Temptation — the moving force of history

The Right to Err

A Little Something About Names and Pseudonyms

How to Live Through This Night (A Dream)

We Are the Children of Russia's Dull Years

(toward the question of the current state of poetry)



These translations appeared in Five Fingers Review The Right to Err, selected work by Nina Iskrenko in English translation, published by Three Continents Press (Colorado Springs, Colorado) in 1995. ISBN 0-89410-807-7








                   the moving force of history.


            "A" is not equal to "B", but "B" looks desirously at "A".  And every "B", looking desirously at "A", already contains "A", if only in part, in its own heart.

            If you have a few free minutes, fly off into the cosmos.  Or sit down in an armchair and attentively examine the nail of your left thumb.  You will see that the world is asymmetrical.

            O field, field, who sowed you

            with experimental bones ...

            Russia is a gigantic test site for the working through of ideas that do not lead in principle to new results.  From time to time it seems that this country exists only so that other cities and villages might look on it with a terrified shudder and say to themselves and to one another:  you see how it is there.  Never do as they do.  Don't walk along these paths, don't eat from this tree, don't drink from this pool.  You will become a kid goat.  Russia is a kid goat trying to keep the world in a state of dynamic equilibrium, and infusing into this world the living, seductive spirit of asymmetry, not allowing it to fall into cheerless monotony and the fatal harmony of uniformity.

            In Russia it is almost impossible to live.  At bottom there has never been anything here, and there still isn't anything, except metaphor.  This is the altar to which everything vital is brought in sacrifice, everything except pure contemplation and spiritual fire.  Russia is a country of poets, attracting like-minded people, rare but impetuous in their strivings, from all over the earth, like a kauri shell attracts nephrite, like a dark and deep ravine swallows up a lone traveler.

            It's not that this place is cursed, the worse place on the planet; no — this land is abundant in the full sense of the word.  With a business-like and skillful approach it could bear and rear as much as the so-called developed and well-tended countries, sweet-smelling and dazzling with their well-tendedness and their fragrance.  But a business-like approach is the lot of others, not of Russia.  For all the intellectual and spiritual strengths of this land, it seems, are afflicted by the idea of an old flame, of eternal, unrestrained femininity and sacrifice:  the idea of the global salvation of humankind from earthly tedium and degeneration.

            Russia is an enormous balloon released into the sky, whose sole property is air:  air within and without.  Only the process of breathing is organic here, and all the remaining signs of vital activity are rudimentary and almost unnatural, for they distract from the chief thing:  the metaphor.

            You could argue as much as you like about whether the metaphor of life is life itself, but those to whom this question still seems strange would be better off not yielding to the temptation to resolve it:  you never know, you might become a kid goat.


Translated by John High, Patrick Henry and Katya Olmsted

Copyright © by Nina Iskrenko, 1995. All rights reserved.



The Right to Err  

(or experiments in the demetaphorization of space)


             "For us, the most important of all the arts is...,"1 art itself, which serves as a universal tool that allows for the simultaneous observation of one's train of thought and flights of fancy.  Art provides us with a unique opportunity, first of all to believe in everything, and second, third, and forty-ninth of all to disagree with everyone about it.  What's to be done; the world has to be maintained in some sort of equilibrium, however unstable that may be.  So we need someone to miss their train, to turn over the hour-glass, and to add fuel to the fire of humanity's eternal dream of equality and brotherhood.

             Why have the innumerable attempts to narrow the gap between art and life come to nothing?  Might not the reason be that we're constantly dealing with a Moving Frame, as well as the gradual, but steady, disappearance of a reality that we can approach at a sufficient distance only in order to disappear along with it?  Having quickly glanced over the space entrusted to us, we're then presented with the so-called damned and eternal questions:  To be or to be grounded?  To possess or to understand?  Will it be on the Kolyma river, or in the virgin steppe?   The glance detects the absence of many things that once really existed, though now only their names remain, their shells and symbols, or more simply,  metaphors.  On the other hand, metaphors abound in such inescapable quantities that, having nearly filled this new world up entirely, they also have somehow constructed it, and imparted to it a particular beauty and harmony.  To live in this world is like stepping every minute on dried-up puff-ball mushrooms; a flick of the finger and it's all dust, emptiness, and collapse.  To live isn't so pleasant.  Yet meditation and suffering present their own comforts.

             So what merits meditation or suffering?  There is an abundance of options.  Let's consider the first haystack one accidentally discovers in the eye of a needle: this rather shaky endeavor made by any conventional personage to go beyond the bounds of our so-called mass consciousness.  Let's consider in particular the canonical situation that we've all inherited, in which the entire internal struggle endured by an individual is reduced finally to the pumping of his erotic energy into socio-political activity (which proves socially useless).  This socio-sexual transformer is still in good working order.  Yet occasionally, for reasons not fully understood, stable, conformist thinking breaks down, and its bearer suddenly begins to act like a real human being.  As a rule, however, he quickly remembers himself, and strives to correct the error. 

             This dynamic of breakdown and self-correction explains the appearance in some of our texts of crossed-out words and phrases, rhythmical incongruities, the intrusion of "filthy prose" into "unsullied poetry", and other mistakes  that violate the harmonious serenity of exposition, or, at the very least, its structural predictability.  The right to err serves as a kind of grounding mechanism, in that it underscores the distance between object and observer, and in particular between the dictionary definition of a word and the transfigured meaning that arises in the embrace of context.  To the list of effects enabled by such mistakes  let's add multiplicity of viewpoints, all bogged down in mutual discord and contradiction, and none mandated to assume a leading role.  We could add still more.  And the more we add, the greater the degree of metaphorization of the space that we grace, and the more plenipotentiary within that space are the inconceivable alliances and contredanses of the spiritual and the scatalogic, the ideal and the maniacal, the basic and the borrowed.  At this point one could sit back in an armchair with an expression of weary disgust or blissful idiocy, and supervise the collapse and unraveling of the three fundamental principles — the Wise, the Kind, and the Eternal — along Descartes' three axes, which intersect once only at zero, the unique sacral point, and beyond that nowhere and never again.  But one might also attempt to balance the situation, to lend it symmetry, without rushing off in pursuit of the Moving Frame like absent-minded Achilles chasing the fleet-footed turtle, but rather by shouldering off the remaining fragments of reality, moving from life to art and up into the blinding void, pushing the mountain to Mohammed, or returning the heavenly manna to the Creator.  In other words, one might transform every cubic centimeter of existence into a work of art, even if all that remains at our disposal is a present that's not terribly wise, and far from kind.  In striving toward a complete and ultimate confluence of life and art, we will, finally, be able to dismantle the hated metaphor, and in this manner resolve the problem of extracting the vital from the imaginary.  Is this not the sole path to salvation?

             It only remains to consider for whom and for what this demetaphorized space, delivered from itself, might be?


 1Lenin finished this phrase with the word "cinematography." (Author's note)


Translated by John High, Patrick Henry and Katya Olmsted

Copyright © by Nina Iskrenko, 1995. All rights reserved.


A Little Something About Names and Pseudonyms


Names and pseudonyms are family friends.  They visit one another to have tea, tell anecdotes about the lives of Titles and Nicknames, and they conduct themselves with propriety and even intelligence until that point when at the shadows of the gate, apparently without rhyme or reason, they begin to smear one another on the wall, spattering each other with spit — and posing the most jesuitical questions of this sort:  "Where were you on the 19th and the 20th"; "Is a simple majority sexual"; or, "How can we re-build the half-built?"  Hearing all of this shouting my husband stirs and quite sensibly remarks: "What are they bawling about?  They ought to just fight it out and go on home."


Names and Pseudonyms hang in well-ordered rows in the market place (replacing the former hams and sausages), consisting of bouquets made up of imaginary lines, crisscrossed sections, creases and bisectors. They appear at the ceremonial baptisms for our masses' repugnant and universal cravings for so-called 'divine simplicity'; that is, for Rational egoism, a Good youth and Eternal peace.


For Names, Pseudonyms are always rather handy in the sense that a Name can easily push a Pseudonym aside and run ahead.  Pseudonym is evasive, although we are the pursuers (as the poet B. would say), while Name is voluminous and fate-bearing, like an udder filled with dried milk.  Having gathered up courage, Pseudonym inquires of some anonymous author, "What's in my udder for you?"  This aggressivity provokes the latter to infringe on values whose existence, to tell the truth, the author had not even suspected.  And then, provoked, having poked all around without even looking, the author ends up beneath the landslide — NAMEd PSEUDOexistence, the indisposition of a middle ear, the procrustean leveler of a spiritual instrument, a sclerotic affection of the respiratory tract, and the kind of insanity that sits in a glass of water pretending to suit the role of catalyst as well as master of the finished work in this long-term program of natural disasters.


Poor folk, the ugly swans, the vigilant besom, the shining shovel: there only remains for us a name a miraculous sound for the long haul stop who goes there I a person calling everything by name taking away the aroma of the living flower I Flower Aroma O'Taker born married mated excelled wet myself arrayed myself anew I part of that power in the evening at night in the day and from morning I the slap and the check I the wound and the blow of the sword I rhinoceros in a short t-shirt I want the same       Vanya shut up     a woman with a tear with a starry woman with a star and a triangle the 220/380 adapter is working here I stand before you all as if stripped naked I the Great and Powerful     Shy and impudent     Truthful and Free     Shrewish and Grand and the Thick Undefining Dictionary of the Russian Language


Translated by John High, Patrick Henry and Katya Olmsted

Copyright © by Nina Iskrenko, 1995. All rights reserved.


How to Live Through This Night (A Dream)


She dialed a number and said

I love you

Fool       he answered       Who are you calling?

Squinting     again she rang and repeated the same thing in a single breath  Following another pause and a brief sigh the words finally came out

Wrong number

Once more she pulled the switch-hook and dialed     the connection crackled and broke off    Fearing she wouldn't be heard she yelled into the receiver after the third digit but all of the various responses were in general unsatisfactory


By morning her love was famous throughout Moscow

evident in the behavior of the construction site's individual concrete slabs.  Each slab had collapsed, and the old paving on Red Square protruded from beneath an imaginary, more spiritual (as it then seemed) surface, and every stone whitened, swelled and strained, imitating the movement of female breasts.  A couple of KGB agents, who regularly hung around in holy places, and who seemed peculiarly solitary at this deserted hour, suddenly sensed that they were standing on shaky ground.  Propelled by discrete cells, the breasts took off, agitated now and rolling into still more breasts, creating nodes and loops along the way.  Something exclaimed Oh  and screeched in the air, and fountains of milk unexpectedly struck the night sky.  One agent thought to himself, "Life is sweet,"  not knowing what to take hold of, and feeling that the whole of his existence was being swallowed up.


Meanwhile she kept on calling

As a result of the resonance the lids of the canned goods in the diplomatic grocery store on Great Georgia Street flew off.  A not unknown boil beneath the nose of an Algerian dey attained the menacing dimensions of a minaret, and the garlic fell from the ears of high-ranking flu-sufferers, and cuff-links of malachite and silver lemon forks began to tremble slightly on looking-glass tables.  The escalation of sensations acquired an irreversible character.


I love you

went out to the emergency numbers 01, 02, 03, and to all the known and unknown numbers of airports and mortuaries and all-embracing crisis hotlines, republic, civil, military, offices of relatives and private persons, and she scratched the Christmas designs off the glass of the phone booth. Her toes throbbing from the cold, she kicked the metal wall with the toe of her boot.  Boom.  Boom.  Then she started in on the listings beginning with the number 8, then 10, and 12, and then the international codes, 212, 415, 422, but Europe was sleeping, and America pretended that it did not understand Russian.  America was hiding, the bitch, and nothing stirred in her gorged expanses in response to the desperate appeal of love.  Only the Dow Jones index at the New York Stock Exchange rose slightly, and that not for long.


The long shadows of streetlamps and occasional headlights of cars flying by the silky rustle of wind in the woods dragging blindly in the dark toward an imaginary danger and to hell with it with this landscape accidentally thrust beneath an arm of a moonlit Moscow night swallowing without trembling the most refined shimmering sounds and breaths of wind beyond the tired ear of man


She called, the phone pressed now to her right cheek now the left

Several strange figures ran through the underground passage, dragging a strange load behind them.  Having spotted her in the next phone booth, one of the strangers flashed an insecure smile, and for some reason asked for a smoke.  She had time to dial one more number and to pronounce at least two of the three words in the phrase before the passage filled with the caustic, rousing smell of nitric acid based paint, and visibility abruptly diminished.


Ursa Major, the Big Bear slowly crawled into her den, dragging behind her a heavy humid stretch of the night sky.  A violin began to play.


The waiter brought ice cream.  She crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair, fiddling with the lighter in her pocket.  Her table-companions witlessly exchanged feeble jokes.  She looked at their hands lying on the table, at their knees propping up their cheeks or hanging freely over the arms of their chairs, at the various dissimilar hands of these people who were near and dear to her for various reasons.  The authenticity of details unexpectedly amazed her.


Translated by John High, Patrick Henry and Katya Olmsted

Copyright © by Nina Iskrenko, 1995. All rights reserved.



  We Are the Children of Russia's Dull Years1

  (on the poetic tendencies of the 1980's and some of their sources)


            There is a term heard on public transit:  "standing room."  People who often travel at rush hour scarcely think of finding a seat, but rather strive to find themselves a spot on the subway or the bus where, having set down their bags, they can stand with some degree of comfort, leaning against something with a newspaper or a book.  About the book, by the way...

            Which book do we choose to read, and what do we expect from it:  pleasure, fascination, the constructive passage of time, the answer to a question from a textbook or from a personal experience, a shock to the senses, elevation of the spirit, a discovery, or a revelation?  The best books are, in principle, able to give us all these things at once.  But it is important to keep one thing in mind in this regard:  a genuine artist will not undertake the composition of new works for the sake of ideas already sufficiently treated in art, or ideas already established as the norm, if not of existence, then, at the least, of consciousness.  As Debussy said:  "I do not turn to the fugue, for I know it."

            The continuous assimilation of cultural material is as important in art as in any other realm of human accomplishment.  The central interest of creative efforts is still focused on man as he actually is, and not as he ought in principle to be.  Breakthroughs along this path require an active curiosity of the reader, as well as a readiness to participate; that is, a certain professionalism both as reader and observer.

            Much has changed in the last two years, if not in life itself, then at least in our attitude toward it (which, properly, constitutes the subject of artistic interpretation).  Many of those names, who will be the subject of these notes are introduced into general literary use.  A little something from their works is published, although with difficulty.  The criticism has become both animated and polarized.  More has been written in two years about the "metaphorists" than about some secretaries of the Writers' Union during the whole of their long and productive lives.  Further, it seems that the word "conceptualism" is not pronounced publicly, but even its leaders are on the point of breaking through the iron curtain which has encircled them for years and decades.  Perhaps this bitter truth will now lose its currency:  "the more we love our mother country, the less we please her."2  In a word, mightn't it be time to begin a discussion of the processes at work within that literature which in some regard can be considered avant garde, of its various pecularities and directions?  Unfortunately, however, the question of just what makes such art contemporary is far from a resolution, as is the question of how today's authors differ from those of yesterday or the day before, irrespective of the ages found on their documents.  What unites these authors one to the other, and what is their place in the general literary context?  We are the children of Russia's dull years.

            The current attempts to escape stereotypes of thought and the intransigent synonymity of evaluations are, in essence, deeply rooted in Russian literature, as they are, moreover, in the world literary tradition.  All great artists of the past acted in this manner, not fearing to go against the opinions of society and the logic of common sense.  Neither did they fear being misunderstood or even spurned by the critics and the reading public.  "Poet, do not set store by the people's love!"3  We acutely feel this same internal protest in the best works of the artists of the 1980's.


                   According to the custom, everything's kept dark here,

                        Our deadened life and square-ruled notebooks.

                        And slavery's the best defense;

                        don't remove your head, just your cap.

                                                     (Yury Arabov)


            Compassion for our age, acceptance of it as a given, and together with this a keen sense of its incompleteness;  desire to change something, and doubt, suggested by actual experience, of our own potentialities;  experience and naivety, united to the utmost one with the other (let's lay special stress, moreover, on this phrase:  to the utmost );  these features are indicative of the outlines of the conflict which, in one way or another, appears in the poetics of the 1980's.

            The artists of today, just as the naturalists, are spurred on by one task:  the quest for the unity of the world, that is, for concrete signs which confirm the general nature of things.  "The worm is a segment of time and blood." (Aleksei Parshchikov) There follows from this a shift in interest, from that which separates the hero (or event) from the crowd, the mass, and from chaos, and which makes him unique, to that which, by contrast, unites him with his surroundings.  Such a perception of reality is not connected with concrete particularities of identity or fate, but rather reflects some more general regularities in the spiritual life of man.  This does not mean, of course, that poetry or prose should acquire the character of some abstract, obscure discourse.  Literature is practical work, experience, an experiment, not in the common sense of poking around somewhere and obtaining something, but in the most direct sense of a verification, with concrete linguistic material, of vague conjecture, hypotheses, ideas; that is, theories, or if you will, philosophies.  In the same way that the general, or rather universal, law of the attraction of bodies was recognized by Newton in the unremarkable falling of an apple, so various complex and sufficiently general philosophical conclusions can be discovered in an artistic text, as uncomplicated, often amusing juxtapositions or metaphors, comprised of the simplest elements.


                 though tomato purée flow in my veins

                     i will complete the agreed-upon miracle:

                     i'll toss myself as a ten-kopeck coin into the vending machine

                     and drop out as five-kopeck coins.

                                                  (Mark Shatunovsky)


            Of course, in everyday life each of us strives in varying degrees to be different from others, trying to espy in something our personal inimitability and significance, and with this to fulfill and justify our own lives.  This is quite correct, although in this we are all alike.  In art the motif of inimitability and uniqueness of an individual human life has been worked through for centuries.  Whole galleries exist of true heroes, in the classical sense of this word:  commanders; emperors; knights; various sorts or supermen.  Now these heroes are called "typical representatives," half-debunked leaders of Pushkin's age, and next they are called the little men, humble and outraged, yet unbearably familiar, and at the same time so devoid of worth and talent that it seems a pity they exist.  Still, they exist, and an artist of the stature of Dostoevsky or Chekhov could not help noticing.  In this manner the hero has in some sense become smaller and more humble, but the intelligent reader follows not so much the object of representation, as the reflection of the changes in our relationship to reality (the metaphorical displacement) which it manifests.

            The artist is excited by man's re-interpretation of himself, as a result of which the border dividing the world into heroes and non-heroes (in the literary sense) moves little by little.  An ever-increasing number of non-heroes find themselves in the ranks of the heroes; the situation becomes ever more democratic.  As the markings on the instrument change position, man (the literary hero) loses by degrees his confidence that he is the "crown of creation."  He strives anew to become related to the fish or the plant (of which Kuprin, for example, dreamt), to the whole of nature, and further not only to animate but also inanimate objects, to rocks and metals.  What?  Lower oneself to the level of a thing?  Become related to a button?  Let's discuss this.

            Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the thing  was perceived in art exclusively as dead nature (nature morte,  or still life).  The thing played a strictly secondary role, and man's superiority over it was unlimited.  But things are man-made, the fruits of human labor, intellect, and talent.  The thing results from the materialization of consciousness, which somehow attributes soul to it.  The thing "wants to have its say," as Marina Tsvetaeva expressed it.  This new outlook united the poets of the first stormy decades of this century, that age which for the first time in human memory coincided with space (as in the four-dimensional world of Minkovsky).  Mandelstam "measured" that time in pictures of a dwelling uncluttered with accessories, whose coat of arms was a glass of hot water.  Mandelstam understood his age in terms of unremarkable details of half-starved city life, that is, of things.  He did not say, "two years gone."  He pointed in silence to his clock face, where "life began in a wash-tub with a wet, burring whisper, and continued in the kerosine's soft soot..."  A handsome, twenty-two year-old Mayakovsky literally incarnated the world and the real object, appealing to it as if to a living being, and seeing in it not only a living soul, but also living flesh:  "The universe sleeps, its enormous ear lying on its paw with claws of stars... The street sat down and bawled, 'Let's eat.'"4  With the arrival of the Oberiu group (Zabolotsky, Harms, et al), the border dividing artistic space into heroes and non-heroes finally came up against its own most extreme contingency:  a man has collided head to head with a quickly strengthening, full-blooded thing grown to obscene dimensions (the sport coat with the manager, the catchword with the drum).  Man has collided with a multi-purpose comb, having himself turned into a flat name-plate with the inscription, "The Ivanovs have left for work in their trousers and shoes." (Nikolai Zabolotsky, "Ivanovy")  And these marvelously honest and vivacious artists, these masters (with Margarets and without) had no choice but to cry absurd tears, seizing a moment in which nothing happened. (Daniil Harms) Nothing happened.  This was the sign beneath which passed their entire creative and human destiny.  And, unfortunately, not theirs alone.

            Time reduces any original idea to a stereotype.  The 1960's arrived, and people turned up who were prepared to roll up their sleeves and restore to every small and insignificant person, and event, its lofty primordial meaning and value.  "I found you on a scrap heap, but I'll make you shine," promised A. Voznesensky, and proposed for this purpose the following model:  the hero, in his opinion, is hidden, concealed in the least non-hero.  The hero exists as potential in him, like a sort of anti-world.  One need merely look at a person (or thing, it makes no difference) in the right way, that is, create the necessary illumination, in order to divine by the reflection of the event its true scale.  Looking through the oval window at a cinema ticket-seller he might detect the Mother of God, or in a word read backwards he could espy someone's secret, unrealized dream:  "There goes solitary Kramer, but he had dreamed of becoming Remark." (Andrei Voznesensky)  In this manner appears the sign-reflection, or phenomenon-hieroglyph, which opens a direct path to graphic poetry, to the elevation of the role of intonation in verse (defined by the outline of the text), and to the synthesis of musical and visual scales. 

            The time of hopes for the internal self-purification of the hero, for the rebirth of human dignity from the trash heap, ended more quickly, however, than these hopes could be fulfilled.  The contamination of man's inner, spiritual world, rejuvenated anew at the close of the 1960's, rendered practically senseless the artist's struggle with the phantom called contemporary reality.  Attempts to oppose the total ossification, or substantiation, or our consciousness found no room in the context of the bright future which was expected at any minute.  As a result the seemingly natural path to new artistic inquiries was crossed out, separated, and forcibly removed from our culture, as the present Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky was removed, he having more or less taught the poets of my generation not only the flights of romanticism, but also a less tough attitude toward our own potentialities.  His meditation on "the metamorphosis of a body into a naked thing" is not only devoid of the pathetic element, but also of despair:


                                                  ...A sense of horror

                        is not characteristic of a thing.  In this way,

                        a tiny puddle won't be discovered by it,

                        even if the little thing appears in death's presence.

                                                (Joseph Brodsky, "The Year 1972")


            Let's return, finally, to the 1980's.  The notion is quite accepted in our contemporary world view that the significance of a thing (in both the utilitarian and the wider meanings of this word) is not concentrated within it, but is rather determined by the relations into which it enters with those things surrounding it.  Any general sign of primordially opposed concepts can serve as a code, a key to the revelation of their unity (that is, as an element of symmetry).  In this manner the world is conceived not as a collection of objects, but as a system of links, any one of which could prove to define and unite all of existence.


                   I say, what ties us together drives us crazy, in a way.


                        of a fast-flying cloud, a trace of glass, the whiteness.

                        The clock-faced rim.

                        Death's grandeur and insignificance:  the stewing

                        of garbage in the scorching fog of dragon-flies,

                        and some word or other, like a copy of an agreement, the world

                        is revealed in the mirror image along the axis of matter.

                                                        (Arkady Dragomoshchenko)


            Any old thing, "some word or other" (representing some sort of 'object'), can become the primary element of the world as perceived by the artist.  These very objects, which identify and divine solely by their connections with others, become indistinguishable from one another (become 'universal' — Tatyana Shcherbina).  Their outlines "become smudged," they lose all distinctness; "... and the glass goes to pieces, turning into night." (Ivan Zhdanov) Thought becomes exclusively associative; it can turn into a dense metaphor (a "meta-metaphor" — Konstantin Kedrov):


                             The wind off the sea

                                    and the sun's gradual needles

                                    knit the white plumage of sunrise.

                                                         (Sergei Magid)


or an unbroken stream of consciousness:


                   until enthusiasm, sweetness, pain, the flow of dream,

                        until the flow, dream, hope, swimming, captivity...

                                                          (Oleg Pavlovsky)


            We have grown accustomed to living in an ever quickening rhythm, considering this normal.  Because of this, instead of the sensation of feverish haste ("There's no time to be human." — Andrei Voznesensky), and instead of the pursuit of disappearing reality, or flight from before it into the "quiet lyric," there has arisen the metaphor of speed, which imparts to an outwardly tranquil, even leisurely text an inner supercharging of tempo.  This acceleration is manifested differently by different authors.  It is sometimes distinguished simply by the absence of certain intermediate details, such as connective or purely descriptive words, as in this example:


                      Each wants to live -- criminals, meat,

                           And the day's still splendid, a sail

                           Receding over those hills where laughter is ceaseless.

                                                    (Vladimir Kucheryavkin)              


In other cases the concentration of perceptions is still higher, the fabric of metaphor is thicker, as here:


                   The sea, clutched in the beaks of birds:  that's rain.

                        The sky, held in a star:  that's night.

                        The tree's unrealized gesture:  that's a whirlwind.

                        (Ivan Zhdanov)


            The immersion of the great in the small, the smooth closure and adhesion of boundaries between the external and the internal, between the superficial and the profound, creates a particular spatial structure similar to a page from Mebius.  The "lyric hero" is not made concrete.  He contains within himself merely general human traits, and himself appears a part of this closed and limitless space:


                 A river flows inside me, like deaf-mute blood,

                     A rite's performed, within it, the baptism of the
autumnal fall of leaves goes within it.

                                                                 (Ivan Zhdanov)


Man's sharply increased speed of perception of a changing reality allows him to liken it to an elementary particle, one "smeared" in space according to the principle of uncertainty (that is, whose coordinates and velocity are impossible to determine exactly).  Similarly, in an artistic text object is dashed against object (a street falls into a throat — Sergei Magid), events fall from their proper rank and cling to another (as if a wild gardener had inoculated me with a serious flower leprosy — Elena Shvarts), or a sleeper wakes within a dream, and in the dream he falls to sleep.


                    How does sand move in the hours of the submarine night.

                        As one swarm?  As one crackling of ice?..


                        What is man worth, blanketed in the dirt of the road

                        blown through the dream's mouth?..


                        What is a man worth, of the age's current

                        the sole gushing measure?..

                                                               (Viktor Krivulin)


            The gushing measure is an apt symbol of the relativity of any viewpoint, any system of incrementation, any moral judgment or aesthetic position.  The word falls, as a stone into water, leaving dispersing ripples of thought.


                   When aflame, alcohol resembles a young Pioneer girl...

                        When aflame, alcohol recalls speech...

                        When aflame, speech recalls alcohol...

                                                         (Aleksandr Eremenko)


            The artist is neither arbiter, nor world judge.  No one endowed him with any sort of exceptional authority, that he might explain to those around him how they should and should not live.  His task is more modest:  to investigate what exists and what does not exist in the human soul, and in the interrelations between man and the world.  He strives to understand what is changing in these relations and what remains; and just what sort of world and man these are.  Art brings its educational influence to bear only on those who are receptive to it (and these, alas, are not the majority).  A person with a more or less developed imagination is hardly capable of great evil, because it is easier for him to picture himself in another's place, and to appreciate the consequences of his action.  This gives rise to the illusion that art can intervene in real life.  In fact, however, art is concerned only with that reality which is the least apparent, and specifically with human feelings and ideas of what life is (and not with life itself).  By comparing the perceived commonality in relations, which have been stimulated by various causes and conditions, the artist coordinates all these conditions, and reveals in this way a certain subtle commonality in the world, hidden by the symmetry of events.  He subsequently reveals the beauty and harmony of this world, or more accurately, that "type" of beauty and harmony which is most characteristic of his time.

            The case of the Oberiu group is significant in this regard, with their poetry "of the absurd," the deep, doleful meaning and concealed beauty of which proved safely hidden (alas) from their contemporaries.  It is not difficult to understand their reaction, for, after all, to a person brought up on the Russian classics, and even more so for someone who simply reads little, a poem such as the following must seem utter idiocy:


                    The distant future is thicker than what went before.

                        A sheat-fish is thicker than a paraffin stove.

                        A sea-screw is thicker than an onion...

                                                                     (Daniil Harms)


The poem continues in this vein, offering another dozen similar assertions of the theme of what is thicker, deeper, or sharper.  And not a single instruction on how to understand all this.  One can only understand this composition as part of a series of similar compositions.  In this context a something curious becomes apparent:  the text, which seems to us uncommonly nonsensical, is constructed from completely logical, sensible statements, and certain completely probably or obvious truths (after all, a sheat-fish really is thicker than a paraffin stove, and a chest really is deeper than a hat...).  Consequently, there is no distortion of reality here at all; rather, in sum, utter nonsense.  The conclusion suggests itself that it is impossible to get a grasp on reality by means of the logic of common sense alone; this provides nothing, as they say, either to the mind or the heart.  Hence the priority of intuitive cognition is confirmed in an implicit form, along with the advantage of the "strange," paradoxical vision, before the striving toward cheerless obviousness.  The Oberiu group, in essence, struggled with unreal realism, attempting to comprehend this world "as a poor, childish person." (Aleksandr Vvedensky)  By restoring several omitted stages in artistic thinking characteristic of Russian culture, it would be possible to spare poets of succeeding generations the necessity of inventing the bicycle, or making an automobile directly from a horse.


                                  Two tiny birds, as one owl

                                          flew over the wide sea

                                          and talked about themselves,

                                          why, just like a chance meeting of turkeys.

                                                               (Aleksandr Vvedensky)


            People often ask:  well, what's new with the artists of the 1980's, in comparison with Vvedensky or Harms?  The briefest way to formulate this would be:  the Oberiu group communicated to us that human life is absurd, and that this is amazing (ridiculous, humorous, tragic, monstrous...).  Contemporary post-absurdists assert rather the reverse:  human life is absurd, and this is normal.  If there is anything really amazing today, it is that amid all the nonsense which surrounds us, there still exist some human feelings, desires, impulses...



                          I gather myself in the grass before the noose

                                 but I cannot hang my sonnet.

                                 It tumbles, and I catch it...

                                                     (Aleksandr Eremenko)


It sounds as though the world tumbles, and I catch it.  The eternal values (love, human warmth, mutual understanding) fall, and I like a fool hold out my arms.  Perhaps I'll catch them.  Perhaps they won't smash to pieces.

            Returning to the question of "how this is done," let's bring in another pronouncement for purposes of comparison:  "a depth glows in autumn's water, and gravity flows, washing over these objects..." (Ivan Zhdanov) What do the "sonnet," above, and this "depth" share?  The artist's handling of a process (or property, or symbol) as a real object.  Some primordially non-material substances become tangible, manual, domestic.  The world approaches man, and comes into contact with him in a singular way, up to now unknown.  "Herds of statuettes drag themselves through these parks of culture, parting the bushes as they go." (Aleksandr Eremenko)  The gradual effacing of the boundaries between static and dynamic, natural and man-made, everyday and abstract, poetry and prose, culture and "nature," etc...; these are a manifestation of the general tendancy in twentieth century art, the tendency toward the rapprochement of invention and reality, and toward the substantiation of the spirit (as opposed to the spiritualization of the thing).  Today, without the slightest embarrassment or curtsey in the direction of daily routine, the poet can remark that, "in bunches, dried garlic expresses itself in Hellenic speech," (Viktor Krivulin) or he can gracefully combine a musical instrument, a woman, and a bird:


                             He undressed and dressed a flute,

                                    changing the trained scales.

                                    It became cold.  The flute flew off.

                                                                (Aleksei Parshchikov)


            Each new theory of poetry pre-supposes a change in the shape of conventions of our approach to reality, and a displacement of proportions in the debate between "truth" and "invention," "norm" and "anomaly."  This entails a reduction in the degree of strangeness in the world, which gradually leads man to a deeper and deeper understanding of it.  A picture did not seem real to Marc Chagall if it contained no element of the irreal.  Max Plank seemed irreal to himself when he first pronounced the word "quantum."  Today the relations between the artist and artistic space have become much more intimate (as Mallarmé, by the way, predicted when he wrote, "The world exists in order to go into a book.")  Bearing this in mind, that which at first glance seems merely shocking, becomes more comprehensible, as in the following quotation, the ending of a poem about Peter Brueghel:


                             He has slept through four centuries

                                    and will wake up quite sober.

                                    And he'll go down.  Laughing.

                                    On the road.  On the rails.

                                    Past a kitchen-garden.

                                    Past a bath-house/restaurant.

                                    Ah, past a hydrogen bomb.

                                    Ah, past the girls in the port.

                                                (Aleksandr Eremenko)


Through the example of Brueghel, incomprehensible and unrecognized in his day, Eremenko reveals to us a certain poet-spirit, or superpoet, as a plenipotentiary representative of the whole race, the entire rank of poets.  This conception of the artist as a clot of spiritual energy united for all time, energy which does not disappear {like swimming radiation}, but merely crosses from one concrete membrane to another, is extremely characteristic of contemporary poetics.  In particular, this conception explains an abundance of unattributed quotations and reminiscences in the poetry of the artists of the 1980's ("Egor Isaev noticed us, and gave us his blessing to descend into the grave." — Yury Arabov).

            Here I'm being prompted to close, although the discussion of the 1980's has hardly begun.  The point in all this is that dozens of other authors exist in our literature who have almost no outlet to the reading public.  These writers exist, yet they don't.  How is it that in our sober reality there are no...


                              long-haired fairies, on their knees

                                     atop the cubes of hard buildings.

                                                                  (Viktor Krivulin)


They don't exist, yet they do.  They are no less real than their questions:


                                Who spat on the street here?

                                        Hardly a fairy, a good little girl.

                                                                 (Yury Arabov)


In order to conceive of the true scale of contemporary strivings, extending from simple candor to profound revelation, and from an elementary capacity for metaphorical thought to the creation of a system for perception of the world, publications are needed, and books, and publishing materials.  Otherwise we will never understand that the present craving for new artistic structures is not the fancy of fanatic upstarts incapable of working in a simple style, striving for originality at any price.  It is already an event, which reflects definite changes in human consciousness.  We must allow it to appear as widely as possible in order that, having better acquainted ourselves with it, we might sense the many dimensions of these authors through the commonality of their queries.  In order, finally, to have the opportunity of not merely finding standing room, but also of understanding where we're headed after all.


 1) A play on a line from Aleksander Blok's untitled poem "Those who were born in years of stagnation..." The line in question is:  "We, children of Russia's fearful years..."

2) Dmitry Prigov, making a play on the following lines from Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (4/VII/1-2):  "The less we love a woman / the easier 'tis to be liked by her..." (Nabokov's translation).

3) Aleksandr Pushkin, "To the Poet".

4) Vladimir Mayakovsky, "The Cloud in Trousers" (Part 4, lines 722-4; Part 1, lines 252-3).                     


Translated by John High with Patrick Henry and Katya Olmsted

Copyright © 1995 by Nina Iskrenko. All rights reserved



(toward the question of the current state of poetry)


            On the first approach to the contemporary literary process, two tendencies can be singled out, dividing poets into the “sleepers” and the “vigilant” (or the “zaumniki” and the “scoffers”).  The main difference between them is contained in their relation to time.

            The sleepers (the zaumniki) don’t notice its passing.  Events for them do not change; to a considerable extent they are extracontextual, oriented towards eternal values and their own sensations.  Proceeding from Khlebnikov and Mandelstam, they live in stopped time inserted into space, and they work within this united space, with its complex topology, remaining face to face with the world and its archetypes.  Like the seven Ephesian boys, they are locked in eternity, hopefully concealed in the cave of the interior “I” from the vicissitudes, vanity and persecution of the outside world.  (The apogee of this tendency is Ivan Zhdanov.)

            As opposed to the zaumniki, the scoffers never sleep.  They are eternally vigilant sentries guarding the needle-eyes of the reasonable-kind-eternal against the camels of vulgarity, hypocrisy and Soviet moronity that throng through them.  Succeeding the Oberiuty and the absurdist tradition as a whole, the scoffers vividly react to the age, their environment, and to ideology.  Instead of appealing to “old” archetypes, they parody those propagated as “new," revealing their ostensibility and spuriousness.  In this way, the affirmation of true values takes place in an apophatic form, and through the negation of false values.  (The apogee is Igor Irtenev.)

            In the “sleepers'” texts there is, as a rule, only one person:  the pan-human “I”.  Therefore this “I” coincides with the author, and the text in this sense is open, undefended.  The texts of the “vigilant” are filled with crowds of people and characters.  The author disappears behind a mask, into the crowd, or God knows where.  The text is defended.  “Defended” texts generally gain from public reading, open texts from being read in a book.

            In practice, however, a given linear outline proves to be very approximate; that is, the property of belonging purely to one or another form of life is realized in art less often than the composite forms of “sleep” and “vigilance."  One can imagine a fuller picture of the interaction of the artist and time using the “fan principle," — two large-scale "fans" from which a full circle mandala is formed — and by taking into account the feminine origin in culture. But this is already the theme of a separate, far more detailed discussion.

            And one more thing about “contemporary literature."  It always seems that it doesn’t exist.  But then it turns out that except for it nothing existed.


Translated by John High, Patrick Henry and Katya Olmsted

Copyright © by Nina Iskrenko, 1995. All rights reserved.