Dust, by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (trans. Evgeny Pavlov, Thomas Epstein, Shushan Avagan, and Ana Lucic)
Dalkey Archive Press, $13.50
by Malcolm Sutton, April 2009
We must say something about Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, by way of introduction, because he is a giant mostly invisible to our continent. Dragomoshchenko, as a poet, essayist and novelist, was central to the St. Petersburg samizdat (clandestine self-publishing) of the ’70s and ’80s, and in the post-Soviet underground has continued to influence a younger generation of poets.[i] He has drawn the attention of major American poets and critics, and in 1993 half an issue of the scholarly journal Postmodern Culture was dedicated to an exploration of his work. It is easy to acquaint oneself with ‘facts’ of a literary figure via an online search, but I suggest reading all of Dragomoshchenko’s work, all that you can find, in order to gather something substantial of him. A good starting place is ‘Memory Gardens,’ [ii] a memorial piece he wrote for Robert Creeley. In English, Dragomoshchenko’s poems have been published in a number journals and anthologies, and in two books of poetry from Sun & Moon Classics, Description (1990) and Xenia (1994), both translated by Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova, and both unfortunately out-of-print. In 2005, Ugly Duckling Presse published his novel Chinese Sun, translated by Evgeny Pavlov.[iii]
Seven essays and one series of aphorisms are brought together in the new collection Dust. The back cover tells us they are narrative essays, and narratives do run through the essays – walks through Petersburg streets, sudden observations, memories of teenage love, nights with Chilean wine, New York friendships – but the essays distinguish themselves from other personal writing in being rigorously poetic. That is, Dragomoshchenko applies language in a way that moves us away from common use. Part of the intention behind this pushing of language is to disrupt narrative time.
And so it would be misleading to talk about this book as though it were a stable, linear thing. The narratives merge into a vertiginous singularity, and topics such as time, separation, and writing resurface indifferent to an essay’s boundaries. In ‘Here,’ Dragomoshchenko draws our attention to the crosswise, interpenetrating activity of his sentences: ‘It seems to me that the paragraph starting with “That night we had a long, languid conversation,” which later mentions the Institute of Physics and Engineering, and then the paragraph about the visiting cousin (what were you intending to do with her?), and then, again, the car ride, are all beginnings or middles of other stories that have nothing to do with this one.’ In another essay he asks, as though to leave a retroactive hole in the text, ‘So, if we take out that sentence, will anything change? Probably not. Nothing will change.’
Attention to the sentence as a prime unit of writing signals his affiliation to a number of American poets corralled under the name of Language School. In particular, his paratactical placement of sentences reminds one of what Ron Silliman called the ‘new sentence’ – sentences juxtaposed with mere tangential connection to one another. But in Dragomoshchenko we are equally reminded of Viktor Shklovsky’s distinct paragraphing [iv] and Gertrude Stein’s poetics of narration without beginning or end. The figures are all of the same avant-garde family: those who intend, through innovative language, to defamiliarize the world, to liberate us from passive reading, and to drop us into the text of bliss (the kind, from Barthes, that upsets our sense of self). Dragomoshchenko posits, consonantly with many postmodern thinkers, that ‘a change in narrative’s temporal modality rids us of our Cartesian arrogance.’ [v] As an unwavering defense against arrogance, the essays leave behind conventional causality, and unfold as ongoing digressions, their topics deferred or deflected when an uncalled-for memory suddenly asserts itself or a swath of light lands in the room, now attracting the writer’s attention.
In other words, those nostalgic images, so alluring to the reader, are entries into a perseverant and often self-directed interrogation of the Romantic self. In one passage his apprehension plays out as a kind of parody of Descartes’s 1st Meditation. Recall, Descartes radically strips away all of his senses in order to arrive at the indubitable cogito, the solid core of being. Dragomoshchenko, in contrast, strips away the satisfying props of life: ‘I quit alcohol with the same indifference I gave up marijuana, literature, and the house where I grew up, when I was young. Which gave me (for an unthinkably brief moment, however) the rarest pleasure, unfathomable clarity – stunning, polar bareness, and a sense of complete negligence regarding my own life…’ Elsewhere the self is ‘reduced to a seething, ever-changing void.’
An image that I can’t resist including here, for its sheer magnitude and uncanny resemblance to Benjamin’s well-known angel of history: ‘And we, looking out as though from the back window of a car, see things, objects that appear as if from nowhere, inscribing themselves in the field of visions of our present time. Then everything the landscape consists of – “ages”, as it were, shrinks, and disappears beyond the horizon. And everything becomes, on the one hand, memory, and on the other hand – in the past (it’s unclear what comes first and what second) – a residue of vision, a residue that we know still exists.’
Dragomoshchenko’s writing is writing at its most formally daring, decelerating and awesome. The reviewer’s attempt here has been to offer some grounding and possible openings to a figure of intimidating perspicuity, insomniac sensitivity, and warmth of mind. The best commentary on a work is, as Gilbert Sorrentino wrote, the work itself, and so we reserve the final words for Dragomoshchenko: ‘Writing, I repeat (I must not lose sight of this), means dooming oneself to eternal tardiness in full knowledge that any story, even the most complicated one, even one filled with trembling, ecstasy, and horror, will end in tautology, with a metallic taste in one’s mouth and a bitter burning in the eyes.’
Malcolm Sutton is presently writing his PhD dissertation on the fiction of Robert Coover and Gilbert Sorrentino. Other ongoing projects include “1001 Xanadus,” a collaborative work with artist François Lemieux.
i Including Aleksandr Skidan and Dmitry Golynko, both recently published in dual-language editions by Ugly Ducking Presse—these are excellent, highly recommended.
ii See SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center.
iii Pavlov’s translation of “Here,” the second essay in Dust, was first published in Sport 28: Autumn 2002, (online on the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre Website). Serious revisions have been made since its 2002 publication, and though I have no means to judge its fidelity to Dragomoshchenko’s original Russian, the English text is much improved. It is a bizarre and instructive process to lay these two versions side by side. Doubt in the possibility of translation is what first comes to mind.
iv As a sideline, let me mention the film made of Dragomoshchenko and Lyn Hejinian’s five-year correspondence, titled Letters Not about Love, after Shklovsky’s epistolary marvel.
v Someone else might respond, erasure of scare quotes rids us of deconstruction’s arrogance. And Gertrude Stein, according to David Markson, said, ‘I am I because my little dog knows me.’