Thursday, March 05, 2009

JOURNEY TO HOBOKEN

This essay was first published in Witz, issue #4.3 (Fall 1996)


Hoboken, New Jersey is what is known in biology as a salience, a
kind of protuberance or growth with characteristics of an entity;
an appendage of Manhattan, crossing state lines. Layers of
sedimentation (technical college, gentrified commuter haven,
industrial ghetto echoing back through the decades) produce an
impacted image of America--especially for certain Russian poets,
planed over here briefly from their own continent, at the end of
May 1996, to attend a conference. A kind of empyrical model,
though not as dazzling as that Potemkin village panorama one
beholds from the campus ridge, there, across the Hudson.

* * *

Temporary bivouac in Penn Station. Heavy book-filled bags. The
directions say: "Take the PATH train to Hoboken." Shouldn't it
read, "train PATH"? Has a conspiracy of Russian syntax invaded
New York?

* * *

Huffing with my bags up college hill to Stevens Institute of
Technology. Suddenly hailed from behind by a Russian accent, a
piercing timbre. It's Irina, the blonde and druzkeskii
journalist from Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea--recent transplant
to Hoboken. She wants to know where is Peirce Hall (pronounced,
in English, like "purse"--Charles S. Peirce, inventor of
semiotics, one and only black-sheep American philosopher, taught
here briefly before his academic casting-out. . .). Irina wrote
a dissertation in Astrakhan, on Anna Akhmatova. Her mother and
father are philologists. We xerox the conference schedule--she
serves me tea and grapes, a Crimean meal. This confab is off to
a good start. . .

* * *

What's it all about? Well, frankly, it's a conspiracy, hatched
by a cabal made up of Ed Foster, poet, editor of Talisman,
publisher of Talisman House books, and Vadim Mesyats, Russian
poet and musician currently on the humanities faculty with Foster
at Stevens. This second Festival of Russian and American Poetry
and Poets is just one cog in an ongoing multivalent cultural
hob-nob cooked up by these two, and their friends there in
Hoboken, which includes readings, lectures, films, and a number
of translation activities, including bilingual anthologies of
Russian and American poets, and a series of contemporary Russian
poetry in English translation (the first volume, by Ivan Zhdanov,
is at the presses).

The schedule of events reads like a roster of the American poetry
loft (I lean left. I mean lift), with some Russian, Chinese, and
Turkish poets thrown in for good measure. Three full days of
three-ring readings, scholarly paper-deliveries, films (on
Brodsky, Akhmatova, and a number of less well-known-in-America
Russians), two massive evening poetry songfests, a staged reading
of a parlor-piece masque by Robert Duncan (complete with stylish
Akhmatovian feathered headpieces), roundtables on translation,
the state of Russian and American poetry, little magazines,
Chernobyl and Gertrude Stein (in the same roundtable). . . and
more, and more. Here's the catalogue of ships: the Americans
include John Yau, David Shapiro, Leslie Scalapino, Eileen Myles,
Bruce Andrews, Jackson Mac Low, Juliana Spahr, Barret Watten, Ron
Silliman, Kristin Prevallet, Leonard Schwartz, David Rosenberg,
and many others I should name; the Russians include some of the
most interesting and important contemporary poets, including Lev
Rubinshtein, Elena Shvarts, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Ilya Kutik,
Maria Maksimova, Vadim Mesyats, and Ivan Zhdanov. It's an
intense gathering--and it costs, yes, thirty-five dollars. It's a
conspiracy! Imagine all those people in one place for three
days, talking, reciting, discussing, laughing, vodkayaking,
vodkayaking etc. . .

Now I'll tell you what it all means.

* * *

At the "tail end of the 17th century", the "vast Russian
Empire"--"ancient, Orthodox", "xenophobic, hidebound"--had but one
seaport: the "little town of Archangel", on the Arctic Ocean.
Then "Peter the Great" built "St. Petersburg", modeled by himself
and "his French architect" on "Amsterdam and Venice".

Meanwhile, "America" was "colonized"; Salem had its "witch
trials", and "Anne Bradstreet". The "first American sea-going
vessel" was built in "Portland, Maine"--while Peter ("deeply,
steadfastly in love with ships and the sea") was doing the same
(while torturing and executing the "mutinous Streltsy"--an
"endless" bloodbath).

* * *

Saturday night. The endless reading in the dingy
chemistry hall, seats slanting up like some very provincial
Coliseum over the blackboards. While the Americans read, the
Russians go out into the spring night to smoke (not wanting to
offend). They are our guests--we translate their readings (as
best we can); it doesn't work the other way, unless some upstart
(like Eileen Myles) jumps out of her poems to address them
directly. But then, it doesn't have to work the other way! The
Russians, unlike us, understand us already! (They speak
English.)

Along the Coliseum aisles, Leslie Scalapino encounters Elena
Shvarts. Two shy poets, circling each other hesitantly, wary as
a pair of songbirds in the jungle of tongues.

* * *

Ivan Zhdanov. Tom Epstein, one of the few Americans here who
actually knows something about Russian poetry, calls him "one of
their best, a force of nature." He looks like a thoughtful
lumberjack, sparse jet black hair slicked down, glasses, rangy
strength. In fact, his translator, John High, looks like a
lumberjack too. Maybe they met in Alaska.

Zhdanov, like the other Russians, doesn't read. He recites.
Recites from memory. They know their poems by heart. The
Russian language has some similarities to English--it beats,
iambic, trochaic, unlike French--but the differences are also
great. English smoothness accents the rough chewing of
consonants, like a chard clarinet; whereas Russian is more like a
caged animal, a bear, trying to tame itself. Everything would be
full-throated--if the vodka-inflamed, heart-swelled throat would
only permit such a thing. . . if only a bear could sing. (But
you know this is stereotype. Russian is actually a lot like
Latin or Hindu--an oratorical, ceremonious organ-voice, given to
verbal and nonverbal festa, hilaritas.)

* * *

Jackson Mac Low and Bruce Andrews. Like father and son, a pair
of riders. "Language Poetry." Finally, I'm starting to
understand something, because I'm hearing it, out loud. These
are the angels, pouring out their vials of wrath and glee and
remorse at the apocalypse of syntax. Glee and wrath and remorse
are all that remain when the bridges to Disney World are burned,
and the enlightened conscience. . . flips: the craziness of pure
American products. But under the tongue the individuality of the
verbum replaces the commodious self, and syllables wrap around
alpha and omega of each blip with a kind of loving farewell.

* * *

It's Sunday morning, lovely. I decide to take a walk, clear my
head of the vodka and mistakes of the previous 3 am. Down
through the seemly garden-walks below campus, Hoboken. Across the
street, a shy small Russian, head down, glancing furtively from
one eye, bangs over her forehead, eating her constant cigarette
(the Russian's best friend). She's taking a walk, too. It is
Elena Shvarts.

We walk together. Finally I get a chance to talk to her (today
is the last day). She understands, speaks English.

Yesterday, during a roundtable discussion focusing on her work
(she is the most prominent contemporary poet in Russia), Shvarts
launches into a long provocative harangue (in
Russian--translated), the gist of which is, that the poetry of the
West, and especially the United States, lacks the essential
rhythmic quality of poetry--Dionysian fire, she calls it. The
Americans (including Leslie Scalapino, who's borrowed my book of
her translated poems) stir uncomfortably, shake their heads. She
reads some more poems. The moderator of this particular
roundtable never appeared. Tom Epstein does his best (and it is
very good) to fill in, giving us a brief, incisive overview of
Shvarts's labors. The roundtable breaks up--time to move on. . .

She says to me (roughly translated): Americans use the poem to
find out what they're going to say, and they take a long time
getting to it. The Russians wait until the whole poem is there,
and then they commit it to memory.

It is the difference between comedy and tragedy; opportunity and
fate.

* * *

Eileen Myles is the most Russian American poet here. Also the
most American. She speaks from herself. In spite of her
politics. Or, that is, you can't see where they divide her up.
It's all one.

What's it all about? Personism (Pessoa?)? Personalism (O'Hara?)?
Peronism (no. . .)? Eileen Myles is the only American to shout
up from the podium--hey, you Russians, where you going? (or
something to that effect) as you leave the room. . .

* * *

Let's try to be incisive too, as you leave the room. Here are two
big empire-countries, once the rivals of the earth, now like two
paired lungs or windbags (Clinton & Yeltsin) breathing heavily
out of sync almost. On either side of. . . the "old" West. The
very old West, almost as old as the East.

At a certain salience sometimes, upside Manhattan, antennae try
to touch.

* * *

Craft and personality (passion) have always been rivals,
variables. Now toss in another variable--history. Enlightened
America protects the Individual proper (properly tied), to the
"detriment" of State and Religion. Russia experiences the
reverse. In America, the Individual, so glorified, becomes
commodified; in Russia, the Individual, so abased, becomes a cog.
The old East/West yeast. . .

Modernism, experiment, avant-garde. . . these in the West mean
subsuming the Individual to Craft, for the sake of utopia.
Postmodernism, in the West, is only blurredly differentiated from
the above, a reaction. Modernism, avant-garde, etc., in Russia
mean the same thing: subsuming the Individual. Now refer back to
paragraph #1 (history). So postmodernism means. . . something
very different, in Russia. It strongly opposes modernism and the
avant-garde from beforehand. It means the tradition of the
human, the primordial, the transcendent--a utopia beyond
"utopia"--and beyond the reach of power, force, and will. Only
miracle and grace achieve utopia. This is the Russian
perspective.

Everything is reducible to Futurism vs. Acmeism. Miracle and
grace have aesthetic implications.

* * *

Still--who or what is this mysterious Person, this Personality,
this Personalism? Are we to fall back into the blasted
ego-poetries of the seventies, into the nightmare of pale baby
Shakespeares, the filigree of greed and self-promotion? (Have we
even awakened yet?)

Once, in the nineteenth century, there was a Russian thinker
named Chaadev, a bold explorer, akin perhaps to Emerson. He
journeyed into the West, but then returned, called back to his
homeland by a sense of duty; bringing with him, like an unwelcome
prophet, a Western lesson--the gospel of moral freedom.

What is this moral freedom? A word, a phrase-capsule, for a
concept of the basic dignity of the human spirit--resting on the
human being's capacity to dedicate herself or himself--out of love
and piety (in its full uncanniness) and daring--to something
better, something beyond self, some One, some Other, some others.
The vanishing point where "moral" and "freedom" fuse.

Part of the artistic and identity crisis of the West has been the
fracture of the Person: the demand, the pull from both Right and
Left on behalf of either autarkic or subliminal--either nostalgic
or futuristic--concepts of justice and the good. Like mirror
images, Right and Left command our allegiance with the full force
of both rhetoric and experience.

Yet perhaps--perhaps by some strange grace, it is Russia--that
great animal, that evil empire, beyond the pale of enlightened
democracies and the full birthright of humanism--impoverished
Russia, suffering Russia, Potemkin Russia--that will return the
gift of Chaadev's moral freedom to the West. Mandelstam wrote
that in such times as these (speaking of his pyramidal, "Assyrian
age"), Man must become the hardest thing in existence, harder
than diamond. The free, loving gift-of-self is the essence of
art and the limit of artistry: but it is another step to
recognize it everywhere as an ontological fundament of reality.
Mandelstam again (trans. Robert Tracy):

It's not Rome the city that lives through the centuries
But man's place in the universal scheme.

This is the voice one hears in the strange, ceremonious finality
of Russian recitation; it is an echo, the curve of a shell, the
arch of a wave, a ghost dance, washing up in Hoboken.