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Poetic speech creates moments of recognition. We see something we know in the poem. We get it. And it is this feeling, rather than the specific meaning of a phrase or a metaphor, that we respond to as readers: a distinction that is never more apparent than in the work of the late Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, who builds his poems out of a series of such moments of recognition.
Eugene Ostashevsky, the editor of Dragomoshchenko’s new selected poems Endarkenment, describes what it is like to read a Dragomoshchenko poem: “Imagine someone you know in the street: now take your recognition at the precise moment it occurs, and empty it of the street and the person, to contemplate recognition itself.” Contemplating a particular image, such as “coolness in the bonfires of a house,” won’t get us anywhere with Dragomoshchenko. We are better off doing as his predecessor Osip Mandelstam recommends: “One has to run across the whole width of the river, jammed with mobile Chinese junks sailing in various directions. This is how the meaning of poetic speech is created. Its route cannot be reconstructed by interrogating the boatmen: they will not tell how and why we were leaping from junk to junk.”
Dragomoshchenko’s speaker remains always a turn ahead. In the following untitled poem, he leaps between seemingly unrelated images and draws conclusions (“perhaps that’s good”) his readers can’t anticipate but must nevertheless make along with him as he asks us—quickly now—to follow:
Grammar doesn’t abide muteness, shards of water,
the incision of a fish, the whooping of birds from beyond the hill at sunrise?
Underwater scales, of course, and fins, shade, bare feet.
And some others—like cells in a long arithmetic book.
Soon faces will blacken from the sun. It is truly so.
And perhaps that’s good—it’s easier in summer, in summer
there is no need to look over one’s shoulder and even the shadowsof non-beingsearch out coolness in the bonfires of a house, melting into the wallson the storiestorn apart by the roots of the nut tree, the nasturtium, the matthiola.
Even there, where we’ve already been, where we needn’t return.
The long-awaited Endarkenment collects poems written over a span of thirty years, most of which haven’t been translated into English previously. The earliest poems in the volume are selected from The Corresponding Sky (1990), poems that Dragomoshchenko wrote in correspondence with Lyn Hejinian, and which Hejinian translated along with Elena Balashova for Description (1990) and updated for this volume. Endarkenment also includes translations from two later books, Under Suspicion (1994) and On the Shores of the Expelled River (2005). Alongside these poems is an extensive afterword from Ostashevsky describing the syntactic and semantic difficulties of Dragomoshchenko’s Russian and the connections between Dragomoshchenko and Mandelstam. Hejinian’s foreword opens the collection.
Hejinian and Dragomoshchenko’s friendship began in 1983 when they met in Leningrad. Their meeting led to the making of the documentary Letters Not About Love (1997), for which director Jacki Ochs asked the two poets to begin a five-year correspondence based on a series of ordinary words, such as “home,” “violence,” and “poverty.” The film establishes a dialogue through their responses to certain ideas: a connotative correspondence rather than a denotative one.
Does description clarify or obscure? Can we see past the image?
Through his association with Hejinian, Dragomoshchenko developed relationships with poets in the United States including Barrett Watten, Ron Silliman, and Charles Bernstein. It is tempting to see Dragomoshchenko as a Russian L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, but he doesn’t necessarily share the concerns of his American counterparts. For instance, Dragomoshchenko’s speaker is always central, even when he has just departed.
These are difficult poems—as Ostashevsky makes clear, it is not Dragomoshchenko’s overwhelming popularity in Russia that brings him to the attention of an international audience—but they are oddly difficult because we feel we understand them. Voice is not fragmented here and neither is meaning. Rather, the poems are full of stops. Ideas, sentences, and actions are left off before they can be completed. This is an enduring element of Dragomoshchenko’s style; in Letters Not About Love, many of his letters end apologizing that there wasn’t time to finish them. The poems in Endarkenment use leaving off as a means of calling something into view, so that stopping becomes almost synonymous with recognition. “Let us halt,” he writes. And when we do: “Leaves, dry air, the absence of insects.” We see these things only because we have been forced to stop and look for them.
One is struck by the variety of what there is to see in Dragomoshchenko’s poems. They overflow, so that a single poem may contain: “clay,” “concrete,” “graphite,” “pines,” “nightingales,” “veins,” “linens,” “tadpoles,” “rafters,” “brambles,” “hedges,” “laws,” “empires.” The objects in these poems appear and disappear, and often it seems that everything is plural. Reading Dragomoshchenko’s sentences, we follow “the conifer needles” as they scatter and return as “diopters, addresses, telephones.” At times it is like standing on the shore and watching waves out of an Escher drawing roll and transform in the surf.
At the same time, certain images tend to recur. The eye, dragonflies, the iris, or dust, which appears so frequently in Endarkenment—“the thread endless, like dust”; “dust devours the heroes, dust devours itself”; “Nor to write an ode on the rising of dust”—that it feels almost as if the poems, in their own turnings, produce the dust that is inside them. The early sequence “Nasturtium as Reality” deliberately and explicitly dwells in such repetition, as the poet makes a series of attempts to describe a nasturtium:
in radiating veins, like holes inscribed
in living epidermis
that flow toward a precipice,
not calming the disordered fluctuations,
lie close,dividing between me and themselves
the space that preserves reason.
Arkadii Trofimovich Dragomoshchenko
describes a nasturtium, removed from description.
It is here, in Dragomoshchenko’s performance of self-awareness, that these poems raise an essential question: Does description clarify or obscure? Is the image something we see or something we can’t see past? The poet’s detailed and particular drawing of the nasturtium brings the flower into view, so much so that the reader loses track of where he was in the poem, of what was being said, of what other images had just been proffered. Or, on the face of it, “Arkadii Trofimovich Dragomoshchenko /describes a nasturtium,” tells us exactly this is what I am saying, but as soon as it is said, “removed from description” leaves us with only the feeling of understanding, not the thing we understood. Later in the poem he writes, “I intend to say that the said and the emptiness /sucking in a selection of the elements of utterance, /discover, when juxtaposed, the source of desire: / what is said is not to be said again.” Once we are made aware of what is happening (through speech pouring into the ether), it no longer is.
This is the problem of the progress of time, where each moment replaces the last: it is a phenomenon that can be felt again and again in Dragomoshchenko’s work. At one point in “Nasturtium as Reality,” he describes thought as being “without time to be born, dressed briefly in speech.” “Without time” offers a dual means of describing these poems. Moment to moment, they are without time, in the sense that the poem runs without time to spare. Especially in the later poems, they are without time in the sense of being outside of time’s limits, where “fifty-nine years fit / into several lines,” and everything feels like it is happening at once, as in this passage from “For Many Reasons”:
Yellow lamps smoldered right through, and birds smilingly
dropped into windows. As for sound, it lagged behind,
and then you couldn’t hear it at all. Clap.
Still, even that’s not the point, not in repeating
what we know already; it might be in the sudden surmise
that fifty-nine years fit
into several lines, over whose floor flickersthe flowing yarn.(Liquid of clarity, charity; come you will
to the end of number; cometo immortality, wax under the eyelid, conjunctivitis,cypresses over vales, dates of valediction)—
Though translations of Dragomoshchenko’s prose have recently been published in the United States—the novel Chinese Sun (2005) and the essay collection Dust (2008)—new poems have not appeared since 1994’s Xenia. The selections from Under Suspicion and On the Shores of the Expelled River deliver the defamiliarized lyric his readers expect, but the poems also feel bolder, even dangerous, and they make Dragomoshchenko seem new again. Despite the fact that six translators worked on these poems, and despite the span of time over which this work was written, the Dragomoshchenko Endarkenment presents is strangely consistent throughout. The poems change, their lines feel fuller, and their subjects become less nameable, but the late work extends what the earliest began. Dragomoshchenko continually finds ways to do what he has done before, only more so. For instance, in “The Weakening of an Indication,” he returns repeatedly to the same image, but with much more rapidity than he turned to the nasturtium. Here we don’t need to be told to stop. The speech itself is arresting:
To see this stone and not experience indecision,
to see these stones and not to look away,to see these stones and comprehend the stoneness of stone,
to see these stone stones at dawn and at sunset,but not to think of walls, no, not to think of dust,or else, deathlessness
In the title essay from Dust, Dragomoshchenko claims, “We talk only because of a persistent desire to understand what is it that we are saying.” There is always a sense that he is discovering something new in his poems, and yet maintaining a relationship, an orientation with the same subjects. If the word didn’t carry its particular connotations from Stephen Burt’s 1998 essay, I’d call these poems “elliptical” for the way they orbit certain ideas. Description, sight, disappearance, and speech are the subjects of Dragomoshchenko’s poems, but these words also describe their making. As he writes in “Reflections in a Golden Eye”:
In the end, death transforms the conditions of thingsin the necessary direction.The elongation of the line does not foresee
the enlargement of breathing. Descriptionattempts to lock description in itself.
Dragomoshchenko died on September 12, 2012. Though Endarkenment was already in the works, it is hard not to see his death in the title (alongside the turn on enlightenment, and the sense that these are dark times) or in lines such as these: “Everything was in decline. / Even the talk about everything being in decline. / Space was doubling, fences were rotting, / tin cans hummed in the wind.” As Hejinian and Ostashevsky both note, with Dragomoshchenko’s death, death emerges as his subject. Even in the more playful of his meditations, where occur thoughts that can only be held in the mind temporarily, there seems, now, to be more at stake.
Reading the relatively brief selection of poems in Endarkenment one can’t help but want more. Such a desire seems appropriate for this poet, who is elusive and present at the same time, always able to offer possibility.
Photograph: Ian Sanderson.