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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dmitry Golynko's As It Turns Out, reviewed by Eireene Nealand

As It Turns Out
Dmitry Golynko
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008
ISBN 9781933254364

Reviewed by Eireene Nealand

I might make a joke and call the Russian postmodernist poet and critic, Dmitry Golynko, a nature poet—although it’s human nature that he writes about or rather what has come to replace it in this, our era of late capitalism. The life behind the lives of fictitious humans like the “scum of the superego” and “scab of the I”—has little in common with what we have previously know of the structures associated with the Kantian sublime. Once the cheap plastic “arm of help from on high” gets broken, every “desperate gesture” that can even be imagined turns out to be “dried up in the cartridge”—i.e. co-opted by the structures of capitalism. “Elementary things” and “revered categories” are the actors worthy of notice on the poem’s globalized stage. Figures like the “whatever category,” “the sincerity category,” the “pity” category, “condensation” category, “seemlikeliness category,” and the “stuckiness” category are amongst the “faun[a]” that turn up as the available roles. All of them lead to “pathetic” existences. Even the form of the serial poem is implicated in Golynko’s depressing vision.

Although there are heady philosophical references in As It Turns Out, libraries of reference books are not needed in order to feel the poem’s effect. It is helpful, however, to know that Golynko came of age as a writer during Russia’s Perestroika period in the mid-1980’s and 1990’s when an almost chance meeting between Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Lyn Hejinian resulted in the exposure of the young poet to work by American writers such as Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Charles Olsen, Michael Palmer, Robert Duncan and John Ashbery. In the poem, “Passing the Church of the French Consulate,” we can readily see Golynko’s engagement with American Language poetry’s project of deconstructing the standardized grammars that constituted one of the deep structures that upheld a dominant white male bourgeois form of identity.

I’ll have neither the ire (caesura)—nor the dark force, nor the gesture
at the decline of life to wank off the fattening, pock-marked period
with a schismatic’s pointing dieresis: “Here is my bride!”
and so turn her into a comma, glaucoma, coma

The meta-references to language and the sonic play between “ire” and “caesura,” “comma, glaucoma, coma” in this poem disrupt the easy flow of referential meaning and cast readers into a realm in which they have to keep moving forward in order to derive sense from words and sounds just as much as from things.

This forward movement becomes a theme in Golynko’s middle and late period poems, which make up the bulk of As It Turns Out. His references to language as reality are much less obtrusive than in his early work but that is not to say that they aren’t there.

the elementary thing heads for the market of discounted trash, purchases
something pleasant and practical at a sale
anathema or love
the goods satiate with unprecedented speed

Still, something has happened in between the writing of Golynko’s early Language poetry and his middle and later poems. Just what has happened is not hard to see. Golynko lived through the Soviet Union’s transition into capitalism. He entered the poetry world amidst a period of cynicism about the state’s social constructivist (Orwellian) use of language and matured under the pressures of an influx of new institutions, words, phrasings, lifestyles and values—including an entirely new economic system.

Because Golynko’s poems speak directly about capitalism they, more than many other post-language works, expose the connection between economics and the structure of desire. While Language poetry put its hopes in the liberation of the subconscious, once desire like gender was shown to be socially constructed—as arbitrary and artificial as the meanings attached to words and sounds—capitalism took advantage of this new realization by shaping desire in forms advantageous to it. The process is perhaps most vivid in Golynko’s depictions of sexuality and gender. His elementary things don’t always have the sexual configuration of the human woman: “blood showing on an elementary thing/isn’t a problem—they don’t get periods.” They do, however, universally find themselves behaving in a manner traditionally allotted to the degraded female, doing the “goody-goody, nice-nelly…ferrety-poo, the tinny sniveler…[and the] plow” for their “symbolic papa.” These elementary things, in other words, are forced to reproduce the structures of capital at quite intimate levels. Ambitions “can’t be killed like cockroaches,” Golynko tells us. The old slogan: “the personal is political” has been disarmed by collapsing both into the realm of the banal.

the elementary thing has brains and tact
a well-tended house of brains
flowers in pots, all sorts of crapola

ET 6 of “Elementary Things” shows how even the serial poem aligns with the formula of the “object petit a”—an endlessly unsatisfying attempt to fill one’s originary lack with one “good looking” commodity after another. Golynko’s middle period technique, which is no longer the disjunctive cramming together of phrases that might be found in his early Language poetry, also takes a capitalist turn by pulling clichĂ©’s together so seamlessly that each common phrase is made incomplete by the image that follows it.

Whip it out, yeah, take a bite
a man in a black raincoat
watches the swimmer
thrashing in ice, the jacked up gangster
organizing the market, white bread
crumbled for pigeons, lips pressed

Episodic images flash by so quickly that readers cannot help developing in themselves a desire to overshoot each line and run on to the next one. Eugene Ostashevsky, one of the three quite excellent translators of As It Turns Out, has called this technique “idiom surfing.” When he, himself, speaks about what he is doing, Golynko says: “I’m constructing the bricolage from the decontextualized fragments of the alienated expressions without any subject behind it” (Interview in Caleque).

This “process without a subject”—here I will bring in philosophy just a little lest we fall into despair—was written about in Althusser’s Philosophy of the Encounter. It tells how history is produced through a chance conjunction of multiple factors that happen to come together contingently rather than through any grand plan (although grand plans can also be amongst the pieces of the encounter). Because capitalism, like any historical event, is made up of a joint presence of multiple factors, its continued existence depends on a significant number of these pieces repeatedly being reproduced in a certain relational tempo. It is for this reason that capitalism, like nature, contains so much redundancy. It is also why capitalism is so forceful in injecting everyone and everything with the drive to reproduce its form.

But if capitalism is so omnipresent and efficient in reproducing its cycles of iteration, how is it that Golynko’s last poem, “For the checkmark or For,” stops short of completing its line? In an exciting rewriting of deconstruction’s overly romantic notion of Lacan and Derrida’s postcards to nowhere, Golynko’s “post-it note” about nothing stays on the fridge reminding us of its own inability to remind us about anything meaningful. Because the post-it note is empty whether it is filled up or not, we are saved from an important dilemma—that of making a choice. So much the better since in this post-human world, we perhaps are no longer creatures who hold onto free will—our subconscious is too deeply colonized for that; we are too pushed about by our material conditions. We might say, with the same indifference, that we don’t care or notice the difference between filling up our own time by reading Golynko’s straightforwardly depressing lines, or leaving them empty by doing the same; the real question, however is will they have any effect?

Rebecca Bella, another of the quite eloquent translators of As It Turns Out comments: “while he must never admit to intentionality and never states any moral position regarding post-perestroika late-capitalism, by producing in poetry the cheapest, emptiest, most jarring, strung out, amped-up picture of capitalism, [Golynko’s] sharply-focused jump-cut images elicit protest.…[The poetry] strikes a nerve, makes us twinge, even repulses us.” One of the reasons for connecting Golynko’s early and late works is that in every newly proclaimed age there still remains some emotional debris from times long past. Those nerves, Bella insists, lie in romanticisms of the past: the poetry community, that is. When we read lines in Golynko’s work like:

your heavy gaze everywhere depraved vision
of past experience, and behind it an inventory
of boxes, checked in order to make it easier
to work out who’s bottom dog and who’s boss.


the elementary thing feels sentimental about power
the reverse is questionable.

we may not be able to behave any differently than we did before. According to Althusser’s theory, however, if the recognition of our own relationship to power can be made to produce even a slight cringe (or swerve) that small involuntary tremor can easily have a ripple effect in the interlocked tissues of reproduction that hold capitalism together. Because it depends on multiply interlocked cycles small shifts in capitalism can spread in a cancer-like manner, eventually producing changes on a much larger scale. This, I think, is the role that As It Turns Out proposes for the serial poem in our times. With all of its emphasis on iterability the serial poem might easily become a good place for working out larger questions around repetition and structure. But perhaps Golynko already does not need to tell Americans about the instabilities inherent in capitalism.


Eireene Nealand’s short stories have been published in Sidebrow, Fourteen Hills, Vagabond, Transfer and ZYZZYVA, among other places. She recently won an Elisabeth Kostova Foundation Fellowship to attend a fiction seminar in Sozopol, Bulgaria. In 2004 she was the Ivan Klima Fellow in Fiction at the summer literary seminars in Prague. She currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in contemporary Russian literature.