May 2008

Blythe Boyer


Red Shifting by Aleksandr Skidan, translated by Genya Turovskaya

For me, reading poetry is about experiencing a connection, no matter how tenuous, with another author. Upon my first reading of Aleksandr Skidan’s Red Shifting, I was disappointed by a lack of connection to the material; it was either too obscure, or shattered into so many pieces that I despaired of puzzling them together. However, as I researched the characters and histories and allusions, tendrils began to form between one poem and another. The shoots weaved into a path, and I am standing at the head. I will enjoy traveling this path during the next hundred or so readings.

Skidan does admit to a type of schizophrenia in his writing -- but he claims that his different voices address a multitude of voices in each modern reader, whose consciousness has been splintered by the postmodern world. Though he has been publishing essays, poems, and translations for years in Russia, this is his first collection to be translated into English. Skidan has visited the country before, and also taught a workshop at the University of Iowa. He is nearly fluent in U.S. culture, and has carefully splayed it out in his poems. This puts the American reader at a bit of a disadvantage; Skidan’s familiarity allows him to poke mercilessly at some of our most private places. If he says that I contain a multitude of voices within me, I have been compelled to believe him by the clarity with which he has addressed me.

There is a lot of writing about writing poetry in Red Shifting; this subject will drive even the most practiced poet crazy. “The Large Glass” is one of the more cracked pieces in the collection. The poem is dedicated to a Moscovite artist, Yuri Leiderman, who is known for frenetic installations that draw obscure connections between science, literature, and personal narratives. The narrator of “The Large Glass” speeds maniacally through a series of allusions, invoking Catherine of Siena and Duchamp’s erratic “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even,” to highlight the chasm between true experience -- such as religious ecstasy -- and the artifice of artistic expression. The artist channels energy, he does not generate it. Somewhere towards the middle of the poem Skidan jokes, “three or four inches from the groin/to specify is to ruin poetry”.

The muse is fickle even on the best days. Try to shine too bright a light on her, and she will punish you. This is not to say that Skidan is insane, at least no more or less so than many Russian authors appear to the American reader. I was first attracted to reading this book because I’ve wanted to go to St. Petersburg ever since reading Nikolai Gogol’s tales about Nevsky Prospekt. Red Shifting takes place in a much different city, of course, but in ways Skidan is a most fitting partner to Gogol: his observations are sparing but cinematic, and his poems channel a similar darkness.

They also create some dizzying connections, and each time I returned to Skidan’s book I found new lines drawn between pieces, between parts of myself. I was disconcerted by the process of understanding his difficult poems, but certainly rewarded as well.

In trying to unravel some sense out of the whole of the book, I would find myself tossing the words of one of his narrators at another. For example, the narrator of “Disjecta Membra” seems to respond to his counterpart in “The Large Glass” with specificity:

At sunset
when the sea extends outward and ants
hide the jasper husk of the devoured
bumble bee within the scaffold of the gypsy rose
whose petals smell of musk and earth,
his palm thrusts out from his sleeve -- procreation’s muscle --
gathers space into the mute “here”

This “here” is a very particular point, which Skidan lodges in the reader’s sensory organs through sight, smell, touch. Skidan begins to gather some of the scattered fragments and piece them together. This passage grounded me, and I wondered for a moment if Skidan was toying with me -- mocking me for finding this specificity beautiful, this specificity that ruins poetry. Slowly I realized that the narrator of “Disjecta” was arguing with the narrator of “The Large Glass”; I was caught in between them. Skidan takes great pains, and great pleasure, in his composition. His various narrators use the poet as the vessel of their expression.

Another whirlwind piece is the complex “Piercing of the Lower Lip,” whose first five sections' heading spell out the name “Anais.” Indeed, Skidan channels Nin at points. The poem is sexy and drunken, but an edgy sex and an unhappy, puking drunkenness peopled by prostitutes and resounding with the incantation, “fuck fuck fuck.” The last section of the piece draws together many of Skidan’s recurring themes -- censorship, displacement, and language. He recalls perfectly for me the uneasiness of becoming fluent in another language, a process that undermines your innate sense of self.

I could not help feeling that, having stopped thinking
in Russian, that is, having stopped grasping at translation
inside myself, I stopped thinking altogether… there were
uncountable thoughts, all of them unheard of; I didn’t
know them at all; for the first time, I saw them pass by or
through me, as though before I had done nothing but try
somebody else’s patience and now I finally received something
like leave from the prison of language.

Skidan deals with these subjects with an unsettling ease, digs into himself and into his reader with abandon and uncovers things most of us would rather keep buried. He closes the piece with a scene in which he is driving a friend’s car as she rides in the passenger seat, and he crashes into a telephone pole. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck you.” She yells at him, “repeating her fuck with such anger as though she couldn’t stick a dildo up my scabby ass no matter how hard she tried.” When she quiets he responds with his own “round of fucks.” They exchange the mantra until it exhausts them, and they fall silent. The narrator finds blood silently dripping from his bitten lip, a physical manifestation of the spat words.

I’m not finished reading Red Shifting. That is, I’ve read it through, and studied some of the poems carefully, but Aleksandr Skidan has a vocabulary of allusions so twisting and illusory that I’ll need to return to the book, come up for air, and go back to it many times before I have any command of him. He defies and dances. He squirms out of your grasp. His pieces alternate between a stark clarity and a calm aloofness that have few equals in their level of challenge.

The volume itself, printed by Ugly Duckling Presse, deserves an honorable mention. It is truly a beautiful book, produced by people who care about books. They have certainly created an object that reflects the care with which the author wrote the innards.

Red Shifting by Aleksandr Skidan, translated by Genya Turovskaya
Ugly Duckling Presse
ISBN 978-0-939010-95-0
173 pages