poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

June 9, 2013

It’s Pretty Fucking Good, Actually.

Behold! In which write a post appealling to my lefty activist, bibliophile and Russophile readers all at once! I don’t even know who the rest of you are or what you want from me.

A while back, before May came trampling through my life like Renfield on meth, Keith Gessen of n+1 (“Uh. Is this Masha’s brother?” I asked friends) contacted me to promote a book he had recently published. Or edited. Or translated. Or something. He wanted to send me a copy of Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good. I said OK. For future reference, you don’t need to ask. Just put your brilliant books in the mail addressed to me, ok people? (I’m talking to you Dalkey Archive.) Shit folks do without even asking first, and you want to politely inquire if I would mind a free copy of your Russian activist’s poetry book? What the hell is wrong with people…?

I read it, devoured it, as if it were the sweat off a lover’s neck in the throes of passion. I did not actually eat it. Although I am hungry… (Please contribute to my fundraising page! Before I am forced to eat my own books!) But at some point I realized I’d underlined, starred or scribbled, “Yes!!!” on each of the last five pages. So, mutilated forever if not devoured.

I suppose you’ll want me to tell you something about it, even though I know you can use Google. Author: Russian, male, about my age, about my political sensibilities, intelligent, poet, activist, I think he’s in a rock band. I’d date him. Book: Poems, manifestos, essays of the current state of the Russian intelligentsia and reflections upon ethical and aesthetic responsibility in this crazy world. I’d recommend it.

As a race, but specifically as Americans, and especially as Gen-Xers who went to poetry readings in coffee shops in our Midwestern college towns, we have collectively been exposed to criminal amounts of BAD POETRY. We need support groups. Fortunately, the Russian literary tradition has higher standards for the art form than Cafe Ennui. Comparing the two is like comparing the Mariinsky’s Swan Lake with your niece’s dance recital. The latter is supporting the arts, the former having your life changed by art. Kirill’s poems aren’t the kind you’ll read out of obligation to convince yourselves you are still capable of doing that kind of thing. You won’t think, “Oh my god, TMI. I am not your therapist,” or, “You like the mountains, we get it.” Nothing about these poems will make you think they were written in a workshop in upstate anywhere. I promise. Example:

“BIG RUBBER COCK”

I saw it every day on the way to school.
I know that’s not the best way
to start a poem,
but there’s nothing I can do about my memories,
I can’t take the rubber cock out of my mind and replace it
with, say, a New Year’s tree.
I saw big rubber cocks every day on the way to school—
you could do anything back then—
it was 1991—
and sometimes best friends
buddy-buddy, as the Americans say,
even gave them to each other
as presents
simultaneously
by coincidence,
and it wasn’t even a joke
it was natural
a downpayment on eternity
a symbol of one’s success and prowess
eternal prowess,
the authorities
couldn’t get a grip
on the situation,
they didn’t know what to do
about the rubber cocks,
the fairly large rubber cocks,
they hadn’t learned to concentrate them in one place,
these cocks were everywhere,
they weren’t even manufactured here,
they were imported from America,
which didn’t know their true value,
no one knew their value,
in fact no one knew the value of anything,
we all lived like poets—and a poetic fate smelling of resin
(the Russian resina means rubber, that is, synthetic resin,
but there is also in English rOsin, hard resin, kanifol in Russian,
but in English like a rose
it’s a coincidence—rubber rose amber resin rosin)
so this smelly sticky mixture
connected us through the centuries
everything spoken seen and lived
and you can hear the buzz of every murdered nerve ending
every glass of wine from eight years ago
could end up making you vomit
for a very long time—
the imagination is active,
as if a play is on the stage,
and the wine is poured,
your mind is working,
your cigarettes are burning,
your mind is relaxing,
your eyes are narrowing,
the tension is rising
the authorities are rats
but how many more times
will we say about our homeland
our innocent and gentle
if sometimes cruel but in the end beloved homeland:

THIS FUCKING COUNTRY.

I’m not a fan of shock value poems, which mostly seem admissions of having run out of interesting ideas or being only 14 years old. But this works because it’s the author and his whole country, not the reader, on the receiving end. Most of you kids are smart enough to get the 1991 double-entendre here, no? If not, go read Naomi Klein. After you finish this.

Another poem I quite liked for no important reason is about why children don’t fear death:

they think
they’re going to die
as absolutely different people;
I think they think
that by the time they’re old enough
to die
everything about them will have changed,
and so it’s as it this won’t be
them dying

And this, which sounds whiny until the last line that punches a small breath out of you:

here’s what I wanted to say:
sometimes the lack of human interaction can make a person
physically ill
but sometimes human interaction is even worse than that
and since all is not lost yet
since some people still believe in us
and because some still consider us the voice of our generation
(and because we are, in the end, still standing)
I would like once more to emphasize that:
we are lonely
very few people believe in us
we are reluctant to show our poems
to our parents, to our close friends, to our acquaintances
no one believes in us
after a good day at work
no one will go have a beer with us
no one will teach us loneliness

My one quibble with his poems is that many remind one more than a little bit of Ginsberg and Whitman, with his “voice of our generation” and “pleasant evening cities,” and his

COME COME TO ME
BEFORE AN UNSPEAKABLE FORCE
TEARS US FROM OUR WORLDS
AND REFUSES TO PUT US BACK AGAIN
BEFORE WE’VE BEEN PUSHED INTO THE GUTTERS
OF PATHS NO ONE USES

with his combination of brash, raw intensity, playful pornography and angelic posture. But Kirill Medvedev is an astute observer of his fellow humans and a skilled writer, so I won’t protest if he’s claiming his place in this tradition. After all, Ginsberg wrote in homage to Whitman, and no one’s complaining. Still, one wonders if there is anything new under the sun. I don’t know enough about poetry to say K.M. is not innovative, but I have read enough to say it feels familiar. Familiar, yes, but very engaging. There is streak of madness to his method. These are not lyrical verse intended to provoke quiet individual reflection, but often calls to arms, implicit or explicit, to put aside our books and reverie for a minute and go live out there in the messy, insane, unnecessarily horrible world which you and I and he are a part of whether we like it or not. He can protest in front of theaters all he wants (he did that, writes about it… and yes, all writing about activism is ultimately embarrassing) but there are “actions” in his poems, in their will to live.

Which is aesthetically and ideologically consistent with the second part of It’s No Good, a collection of essays on contemporary intellectual life and political responsibility and activism, permeated with palpable frustration, warning against complacency and intellectual traditions that have outlived their usefulness. We’ve all been there, amirite?

His essays read like journal entries, are terribly accessible and the book contains a glossary of names which was helpful even to me. Some of the essays get a bit niche, though should be of interest to those of us who think the inner-workings of the Russian intelligentsia make those of the FSB seem as transparent as cellophane, or who are still obsessed with Eddie Limonov. I will always be obsessed with Limonov. I suspect Eddie Limonov gave me a psychological STD or something. And that you will get it from reading this blog, and that is how insanity perpetuates its existence.

What was I saying? Oh. Psychological STDs aside, Kirill Medvedev’s writings on the contemporary political environment in Russia come complete with a diagnosis of what is killing the liberal reformers, progressives, lefties, etc., how they got sick, and what needs to be done to cure them and restore health to Russia’s avant-garde. And he does so in a really History 101 way that I think even those with little or no familiarity with Russian intellectual history will find comprehensible. Largely because the Cliff’s Notes version of his politics is, “Communism? Socialism? Dissidents? Liberasl? Look, it’s the 21st Century and things have changed and we have to live our own lives in a way that mean something and make sense RIGHT NOW.” There is even a risk that much of it may not be profound news to anyone who has been paying attention to Russia for the past 20+ years. But it will certainly be savoured with great hedonistic gratification by anyone who is bloody fucking sick of writing blog posts on those infuriating, incompetent Russian liberals.

On which he muses:

Please don’t talk to me about your “historical experience” of Soviet oppression: it’s not your experience, it’s the experience of Mayakovsky (a Bolshevik), of Shalamov (a Trotskyist), of Mandelstam (a Socialist Revolutionary), of others.

Aka, not you mewing contemporary neoliberals trying to co-opt the plights of dead leftists. He also argues that the success of far-right intellectuals such as Dugin come from the fact that their ideas feel radical and “alive”,

“… in sharp visceral contrast to the liberal paradigm, where anything dangerous or incomprehensible or even interesting either could not exist at all or could exist only formally, not as itself but rather as an example of the liberalism and tolerance of the liberals.”

Can I get an Amen? It’s No Good is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have been blogging about Russian politics and culture in response to the too oft neoconish newsmedia in America and Britain whose Cold War framing of events prompt us to wonder if they would not in fact be happier if gulags were brought back, as their world does not seem to make sense without them. WaPo or BBC experts routinely take generic, meaningless topics like “clash of civilizations” or “liberal opposition” and speak of them as if only through their specialized analysis may we ever hope to glean what It All Means, turning vague ideas into a niche specialization for which they may be handsomely rewarded. Kirill Medvedev dumps all that nonsense on its head, does the opposite, taking niche interests, the Russian intellectual infighting or something, and with a bit of common fucking sense (this, from a poet!), shows them to be symptomatic of the global system affecting us all.

Are we not all living under neoliberal economic systems? Are we not all struggling to square our own ethics and need for meaning with the system we rely on for food and shelter and basic security? Are we not all looking at our elections thinking, this is no longer working, at our commercials thinking, what on earth is this shit?

Why aren’t more people writing like this?

And I think this is precisely why I think my American leftist friends can appreciate this book as much (perhaps more than, I suspect) as those kids out in Bolotnaya Square. There is, in I suppose the true left tradition, a universal/international perspective to his writing, focusing on individuals and systems rather than nationalities.

“… it seems to me that no matter how the world looked in 1989 or 1991 – and I know it looked different from how it looks today – we can all now admit that the notion of post-industrial capitalism as the best of all possible worlds is hardly the most progressive notion available.

… Should we stop writing poems? Go crazy from guilt? No. No. We just need to transform our picture of the world a little, and we can begin by ceasing to talk nonsense about the clash of civilizations.

Because otherwise you become an appendage of a system that allows you to take up whatever you want, develop whatever styles, discourses, and poetics you want, on the condition that you do not interfere with politics, with real life. And your “grown-up” credo (and, clearly, a reasonable and obedient member of the contemporary neoliberal system is first and foremost a GROWN-UP, as opposed to all those idealists, pseudo-rebels, and dreamers, who aren’t) will go like this: I am a humble man, my business is putting together words. As for everyone else, I think they should do what they want. And my ability to think this way is based in part on a gigantic military, and low electricity prices, and plenty of oil.

And this does not strike me as an idea befitting the glory of liberalism, which was once a progressive and salvational force in human history; and it does not strike me as an argument for individuation. This is society as an armed camp, as colonizer, as exploiter. It is an indication that liberal concepts have entered a period of exhaustion, when their proponents often find themselves trampling their own norms in the most cynical and vicious ways possible.

Because there are no private people, and there are no two (or three, or four) clashing civilizations. There is a united space in which people exist. And between those people, as between poetics, are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious.”

Or,

“You cannot criticize the Putin regime without assessing your own place in it, whether as critic or artist. You cannot criticize an authoritarian Russian democracy without also assessing the role of the United States and its allies, without mentioning the worldwide division of labor, without recognizing the extent to which the situation here is a continuation of a worldwide process. It’s necessary to understand the extent to which your own consciousness determines your social existence, forces you to accept as obvious one or another set of perspectives. “There is no freedom from politics”: this is the banal truth that one must now grasp anew. Political passivity also participates in history; it too is responsible.”

It seems rare that we should have the opportunity to read such words from a Russian, in English, outside collections of pre-Stalin communist manifestos. How refreshing. I don’t even see enough Americans writing like this, let alone people in horrible Putinist Russia where there is no freedom of speech, ahem. Our choices, regardless what shitty regime we’re managing to survive under, are too often limited to mind-numbing apathy or hysterical fear-mongering. For all K.M.’S antics, his views are impressively thoughtful and constructive.

So, well, that’s the book.

I’m not done. Remember this? Lost in Translation. I have devoted no small amount of my already negligible energy to bitching about the lack of contemporary Russian literature in translation published in America. And in the meantime Writings From an Unbound Europe has shut its doors. So a round of applause for n+1 and Ugly Duckling Press for even making books like this available to the public. Now it is on us to show that an audience exists for such endeavors. And if there isn’t one, I’m mad enough to believe that it’s on me to create one. Nobody ever got any stupider for reading Russian poetry. Let me re-post this:


“Because there are no private people, and there are no two (or three, or four) clashing civilizations. There is a united space in which people exist. And between those people, as between poetics, are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious.”

There are 7 billion people on this planet having valuable experiences and insights, and many are writing about them, and many of those people are not writing in English, and you don’t know *all* the languages. It is not simply geography, religion, socio-economic position that inform our experience, and create barriers between us, but language. Translation may be less than ideal solution to crossing that barrier and opening communication; it’s a precarious bridge, but a bridge nonetheless. Rarely do we cross such a bridge when our lives don’t become richer with nuance and possibility.

Do you not want a life richer with nuance and possibility? Are you already dead? Ok, then. Support you local publisher of books in translation!

Kirill Medvedev: It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions
Translator: Keith Gessen
Translator: Mark Krotov
Translator: Cory Merrill
Translator: Bela Shayevich
Co-published with Ugly Duckling Presse
Eastern European Poets Series #30
ISBN 978-1-933254-94-4

December 10, 2010

WikiEmesis.

Filed under: Politics: Global — poemless @ 6:19 PM
Tags: ,

Revenge of the Nerd: No diplomat, politician, bank or hairstyle is safe!

I had been patiently waiting for all of the cables to be released so that I might go through them with a fine tooth comb, reflect, synthesize, and then come up with something brilliant and sensible to say about them, with authority, and wisdom. Spouting off hysterically is not really my style… Then someone told me that less than 1% of the cables had even been released.

Gah! Hysterical spouting, commence!

A lot of people seem to think this fellow who just by coincidence happens to look like a villain in Hollywood movie and who just by coincidence happens to work out of a Bond movie type bunker, is some kind of … freedom fighter. A hero. I find this attitude a bit infantile. I am all about freedom of speech, and freedom of information. Freedom to speak one’s own mind publicly if one so chooses, without fear of retribution, freedom to access what has been spoken publicly by others. Freedom to air what individuals who are not me have said in confidence to one another? Er? What’s next, you have the right to publish my diary on the internet, so long as you can prove someone else stole it from my bedside table? I’m sure I’ve said things that make the US government look like idiots. It could be damaging to our national security if published. … Mind you, I love the Wikileaks! Mmm, mmm – they ARE delicious! I cannot get enough Batman and Robin and voluptuous Ukrainian nurses! But if information is power, my friends, this is not much in the way of information. This is gossip. And the only people who think gossiping and divulging secrets=power are middle school girls and the host of TMZ. … Now, does this mean I think it Wikileaks should be illegal? Look, I not only think TMZ should be on the air, I think an entire station should be devoted to it. But just because something is legal doesn’t make it necessary. Wikileaks is like porn but for policy wonks. Am I against porn? Not on principle. But the way it gets made always weighs on my conscience. And while it might be relatively harmless, it doesn’t actually solve problems. Unless your problem is not having an excuse to avoid having to solve your problems.

Yes, I think this whole cable dump, leak or whatever other euphemism for animal waste evacuation you want to use, is a huge diversion. Any monkey, hell, even the NSA, can collect raw communications by the boatload. But it takes sentient beings to actually make sense of it all, separate the wheat from the chaff, to turn a barn full of data into useful information. And this is not even raw data. All of the cables I have read are simply hearsay, gossip, conjecture, secondhand information or flat out storytelling. What useful information have the Wikileaks honestly added to your understanding of foreign policy? That it is conducted by narrowminded, incompetent, spoiled twits with self-serving agendas? I don’t know anyone who thought our diplomatic corps were competent, and frankly, NO ONE needed a leak of classified information to see that outdated stereotypes, questionable sources and plain old pettiness plagues our foreign policy. Shame on you if you actually had to learn that from Julian Assange. Maybe you think Assange is like the child in the fairytale who proclaims the Emperor has no clothes? But we don’t need someone to tell us the Emperor has no clothes, we’ve seen America wagging its cock in the face of the human race for decades. What we need is someone to demand the Emperor put on some pants!

Citizens, experts and the journalism establishment have collectively failed to demand the US government adhere to the same standards of professional conduct and competency that are generally expected of the average homo sapien. I don’t see why we should then turn to one smarmy individual with positively no interest in discretion or responsibility, who has tricked the whole world into looking at the exposed, underdeveloped member of the US diplomatic corps, to be a champion of humility and restraint. This man is not our knight in shining armour. We have a good laugh, we gasp in embarrassment, we watch as the most powerful individuals and governments on the planet scramble to rescue their dignity, scattered in pieces over the pages of newspapers and websites like a barrel of marbles upturned in a skating rink. It’s quite a spectacle, and I would not be surprised if a pistol-toting cat walking on its two hind legs were spied accompanying the hero of our story. It’s a great story. Substance-wise, impact on the caliber of foreign policy-wise: I Just. Don’t. Care.

Assange seems to appeal, from my observations, to 3 groups of people: 1) Male computer nerds who make up for what they lack in the interpersonal skills department with fantasies of power and chicks and Bond villain lairs. Assange is essentially a poster boy for these social outcasts. “Look at me. If I can do it, so can you.” What were witnessing here is a real life version of Revenge of the Nerds. 2) Activists who feel politically emasculated after marching in the streets (shock!) failed to prevent the invasion of Iraq, etc. They’ve been screaming from the mountaintops that our leaders are evil, conspiratorial, irresponsible, deceitful and otherwise loathsome creatures, but, alas, no one would listen. Now there are official documents vindicating them! But still, no one is listening. Why should they? 3) Vladimir Putin. And who can blame him, really?

No, I don’t think Julian Assange is a hero (though I arguably fall into camp #2). However, I do think various governments around the world are doing everything in their power -and outside of that power- to turn him into one. And it appears they will succeed. Heads up, Mumia, your reign is about to end! But if being made an example of by a fragile empire willing to take extraordinary measures and flout the law to curb your influence and teach you a lesson about who is boss makes you a bona fide hero, I’m hitching a ride on the Misha K bandwagon. Why not? Because the ends justify the means? Because Misha K was in it for himself while Assange is doing all this for you? Pah-Leeze. The man is an egomaniac. “I believe geopolitics will be separated into pre and post cablegate phases.” So, he is not modest. Hell, he may even be right. Well, Hitler might also make this claim. Wreaking havoc doesn’t make you a hero. Improving lives does. And how has, or will, the Wikileaks actually improve our lives? And don’t give me the “information is power” spiel. Information is only empowering when combined with critical thinking skills and the motivation to get off your ass and act on said information. Not much improvement on that front, Wikileaks or no. Unless Assange is breaking condoms in order to bring a whole breed of fiercely analytical, empathetic and courageous beings into the world who will posses some magical immunity to the perverse and destructive system of reward and punishment that defines 21st century global culture … I just don’t see how a post-Wikileaks world is any significant improvement. Lack of information is not the problem. Americans have perhaps the freest press in the world – even allowing for the arrest of Assange, almost ubiquitous Internet access and a free and sprawling public library system. Classified government communications and the maniacal jottings of schizophrenic hermits are about the only thing we don’t have access to, and while such documents may confirm the worst fears of conspiracy theorists and give us insight into the minds of madness, fortunately, we need not rely on them to see what is right in front of our faces.

Do I think he should have been arrested? Only if he broke the law. And if there are laws against making America look stupid or being flippant about a one night stand involving a condom mishap, well, we better get to work constructing more jails, or just change our name to “The Prison Industrial Complex of America,” make everyone wear jumpsuits, give everyone free access to healthcare and call it a day. I am sure the same could be done in other countries.

OTOH, I really am not convinced that every conversation had by everyone in the world is my business. It’s not so much the hacking that concerns me, but the arrogance.

Which may be the real arena of competition between the authors of the cables and their publishers.

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