When Keith Gessen, the co-editor of n+1, asked if he could send me his translation of a Russian author I'd never heard of, I had no idea what I was getting into. "It's No Good" — a selection of the post-Soviet writer Kirill Medvedev's poems, essays, manifestos, LiveJournal posts, obituaries, "actions," Facebook posts and kitchen sinks — buzzes with ambition, possibility, unpasteurized talent. It is, above all, an angry book, a reminder that western poetry begins with a call for the muse to sing of rage.
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Medvedev, born in 1975, published his first book of poems, "Everything Is Bad" (or "It's No Good," as Gessen has it, heading off a Moby echo), in 2000, and followed it with "Incursion" in 2002. The poems in these collections read as if — oh, I hate constructions like "If Vladimir Mayakovsky and Frank O'Hara had a baby and named it Charles Bukowski," but for Medvedev, who has translated Bukowski, I'll make an exception:
I decided to ask them
one of them said
"it's over there"
and nodded in the direction of a street clock
not far from where we were standing
"what does it say—I can't see it"
and he told me
"I can't see it either"
"do you see it?"
I asked the other one
and he told me
"no I don't see it either"
why am I telling
I know exactly why
I am telling this story
I was really into
it literally made me
I almost thought to myself
long live myopia!
He does this, he does that, like O'Hara ("my girlfriend Anisa and I / were at a party"; "yesterday I went to the metro / took the escalator down / and almost fainted;"), but his lines are ragged and lazy and full of bile tinged with druggy sentiment like Bukowski's (cf. several passages I can't quote in this paper). He swears, he apologizes for swearing, he takes himself seriously, he says he's pathetic, he's unemployed and given to trivial nostalgia. He can be tender: "I still remember / what I was wearing / that night; / when you realize you like someone / you notice what you're wearing / and you remember it." In a word, he's human, "the opposite of visionary," as O'Hara said.
And he's Russian. As David Harvey has argued, a form of what Marx called "primitive accumulation" — the amassing of capital by outright theft, of public land for instance (the classic example is the enclosure of the British commons) — survives in contemporary societies as "accumulation by dispossession." This is Harvey's name for a variety of techniques by which wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few via the dispossession of the many (public bailouts of the financial sector in the recent crisis, say). After the Soviet Union collapsed, as is well known, Russia crashed into capitalism with a vengeance, and a criminal-business-political class was formed that continues to rule and wreck the country (although internecine warfare between Putin and some of the other oligarchs results in a political Grand Guignol in which jailed billionaires become mirages of opposition).
For Medvedev, literature has a responsibility to address this reality, which disgusts him; therefore poets must "do away with this false notion of 'literature as private activity.'" Gessen tells us in his introduction that this idealism (as Medvedev calls it) led him to announce "that he would no longer participate in the literary scene in any of its manifestations: no publications, no readings and in fact he no longer claimed any copyright to his work. Only pirated editions: no contracts" (the copyright page of this book reads, "Copyright denied by Kirill Medvedev, 2012"). He began to write essays and political communiqués he calls "actions," which he posts on his website.
Medvedev sees around him, on the one hand, an "increasingly bourgeois-fied intelligentsia," with its "glossy magazines," and on the other a bitter intellectual class "unable, or unwilling, to conquer a place for itself in the new market economy." He is concerned to articulate a position that refuses both the liberal-reformist leanings of the first group and the fascist potential of the second, while also denouncing the status quo. This position he finds in Marxism — not Marxism-Leninism but the Western European models of the Frankfurt School, Sartre, the Situationist International and Bourdieu. In recent years, his Free Marxist Press (initially staffed entirely by Medvedev) has published translations of Ernest Mandel, Herbert Marcuse, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj ¿i¿ek and others.
This conscious turn to the left, and away from "the scene," is not unprecedented. "In the end" — this is Gessen recreating the reasoning behind Medvedev's self-exile — "all of this was in some profound way irrelevant. Arguments about poetry never spilled over into real life. They did not change anyone's behavior." Reading his essays and actions — some quite careful, others packed with rant and spleen — you realize Medvedev is a poet in a "general sense," rather than a versifier whose main concern is the production of the verbal artifact we call a poem: "Poetry, in a general sense," writes Shelley in "A Defence of Poetry," "may be defined to be 'the expression of the imagination': and poetry is connate with the origin of man." His break with the literary world has a correspondence in the American poet George Oppen's 25 years of silence, during which, out of a commitment to communism, he wrote no poems at all. In his most eloquent essay, "My Fascism," Medvedev defines poetry as "the maximal expression, via the medium of language, of this or that authentic way of seeing."
And it is this — the quest for an authentic way of seeing — that leads to Medvedev's wholesale rejection, a "no" upon which a "yes" might be built. He calls it a "rebellion of humanism." "'There is no freedom from politics': this is the banal truth that one must now grasp anew." For Americans, and especially for American writers and artists, Medvedev's texts must have the force of a clarion call. Gessen worries in the introduction about the compromise involved in publishing with Viking-Penguin, but of course walking away — which is what Medvedev did — is easier said than done. "For qualms such as mine, people IN THIS SYSTEM often receive presents — and I would not like to receive any presents": This "no" is maybe the hardest one for a writer to say. But it is one that Medvedev forces us to hear, albeit in a different country, with different situations on the ground.
Perhaps, though, real as the differences are, what Medvedev really makes us see are similarities, even identities. American liberals are rightly aghast at Putin's repression of Pussy Riot, but what did they do to stop the police violence that put an end to the Occupy movement? What are they doing about the CIA's drone wars? But enough — we've drifted rather far from questions of art by now. Haven't we?
art isn't this, isn't that
art isn't this or that or that
art is a fistfight in the orchestra pit
art is God knows what at this point
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
"It's No Good"
By Kirill Medvedev, translated by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich, n+1 & Ugly Duckling Presse, 278 pages, $16Copyright © 2015, CT Now