Featured Review: MUTABILITY CANTOS: ARKADII DRAGOMOSHCHENKO, ENDARKENMENT

Endarkenment
Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
Edited by Eugene Ostashevsky
Translated by Lyn Hejinian et al.
Wesleyan UP (2014)
Read by Andre Furlani

The Russian modernist poet Osip Mandelstam declared in the epochal “Conversation about Dante” that “to speak means to be forever on the road”: “When we pronounce the word ‘sun’ we are, as it were, making an immense journey which has become so familiar to us that we move along in our sleep” (Mandelstam 2004 115). In uttering a word, “we are living through a peculiar cycle” rather than conveying an “already prepared meaning” (ibid). The condition of speech is flux: “All nominative cases should be replaced by datives of direction. This is the law of reversible and convertible poetic material, which exists only in the performing impulse” (153).

This performing impulse drives the verse of Mandelstam’s canny descendent Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, whose every word and phrase is a volley. After attending theatre school in Leningrad – Mandelstam’s “Petropolis” – in the 1970s, he began to collaborate on samizdat periodicals, from type-setting and editing to contributing poems. With Mikhail Iossel, he belonged to a Leningrad underground that perpetuated the proscribed legacy of the stunning early twentieth century Russian avant-garde in which Mandelstam figured, along with Velimir Khlebnikov, whose zaum “beyonsense” experiments in a hermetic non-referential sound poetry rivalled Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and the “parole in libertà” of Futurism. Invoking Khlebnikov directly in “Nasturtium as Reality,” he writes: zaum returns as conclusion what it has absorbed/ and dissolved into pure plasm each day” (121).

Thus, despite the Soviet suppression of Formalism, Constructivism, Cubo-Futurism, Acmeism, Structuralism, and their numerous postmodern progeny, the plasmic poets of the Andropov era were well-prepared for the arrival of the American language poets. With no language between them but the buoying beyonsense of poetry itself, Lyn Hejinian and Dragomoshchenko embarked on a friendship in Leningrad in 1983 that, with the Glasnost thaw, issued in the 1989 poetry seminar attended by Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Michael Davis, and Hejinian. The next year the latter collaborated with Elena Balashova to produce an English translation, Description, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union the poet was free to tour the United States and to accept teaching gigs at American universities.

Endarkenment is the fifth volume of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry to appear in English, in a handsome bilingual edition that includes a capsule biography, a bibliography of his works, photos, a preface by Hejinian and an illuminating essay by Ostashevsky. A photo of the jocular chain-smoking poet on the hood of a Lada balances the striking dust-cover reproduction of Dragomoshchenko’s grainy, grim self-portrait as an emaciated inmate peering from the aperture of a gulag-like door, an image projecting the poet’s literary marginalization and precarious political status. “Under Suspicion” was the title of a collection excerpted in the present volume. Endarkenment indeed, and yet, far from prolonging the note of incarceration, the poems convey an impish, convivial liberty from cant, coterie, and prosodic convention. With more joy than righteous indignation he releases words and phrases from the Bastille of Soviet aesthetic mandates and ubiquitous institutional mendacity.

“There they are again, the signs that have lost their meaning,” he writes (43), and these are equally the empty verbal ciphers of Structuralist linguistics and the bankrupt heraldic symbols of Soviet supremacy. “The perspective should have changed,” he declares with an eye to the late-Soviet stagnation, adding, with a nod to Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers”: “And it changed” (87). This poem can be wry indeed about the era, and perhaps clairvoyant about our own: “Everything was in decline./ Even the talk about everything being in decline” (87). The poet refuses elegy as well as satire in favour of the erratic, the uncanny, the illegible. The verse is in flight from the meekly paraphrasable, for he agrees with Mandelstam that, where one finds paraphrase, “there the sheets have not been rumpled; there poetry has not, so to speak, spent the night” (2004 104).

With an ear to vacuous official oratory, Dragomoshchenko attempts, at the level of the phrase, what Paul Celan, Mandelstam’s unsurpassed German translator, achieved at the level of the word, the rehabilitation of a national language implicated in the outrages of despotism – “the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech,” the Holocaust witness Celan called it (Celan 1983 38: hindurchgehen durch die tausend Finsternisse todbringender Rede). “These words still remained/ as though they’d not been pulled out by the root,” Dragomoshchenko observes with some amazement (89). The sterility of official discourse threatens to disable all living speech:

We often fell silent mid-word that autumn.
A spectral series of things, of which
not one was able to become a thing,
but only a rut of meaning that
will never need untangling in the moisture of breath. (93)

A poet’s task, says one who alludes frequently to Ludwig Wittgenstein, is not to declaim authoritatively but to “respect the poverty of language,/ respect impoverished thoughts” (105). Dragomoshchenko develops by copiousness what Samuel Beckett sought in “lessness,” which the latter described in a 1959 letter as the attempt “to find a syntax of extreme weakness, penury perhaps I should say” (Beckett 2014 211).

Dragomoshchenko finds in this miraculously productive debility a lyric logic of exchange and conversion that, free of morbidity, stoically affirms decay and limitation:

More likely, someone really did show weakness,
because there is only substitution, the slippage of histories,
syntax of the alternation of forces, little shards on the floor,
rotting irises, rats. (81)

Relying on his cherished “rhetoric of accumulation” (119), the poet stirs the sediment of Van Gogh’s irises, T.S. Eliot’s rats, de Saussure’s signifier, and Beckett’s infirmity, and he holds this cloudy beaker to the light. You will be surprised to see how it shimmers.

Dragomoshchenko was a dissenting poet rather than a poet of dissent. The political enlistment of poetry, either by the salaried scribblers of Politburo anthems or by their strident versifying denouncers, is derided in a mock-address to Cavafy:

I banished the rhapsode from government. Why?
Well…you know, this novelty, the photocopier
that finally arrived from Corinth,
it can replace rhapsodes entirely. (103)

In “To a Statesman” there is liberty in the form of a grand refusal of all political formulas; “protocols turned to dust in concrete castles” (32). The speaker of the poem shares with the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s dystopian novel Bend Sinister childhood recollections of a classmate who went on to service in a draconian regime. Like Mandelstam’s Petersburg classmate Nabokov, Dragomoshchenko regards a formally self-conscious virtuosity as defiant affirmation of personal moral freedom. The discrete phrases pick up speed among contiguities and kinships that deviate abruptly into new relations, disdaining the artistic protocols that determined admission to the Soviet Writers Union and thereby to publication. The connections that count are irrefutably embodied, indeed labial, like the lover’s shoulder tattoo he kisses “so that word may open to word” (55).

Even as it disrupts the semantic markers of historicity, temporality is the medium of this poetry that registers fluctuation at the very level of composition. To Hejinian, Dragomoshchenko “was a poet in the tradition of Lucretius, following atoms of sensation into the crinkled atmospherics of thought” (x). For this task, no simple mimetic reproduction of particulars would suffice; words are primary pigment and a word is a living thing, with “the moisture of breath,” as he says:

We will remind you: reflections were of little interest to anyone,
to see – even now – means to become what you saw.
Who didn’t we become…contemplation of time
turned into the most delicate sand
running through a woman’s fingers,
which we also had the occasion of being,
as well as other things: decay, sod,
the formula of running, in which there also hid the cause
of what could not be shared with the dead,
belonging as it did to everyone in equal measure. (75)

In a letter to Hejinian that she quotes, Dragomoshchenko relates a euphoric vision of “the world whirling in a beautiful absence of will, in which glimmers an unintelligible belief in everything, to the point of idiotic tears, when one sets out for milk in the morning and stops at every step” (xi). In “Nasturtium as Reality” he equates the verb with the idle walker’s successive, vulnerable, contingent perspective, which accumulates consonances of chance and intention: “thanks to the verb, meaning more often/ aimless walking along the sand” (135).

Mandelstam compares speech to a congested river and the poet to one darting from one hithering-thithering Chinese junk to another to light on the opposite bank (see Mandelstam 2004 105). Even in translation one can make out the fleet, limpid finesse and determination of Dragomoshchenko’s sprint from one end of a line to another. He directs an implicit protest against linguistic complacence and the ideological conscription of language, and he celebrates the incantatory traffic of signifiers between speakers and, as in the case of this captivating volume, between languages as well.

“Blessed is he who calls the flint/ the student of running water,” writes Mandelstam (Mandelstam 2004 50), and so is Dragomoshchenko blessed. “What is said is not to be said again” (135), simply because it cannot be: words are living through a peculiar cycle. In dizzying desultory strides he crosses every divide, almost Whitmanesque in his invitation to a blurring of identities: “you breathe out:/ you sign for me: dragomoshchenko” (95).

“To examine the nature of resemblance, without resorting to symmetry” (21) is the credo of a poetry that spots kinships and juxtaposes unlikely consonances without imposing a transcendent equivalence. The phrase is from the aptly titled “The Weakening of an Indication,” which ends on a note of strong weakness for the union of contraries: “The narrow sail of the sand” (23). This appropriately fragmentary sentence contains Dragomoshchenko’s special emblem (23), wisps of granular wind-borne cursives that trace memories of the sea across a desert.

CITATIONS
Beckett, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume III. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.
Celan, Paul. Der Meridian. Frankfurt am Main: SuhrkampVerlag, 1983.
Mandelstam, Osip. Selected Poems. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin, trans. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004.

REVIEW: FORTIFIED CASTLES

Fortified Castles
Ryan Fitzpatrick
Talonbooks (2014)
Read by Michael Roberson (mroberso[at]ucalgary[dot]ca)

Darkly humorous and mockingly pedantic, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Fortified Castles culminates a near-decade long project, taking shape out of his earlier book FAKE MATH. Again, he utilizes the Flarfist technique of Google sculpting, but he also tempers the smirk-inspiring ironies that occur when we mine the Internet and recontextualize what we find. The title, Fortified Castles, suggests the impervious home of the elite, securing abundant wealth and tyrannical power. Indeed, Fitzpatrick invokes this meaning as a reflection on our own political economy, but, as the pieces from the title section indicate, Fitzpatrick also considers lyric poems themselves as fortifications, celebrating and safeguarding the sincere human voice. In effect, Fitzpatrick explores sincerity for the 21st Century by “wind[ing] out a purity related to / the nineteenth century” and recasting voices out of the Internet’s selfied faces and mediated interfaces. The front and back covers consist of these “cute faces,” a “Crowd series” like a Where’s Waldo exercise, but sketches no less of isolated emotional states—surprise, sadness, disappointment, skepticism, and seriousness”—in these days of “gloomy economics.”

The book contains three sections: “21st Century Monsters,” “Fortified Castles,” and “Friendship is Magic.” The first section combines the personal “I,” the collective “We,” and the apostrophic “You.” The second collects a series of “I” statements. The third focuses on a series of “We” statements. The three sections operate paratactically, juxtaposing short sentiments, in which “phrases are epithets” related to politics, economics, history, architecture, film, and popular culture. “Really, I’m just embracing culture,” Fitzpatrick writes in the first section: “We make all this.” In other words, Fitzpatrick recasts personal and collective voices because the origins of our precarious sincerity arise not from a single “frame,” but more of a “Venn diagram.” We are individually and collectively responsible, as one epigram from the book states: “All our grievances are connected.”

The first section, composed of poems in couplets, suggests that our 21st Century monsters originate from “a womb of horror we paper-mâchéd using / the pages of our sister’s new issue of Sassy.” Our monsters are not zombies, werewolves, and vampire, but terrorists, cancers, and gun-toting idiots. The second section, the title piece, offers poems with three quatrains each, breaking up the fourteen lines of a sonnet—a form at once characteristically personal and carefully fashioned. These poems proceed from personal statements such as “I Want to Enjoy Life” and “I Want to Break Things”—statements that build a kind of “striking and radical portrait,” the irony of which registers in the first line: “My story is truly personal.” In the last section, composed again of couplets, Fitzpatrick riffs from line to line, employing rhetorical devices that increase a hypotactic flow. He keeps the pace short and anxious—a “gush from the heart”—and many questions, some bleak and some optimistic, riddle this section. Near the end, Fitzpatrick asks “How might we connect our cuffs?”—recognizing the “terrifying agency” of sincerity—of meaning what we say—once we admit that we share grievances and complicities.

Matrix is looking for Game Reviews!

Matrix Magazine is now accepting game reviews!

We are looking for reviews to post in the Matrix Magazine online supplement as well as for our print version. As of now, Matrix will be printing two game reviews per issue as well as putting a number up online. There is a small honorarium for the reviews that are selected for print.

Your reviews should be:

+ About 500 words long.
+ Canadian and/or Indie games (smaller developpers) are preferred, but send us what you’re interested in.
+ Accessible to a non-expert audience.

Contact Jessica Rose Marcotte (@jekagames / jess[dot]ro[dot]marcotte[at]gmail[dot]com) with your questions and your reviews.

REVIEW: Cinema of the Present

Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson
Coach House
Read by Jessi MacEachern

Inserting herself into the tradition of Canadian long poems (Kroetsch, Marlatt, Davey, Ondaatje, etc.), Lisa Robertson deploys her uniquely feminist line of cultural and philosophical query within the sharp, evocative lines of her newest book, Cinema of the Present (2014).

Readers familiar with Robertson will recognize the poem’s tangible concerns with the body, thrift store fabrics, and footfalls from Occasional Work and Seven Walks (2003), Magenta Soul Whip (2009) and R’s Boat (2010). A prolific writer, she extends her own tradition through these echoes while simultaneously altering the meaning these indexed items can be said to hold. (This book features, not for the first time, an index prepared for Robertson by Pascal Poyet.) Part of what Robertson’s project teaches its reader is the inexhaustible effect of the present, the expansive moment in which the writing and reading occurs. To put it in the vocabulary of cinema, the line of figure changes frame to frame.

Robertson’s poetic lines are irreparably and beautifully altered from moment to moment, page to page. Take, for instance, the figure of “A concomitant gate” (5) which graces the opening of the poem and, according to its descriptor, naturally transforms according to what follows so that a variety of gates are present on the following pages: “A gate made of bejewelled barrettes, artificial peaches, a rotary phone” (6), “A gate made of gas pumps” (7), “A gate made of Perspex” (8), “A gate of hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes” (9). The repetition alters suddenly; the scene shifts. The preposition (“A”) remains but the object (“gate”) changes to girl, graph, jay, etc.

What is most alluring about Robertson’s poetry is this effect of uncanny resonance. Her best lines are capable of sending the reader into an entirely constructed nostalgia, a tonal technique that is at once familiar and unsettling. The 800 frames, or lines, of memory progress like strips of film according to the tri-fold and ever-changing desire of the writer, speaker and reader. Whether the projection takes place in a library, cafe, or classroom, the city and the body intervene with the flickering image in order to make the experience severely intimate. When Robertson writes, “You need a hat against anger” (84), the reader is reminded of a mother’s advice upon going out into the cold, though the prescription is less practical than this. Emotion takes precedence in the writing. Emotion is the stubborn and strange partner of intellect and a necessary ingredient for interpretation of this speaker’s surroundings. Closely scrutinized emotion hardens into a multi-refractory substance that exists in changed duration for each frame: “You were annotating the idea of a long elastic present that could include violence and passivity and patience as well as cities, as would a crystal of quartz” (85).

Robertson’s “cinematic present,” the rapid and necessary change permitted by the metaphor of film, is the conceptual constraint of project. The result is an unfalteringly close and radical theorization of the (feminist) subject’s place in time.

REVIEW: Universal Bureau of Copyrights

Universal Bureau of Copyrights
Bertrand Laverdure, trans. Oana Avasilichioaei
BookThug (2014)
Read by Klara du Plessis

The elegant English translation of Bertrand Laverdure’s novel, Universal Bureau of Copyrights (Oana Avasilichioaei, 2014), pivots on the contradictory premise that when imagination becomes reality and wild thoughts materialize, free will is lost rather than celebrated.

In an alternate world, “every word, every material, every object, every letter, every spark of life, every idea, every character, has their copyright” (103), implying that “you have no ownership over what constitutes you” (105). You imagine something and it happens to you; a stranger imagines something and it happens to you. As the term “Copyright” suggests, both in the original and the translation, the legal authority for one party to reproduce is simultaneously the prohibition for another party to do the same. Creativity is institutionalized to be a safe place, yet reveals itself as a house of horrors.

In the novel’s metafictional reality, the unnamed protagonist is subjected to imagination. In a picaresque sequence of events, he is systematically maimed, losing a leg, first his little fingers, then both his arms; his clothes disappear and, in a gesture of lost self-worth, he considers wearing a random sweater drenched in vomit. Metamorphosing through subtraction, loss of physicality becomes symbolic of his establishment as a character rather than as an independent human being. He is passively written, rather than writing himself. Being written means submitting to the whim of the writer, to imagination, to a future already copyrighted for him. He does not necessarily benefit from the writing, victimized by haphazard brutality: “I’m sure the main character’s stump should have grown back […] but you can bet your ass there’s some negligence in the writing of this scene” (45).

Injury is consistently positioned as the concluding act of a chapter. If violence is the final thought in a world where imagination reigns and the character is conscious of the fact that he is being created by the writer, then Laverdure is passing harsh judgment on the creative process. In a peek “behind the scenes of the book” (64), imagination is posited as disease.

Metafiction exposes the author’s craft and attempts to destabilize the power dynamic in favour of writer over written. Comically, a character costumed as Jokey Smurf recurs throughout as prankster and terrorist, sadistically offering an explosive gift box to unwitting targets. His character simultaneously stands for free will and fate, spontaneity and premeditation, independent individual and author’s pawn. Considering the Smurf costume, the protagonist asks: “Who takes the time to don the garb of Jokey Smurf? On the contrary, one would have thought Smurfs to be empty entities, remotely operated and inflated by a deus ex machina author” (64). And in the world of Universal Bureau of Copyrights he is correct. Jokey isn’t a one-dimensional addition to the novel. Rather, by wearing a costume, a character submits to playing a part in the narrative Laverdure creates while Laverdure questions the possibility of equality between author and character.

REVIEW: The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance

The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance
Emily Horne & Tim Maly
Coach House Books (2014)
Read by Veronica Belafi

Emily Horne and Tim Maly’s The Inspection House: An Impertinent Guide to Modern Surveillance (2014) invites readers to observe and question daily institutional structures. “Who’s watching you?” the authors ask. “Can you correctly identify a panopticon?” they tease (n.p.).

Jeremy Bentham’s 1891 Panopticon; or The Inspection House outlines a design to “make one particular class of people—convicted criminals—live very publicly” (15). With its collection of one-way windows and a central observatory tower, Bentham’s panopticon affirms the watchman’s presence to his ring of inmates: “They become their own jailers, forced into docility by clever construction techniques” (15). Michel Foucault popularized the panopticon in Discipline & Punish (1975), using Bentham’s detailed design to examine social structures and power dynamics in a larger cultural context. For Foucault, an increasingly disciplinary society means rethinking disciplinary practices. Anyone, therefore, “can provide the observation that will produce the necessary effects of anxiety and paranoia in the prisoner” (19).

Horne and Maly’s Inspection House “is about what Bentham was selling, what Foucault bought—and says we all bought—and why Foucault seems especially relevant today” (26). As Horne and Maly distil these concepts for us within the context of our modern world, they address an audience that is perhaps, now more than ever, ready to question—or at least recognize—the ideologies built into the structures and systems that make up our modern cities. Readers might begin with the question: How does all of this theory apply in a post-911, surveillance-heavy world where names like the publicized Edward Snowden and the fictional Piper Chapman become common conversation tags? Horne and Maly pose this challenge: “Who’s watching you? Can you watch back?” (n.p.).

Horne and Maly conspire with their readers—not changing, but instead, fostering an inquisitive perspective on architectural and institutional surveillance policies. Their words are honest, at the very least; their content, a little unsettling; their research, historically grounded and all the more concrete; and the real-world applications of their theories are too thought-provoking to ignore. From their discussions of late eighteenth century penitentiaries and labour laws, to detention sites like Guantanamo Bay, to liminal border- and port-trading zones, to the city planning of London’s Ring of Steel, to the drones and CCTV cameras that troll public spaces, to the very personal “peer-to-peer” social network surveillances enabled by our “smart” phones, Horne and Maly promote a brand of transparency that has our ears perked and our eyes peeled. Their pointed introduction, “To Whom It Ought to Concern,” places readers in a state of instant and constant awareness for the rest of the book. To maintain this state is in our best interest:

Use this guide to help you identify, classify and resist the panopticons and pseudo-panopticons you come across in your daily life. An understanding of the genus is critical to understanding the ecology of surveillance culture.

We wish you luck,
Emily & Tim

REVIEW: The Quiet

The Quiet
Anne-Marie Turza
Anansi (2014)
Read by Rachel Wyatt

In her debut collection of poetry, Anne-Marie Turza ranges in scope from the microscopic to the lengths of the CN tower that could span into the depths of Russia’s lake Baikal. Despite the collection’s title, she offers a clutter of ideas, images and connections that are anything but quiet.

Structurally, the collection is framed by three sections entitled “The Quiet”. These sections are made up of untitled poems that pay minute attention to the world. Several of these ask “And its sound?”; others describe the delicate anatomy of insects or even smaller, microscopic scaled creatures. The tone in these poems shifts from the found encyclopedic text in i:ii, describing the Thin-Legged Wolf Spider to the languorous metaphors of the tardigrade “lumber[ing] slowly … [m]outh circular and open, curiously like a Christmas orange” (i:v). Many poems in these sections ask questions without antecedents, each new poem obscuring the object of the questioning further, its sound “[a]s in the toothed whale” (i:i), pointed and “A nerve ran through it, like the long nerve in the eyetooth of a cat” (ii:ii), its “bright carapace” an “antennae of dissolving bone” (iii:vi).

The collection refuses to reveal its structural principles. Poems from “The Quiet” range from the focus and quiet of “A man is sewing button holes into the wings of moths” (i:vii), to the feverish pitch of ii:i where the speakers “lived in that quiet, above megrims in second story windows, painted our mouths with ketchup, our eyelids with sweet relish, wore singlets made from the dyed hair of miniature horses.”

The intervening sections have similar range, from the moment of suspended quiet that describes the light streaming through a window in “Levin Hunting”, to the carefully weighed, short lines describing the microflora of an eyelash in “Animalcules”, to the frenetic shifting focus of “Black Cap Winter” (which describes lobsters, sunken ships, earthworms lost in the progress of glaciers to coal dust), and then back to the rolling gait of “Dear God – And When I Say God, I Mean The God” that elegantly dances through a snail “shitting on its own head,” to the “god of the conditional,” the “thick-kneed god,” to the “god who wears shoes big, who shambles—“. Sentences with burgeoning commas trip up the pace, or verbs that can be tied to more than one noun add a timorous ambiguity:

Feelers in lengthy syncopation, eyes

Deep occupied manholes.
Here one can live at any dark system’s edge—

Underwater canyons, sewers, storms, stars—
Know little about, and die of it, being old.
” (Black Cap Winter)

Turza’s collection plucks several themes like the strings of a lute: themes of god or gods, dust and its quiet, insects and the character Levin from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but refuses to resolve itself to any finite relationship between them, resting instead on their dissonance. Its poems hold up the beauty of the unbeautiful and imperfect, make the familiar unfamiliar, and shift through almost as many voices as there are poems.