Published on Poetry New York (http://www2.evergreen.edu/poetryny)

Aleksandr Skidan's Red Shifting reviewed by Will

Ever since Matvei Yankelevich handed me a copy of this book halfway through April I've been going back and forth on whether it would be a good idea for me to review it for Poetry New York, largely because I have personal connections to every individual involved in this book, with the exception of the two translators currently living in New Zealand. In one direction this gives me 'flesh out' the autobiographical aspects of Skidan's later poems collected here, as well as give those insights that a poet's student can give, whatever they may be worth. This is the temptation, but one which is not entirely in line with the arrangement and direction of the works collected herein, and may serve to misdirect readers away from the propositions, architectures, the how and the why that Skidan puts forth here.

This is also the act explicitly warned against in Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko's introduction, 'Backwards Mirror' (meant, I believe, to put Skidan in relation to Andrei Tarkovsky's autobiographical film 'the Mirror,' a very important relationship I'm going to discuss further on). It is interesting to me that Sasha would chose an introduction that functions largely as a warning against misreading and misdirection as opposed to a contextualization (of author and text. Arkadii's relationship to the text/manuscript is also unusual, as he refers to it as a collection of work, as opposed to a single gesture, which I must asses it as in reviewing the book) more typical of literary introductions. I'm not familiar with the Russian critical discourse that surrounds Skidan's poetry, but this selection suggests that he's averse to seeing himself within it, as though he thinks he's being misread, heralded as a master of a technique which does nothing but distract from poetry. This is not to be taken lightly as Skidan is a very widely published critic/essayist. 

(At the risk of being tangential, I think it is important to point out that Skidan is entirely self-taught in critical/philosophical discourse. He chose not to attend Soviet higher education as a protest, and shaped his intellectual work through skipping out on his duties as a (forced) Navy recruit and not showing up for his (compulsory) job in a boiler room at Herzen university, staying home and reading samizdat essays and books smuggled across the border, teaching himself german to read Freud, Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, and eventually English to read the New American poets. The Soviet underground between the 1960s and the 1980s is one that interests me to no end, as it entailed endless layers of subversion, from the reactionary aesthetic of Josef Brodsky to the transgressive bestial photobooks of the New Stupids, and the constant redrawing of the mysterious 'international culture' which these artists wanted to participate in but were being shut off from by official Soviet culture, in which they were also not allowed to participate, for me particularly once quite normal pieces of western culture (punk, hip-hop, beatnik, jazz, blues, etc.) taken up and exploded so as to include everything not allowed in official soviet culture, and forced into hand-made anti-industrial documents.)

The introduction's position in the book does create an avoidable trouble for the reader, which to me is the biggest problem with the book: the English 'Red Shifting' is a collection of Skidan's first three books, 'Delirium,' 'In the Re-Reading,' and 'Red Shifting,' written over the course of nearly twenty years. Thus Arkadii's introduction, in the Russian, appears right before Scholia, which in this book begins on pg 44. Juxtaposed to the poems from 'Delirium,' the introduction is confusing; the techniques of composition which Dragomoshchenko discusses didn't show up in Skidan's poetry until the late 90's. If another edition of this book is to be printed, I think that 'Backwards Mirror' would best fit in an appendix along with a few of Skidan's essays (which are being translated into english and are beginning to show up on the internet), and an introduction specific to the English-language 'Red Shifting' should be written (by Jacob Edmond and/or Evgeny Pavlov perhaps, the issue of Landfall they edited on contemporary Russian writing is an excellent introduction to what is happening there now).

I am interested in the effect of juxtaposing Skidan's work over the past 20 years, however. The poems display such a wide field of technique and practice, that contrary directions are completely in play (in a way they are not in any of Skidan's individual Russian books). As a writer, I do feel engaged and called upon to read and direct my own output, much in the same way as I feel like I'm being given a view of the field of theory when I read a Benjamin essay. This does, however, make it a difficult collection to review.

The early poems are a much more dense and, for me, difficult read. Perhaps slowing might be a better word. They employ a wide use of metonymy and discursiveness, the space between lines, between statements being both large and mysterious. The mystery is the assertion, often, the esthetico-political relationship, the selfless body, the disembodied self, the absent, the rupture. Theory and theology are a big part of Skidan's practice throughout, but the surface of the early poems is much closer to theological texts, and much more distanced from the memory and anecdote of the later poems. This pulls him out of representing a narrative, but into a world of symbol and allegory, but one that is completely ungrounded, and reshaping itself as though floating in air (I feel that Skidan's presentation of memory also shares this 'ungrounded' quality, but not in continuity with his early poems).

... a daughterly darkness, cascading down
covers Israel; a leaf
burns utopia
to the heavens; the book
questions the pale fire, licking its tongue. Tribes.

Despite disbelief in the self, there is never a complete disbelief in the 'I' in these poems, though 'I' does present an incontinuity, calling this saying and unsaying into being:

with his sword he cleft my breast asunder
from ear to ear
so that I like Neuchadnezzar a scrumptious bream
lay upon the picnic table
a donor of the holy spirit

no with his sword he did not cleave my breast asunder
from ear to ear
so that I like Nebuchadnezzar a scrumptious
cloud of the holy breath

The intertextual relationships in the early poems produce untranslatable Russian more frequently than the later ones as well, according to the notes at the back of the book: Either/Or rendered in russian becomes Ili/Ili (either and or are the same word in Russian) which both names Kierkegaard's   pseudonymous text as well as Christ on the cross ("eli eli lama sabakhtani" or "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," or as Skidan renders the Russian translation of this phrase in English "My God, O God, your spirit leaves me"). 'Naked Breakfast' is how Burroughs's novel first and has subsequently appeared in Russian, the first (unnoficial) translation being made under the (mistaken, as far as I know) belief that the novel was a response to Manet's Breakfast on the Grass; a young Skidan tries to reconnect the two works anachronistically in Delirium.

The later poems emerge from the de-lyricism (Skidan's literal reading of Delirium's poetics) of the early works and more instead into the experience of memory (as a lyric substance or material). This is the sonambulistic space that Dragomoshchenko refers to in his introduction. Memory, the focus of Red Shifting (The title is quite interesting, naming the book after a process of expanding distance in the reception of sight and sound, suggesting that the book is a series of positions with regard to the substance), is approached from quite a few angles: from Scholia, which feels like a recording of experienced language, from theoretical quotes to overheard banter and impersonal signs/instructions, written without concern for the author's role of being the origin of the language presented, to the comedy of ethics in 'Disjecta Membra' (I love Skidan's working note of 'starting again' in this poem), to the drama within the scientific presentation of abstract followed by data within the book's title poem.

to specify is to ruin poetry

to kill the tongue in order to touch life.

In critically assesing the work, I find the prose section of 'Piercing of the Lower Lip' useful, particularly Remizov's reminder "And there's nowhere to wake up to" followed by "Ariadne in the semblance of a mole"

I sincerely doubt the dream is lucid:

Double exposure allows one to discovere the ghostly, hallucinatory nature of [labyrinthine crypts]

They flake away from the retina, as though decaying, peeling plaster, under which emerge ever-new geological layers.

Behind their procession in the rippling patina of scattering contours that have no time, no capacity to turn into an image, the gaze rests on the stigmata of radiant transparency, nearly emptiness.

This is how time closes the dead loop.

Skidan's is a journey into the psyche at the aid of a cinema (and an anti-cinema as well). This is the ungrounding, a discovery flashing out of the unthinking of working in a secondary language. The poet is not producing fragments of the whole, but a rupture between event and representation (then and now).

This does give the reader quite a bit of purview into Skidan's biography, where he was then showing directly where he is now (the poem's now, reader's now). Autobiographical substance isn't entirely distant from modern anti-confessional poetries, appearing in Frank O'hara, Zukofsky and Olson. Though I'm not sure you can say that Skidan is completely at odds with the confessional, given his relationship with christian theology (though reading these poems as confessional self expression is exactly the wrong thing to do). Of the poets I just mentioned, Zukofsky is probably the only one of any use in approaching Skidan; Autobiography appears unexplained as illustration more than an end in itself. Though this is distant still from the source of Skidan's approach. He is very much within the Russian world, and I believe that 'Red Shifting' is closest to the Autobiographical approach at work in Tarkovsky's 'the Mirror.' Here we can also see the attempt to use disjunctive memory to put anxiety and loss into a space where they might become social and open, rather than related to any elevated self, the persona at the center becoming more of a narrative architecture that can be approached from many angles, and perhaps adopt a kind of plasticity.

By way of a post-script, I also feel I should say that the translator, Genya Turovskaya is a wonderful poet in her own right.
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