

 

shoaled in the frozen harbor

 

because he is of there

 

of that illogical element [43]

 

Turovskaya’s poems are fascinated with geographical locations that seem to throw off their maps or avoid delineation, whether on earth or beyond. The landscape of this poetry consists of rooms filled with dense fog (in the poem “Belgium”), a dreamlike Mars with its dried up oceans, interplanetary space, snow covered steppes, and distant Russian cities, like Vladivostok, which bear only their names and seem to swim in a vague dream.

In “Cosmic Naught, Kazakhstan,” the cosmonaut Gagarin says, with somewhat comical simplicity, “Am I happy? of course I am happy / A mighty spaceship will carry me into the far-away.”

To what extent must we identify the Russian motifs and myths in Turovskaya's poetry to understand it? It seems that her poetry addresses larger themes: themes of separation, boundaries, loss and lost-ness, the nature of inquiry, memory, and writing itself. Although the poems are often motivated by the specific experience of Russian-American immigration, travel, and return, the work is not tethered by it. Certainly, in her presentation of this world, the poet does not try to teach us anything about the factual Russia or Russian experience. In fact, her references to it are often veiled or vague, simply meant to point "into the far-away."

 

 

 

 

 



[1] One such documentary project is Yurii Terapiano's work "Meetings" ("Vstrechi"), published (in Russian) in 1953 by Chekhov Publishing in New York.

[2] Compare “Elegia” (1968) in Novye Stansy k Avguste, Slovo/Word, 2000, pg. 72, with “Shorokh akacii” (1977) in Uranija, Slovo/Word, 2000, pg. 11.

[3] Philip Nikolayev, Monkey Time, Verse Press, Amherst, 2003, pg. 19.

[4] ibid., pg. 92.

[5] ibid., pg. 49.

[6] See "My International," Monkey Time, Verse Press, Amherst, 2003, pg. 32

[7] Buffalo Poetics Listserv. Message from Philip Nikolayev, Re: "These Russian Poets."

[8] Monkey Time, Verse Press, Amherst, 2003, pg. 72.

[9] The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000.

[10] Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word, New York, 2000, pg. 110.

[11] Brodsky, Joseph, Chastrechi, Slovo/Word, New York, 2000, pg 88.

[12] Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word, New York, 2000, pg. 112.

[13] Ostshevsky, Eugene, Noughtbook 2, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg 19-20.

[14] Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word, New York, 2000, pg 110.

[15] Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word, New York, 2000, pg 105.

[16] Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word, New York, 2000, pg 117.

[17] “Autobiography (hardcore remix),” Noughtbook 2, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg. 21.

[18] "I Found My Thrill," The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 2, and in Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.

[19] "Language," The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 8, and in Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.

[20] "DJ Spinoza fights the Begriffon," in Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.

[21] "I Found My Thrill," in The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 2-3.

[22] "To a Woman Who as a Young Lady was a Frequent Heroine of my Verses," Noughtbook 2, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg 19-20.

[23] In Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.

[24] In Iterature. Manuscript provided by the author.

[25] Noughtbook 1, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg. 12-13.

[26] The horseman is a popular motif for writers from Pushkin to Dostoevesky to Khlebnikov. The horseman may have a secondary, occult meaning for Vvedensky derived from Templier legends apparently discussed in a masonic-style circle in Lenignrad.

[27] "Autobiography (Hardcore Remix), Noughbook 2, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg. 21.

[28] The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 18.

[29] From an interview with Ilya Bernstein conducted by the author of this paper in May, 2003.

[30] Attention and Man, Ugly Duckling Presse, Eastern European Poets Series #1, New York, 2003, pg. 34.

[31] ibid., pp. 14-15.

[32] ibid., pg. 45.

[33] In the history of Russian poetry, this poetic attitude can be traced back to Nikolai Zabolotsky.

[34] "Remember you also need milk", Attention and Man, Ugly Duckling Presse, New York, 2003, pg. 24.

[35] "'Do you like nuts?' 'Not yet, I'm too young…'" ibid., pp.1-2.

[36] ibid., pg. 42.

[37] ibid., pg. 33

[38] Turovskaya’s Calendar was published as a book by Ugly Duckling Presse, in 2003, as #2 in the Eastern European Poets Series.

[39] This imagistic retelling of immigration differs notably from Katia Kapovich's drier, confessional approach, to be discussed in a future installment.

[40] from “Five Winters to Vladivostok,” in the section “4th Winter (the ice of Lake Ladoga)”

[41] from “Five Winters to Vladivostok,” in the section “4th Winter (the ice of Lake Ladoga)”

[42] from "Five Winters to Vladivostok," part 3.

[43] from “Five Winters to Vladivostok,” in the section “3rd Winter (meet me at Finland Station)”