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13. Creating the Canon of the Present

Stephanie Sandler

© 2017 Stephanie Sandler, CC BY 4.0

Assessing a poetic canon, as it is emerging, is probably impossible, but provisional judgements can offer valuable insights and the poetry of the present has important lessons to teach about how canons form. Coming to judgements about the present sheds new light on earlier moments of canonisation. The instability and variability of the contemporary canon can act as a cautionary tale, slowing down our confident glance of retrospection at the past. Our judgements can and should change, as the many case studies in this volume happily attest.

Contemporary material, then, which obviously has not settled into anything like a canon, has a methodological advantage for scholars alongside its obvious challenges. It prevents us from regarding a canon as the canon. Moreover, it makes us see canon creation as the work of culture, as a process that is open-ended, and as an activity of persons and institutions with a diverse and conflicting set of interests.

Two distinctive features of contemporary poetry should be noted at the outset. First, in ways that became acute after 1991 but which began in the 1980s, the movement of bodies and texts across borders makes it difficult to use the geographical and political entity known as Russia as the sole site for canon-formation. We now see vividly that a model of Russian culture in the homeland versus Russian culture in emigration is inadequate and misleading — it can be useful in identifying specific cultural contexts, like the interactions of Russian poets with their Czech counterparts in Prague in the inter-war period, or the effects of ideological demands (what was known as sotsial′nyi zakaz) on Soviet-era poets — but it equally obscures such cross-cultural mechanisms as the work of translation, the complexly orchestrated creation of an evolving national cultural identity, and the forms of interaction among poets living in different parts of the world. Obviously, the internet has now radically changed those last possibilities, which is one reason why even a formulation like ‘texts moving across borders’ begins to sound faintly anachronistic. Still, the permeability of most geographic borders is a defining feature of the contemporary cultural moment, and it plays itself out in poetry-creation in terms of linguistic possibilities, cultural markers, and available forms of poetic self-creation.

A second distinctive feature also involves a form of blending. The incorporation of multiple forms of aesthetic and cultural material makes it similarly difficult to build a fence around Russian poetry. How poems present themselves as visual artefacts, how they interact with other art forms and with a full range of cultural activities — visual arts, journalism, performance art, to name only three possibilities — are matters we are only beginning to understand. Poems have always drawn on other cultural and political spheres, from the psalm-translation contests of the eighteenth century to the album inscriptions of the nineteenth century and the agitprop visual texts of the early twentieth, so this is not a new cultural feature so much as a newly emphasised one. And in that new emphasis, we may reconsider the proportions we assign to different forms of cultural activity; the lessons of the present can help us review our assumptions and judgements about the past. Vladimir Maiakovskii’s brutal, visually arresting alphabet books or memoirs of Daniil Kharms’s performances can float up more vividly before our gaze, for instance, leading us to an account of early twentieth-century Russian poetry that is not just a recitation of one ‘ism’ replacing another.

In order to explore these distinctive features, here I will take up five large rubrics: language, aesthetic category, textual boundaries, story-telling, and performance. As I consider each topic, I will focus on poets whose work is especially illustrative and whose achievements, I am implying, will almost surely place them within canons of the present we will form at future moments. That is not to say that these are in any absolute sense the best current poets (although each is definitely worthy of serious study), nor do they represent an exhaustive set of current trends. Rather, their work speaks to central concerns of Russian poetry today, and shows us canon-formation as it is happening.


Language would seem the most obvious given: if we speak about Russian poetry, then surely we speak about poetry that is written in Russian. But what is a national language, exactly? If we have learned anything from the post-structuralist intervention into cultural theory, it is the uncertainty that any of our human productions is stable, fixed, or entirely knowable. Linguists told us long ago, anyway, that languages change profoundly over time, and that those changes are the result of interaction with other national languages as much as they are the fruit of historical change and political or social needs (new tools need new names as much as invading armies or descending nomads bring foodstuffs, weapons, and behaviours that generate new terms). So the language is always changing, but perhaps it is poetry’s gift to us that we get a series of linguistic snapshots? If this were true, we could still believe that national language is crystallised, held still in the work of poetry.

To some extent, the snapshot theory of poetry is useful, but most texts seek not to give an overall picture of the language, but to focus on a discrete corner of the picture. Aleksandr Pushkin may have created a linguistic encyclopaedia of Russian life in Evgenii Onegin but it is more likely that a contemporary poem grabs hold of a scene where the language of marketing collides with the lexicon of Romantic elegies (Kirill Medvedev), or the structure of computer codes unnervingly shapes a peculiarly philosophical outpouring of self-assertion (Nika Skandiaka).

To reframe my question about language, then, and to put it in terms that relate to canon formation: how does poetry, that most language-driven art form, explore the territory at the remotest edges of a national language? Let me sketch out three mappings of that terrain. First, the macaronic, where national languages mix; second, the assertion of text as translation, often by publishing poems alongside apparent ‘originals’; third, and most radically, the production of ‘Russian’ poetry in another language entirely.

The Macaronic

Mixed languages have long appeared in Russian texts, famously and impudently in Evgenii Onegin, outrageously and with an admixture of neologisms and zaum′ in the writings of the futurists. Recent writings return interest to several forms of linguistic bricolage; while the casual introduction of foreign words has escalated in the post-Soviet period, it began at least three decades earlier, in the 1960s, most prominently and most productively in the work of Leningrad poet Mikhail Eremin (b. 1936). A member of the Filologicheskaia shkola (Philological School) that also gave us Lev Losev, Vladimir Ufliand, Sergei Kulle, among others, Eremin remains a powerful and strange presence in contemporary poetry. His publications continue to emerge from the excellent Pushkinskii fond (Pushkin foundation) publishing house, each book called only Stikhotvoreniia (Poems). As of this writing, the most recent is book six, which appeared in 2016 in St Petersburg. Each book offers work in only one form: eight-line poems, almost always untitled. In the face of such radical formal consistency, the poet creates miniature poetic worlds that contain whole lexicons of botany, astronomy, ornithology, mathematics, metallurgy, chemistry, mythology, and more. It is common for poems to use terms that the poet annotates in what may constitute effectively a ninth or tenth line, explaining that two words were at the heart of theological controversies in the seventeenth century or that a phrase comes from the title of William Hogarth’s aesthetic essay. (Eremin annotates some items but leaves countless others to be chased down by industrious readers — not for nothing did Mikhail Aizenberg famously call him a poet of the dictionary.)1 Some poems directly link the use of neologisms to the question of translatability between languages, or between experience and linguistic rendering: a fine example would be Neudivitelen, kogda zaliv podoben arsenalu (‘Unsurprising, when a gulf resembles an arsenal’, 1983), with its mixed-language line about translation ‘na russkii or from Russian’ (‘into Russian or from Russian’).2 Another excellent instance is a slightly earlier poem, which has one of Eremin’s annotations alongside many mysteries:

Топь–зыбь. Твердь–зябь. Мель–

Рябь. Даль–гладь. Хлябь.

Кривую замыкает ель. Ветвь.

The line of beauty–овидь. Над заливом–

Изложницею неба–зеркалом небес,

Над полем, над болотом–в окнах звезды,–месяц–




‘The line of beauty’ — W.Hogarth.

Bog–ripple. Earth–field. Shoal–

Dazzle. Distance–glade. Mud.

Locks closed the crooked fir. Branch.

The line of beauty–horizon. Above the gulf–

Heaven’s form–heavens’ mirror–

Above field, above swamp–in the windows of a star,–moon–




‘The line of beauty’ — W.Hogarth.

By identifying the source of the phrase ‘the line of beauty’, Eremin asks readers to imagine the S-shaped form it represents (and to connect that form to some of the nouns that open the poem, with their rippled surfaces). He hopes we will attend to the way in which foreign phrases come into languages, and can function in a text. Those four English words, ‘the line of beauty’, slip gracefully into the iambic rhythm of Eremin’s lines — the iambs are challenged by the potential spondees of lines 1–2 and 7–8, one should note, which may let us hear the lilting rhythm of this English phrase all the more clearly. The phrase ‘the line of beauty’ is as lovely as the imagery of the poem, including the extraordinary picture of the firmament arching over the open seas, the swamps and the fields, mirror-like and moulded. The final line is seductively absorbed into the Russian fabric of the lines quite similarly. A perfect formal equivalent of line 7, line 8 uses monosyllables that seem a strangely wonderful refraction of the CCVC phonological structure of Church Slavonic words, at least as far as ‘gold’ and ‘cold’ go. The words ‘gold’ and ‘cold’ word golf, to use Vladimir Nabokov’s famous game, perfectly, in one step, and the Russian line golfs perfectly, too, in two steps, then one. But the outlier in the game of word golf, as well as in the semantics of the sequence, is ‘old’. If we think of line 8 as a translation of line 7, then ‘old’ is at once a semantic error and a stroke of acoustic genius. It stays within the same semantic field of the word it is meant to translate (‘mlad’ (‘young’)), but moves in the opposite direction, toward age rather than toward youth. Eremin presents these two lines as a forceful demonstration of the logic of translation: one can translate from Russian to English with the greatest formal accuracy, he suggests, when the translation risks considerable semantic freedom.

Poems as Translations

Several contemporary Russian poets are also outstanding translators, including Ol′ga Sedakova, Anna Glazova, and the late poets Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Natal′ia Gorbanevskaia, and Grigorii Dashevskii. Also important, in terms of the connections between translation and canon formation, is the Moscow poet Stanislav L′vovskii (b. 1972). He is admired as a versatile writer, and an influential poet and critic. He has integrated translation into his publications (as did Grigorii Dashevskii, one should note) in ways that ask implicitly whether works of translation really differ from supposedly ‘original’ works.

Some poets include a section called ‘Translations’ in their published books, and such a gesture is potentially unmarked as an aesthetic statement about translation and originality. L′vovskii does something different, however, particularly in his 2008 book Camera rostrum. We might take the Latin title of the book as itself a signal of curiosity about and connection to foreign languages. But is it Latin? The words exist in English as well: a rostrum camera is one that is mounted on a platform for use in creating animated films. The Latin words, however, while not constituting a fixed phrase, suggest a strange coupling of the private room of the Latin camera and the public speaking platform, the rostrum, a raised section of the Forum. L′vovskii’s poetry is itself perched at that spot where public and private discourse meet — he is, among other things, an outstanding poet of contemporary history, one who catches lived experience in snatches of overheard conversation and espied glances.

Which brings us to one of the poems presented as a translation in Camera rostrum, George Oppen’s ‘Quotations’, translated into Russian as ‘Tsitaty’.5 Oppen’s poetry is marked by an unusual (for American poetry) density of quoted material, and by a wonderful freeness in using those quotations to sometimes startling ends. In this poem, the citations punningly refer to the inclusion in the text of quoted speech. The speaker heard in ‘Quotations’ exemplifies Oppen’s way with these insertions: a very old man answers a question about the age of a village in the Bahamas with the slightly off-kilter words, ‘I found it’. L′vovskii somewhat normalizes those words, translating them as ‘Ia ee osnoval’, which actually means ‘I founded it’, a possible pun suggested in the English but a more limited and less surprising response than Oppen presents. Later in the text, Oppen quotes another speaker, saying, ‘Therefore they are welcome’, which is nearly incongruous as a description of children, animals, and insects staring ‘at the open’. It’s the word ‘therefore’ that makes this rejoinder peculiar, and L′vovskii retains it, although shifting the rest of the line: ‘Poetomu im mozhno’. He retains the open-endedness of the original — what is it precisely that they are permitted to do, one wonders. What indeed could be equally permitted animals, children, insects, as they stare at something ‘open’?

L′vovskii displays a normalising impulse of the translations, which is entirely usual in translators, but his decision to include the facing English originals is a powerful way of destabilising his own versions. Many of his readers know English, so the texts will arrive in doubled form, all the more so since, in this book (Camera rostrum), there is also a section of song lyrics translated into Russian. These appear only in Russian, perhaps because readers will have ringing in their ears the famous English-language originals of songs like Frank Sinatra’s ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, or Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’. In any case, L’vovskii chooses a different variegation of the text for those songs, presenting the English-language title, with name of performer and name of song, at the top of the Russian translated lyrics.

The porous borders between ‘original’ and ‘translated’ poetry are another important lesson to take away from L′vovskii’s poetry. The turn to translation seems to offer an old lesson, as old for Russia as the medieval scribes who were creating Church Slavonic versions of rituals, prayers, and Biblical texts. What is new in L′vovskii’s poems is the proposition of equivalent status, the presentation to readers of versions as texts worthy of equally close attention, versions as models, in other words, for future work in Russian poetry.

In L′vovskii’s ‘Tsitaty’, as in Oppen’s ‘Quotations’, a minimalist form of poetic expression treats speech acts as verbal objects. The poems fracture the syntax of sense and description just enough to surprise readers, even though the situations narrated are entirely ordinary. Scrawled words under a subway’s advertisement, a child’s exclamation during a family trip, and a woman with a closet full of clothes fill out the other part of ‘Quotations’ / ‘Tsitaty’, bits of verse that celebrate not the found material of the world (whether verbal or material, for the two are always intertwined), but the poet’s attitude toward those discoveries.6 L′vovskii is trying to teach Russian poetry the lessons of objectivism, as practiced by Oppen and others (and further exemplified in Camera rostrum by his translation of Charles Simic’s poem in memory of Oppen, ‘The Tiger’). Those lessons base poetry not in the innovations of rhythm or rhyme or stanzaic pattern but in the infinite capacities of the poetic line to register what one scholar has called a fusion into ‘one verbal gesture’ of the ‘familiar and the strange’.7 To embrace this poetic work is to push ‘Russian’ poetry toward models some would find deeply alien to its formal traditions. I could adduce other poets and other foreign models who have had similarly powerful effects (Dragomoshchenko’s encounter with the Language poets, for example; Aleksandr Skidan’s translation and critical work as well).8 Let L′vovskii stand in for a larger trend, one that in his case works by challenging the very language of poetry itself.9

Texts in English

What about poems in English penned by poets known and admired for their work in Russian? We have such poems by Aleksei Tsvetkov, Katia Kapovich, and Iosif Brodskii, for instance, including some in English with no Russian originals. Brodskii’s ‘tunes’ are poems of political and ethical sharpness, as in ‘Bosnia Tune’, ‘Belfast Tune’, or ‘Berlin Wall Tune’. The last is perhaps the most famous, modelled on ‘This is the house that Jack built’, a rhyme that had generated other important poems in English of similar sharp intent (like Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about Ezra Pound, ‘Visits to St. Elizabeth’s’). So an argument could be made that the poems in English are built out of the traditions of English-language poetry, not Russian. Perhaps, but it would be a loss to our understanding of Brodskii and of contemporary political processes were we to leave it at that. Consider the opening stanzas of one of his ‘Tunes’:

Bosnia Tune

As you pour yourself a scotch,

crush a roach, or scratch your crotch,

as your hand adjusts your tie,

people die.

In the towns with funny names,

hit by bullets, caught in flames,

by and large not knowing why,

people die.

In small places you don’t know

of, yet big for having no

chance to scream or say good-bye,

people die.10

Here are several trademark Brodskii poetic practices, like the dramatic use of enjambment (lines 9–10, ‘know / of’), the insistent rhyming, the casually introduced vulgarity in a poem with serious political aims, the recognizable images of statues, time, the rephrased clichés, like the later references to a place where ‘cherubs dread to fly’. To anyone who knows his poetry in Russian, the lines bear Brodskii’s signature, right down to the unapologetic and explicit argument about free men distracted by their pleasures and thus blind to the violence and harm in the world around them.

A different test case would be a poem by a poet for whom we do not have such standard notions of poetic signature in Russian, a poet who writes entirely in English, Ilya Kaminsky. Here, for example, is what he wrote about Brodskii:

Elegy for Joseph Brodsky


In plain speech, for the sweetness

between the lines is no longer important,

what you call immigration I call suicide.

I am sending, behind the punctuation,

unfurling nights of New York, avenues

slipping into Cyrillic

winter coils words, throws snow on a wind.

You, in the middle of an unwritten sentence, stop,

exile to a place further than silence.


I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my pillow

rushing towards my own training

to live with your lines

on a verge of a story set against itself.

To live with your lines, those where sails rise, waves

beat against the city’s granite in each vowel, –

pages open by themselves, a quiet voice

speaks of suffering, of water.


We come back to where we have committed a crime,

we don’t come back to where we loved, you said;

your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.

I tried to imitate you for two years. It feels like burning

and singing about burning. I stand

as if someone spat at me.

You would be ashamed of these wooden lines

how I don’t imagine your death

but it is here, setting my hands on fire.11

When this poem was published in Kaminsky’s prize-winning book Dancing in Odessa (2004), it was accompanied by a prose text. Elements of fantasy and searchingly revealed truth are inextricable here:

Joseph Brodsky

Joseph made his living by giving private lessons in everything from engineering to Greek. His eyes were sleepy and small, his face dominated by a huge mustache, like Nietzsche’s. He mumbled. Do you enjoy Brahms? I cannot hear you, I said. How about Chopin? I cannot hear you. Mozart? Bach? Beethoven? I am hard of hearing, could you repeat that please? You will have a great success in music, he said.

To meet him, I go back to Leningrad of 1964. The streets are devilishly cold: we sit on the pavement, he begins abruptly (a dry laugh, a cigarette) to tell me the story of his life, his words change to icicles as we speak. I read them in the air.12

Kaminsky’s poem merits a detailed and subtle reading, but without some knowledge of the Russian poetic tradition, that reading would be little more than a loose appreciation of its beauty. Pushkin’s description of Petersburg in the first chapter of Evgenii Onegin generates the image of waves beating against a city’s granite; Osip Mandelshtam’s honey-tinged words, his command to preserve his speech, give verbal energy to the poem’s opening lines; Mandel′shtam again, from the prose of ‘Egipetskaia marka’ (‘Egyptian Stamp’), supplies those words legible in the air. That last is one of Mandel′shtam’s most memorable images, words created by the hand gestures of deaf people signing to one another — Kaminsky, himself deaf, thus motivates his phrase ‘I am hard of hearing’ not only biographically but also via Mandel′shtam. My small point about this complex text is that it stakes its own subtle claim to having emerged from under the overcoat of the Russian poetic tradition. It shows that tradition to be strangely porous, and an inspiring presence in world literature. The canon of early twenty-first-century Russian poetry, if we follow the logic of Kaminsky’s work, extends beyond the boundaries of the language toward other linguistic domains, toward the many places around the globe where contemporary poets, like Brodskii, Kaminsky and many others, have come to live.13

Reception in Russia

Here is a test that Kaminsky would have failed until the middle of 2012, when his poetry was translated into Russian:14 should canonisation depend on the adulation and attention toward a poet’s work from Russian audiences? Is it a limiting condition, in other words, for a poet to be recognised in his or her homeland? That question persists even in these days of diaspora, but was it present earlier, in a time of firmer fantasy of home versus abroad, of the motherland versus emigration? A perfect case study presents itself in the work of Gennadii Aigi (1934–2006).

Aigi is extremely well regarded by Western — especially American and French — critics and poets. In the United States, he is published by the prestigious New Directions Press; in the United Kingdom, he has been championed by his translator, Peter France; in 1972, he was awarded a prize by the Académie Française, and he is both well-translated into French and highly regarded as a translator from French to Chuvash, his native language. Aigi’s allegiance to European modernist poetics cannot be underestimated. His labours as a translator mean that he thought about how the poems were made in French, and about how these poems’ techniques and habits of mind could work in another language. His poetry especially shows the lessons of French surrealist poetry, with its elliptical syntax, semantic gaps, and near-mystical representations of nothingness as a meaningful, apprehensible category of being.15 Just as we might ask the question, ‘How Russian Is It?’ with respect to English-language or macaronic ‘Russian’ poetry, so it is the case that, even when all the words of an Aigi poem are in Russian, the poetics and even the look of the poem on the page depart radically from Russian norms.

Consider the minuscule poem ‘tishina’ (‘silence’, 1973):


(стихи для одновременного чтения двух голосов)

– ма-á … –

(а в о с н е т е ж е с а м ы е

ж и в ы

г л а з а)

……………………., а-мá16


(verses for simultaneous reading in two voices)

– ma- á… –

(b u t i n s l e e p t h e s e s a m e

e y e s

a r e a l i v e)

– . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a-má17

Such a poem challenges readers by its visual layout, with the splitting across several lines of the sound formation ‘ma-a … a-ma’ (an extended pronunciation of the word ‘mama’), its use of spaced lettering for the parenthetical intervention, as if the words were to be all the more emphasised, and the lineation of that parenthetical comment, with ‘alive’ (‘zhivy’) and ‘eyes’ (‘glaza’) on separate lines, adding still more emphasis. The short-form adjective ‘zhivy’ seems grammatically wrong, in the attributive position where we expect a long-form adjective; such ‘errors’, as well as the markedly accented voice heard when Aigi read his work, contribute to the reaction of some Russian readers that there is something not quite Russian about the poetry.

This poem is typical of Aigi’s work in many ways. The mother is one of the rare human figures to appear in his landscapes — and most of the poems are landscapes, often snowy, silent, stirred to motion by wind or fleeting birds. Many poems refer to dreams or are presented as the transcription of a dream. The term ‘tishina’ (‘silence’) recurs so often as to have generated some discussion as to the difference in his work between two forms of silence, ‘tishina’ and the less-often mentioned ‘molchanie’.18 The ellipses bear mention, too, an example of Aigi’s unconventional use of punctuation.19 The poem’s subtitle, instructing us that it is meant to be read by two voices, points to another key feature of Aigi’s work, its directions for performance.

Whereas in reading Kaminsky’s work, or Brodskii’s poems in English, one wanted to think about ways to draw them closer to the norms of Russian poetry, Aigi’s poems invite in us the opposite response. Here is a poem that shows even more dramatically how resistant he is to the expected poetic forms of Russia’s traditions. In this poem, he abandons all syntactic markers:

моцарт: ‘кассация I’

[с. губайдулиной]

моцарт божественный моцарт соломинкациркуль божественный лезвие ветер бумагаинфаркт богородица ветер жасмин операцияветер божественный моцарт кассация веткажасмин операция ангел божественный розасоломинка сердце кассация моцарт20


mozart: cassation I

[for s. gubaidulina]

mozart divine mozart straw compass divine razoredge wind paper heartattack madonna wind jasmine surgery wind divine mozart cassation twig jasmine surgery angel divine rose straw heart cassation mozart


Mozart’s name here points toward a Western, foreign model for artistic creation. The poem’s only adjective, ‘divine’ (‘bozhestvennyi’) acts as a partial calque for the second half of Mozart’s middle name, Amadeus. And the poem is dedicated to the contemporary composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who represents both musical creativity and high Russian modernism in its most spiritual incarnation. (That positioning in fact applies well to Aigi himself.) Like ‘tishina’, this poem is a kind of performance, but with more explicit references to music.

In ‘motsart: kassatsiia I’ (‘mozart: cassation I’), Aigi uses musical clues to teach a reader how to comprehend the poem’s horizontally sequenced words, each of which (and they are mostly nouns) rings out like a single note in a pattern of rhythmic repetition and sound echoing. The words constitute an extended and evolving musical phrase. That propelled forward movement, one word coming after the next as if without pause, challenges one of poetry’s defining traits, the use of an unjustified right margin, but it does not present the challenge, as otherwise is more common, by means of a prose paragraph (as was seen in Kaminsky’s prose text on Brodskii) — there is no syntax to organize a story here, and the impulse toward narrative, if present, is minimal. But we are not without resources to imagine such a story: the implied poetic world takes that music out into the natural environment, where twigs and straw, jasmine and rose are metonymically linked, as are references to the divinity and the Mother of God, or to surgery and a razor’s edge. The poem’s work seems restorative, a response to bodily harm that invokes both spiritual salvation and the calming embrace of nature. The poem is mysterious, in other words, but not illegible, and in its unusual presentation on the page, it pushes our thinking about poetry but not so far that we cannot follow it onto this new terrain.

To suggest that such a poem is potentially canonical is to point toward a venerable tradition of verbal and visual innovation. The brick-like arrangement of these lines is perhaps the opposite of Maiakovskii’s ‘stairstep’ poems, which sprawl over the page, and most of Aigi’s poems in fact take up that airier presentation, with the white spaces between and around the lines expanded in ways that seem visually to embody the silences often mentioned in the texts. The point of Aigi’s experimentation with visual form, as for his invocations of musical performance, is to lead readers out of the norms of metered, rhymed verse, and away from predictable stanzaic arrangements, toward new possibilities that are now found in the work of dozens of important contemporary Russian poets. Aigi is a touchstone for many of them — Natal′ia Azarova, Anna Al′chuk, for example.21 Poets whose work looks completely different have, in their reviews of his work or in their responses to his death in 2006, argued that he figures prominently in any plausible picture of contemporary Russian poetry.22 These critics and poets are coming around to a view that perhaps more readers within Russia will share, but it has been a long process. I am glad of the shift, but I persist in believing that we cannot use readers’ acceptance of a poet’s work as a required first step for canonisation.

Other models of critical review, including widespread translation and an international audience, are indispensable as we assess the norms and structures of contemporary canonisation. I hesitate to add a further reason that we must look beyond Russian readership, but perhaps it has to be said that critics have noted repeatedly that readership of poetry in general has diminished within Russia.23 I am not a fan of the droopy assessments of the state of contemporary poetry that often accompanies such announcements, nor of their high-handed dismissal of the ‘masses’; there are several camps within contemporary poetry, and these sad prognostications often come from traditionalists, who also disparage much of what is published. But these comments alert us to the problem of actually knowing who is in the audience as well as whether it is numerous. It becomes all the more important that we think broadly about the mechanisms of canon-formation. Institutions like prizes, translations, comments on blogs, Facebook posts, re-tweeting, university study in and beyond Russia’s borders, and inclusion in anthologies can all be useful signals of who is finding what kind of readership, and whose voice is heard by those who listen in a range of educated contexts.

Visual Poetry

Let me return to the questions of visual format. Consider a poem by Aigi that presents itself on the page as a visual transcription of a performance:

Без названия

ярче сердца любого единого дерева


(Тихие места — опоры наивысшей силы пения. Она отменяет там

слишимость, не выдержав себя. Места не-мысли, — если понято «нет»).24



brighter than the heart of any single tree


(Quiet places — are the strongest fulcrum for song. It cancels all that is heard,

unable to restrain itself. Places of non-thought — if «no» can be understood)25

These red squares ‘quote’ the artwork of Kasimir Malevich (1879–1935), not least his ‘Red Square’ (1915). In Malevich’s painting, the red square is not in fact perfectly square, and its slight misalignment suggests the dynamism found in his other Suprematist works. Aigi reproduces the effort of balancing with his two squares not visually aligned with each other or with the written text. The careful placement of the two red squares, their diminishing size, and the intermittent verbal text seize our attention as intensely as Malevich’s painting. Malevich’s geometrical shapes, as Camilla Gray aptly put it, offer a ‘sensation of infinity’, of ‘a new space in which there is no human measure’.26 Aigi seeks the contemplation of the infinite but also the idea of a person engaged in that act of contemplation, even in poems like this one which do not represent the person in any direct way. Instead it presents human activities, abstract capacities of the senses, and negations whose effects inevitably evoke the very thing negated (‘slyshimost′’ (sound’s capacity to be heard); ‘mysl′’ (thought)). Like Malevich, Aigi challenges notions of representation in art, but he also explores the relationships among sensory perception, the natural world, and thought.

To include such texts in the corpus of contemporary poetry is to return to our first question, about language, as if from a different direction. We ask now not about national languages, but about written language itself. What of texts that refuse to limit themselves to referential language, to the denotative work of signs with semantic value? Aigi’s red square requires us to think about referential, verbal signs as part of a larger process of symbol-making. This is a tremendously productive move, one that resonates even with poets who would seem to be emphatically, insistently verbal, like Eremin. He has poems that incorporate chemical formulae, for instance, and hieroglyphics.27 Such poems, I would argue, should change one’s belief that Eremin, or any other poet, lives by and for the dictionary.28

Allowing for the importance of visual poetry would also draw our attention to the book art of Elizaveta Mnatsakanova (b. 1922). Her creation of hand-lettered artist books alongside type-faced books seems very much in the Russian futurist tradition. But some design and book-creation elements press in other directions, for instance her use of decorative calligraphy, the large body of work in pastels that exists alongside her book art, her reliance on music as a principle of rhythmic organisation and genre designation, and the incorporation of other languages, sometimes in quite large bits. Mnatsakanova’s body of work is like that of no other living poet, in other words; here, there is no way around the ambiguous, intense attitude toward the word and toward language’s sounds in a context filled with shapes, colours, textures, and unnerving rhythmic patterns.

Consider one example from her work, a page from the poem ‘Das Hohelied’. The typed text represents one page in ‘Das Hohelied’, which itself is one part of the book-length poem Das Buch Sabeth (1988).29

Fig. 13.1 Elisabeth Netzkowa (Mnatsakanjan). Das Buch Sabeth, first page of poem No. 1 in Part 5, Pesn’ pesnei. Das Hohelied, p. 129. © and courtesy Elizaveta Mnatsakanova, all rights reserved.

The words and pieces of words in this one-page text are repeated and rearranged on other pages of the poem. The semantics overall are also consistent: love endures, in the face of loss, separation, even death.30 In everything she writes, Mnatsakanova takes words apart, recombines their elements, and puts syllables next to each other based on sound rather than semantics, all the while advancing a meaningful if elliptical narrative about loyalty and loss.

These lines are spread across and diagonally down the page in a harmonious, intriguing way, but what really qualifies Mnatsakanova’s work as visual poetry is the way she creates ancillary, accompanying artistic material. Here is a hand-written version of some elements of this typed text, a reordered sequence where the theme of mortality is prominent.

Fig. 13.2 Elisabeth Netzkowa (Mnatsakanjan), Das Buch Sabeth, VI. Anhang: Bilder zum Finale (Das Hohelied), unpaginated image. © and courtesy Elizaveta Mnatsakanova, all rights reserved.

As always in Mnatsakanova’s work, pronouns play across the lines. Throughout ‘Das Hohelied’, the speaker and an addressee, ‘I’ (‘ia’) and ‘you’ (‘ty’), sometimes join as ‘we’ (‘my’) and sometimes are painfully kept apart. Multiple case declensions appear, implicitly creating little dramas where speaker and addressee have fleeting powers of agency only to be turned into the object or means of some unnamed action.

The last line in this calligraphic text abandons semantics to let the letters break apart into the curves and lines that make alphabets possible. Just as Mnatsakanova creates a kind of centrifugal force within words to split morphological elements into spaced out or recombined syllables, so she looks at the letter that can denote the phoneme ‘t’ or ‘sh’ and strips it down to a vertical line or two, a marker of echoing sound that has only its own visual artistry to recommend it. Elsewhere, she renders letters as lines or curves even more freely, from which we may conclude that she wants her readers to see the visual forms of letters and words as aesthetic artefacts, in the same way that she wants us to hear the sounds of poetic speech as a complex form of music.31

In drawing the world of music into her visual poetry, Mnatsakanova returns us to questions of language, source material, and the boundaries around poetic creative work. Mnatsakanova stands as a superb example of poetic creativity pushing against those boundaries, and as richly as she mixes the discourses of the visual and musical arts, so she confidently crosses boundaries of national languages, playing freely with long insertions of Latin, German, and Italian into her poems. (The German title of the poem discussed here is one such resonant example.) To foreground the linguistic elements of her work is not to diminish its value as visual poetry, but rather to indicate how the questions addressed here are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

Stories, Not Poems

What, then, does it mean for our notion of poetry that elements of other aesthetic modes have successfully infiltrated poetic production? (The example I will pursue here is prose, but similar questions could be posed about drama and film, and in effect I have been asking this question about the visual arts in the previous section.) To ask such a question is to go to the very heart of our assumptions about canon formation. We have a sense of the poetic function as the crucial element in Russian poetry, and it is worth considering whether this is a good thing.32 That belief sometimes masquerades as a preference for regular meter, stanzaic patterns, and rhyme. To the extent that Brodskii is the most canonised contemporary poet, in fact, he represents the view of poetry as the supreme form of artistic expression (expressed, for instance, in his frequent claim that poets serve the language, rather than the other way around).33

Several significant poets have challenged the primacy of the poetic function in poetry in the last several decades. Some, like Mariia Stepanova, do so even as they demonstrate aesthetic virtuosity, but there are now many superb poems that are aesthetically rich but also chatty and discursive, as if their true motive is the revelation of plot. The work of L′vovskii, discussed above for its fascination with gestures of translation, is one such example, although my focus will be on the work of Elena Fanailova, Fedor Svarovskii and, very briefly, Stepanova.34 These poets all tell stories. How new or canon-defying is this trend? Narrative poetry is a long-standing and admired form, well-developed in the ballads of Vasilii Zhukovskii, the southern poems of Pushkin, and the long poems of Nikolai Nekrasov. It is that tradition that Stepanova develops, following variants of ballad form, for instance, in her Pesni severnykh iuzhan (Songs of Northern Southerners, 1999), with its ternary meters and compelling stanzas.35 Where she deviates, perhaps, is in her reliance on supernatural, particularly vampiric, apparitions, although even that has its source in the Romantic ballad tradition to some extent.

The poetry of Svarovskii takes us further away from such norms, however, and as a result we have fewer ideas how to approach it. With Stepanova, in other words, we can fall back on our ideas of rhyme and ballad form as a starting point, but with Svarovskii, there is no obvious formal way in. He practices free verse, and has an acute ear for conversational rhythms and contemporary lexicon. Both these poets are associated with what has been called a ‘new form of epic’ (‘novyi epos’).36 The supernatural is present in Svarovskii’s work as a fascination with science fiction, particularly with robots and time travel. His book Vse khotiat byt′ robotami (Everyone Wants to Be a Robot, 2007) abounds in tales of intergalactic wars and doomed machinery. Like Stepanova’s ballads, his poems feature a powerful psychological element, and there is a spiritual dimension as well. Angels circle around dying men and robots as both ‘die’. (In Stepanova’s work, the aura of magic also seems to embrace ordinary objects, as Anna Glazova has noticed.)37 Svarovskii’s depictions of life on the moon or wars fought decades into the future are rife with the strong emotions of loneliness and fear. Anxieties about what it means to be human can be projected onto cyborgs and machines, or onto humans whose bodies have absorbed mechanical prostheses. All are then pressed into contemplation of their evolving status at the boundaries of animacy and agency (in the poem from which Svarovskii’s volume takes its name, for instance).38

In the poem ‘Dva robota plyli’ (‘Two robots were swimming’), Svarovskii goes further in the direction of exploring how robots may be treated as persons.39 This work may be theorised and discussed in multiple ways — by Barbara Johnson, on persons and things; Eric Santner, on stranded objects; Daniel Tiffany, on toys as medium; and Victoria Nelson, on the secret life of puppets and other inanimate, person-like entities.40 But Svarovskii’s profound spirituality, felt in this first collection but which really emerges into the foreground in his next book, Puteshestvenniki vo vremeni (Time-Travellers, 2009), disrupts many of the premises of these post-modernist readings. For those theorists, subjectivity is always already under suspicion, and our turn to puppets or dolls reveals a desire for our own impossible reanimation in the face of the fictions of legitimation and authority with which we must live. Svarovskii recovers personhood through faith, we might say, and his faith means he never imagines personhood as lost in the first place. The act of recovery, and the real brilliance of his writing, is in the language, in the infiltration of the speech and rhythms of daily life, in the plaintive questions and ironic self-reflections that pepper his acts of storytelling and self-expression. In that sense, he is recovering the poetic function, but toward ends that take poetry toward previously unimagined stories of self and soul.

Even more than is the case with Svarovskii, the long poems of Fanailova conventionally fulfil the requirements of prose — development and disclosure of character gradually over the course of a text, use of language to replicate a character’s way of thinking or speaking, suggestion of plotlines that sketch in quickly an idea of contemporary public and private life. I want to pursue this account of Fanailova’s longer poems in order to argue that however we canonise contemporary poetry, we must make room for work that achieves many of its goals by means normally associated with prose, not poetry.

Fanailova, Moscow journalist and outspoken political activist, has written narrative poems exposing flesh-and-blood people’s stories of love, loss, sex, politics, commerce, and travel in a vividly set post-Soviet world of daily life. Fanailova is more scandalous than Svarovskii, readier to play against the expectations of how poets represent their own lives in their work. Svarovskii and Stepanova are credited with creating the ‘Novyi epos’ (‘New form of epic’) because they distanced themselves from lyric poetry, but Fanailova takes the further step of compromising lyric poetry itself. She creates not the fanciful names of Svarovskii’s robots and not the folklore-inspired mythical creatures of Stepanova’s ballads (although she sometimes turns to folklore, with memorable results).41 Instead, she gives us a strong admixture of seemingly personal experiences, and multiple characters named, as she herself is, Lena.42 Ironically gazing out at the desire of readers to know the inner experiences of the poet, particularly to know the woman poet whose amorous adventures are imagined to supply immensely rich poetic material, she parades a dizzying series of possibilities. In the long poem ‘Lena i liudi’ (‘Lena and the People’, 2008), a night-store clerk named Lena reads the work of a poet also named Lena; the poet offers tired self-reflections on how her life has brought her to this moment, but also reflections on lazy publishers, and the strangely revolting wish to be liked by one’s readers.43 In the next poem in the series, ‘Lena i Lena’ (‘Lena and Lena’, 2010), the working life of a poet is less visible, replaced by sexual adventures, travel, illness, and friendship. Here, the second Lena is a Slavist, the intellectual opposite of the uncomprehending night clerk from the earlier poem. ‘Lena i Lena’ fantasises about wild sex but also about the connections of friendship with a reader who ‘gets’ it.44

The work of canonisation in Russian poetry in the first decades of the twenty-first century particularly requires us to expand beyond our criterion of density of aesthetic features, or rich rhetorical experimentation. Like Svarovskii, Fanailova unfolds a performance of language creation that is organised by the dynamic of the story. In her case, the rhythms and diction are not so much those of speech and dialogue as of interior monologue, which is entirely appropriate given her deep engagement with lyric poetry. But this is a kind of performance, attested by her readings (there is a CD with Russkaia versiia, for instance, putting the poet’s voice into the ears of anyone who has that book; and as with nearly all contemporary poets, there are multiple recordings of her readings up on YouTube).

Performing the Self

The mention of Fanailova as a performer of her poetry raises the final question I want to pose to theories of canonisation, and that has to do with performance and visual self-representation. The proliferation of live readings in multiple venues across the globe, and more important, the availability of recorded performances in libraries and on the internet, have guaranteed that our experience of contemporary poetry need not be limited to the printed page. It is now the exception when we cannot get access to the sound of the poet’s voice or the sight of the person reading from the work. All performances also add an element of instability our apprehensions of a poetic text, since performances vary, contributing nuances and often quite dramatic changes to the printed text, and layering it with acts of improvisation.45

Consider the work of Dmitrii Prigov, master performer, who, even without the performances I will treat, would pose an unusual challenge to the work of canonisation. I note the title of a massive volume of essays about Prigov, Nekanonicheskii klassik (Uncanonical Classic), which appeared in 2010.46 How can a writer be a classic but be outside the canon? The editors of that volume compared praise of Prigov as the most talented and best poet of the post-Soviet period to Stalin’s similarly worded praise of Maiakovskii, but they also claimed for him a major role in shaping that culture. To read Prigov has been mostly to theorise him: scholars have established both his own deep knowledge of social theories and philosophy, and typically placed him in the contexts of postmodernism or conceptualism.47

A different way to approach the poet, even though his voluminous output works against such close reading, is to work outward from the texts and images, rather than beginning with theoretical paradigms. To begin in any one place is of course to risk distorting that text’s or object’s position with regard to the whole, but Prigov left some aesthetic objects that might safely allow us to generalise productively. I have in mind his strange representations of persons, in the series ‘Liki’ (‘Faces’) and especially ‘Portrety’ (‘Portraits’), also known as ‘Bestiarii’ (‘The Bestiary’).48 I also urge our attention to the images as a way to open out our idea of performance — Prigov was not just a master in chanting and intoning his texts, he was a master of visual representation and performed selfhood. These two series, ‘Liki’ and ‘Portrety’ have the potential to alter our reading of Prigov’s poetics — suggesting, for example, that he did not abandon the notion of personhood in his work, as most intensely postmodernist readings would argue, but rather transformed it into a species of monstrosity. If we can learn to read this aspect of his poetry more astutely, we get the benefit not only of a better understanding of Prigov’s works, but also of the interactions between performed selfhood and the formation of the poetic canon.

The images at hand are typical of his work in important ways, then. Prigov’s creative output, across both poetic and prose writings and across the visual arts, emerged in series.49 The structural and format similarity within the series is not unique to him among conceptualists, although the massive quantity of items in any given series is perhaps distinctive. In the ‘Bestiary’, for example, the key elements of foliage, lettering, goblet, egg, sphere, hands, proboscis, avian features on a furry body, and richly textured shading are nearly always present in each image. Genitalia, breasts, ears, and orifices for nourishment are often shown. The facial expression is almost uniformly sad, pensive, with eyes staring off into a distance or vaguely askew. The main Prigov web site has many of these images (at one point there were eighty-two of them; there are twenty as of this writing), an astonishingly productive instance of the poet spinning multiple instances of a glowing, effective key idea. So, what we know to say about Prigov is to comment on the amount of work, the manic multiplication of images.

Yet (and this is not unlike the work of Fanailova), these images also start to create the psychologies and typologies of contemporary personhood in late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. They merge with Prigov’s photographic, video, and dramatic projects of self-portraiture.50 These acts of self-representation are also somewhat monstrous, including strange markers (like the big ears) of a poet who refuses to take himself seriously. The pacifier in the mouth of the faces represented in the ‘Liki’ series has a similar function, like the teddy bear that renders the poet childlike in the series entitled ‘Bez nazvaniia’ (‘Untitled’).51 There is even a self-portrait in the ‘Bestiary’ series, which is to say that the poet chose to create as grotesque a version of himself as he had done with figures as different as Gertrude Stein, fellow conceptualist Grisha Bruskin, and Nikolai Gogol′. The self-portrait as beast was chosen in fact as the cover image of Prigov’s and Sergei Shapoval’s book of conversations and prose, Portretnaia galereia D. A. P.52

Prigov’s self-representations let me end with the idea of the poet as monster, not just the kind of monster made by Mary Shelley’s scientist Victor Frankenstein, but one that all makers of art risk becoming. This is a decidedly post-Romantic and perhaps also post-Soviet way of rereading the figure of the poet. It reflects back to readers what they have been suspected of projecting onto the poet. And it rejects that most cherished of all Russian cultural notions, the poet as hieratic figure, as repository for all otherwise lost cultural achievements and memories, as testimony to dangerous truths. Not all contemporary poets would reject that beloved myth, indeed some of the very best contemporary poets still embody it — among those mentioned here, poets who are challenging the rules of the canon in other ways, Mnatsakanova and Aigi, Eremin and Stepanova come to mind; among those I have not been able to include, I would mention Sedakova, Elena Shvarts, and many others. Each of these poets will, if one wants to risk predictions, be seen as canonical when time has advanced enough for us to cast retrospective glances back at this moment. But even now, we can see how some poets are pressing us to rethink what we mean by the canon and how it is formed. My goal here has been to look at those who are at the boundaries, who offer new ways to see the changing totality that is Russian poetry today.

1 Mikhail Aizenberg, ‘Literatura za odnim stolom: O poetakh “filologicheskoi shkoly”’, Novaia kamera khraneniia (2008),

2 Mikhail Eremin, Stikhotvoreniia (St Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1998), p. 25.

3 Mikhail Eremin, Stikhotvoreniia, edited by Lev Losev (Tenafly, NJ: Hermitage Press, 1986), p. 94. The translation here and elsewhere in the chapter, unless otherwise indicated, is mine.

4 The translation is mostly word-for-word, but takes one liberty: in line 2, the word ‘glad’ a ‘smooth surface’, usually referring to water. To keep to the noun sequence, I choose ‘glade’, which repeats the sounds in the Russian because of the common Indo-European root. Historically, ‘glade’ did mean ‘bright, smooth place’: see Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1972), p. 592.

5 The turn to Oppen’s work is itself an important signal to readers. His conversational diction stretches across an estranged syntax and a poetic surface roughened by italicised and quoted words; his presentation of seemingly random facts about the external world is marked by an equally careful presentation of the effects of that world on the consciousness that perceives it. These elements of Oppen’s work, which made him so important to later American poets, are nearly all trademarks of L′vovskii’s poetry; L′vovskii in turn has had a tremendous impact on contemporary Russian poets.

6 I adopt here a point made by James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 44.

7 Michael Heller, ‘Speaking the Estranged: Oppen’s Poetics of the Word’, Chicago Review, 50 (Winter 2004–2005), 137–50 (p. 137).

8 For a discussion of Dragomoshchenko’s work in the context of Language poetry, see Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), pp. 44–71.

9 The further question is whether the national tradition is itself the most meaningful way to think about these poems. That challenge has been raised by comparatists, many seeking to re-imagine Comparative Literature as a discipline to study cultural production in the post-internet, globalised world. See, for example, Jahan Ramazani, A Transnational Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

10 Joseph Brodsky, Collected Poems in English, edited by Ann Kjellberg (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), p. 490. The poem first appeared 20 November 1992 in the Baltimore Sun.

11 Ilya Kaminsky, Dancing in Odessa (Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2004), p. 44. Reproduced with permission.

12 Ibid., p. 45.

13 In an article about Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, Andrew Wachtel makes a similar argument, pinning that novel in a variety of ways to Russian models. See Wachtel, ‘Orhan Pamuk’s Snow as a Russian Novel’, Slavic and East European Journal, 56 (2012), 91–108.

14 Kaminskii, Muzyka narodov vetra, translated by Anastasiia Afanas’eva (New York: Ailuros Publishing, 2012).

15 On the varieties of silence in Aigi’s work, see Gerald Janecek, ‘Poeziia molchaniia u Gennadiia Aigi’, in Minimalismus zwischen Leere und Exzess, edited by Mirjam Goller and Georg Witte. Wiener slawistischer Almanach, vol. 51 (Vienna: Gesellschaft zur Förderung slawistischer Studien, 2001), pp. 433–46. See also Sarah Valentine, ‘Music, Silence, and Spirituality in the Poetry of Gennady Aigi’, Slavic and East European Journal, 51 (2007), 675–92.

16 Gennadii Aigi, Sobranie sochinenii v semi tomakh, 7 vols. (Moscow: Gileia, 2009), II, p. 95. Reproduced with permission.

17 My translation, but see also the translation in Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi, translated by Sarah Valentine (Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2011), p. 24.

18 See Valentine, ‘Music, Silence’.

19 See Gerald Janecek, ‘The Poetics of Punctuation in Gennady Aygi’s Free Verse’, in Janecek, Sight and Sound Entwined: Studies of the New Russian Poetry (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), pp. 91–109.

20 Aigi, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. II, p. 101. Reproduced with permission.

21 See Anna Al′chuk, Sobranie stikhotvorenii, edited by Natal′ia Azarova and M. K. Ryklin (Moscow: NLO, 2011); Natal′ia Azarova, Solo ravenstva: Stikhotvoreniia (Moscow: NLO, 2011).

22 To cite two examples, see Stanislav L′vovskii, ‘Gennadiiu Aigi: Ob′′iasnenie v liubvi’, Vozdukh, 1 (2006), 6–7; Ol′ga Sedakova, ‘Aigi: Ot′ezd’, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 79 (2006), 200–04.

23 See for example Igor′ Shaitanov, ‘Poet v Rossii’, Arion, 2 (1998); Al′chuk, Sobranie stikhotvorenii; Azarova, Solo ravenstva; ‘Russkaia poeziia v kontse veka: Neoarkhaisty i neonavotory’, Znamia, 1 (2001), For a radically different assessment of current poetry, see Dmitrii Kuz′min, ‘Russkaia poeziia v nachale XXI veka’, Rets, 48 (2008),; Il′ia Kukulin, ‘Aktual′nyi russkii poet kak voskresshie Alenushka i Ivanushka’, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 53 (2002), 273–97.

24 Gennadii Aigi, Razgovor na rasstoianii: Stat’i, esse, besedy, stikhi (St Petersburg: Limbus Press, 2001), p. 32. Reproduced with permission.

25 See also the version in Into the Snow, tr. Valentine, p. 16.

26 Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863–1922 (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1971), p. 166.

27 See, for example, the chemical formula in ‘Edva l′ ne samyi dostoslavnyi’ (1972) in Mikhail Eremin, Stikhotvoreniia, Kniga 2 (St Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2002), p. 8.

28 An antecedent for such sweeping gestures of meaning-making is again to be found within the Russian tradition, for example in the writings of the OBERIU. Daniil Kharms’s famous window-shape comes to mind as one such model. And elsewhere in the futurist corpus we would find the thematisation of this kind of deciphering work. An excellent source on this work is Gerald Janecek, The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-garde Visual Experiments, 1900–1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

29 Elisabeth Netzkowa, Das Buch Sabeth (Vienna: [n. pub.], 1988), p. 151. Mnatsakanova, as here, often publishes as ‘Netzkowa’, a name she took when she moved to Vienna.

30 For a fuller reading of these themes in Mnatsakanova’s work, see Stephanie Sandler, ‘Visual Poetry after Modernism: Elizaveta Mnatsakanova’, Slavic Review, 67 (2008), 610–41.

31 See Gerald Janecek, ‘Paronomastic and Musical Techniques in Mnacakanova’s Rekviem’, Slavic and East European Journal, 31 (1987), 202–19.

32 The ‘poetic function’ is Jakobson’s term, discussed most succinctly as the defining feature of poetry in ‘What is Poetry?’ in Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature, edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 368–78.

33 See, for example, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’ in Joseph Brodsky, On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), p. 33.

34 Also pertinent is the glorious long poem ‘Gnedich’ by Mariia Rybakova, which won, in the prose category, the 2011 Andrei Belyi Prize. See Mariia Rybakova, Gnedich: Roman (Moscow: Vremia, 2011).

35 Mariia Stepanova, Pesni severnykh iuzhan: 20 sonetov k M (Moscow and Tver′: Argo-Risk/Kolonna, 2001). Stepanova plays at the boundaries of strict poetic form and narrative prose: compare the title of another whose text is poetic, Proza Ivana Sidorova (Moscow: Novoe izdatel′stvo, 2008).

36 On which, see Il′ia Kukulin, ‘Ot Svarovskogo k Zhukovskomu i obratno: O tom, kak metod issledovaniia konstruiruet literaturnyi kanon’, Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 89 (2008), 228–40.

37 See ‘Otzyvy’, Vozdukh, 4 (2008), 22–23.

38 Fedor Svarovskii, Vse khotiat byt′ robotami (Moscow: Argo-Risk, 2007), pp. 5–7.

39 Ibid., pp. 42–44.

40 Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Eric L. Santner, Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Daniel Newton Tiffany, Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

41 See for example, ‘Lesnoi tsar′’ in Elena Fanailova, Lena i liudi (Moscow: Novoe izdatel′stvo, 2011), pp. 12–13.

42 The narrative impulse is powerfully felt in other ways in the poems of Russkaia versiia. See Elena Fanailova, Russkaia versiia (Moscow: Zapasnyi vykhod, 2005), pp. 8–9, pp. 68–83.

43 See Fanailova, Lena i liudi, pp. 68–73. For a translation, see ‘Lena, or the Poet and the People’, Aufgabe (2009), pp. 13–18.

44 Elena Fanailova, ‘Lena i Lena’, Zerkalo (2011), 35–36, For a translation, see Elena Fanailova and Stephanie Sandler, ‘Lena and Lena’, Jacket2 (2013),

45 A particularly vivid instance of such a changed and changing text is Polina Barskova’s performance of her 2011 poem ‘Bitva’,

46 Nekanonicheskii klassik: Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov, edited by E. Dobrenko et al. (Moscow: NLO, 2010). Compare the argument of Maria Maiofis in ‘Prigov i Derzhavin: Poet posle prizhiznennoi kanonizatsii’, in this volume, pp. 281–304.

47 A very good example of this approach is Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness, pp. 125–63. Edmond’s chapter is entitled ‘Dmitri Prigov and Cross-Cultural Conceptualism’.

48 The name ‘Portrety’ appears as the category, most likely, at The name ‘Bestiarii’ is used at, the English-language website, and in Grazhdane! Ne zabyvaites′ pozhaluista, catalogue from the exhibit at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008, curated by Ekaterina Degot′ (Moscow: Izdatel′skaia programma Moskovskogo muzeia sovremennogo iskusstva, 2008), [n.p.].

49 See Dzheral′d Ianechek, ‘Seriinost′ v tvorchestve D. A. Prigova’, in Nekanonicheskii klassik, pp. 501–12.

50 See, for example, ‘Rekonstruktsiia po kasatel′noi ili sem′ia navsegda’, a series of black-draped figures, some with huge, added ears,

51 All of the series mentioned can be found at

52 Dmitrii Prigov and Sergei Shapoval, Portretnaia galereia D. A. P. (Moscow: NLO, 2003).