Kholin 66 by Igor Kholin (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017)
Translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
“Igor Kholin was born in Moscow in 1920, ran away from an orphanage in Ryazan, and eventually enrolled in a military academy in Novorossiysk. He barely survived World War II (a bullet that grazed the corner of his lips came out of his back). In 1946, he was exiled from the military and Moscow for slapping a drunken comrade-in-arms. Kholin landed in a labor camp in Lianozovo, a suburb of Moscow, where one of his friends was the guard and would occasionally let him out to visit the Lianozovo library—he'd started writing poetry. When he asked to check out a book by forbidden poet Alexander Blok, he aroused the interest of the librarian, Olga Potapova, an artist married to the poet and painter Evgeny Kropivnitsky. The two of them hosted a Sunday salon out of their nearby barracks apartment, encouraging the work of young artists and a few poets, including Genrikh Sapgir and Vsevolod Nekrasov. Along with Kholin, they called themselves Kropivnitsky's students and formed a loose poetry collective known as the Lianozovo Group. Kholin's early work took the rough edges of Soviet life—the poverty, brutality and alcoholism rampant in the barracks—as his primary subject matter, while lampooning formulaic Socialist Realist poetics.”
I haven’t felt this enlivened by the poet’s lens in recent memory. Igor Kholin, of the “Soviet thaw,” is a dynamo of the 20th century human experience in Russia. His work, seen here in two-parts-diary and one-part-poetry, is ridged in wit, humor, and a gruff sense of reality. The book in its sequences is a guide for the 21st century. It is a tracing of lineage. A retrospective. A reminder of how writers lived and lived fluidly before the eras, our current eras, of the streaming and the fluid. It is a book demonstrating the life of the scenes of life, where conglomerations were webs of intricate relationships and histories, agendas and social politics.
Rearranged and toppled, it is also a book of personalization and some incredibly concentrated levels of intimacy between individuals, as seen through a provocative man’s fully-textured and elongated mind. The frailty, the abrasiveness, the inquiry, and the boldness of Kholin’s perceptions are all major qualities of Kholin’s self, so easily accessible, so easily ripe, in this nigh-100-page collection of translated work.
This pile of
Is for Kholin
It was laid
To read Igor Kholin is to read a distinctly individualized voice maintaining consistency throughout the generative, biting August/September/October/November/December months of 1966. A diary and poem series, it was translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, whose introduction paints a scene of conceptualized, contextually-driven translation, a process deeply imbedded within the source, within Russia. The translations into English account for names, diffusion of detail and prominence of the occasional ambiguity. Throughout the work, the endurance of Kholin’s writing and the discoverable details were responded to with vigor to provide countless footnotes (and “side notes”) helpful in indicating what was going on in the writing. Such research does not sit lightly, and is admirable throughout this work.
As antithetical to the realm of the usual and expected and revered as it is respectable in its earnesty and honesty, this English is an English of unabashed joy. There is life here as there is also death: to read of Kholin’s adventures throughout the literary communities of Moscow is to feel like being implanted in a world of constant frenetic energy. In fact, the way of Kholin’s descriptions feels almost hyper-urban and ahead of its time simply through its calm-yet-vivacious focus on Moscow’s inner parts.
“The room I’m living in is dark. I assembled a bed out of a mattress that I bought for 2 rubles, there’s a 1 ruble table, 2 chairs for 50 kopecks each. Everything was so cheap because in Moscow there’s a store at Preobrazhenka that sells confiscated goods.” (From November 5, pages 49-50)
Honesty in the grit of a reality that is struggling but not glorified as such, complicated but not honed as such, disastrously pressured for and against the flow of freedom remains an honesty that readers of Kholin will admire. From poignant critiques of fellow writers and their surrounding circles, habits, and personas, to descriptions like the one above of the mandatory and meek modes of societal life, Kholin is charming and fully-flourished.
The language is carried by a localization that may be difficult for some, and maybe appear pointless and droning for others. Kholin spares no exceptions to his acute memory, details spun like individual fibers of a singular web. As he describes the women he has been involved with, the collaborators and close friends he spends his greatest time with, and the acquaintances at parties and social functions, Kholin never lets his eyes fall. And at those moments when he is most alone, with his diary, the splendid fatigue that we beg to know of, to understand in lieu of his drinking and relentless capabilities, shows its face.
“Sapgir has developed yet another stage of drunkenness. Reading poetry. We recall the three previous stages. One: kissing ladies’ hands; two: I’m a genius; three: talks shit about everyone; and now there’s poetry, too, a drifting stage.” (From September 2, page 25)
As the translators make clear in their introduction, Kholin’s poetry was fairly unpublishable until the late 1980s, due to their being qualities “too coarse and inglorious to be considered poetry by official standards” (page 6). Though much of the 2017 era of publication allows for a certain spectrum of availability and acceptance when it comes to poetry (or at least the poetic act), the limitations and restrictions of artists and writers like Kholin, whose contemporary voice gets muffled, disregarded, and even discarded is one that serves a valuable lesson.
Ultimately, there is a major benefit to the work that’s been published here, which will finally become recognized for, at the least, its existence, and at most a keystone to a larger structure. Or perhaps the lens is the better analogy, where Kholin has constructed a four-dimensional observational tool, through his diaries, that gives the world so much in its collection of, inspections of, so much life. I regret to say that early conclusions will look at collections such as Kholin 66 as minimal, small, and lacking major substance, but the level of concise, focused effort displayed here works to Igor Kholin’s benefits. His poetry, both through the prose of his diaries and the verse of his individual poems, reflects a world entire his own and entirely beyond his own, and that level of beauty, thoroughly social, occasionally admirational, and wholeheartedly absurd, is an entirely unique gift for its readers to be more informed, and joyfully so.
At the same time
But that’s not the thing
Is that I’ll see you anyway
If not tomorrow, then yesterday