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This poem is taken from PN Review 47, Volume 12 Number 3, January - February 1986.

An Afterword to Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Michael Molnar
According to the eighteenth century Ukrainian mystic, Grigorii Skovoroda, the cosmos is composed of three spheres - the macrocosm or universe; the microcosm, man; and a symbolical reality linking the two and whose quintessential embodiment is the Bible. Each of these three categories has two natures: visible or created, and invisible or divine. But in this system the traditional tyranny of the divine over creation does not apply since both are aspects of one quasi-pantheist reality, co-existent and co-eternal. Invisible and visible are interdependent, the boundary of one dimension is the door to another. The problem of human existence is to arrive at a revelation of the invisible through the visible. In the context of this enterprise the role of language as at one and the same time mediator between micro- and macrocosm and in itself an aspect of both divine and created nature is complex and not easy to fathom.

'There are plain words . . .': a disingenuous opening for an intricate exercise in oblique designation. And in fact the phrase is no sooner uttered than it is subjected to variations that gradually accumulate a refutation of its sense. The poem revolves round the 'luminescence of symmetry', conceptually and phonologically. Simplicity in spoken words (la parole) - v rechakh - generates its conterpart, winter sorrow - pechal' - which in turns forms the basis of its own opposite, summer nights' amazement. In due course a light ray glinting across several more bifurcations of meaning connects that original speech - rech' - with its cognate - reka - the river, whose scalded vertical connects, or separates, an undefined couple, 'he' and 'she'. It is only eight lines later when vertical river develops into the thundering flume of a bowstring that it becomes apparent 'he' is light (svet masc.) and 'she' shade (ten' fem.). So much for the horizontal axis of symmetrical counterweights. Meanwhile the vertical theme of the river returns in the searing voices of the penultimate line, changed to a wintry wall and bringing on the final appearance of a now stale simplicity which turns in the tongue (la langue) - yazyk - into devouring lime - izvest'. This final word is a wry echo of the opening 'There is' - est' - and at the same time, by a subliminal mock-etymology, is read as an 'ex-message' - izvest'.

(At this point it may be necessary to justify an approach that by concentrating on Russian word play and patterns might appear deliberately alienating to a reader without any Russian. But it is precisely this aspect which is lost in translation and therefore most requires commentary. Consequently I am obliged to point out - and supplement - some of the inadequacies of the translations.)

The epigraph to 'There are plain words' states that the essence of the senses, sight or hearing, is destroyed in their function. But that epigraph, and the plea 'Let there be no music' must be read in the context of the poem's own verbal music, and also of the dedication to the jazz composer-improvisor Sergei Kuryokhin. The ideal simple essence of speech may be burnt away in speaking, but that state of grace where there was nothing but the naked couple, darkness and light, never actually existed. There was always a third factor - the river - and schematic symmetry becomes dialectical. This apparent destruction of simplicity is a restoration of language. What is restored to speech here is its river-nature, its forgotten and material flow.

I vsyo ne svet. Ne ten'. Ne tetiva, gremyashchaya rekoyu . . . 'All is light?' But this other draft reads 'All is not light'. In fact there is no contradiction between the two versions since the line is self-refuting either way. Its sense is founded on sound, not logic - on the fact that eight words are constructed from variations of six phonemes - s, v, n, i, t, e - and that light, svet, and shade, ten', visibly or audibly reform into a bowstring, tetiva. The senses are crossed: breath or utterance goes blind, hearing created images.

Svet may also mean 'world'. (The adjective 'worldly' is svetskii, antonym of dukhovnyi, 'spiritual', from dukh 'spirit' or 'breath', pneuma). The symmetry illuminated in the poem is no simple dichotomy of light and shade: there is also a world below the threshold of sight. The retina remains unblemished, neither light nor shadow, only the emptiness of language - 'the word light'. (Another draft has 'the word life' . . .). This created light - or life - preserves a seared absence from which a pockmarked demiurge might remake a world. How can this be prevented? The gnostics saw creation as the fall into imperfection. The poem's nocturnal cosmos shuns reflections, shadows and sound, but nevertheless proliferates images in time. The shadowless immobility of tree trunk or blank unreflecting water - the momentary deaths of absolute singularity - are inevitably lost in comparisons. Candles can be made out of a stearin fog and voices will come to light. The equilibrium of created and uncreated, visible and invisible, is unstable and the balance tilts in the direction of creation.

In 'Winter Reading' everything is surrounded by the darkness of the unspoken and finally reverts to it: words shimmer momentarily against that background. If that were the whole sense of the poem, it would follow that sense itself occupies a relatively small part of the total structure. The non sequitur 'Nothing explains love' seems to parody general statements, its bland triteness being emphasized by an end rhyme - a device generally foreign to Dragomoshchenko's free verse but cropping up in this poem. Rather than aiming towards or implying any philosophical generalization, this and the other poems appear to veer away from any recuperative conclusion, other than circularity. Nor can it be said that observation of nature is their window on the macrocosm. The natural world of these poems is reduced to a fairly limited code of stylized images: snow, reeds, rippling water, mist, birds, above all foliage, like those diagrammatic trees linguists stoop to sketch in order to illustrate the relationship of word, thing and idea. The poems' leaves (plant or paper) also serve a demonstrative purpose and point towards a certain mode of reading. 'Sycamore leaf against the glass' - list klenovyi o steklo'- the consonants of the sycamore leaf make the glass visible as word and thing. The phonic display is not to be dismissed as legerdemain. It shifts focus from the percept itself to the relation between expression and perception, illustrating the point that this cosmos is perceived as a display of surfaces and devices, whether they be phonic or syntactic. The demonstration works at both a material and a conceptual level. A line appears, arched like an eyelid. A silent mist (of words?) flows across it. Light is not outside but in the eye-socket itself, the flickering lamp of its own inherent senses.

But not presences or essences. These poems are uninhabited by human personality with its familiar ballast of ideas, opinions and social implications: even 'Feathers, tin and resin', an ornate example of that most conventional of poetic forms, the love lyric. (Emphasizing that conventionality, an earlier draft was self-consciously entitled 'An exercise on a given theme'. The final title highlights instead the texture, sheen and viscosity of the poem's features.) Lover and object are reduced to fragments of a shattered reflection, everything is glimpsed through the rippling of intricate syntax and metaphor. It is never clear what is actually visible and what has welled up out of the wriggling reflections and refractions of light. 'The courtyard is deserted. There was turf.' - 'Bezlyuden dvor. Byl dyorn'. In the absence of humanity, physical laws take over. In the uninhabited courtyard shy light appears, 'behind the wall', therefore, literally de-mure - 'za prostotoi stennoyu/zastenchiv.' The intrusive formal character of such puns and sound patterns reminds the reader that this is a world where things are not of significance in themselves but as elements yielding to elaboration or comparison. Each image - crunching snow, a cracked branch, a glinting rooftop - serves as a cipher transmitting some element of sense across an interplay of impressions. The pattern is polymorphous, no sharp distinctions are made between expression, perception or imagination. Rather, each exists only insofar as it remains in contact with the others, and in constant motion. Equilibrium is nullity, everything must move out of its own inertia to awake a response: the boundary of one dimension is the door to another. The form of this poetry is flux, for that reason it cannot 'capture' any final image, thought or person. Since its object is movement itself, to freeze it would be a contradiction in terms. That raises the question: - is there a still point or denoted end to this continual displacement of images, or is it nothing but sleight of language that would collapse if halted?

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