Wednesday 9 March 2011

Philip Nikolayev: Letters from Aldenderry

These poems are clever, piss-taking, lyrical, experimental; often all at once.  It might help to have a PhD in semiotics when reviewing them. 

Philip Nikolayev is a Russian American, born in Russia in the 60’s, moved to the US in 1990.  As one poem suggests, he was fluent in English from childhood.  Not that I’d take his poetry as a reliable source of information, but this is backed up by the publisher (Salt)’s blurb.  The English, Nikolayev says in ‘The Next Level’, came from translated Russian folktales, the BBC, and “brainwashing” from Radio Moscow’s own World Service.  No wonder he plays games with language.    

There’s a sort of demented rhyming strangeness about the poems which might come from reading poetry and writing it in a second language, especially when he’s fooling around. Some poems read like a cross between a poetry-writing computer and Lewis Carroll.  ‘On Falling Asleep in August Hot Wee Hours’ starts:

           With diminishing bias psychological science offers greater reliance.
 We prefer to dull waiters whereof we are patrons shrinks to whom we are clients.
It includes the verse

        In untidy dreamy halls
        duty calls like nature calls,
        through the kitchen window falls
        to the ground and breaks its balls.

Oh, and it contains woods, and ends ‘I have no promises to keep’...

For me the most rewarding poems are the ones where he really lets his lyrical self rip; and the embedded sonnets, of which there are around 40.  I’ll quote one of the latter in full – just typing it out is going to be a challenge.   [I've had to reduce the font size to make it fit.  The right-hand side should be justified, but it refuses to come out that way.] 

     A Quarry of Words

     My city is very small, but I own it.  Battalions of brazen brass could not
     destroy it if it saved their ass. Ministering to their wounds, they must be
     joking,  militarily  speaking,  but I simply open my umbrella and the
     Obscure as rage, the willow clings to clay,  wind blows them away,  from
     an avalanche of twigs in sharp display,   here to Hollywood & to,  via the
     The mast is wedded to the mist,  the mist movies and the movie trailers,
     hangs on modalities of may and must.    Uttar Pradesh.    Monkeys galore
     Mute and astonishing, the crested moon     catapulting from banyan trees
     swings brimming on the strings of Humayun      shoo them away and bite
     and rattles like a keg of flotsam honey off their determination.   (“Shooed
     delivered on a tong of surplus money.  by Monkey Folk.”)   Delicatessenly
     I, co-enslaved and collared by the bay,  Firdousian, the elevator, it clicks,
     forever groan and grope at what to say,    disadmitting us into a pushcart
     diving through rocks to palpable solutions.   lounge,  filled with chilled tea
     Only the quarry wants my revolutions.  urchins, comfits on yodel platters,
     Dry ether fills the hollows of the earth.   a helter-skelter caboodling down
     Creative life, acute mineral dearth.  riverside stalks, so.  I happen to have
     tomorrow.  After all those discomfortable positions (in threads)– freedom!
     Stay alert and wish you were always here,with meaning.With no meaning,
     why would we wish to stay?   Ahoy, life opens a new book to an old page!

Whew.  I found I typed this a bit like I read it – at first going all across the page, trying to continue like that as the sonnet in italics starts, and finding this so difficult that I read/typed the rest of the sonnet first, and then the prose side.  (I call it prose to distinguish it, but of course when the sonnet starts the prose poem moves towards free verse, though I don’t think it quite gets there, and then back at the end.)  The eye and the mind, as if pre-programmed by what’s familiar, nursery rhyme plus 17th/18th century rhyming couplets, get drawn by the sonnet’s full rhyme and clear syntax, and its weird atmosphere like some scene from Conrad. 

By the end of the reading, there is a Grand Canyon between the sonnet and the rather post-modern prose poem (which in some of the other embedded poems is more poetic than here).  What do they have in common?  Estrangement, the sonnet in one location and the prose in many?  Maybe the two halves need each other: without the prose, the sonnet’s archaising doggerel might be too much (it feels a bit like one of those old-fashioned translations of some famous ancient poem) and without the sonnet, the prose might just be a word quarry.  Flowers and weeds; emperor and clothes… 

The reader ends up feeling two parts of her literary mind have been spliced, and wondering where the poet will take things next: answer, to another such poem, but with variations.  It’s fun, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

This 122-page book could have been shorter.  Some of the more discursive poems are distinguished by their energy and use of language, such as ‘Homage to Paradox’ which starts

        Some moments are not best served by self-explication,
        nor by ancient self-justi- or –purification
        nor by Romantic self-atonement,
        nor by self-anything-at-all.  They are Zen
        moments, neither “nor” nor “or”..

and so it goes on.  Others can become a bit gratingly clever.  Some of the shorter poems are no more than doggerel to me (though one reviewer, see below, says one is a translation of a Russian nursery rhyme).

As for subject matter, all modern life is here, from computer-speak to dilemmas, domestic living to high and low finance.  ‘A Fund of Hedge Funds’ includes the sentence: “Financial risk is interesting, / because ultimately risk indicators are non-additive.” ‘A Secret Open Secret’ starts “If you have a car you need to park it. / Therefore, parking is also a market.”  The whole of ‘Cicadas’ reads:

        Wife’s figured out how to turn off cicadas.
        She whistles, they shut up.  Damn,
        how do I turn them back on?

There are poems about his Moscow and Moldovan past, “free / in the grip of that greatest paradox of all - / a happy Soviet childhood.”

On first reading, I found Nikolayev’s language made such an impact (not always positive, as should be clear by now) that it tended to obscure the subject matter.  Several readings are needed to get the most out of the collection.

My favourite poem is the last one, a plain sonnet, ‘Earth’, which ends:  

        Staring at nature helps him to forget,
        to come to terms, to cancel out the debt.
        All night he whistled with a mockingbird
        and now on his old keyboard types a word
        or two into the world and falls asleep.
        The land has willows, something needs to weep.

It seems that everything comes together in this poem – the lyrical sense, the almost frenetic facility with rhyme and metre, the surreal playing around, the parody.  What a lovely last line.  And the elegiac tone seems to cast its shadow back over the collection as a whole, which is full of uneasy sadness as well as funny and weird stuff. 

Letters from Aldenderry is published by Salt. I got it out of the Poetry Library, but I’m going to buy it, I want instant access to its strangeness.  And Salt need the support of course. 

There are some reviews online, the only one I’ve looked at is in Jacket, here, by a Russian - which gives an interesting angle - and reproduces a couple of the embedded sonnets. There is a very absorbing and erudite review of Nikolayev’s earlier book Monkey Time in Jacket, here, also with some generous quotations.    

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