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from the April 2017 issue

A Parallel Convergence: Three Contemporary Russian Poets

The following pages are not intended to be representative of contemporary Russian poetry per se, but rather to introduce some of the most extraordinary poets working outside of the main cannon. If anything, the three poets collected here are “outliers,” who yet may be read as having points of commonality with developments in post-war American poetry. While each is singular and sui generis, collectively they are representative of a relatively new trend in Russian poetry itself, a kind of “parallel convergence” with the West. As such, they are likely to be of interest to American readers. It was also our intent that these three, Mikhail Eremin (b.1936), Shamshad Abdullaev (b. 1957), and Amarsana Ulzyuev (b. 1963)—respectively, an acknowledged “master,” a respected “older poet,” and a “mid-career poet”—represent at least some generational and geographic and ethnic range. While Eremin would and has taken issue with being characterized as a “free verse” poet, the work of all three has very consciously aimed to break the mold of the historical “stranglehold of rhyme” on Russian poetry, while still seeking to advance its best traditions.

Mikhail Eremin was a participant in one of the first postwar groupings of “unofficial” poetry, the so-called St. Petersburg philological school of the late 1950s. In the six decades since, he has worked methodically to develop the possibilities inherent within the same constraints he had then established, his entire oeuvre consisting of octaves, or eight-line poems. Joseph Brodsky had written the following of his work: “Eremin is an unreconstructed minimalist. Poetry in essence consists precisely in the concentration of language: a small quantity of lines surrounded by a mass of empty space. Eremin elevates this concentration to a principle: as though it is not simply language but poetry itself that crystallizes into verse . . . . Most remarkable is that all of it has been written for oneself, out of one’s own conception of the mother tongue.”

Ironically, it is by working in one of the two geographic centers of Russian poetry (until quite recently, St. Petersburg and Moscow were its two dominant poles), but almost entirely outside of the established conventions and movements of the past decades, that Eremin has come to hit upon the convergent development we are speaking of here by seeking our common sources in classical antiquity. His oeuvre explores progressively greater possibilities of syntactic and lexical complexity, each poem marked by cross-referential and pluripotent modifying digression, often contained parenthetically within anchoring observations or commentary.

In its encyclopedic complexity, Eremin's verse incorporates an ever-expanding linguistic register, ranging from scientific jargon to archaic or specialized diction (such as “thieves' cant”), with an occasional auspicious admixture of neologism. However, always primary among Eremin’s recurrent thematic touchstones—the Bible, classic mythology, art, architecture, Russian folklore—has been the natural world. For it is here that the spirit inheres. If, as many Russian critics have noted, Eremin may be viewed to have, in his own way, continued the lineage of Osip Mandelstam, that other Russian practitioner of the eight-line verse, he may be thought of primarily as a metaphysical poet, and each poem an object for meditation that simultaneously functions as part of an incredibly coherent whole. A fitting point of reference in American poetry would be the lasting influence of Transcendentalism.

Similarly, Shamshad Abdullaev had, independently, found the same timeless convergence by working largely in isolation at the empire's periphery. An ethnic Uzbek who writes postmodernist free verse in beautiful, classical Russian, on themes often informed by Italian Neorealist cinema yet played out in an arid Central Asian provincial landscape, Shamshad Abdullaev may seem an aberration, a composite persona that implies either an artificial or a conflicted hybrid identity. That this couldn’t be further from the truth may be understood when one realizes how organically whole and congruent with his “sense of place” Abdullaev is, by learning briefly about his hometown, Fergana, which he never formally left.

Located in the fertile valley on the western slopes of the Tian Shan mountain range, Fergana had been a major outpost on Persian King Darius's Royal Road (built in the fourth century B.C.) that for many centuries afterward had served as the Silk Road connecting East and West, the Orient to the Mediterranean, with all the major civilizations of the last two millennia vying for its control, first establishing a major presence and then coming into conflict, or conversation, and thus cross-pollinating. This was the outer outpost of Alexander the Great’s Hellenic world, a place the Greeks called Alexandria Eschate (or “The Farthest”). The Fergana valley was also where the remnants of the Golden Horde thrived alongside the nomadic Turkic tribes, where the descendants of Gengis Khan spun off two of their own great Empires (the Timurides and the Mughal), where Taoist monks and Byzantine clerics crossed paths with Sufi mystics, where Middle Eastern and North African envoys traded with Venetian and Florentine merchants, and the Chinese imperial troops of the Han dynasty (360 B.C.) had an improbable clash with a Roman legion, inadvertently introducing them to the crossbow that subsequently became a staple of the Roman arsenal. This was the place where new technologies, hybrid art forms, and syncretic religions proliferated as a result of direct encounters and cultural exchange between Eastern and the Western minds.

Shamshad Abdullaev notes that Fergana afforded him “a vantage point from which the world was clearly visible in all directions.” Therein lies the key to understanding his writing. He is first and foremost an observer; he has no interest in explaining the world to his reader; his goal is to render it palpable, so that the reader can experience it firsthand. His eye is the eye of a dispassionate camera, aimed at framing a scene while allowing it to remain undisturbed. He is both an exquisite voyeur and a conscientious witness. As a connoisseur of Italian Neorealist cinema (he acknowledges such directors as Campagna, Gatto, Montale, Pasolini, and Bertolucci as artistic influences), Abdullaev has a remarkable sense of mise-en-scène—he sets up each image with such poignant precision that it becomes intensely lyrical without being remotely sentimental. In this respect, he has a distinct Western existential bend. However, his Eastern eye is contemplative. There is an extended concentration in his observations, an immersive, in-the-moment sensibility that appears to slow down time (both outside and inside a poem) and let the moment fulfill itself. Here, his patience is reminiscent of the disciplined reverie of a Zen monk contemplating a mandala.

Born in 1957, when Fergana was a dusty, remote province of the latest empire to possess it—i.e., the USSR—Abdullayev was raised under the inevitable Russian cultural dominance. Russian was the language of his early reading and formal education, and he has an incredible sense of the Russian language and its possibilities, both as a philologist and a poet. Yet, his texts (poetry, prose, and essays) are as divergent from the Russian classical cannon as can be. If anything, his dense, supercharged lines, packed with complex, sealed allusions and obscure references, owe more to the French rather than the Russian Symbolists, and especially to the Italian Hermeticists whom he specifically mentions as another major aesthetic and stylistic influence. In his own words: “Italy is my INNER homeland.”

In this post-Imperial, postcolonial, post-Soviet day and age, our present period of fragmentation, ethnic tensions, and reaction against globalization, identifying as this or that often forces one into a position of political grandstanding. However, when pressed on whether he is a “Russian poet” or “ Uzbek, culturally,” or some other such thing, Shamshad Abdullaev replies without hesitation that he is “the last citadel, the last remaining intact place—a private person.” And it is this insular “place” that he writes from. Except that Shamshad's “citadel” is at the authentic center of a vast, expansive, culturally saturated world, where heterogeneous layers have fused so solidly over time as to become inextricable.

In the 1980s, during the waning years of the USSR,the personal poetic journey of our last poet, Amarsana Ulzytuev, first took him from his birthplace, the Buryatian capital of Ulan-Ude (southeast of Lake Baykal, in the ethnically Mongolian province of Russia), to the Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, the prestigious and sole training ground for Russian poets. However, it was, it would seem, only after two decades of work that he was able to find a way forward, through a spiritual return of sorts in his verse to the traditions of his own Mongolian and Buddhist cultural heritage and oral-folk tradition. While often seeking an intersection between this poetics and both Russian contemporary realia and Western popular culture, the work's authenticity is strongly grounded in its relationship to the former:

            I imagine how James Cameron, descending into Lake Baikal,
            Transforms from a human being into the avatar of a Baikal seal,
            And investigates the bottom of our daydreams, various endemics and rifts
            Of the golden dream, if we ourselves fail to discover our sacred mystery . . . .

He has championed a compositional method ostensibly alien to Russian verse but intended to enrich it, which he came to identify as Anaphora, in his manifesto of the same name. He writes: “It is entirely possible that, in absorbing the architectonics of European prosody, and transposing it onto Russian soil, Russian poetry has incidentally thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I am speaking here of that great body of poetry which exists in parallel to ‘literature’— the magnificent traditions of spells and incantations, hexes and enchantments, folk songs, hymns and laments, convocations and invocations. Traditions that, to a significant extent, created the language and, almost certainly, poetry itself. Today, there is sense in taking such a ‘glance backward.’

“I also speak here of the too-regular syllabotonic rhythms that have left a sour taste in our mouths and . . . about the true meaning of rhyme . . . I suggest it is better we not continue relying on rhyme as a requisite accessory in composing poetry. To replace it, as one acoustic embellishment of verse, I nominate anaphora. . . . That may serve as a structuring element of the compositional stream. . . . That my claims not be unfounded, I offer up to the reader’s judgment the results of my own experience: an attempt to reconstruct the ancient verse in a contemporary voicing and setting, what happens when European rhyme is replaced with anaphora and ‘frontal rhyme’ [alliteration], and European metrics— with a rhythm natural to the Russian ear. That is, with those poetic means that lay at the foundation of Russian poetry and, by the way, of the poetics of the Mongol people as well.”

While adherence to or absence thereof of end-rhyme and regular meter alone are no sure sign of either the modernist or the conservative impulses, it bears noting that only in recent years has the groundwork been laid in Russia for a full acceptance of the legitimacy of free verse and its use adopted widely by younger practicing poets. If the popularity of Amarsana's live performances is any indication (he has become a fixture on the Russian poetry festival circuit), this may well be counted as yet another convergent trend with American poetry: that poetry has a function and a second life on the stage, apart from its life on the page.

In our opening lines, we used the phrase "parallel convergence," and so it is fitting to close this introduction by defining more precisely what we meant by it. It is certainly not that, as with parallel or convergent evolution, Russian and American poetry have evolved under similar environmental conditions, nor is it intended to contradict Kipling's notion that “the twain shall never meet.” Rather, it is a largely indisputable observation that the two have evolved not entirely without mutual influence, and it is this dynamic that in this age of globalization is progressively coming to the fore. If we may take Osip Mandelstam's definition of the Acmeist movement as "a yearning for world culture" as our motto, it seems to us that the worlds of Russian and American poetry have more intersections than ever before, and it is this dynamic that is exerting the greatest influence on Russian poetry today. The three poets presented here, each of them in a very distinct way, represent a number of the factors in this ongoing development.


© 2017 Alex Cigale and Dana Golin. All rights reserved.

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