Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alexei Parshchikov 2008 (photo by Eugene Ostashevsky)

Back in the early 1980s, before I had heard such names as Zhdanov, Kutik, Iskrenko or Kondakova, I twice used the term “realism” to describe what has come to be known as language poetry, first in Ironwood in 1983, as the title to a selection of poems by my peers. My preface to In the American Tree, published in 1986, is entitled “Language, Realism, Poetry.” In both instances, I was trying to underscore the fact that there was nothing un- or anti- realistic about this new American writing, but rather that it was questioning, here directly, there obliquely, much that we had been taught to think reactively about realism, and indeed about the real.

When I learned through Lyn Hejinian that there was a group of poets in the then-Soviet Union who were known as “metarealists,” I was immediately intrigued. The realism I got, and also the meta-. Metarealism is one of those terms – social formalism is another – that I have always thought could have just as easily, and just as accurately, been deployed to characterize language poetry.

Then in 1988, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko visited the U.S. and I & others had the opportunity to talk poetry & poetics with someone who seemed very much like a reflection of ourselves, refracted through language & history. Finally, I got to meet many other Russian poets of the same generation when I attended the First International Summer School of the Soviet Cultural Fund in what was then Leningrad in August 1989, two months after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, and concluding just eight days before Hungary removed its defenses from the border with Austria. 13,000 East German “tourists” defected in the month of September in the run up to events that culminated symbolically with the fall of the Berlin Wall that November, events whose consequences are still in play & very much in contention to this day. It was an auspicious time to attend a conference in a society that was, to use the Russian word I heard most often in Leningrad, remont: under repair, or, perhaps optimistically, renovation.

It makes sense that American and Soviet poets – I’m using that term deliberately, in its limited & historically specific sense – born in the 1940s & ‘50s would feel a substantial connection to one another. Both nations were and are sprawling multicultural ensembles with a pervasive ambivalence to that territory in between – Europe. Both are nations with deep racial & ethnic tensions. And both are societies that are – present tense as well as past – deeply addicted not just to power but to the mythology of might as right, leaving many in each society deeply disaffected by the gaps & contradictions.

When our conference was maybe halfway through, a number of us were on our way to the flat of linguist & psychologist Dmitri Spivak on Nevsky Prospekt. So as not to arrive too early, we stopped first in a small Georgian café only to discover that it had almost no food. Still, we settled in. It was at this point that a gang of four or five skinheads noticed our group, and fixed upon Alexei Parshchikov sitting with us, his hair dark and curly, his skin an olive tone, the sort that in Philadelphia might be mistaken for Italian. In our collective memoir of this trip, Leningrad, Barrett Watten writes that “the drunk anti-Semites were poking at Parshchikov, who looks strikingly like Pushkin, while insisting to us that ‘the good guys are north guys with blue eyes.’” To the skinheads, we quickly realized, Parshchikov looked like a Tartar, or possibly Jewish. Alexei slowly rose to his feet, so that he was facing the lead thug, separated by a few inches.

At this point, the four Americans in our group began to calculate what we needed to do. One among us, Michael Davidson, is a hemophiliac and we were all envisioning just how dangerous a barroom brawl would be for him, and not just a barroom brawl, but Soviet medicine on top of it. During the week, we had been regaled repeatedly with stories about Soviet hospitals, in part because a veteran’s rehab facility was located right next to our hotel. The stories had not been reassuring.

Later, Barry Watten, Lyn Hejinian & I all found that each of us had plotted some method of protecting Michael and getting him out of the café safely. We didn’t know if any of our hosts knew about his condition. We had no idea what Alexei might have in mind.

In fact, Parshchikov did nothing. He simply stood there, staring impassively at this raging anti-Semite, until Zina Dragomoshchenko came up behind the skinheads and intervened. “My little sons,” Watten’s account indicates she told him of her words, “you and I, we understand all things about our Soviet problems, but these Americans, they don’t understand. Let’s let them eat and worry about their own problems, little sons.” Her tone was so cordial, unmistakably motherly, that it drained all tension from the room. We were soon safely out of there and on our way to Spivak’s.

I remember marveling at the time at Alexei’s calmness & stillness in all this. He said nothing. We didn’t tell the skinheads that they were insulting one of Russia’s great poets. There is a figure in U.S. literary history of rectitude & resolve in the face of bigotry, Harper Lee’s fictional lawyer, Atticus Finch. That is who Parshchikov reminded me of that afternoon, the image of the man I never will be able to erase. And yet I realize that what Parshchikov did, simply standing still, not arguing but not backing down, required more strength than any test of Lee’s character. For Finch had never been the direct target of the racism he confronted, while Parshchikov was. In not striking his assailant, he may well have saved Michael’s life.

I have wondered since then whether or not this event was unique – just how often Parshchikov might have had to deal with such behavior. While Alexei made light of it that evening, it seemed to have an impact on him. For the rest of the conference, Parshchikov was withdrawn and quiet, and not often sober, completely different from the brilliant, animated person he had been before, or for that matter the fellow I would run into at a Kit Robinson party in Berkeley, shortly after Parshchikov moved west.

For this is where my reflection metaphor breaks down. Whatever parallels might exist, or have existed, between the historic context surrounding American & Russian poetries, the incommensurate moments exceed them, and not just after 1991. It is not that the Soviet system collapsed & ours did not, or even (more accurately) that the Soviet system failed first, or that poets in the U.S. are immune to bigotry here, but that the component elements of two civilizations, whatever their parallels, never fully add up. I look at Alexei Parshchikov’s quiet bravery that afternoon & know that no context I could bring to it will ever be sufficient.