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
Tumult by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Seagull Books, 2016)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
On the periphery: Voices of Dust by Demdike Stare
I drink my tea, close the door behind me and rub the sleep out of my eyes. A girl in rags and tatters is waiting for me outside between two Cadillacs. We walk to the bus stop. Each of us puts five centavos in the payment box. The journey lasts three-quarters of an hour. We get off in one of the suburbs. It’s still pitch dark, the streets are deserted. We make our way through rubbish, banana plants and goats tethered to a water tower. We ask an old peasant who’s squatting there, ‘Where are the writers?’ His only answer is a vague wave of the hand.
From Memories of a Tumult (1967-1970)
How to make sense of the precision between the glory and the monotony of the bounty and retraction of life within a given historical period? Within a scope of complexity? How to promote significance while also acknowledging the meandering breakdown of one’s textured ebbs and flows of the everyday? One approach is through craft, like a slow, chiseled piece of material: slowly, methodically, and through the intimacy of the relationships with individuals. Another method: the testing of the material across time, across length, across a body, liquidous, filled with the urgency of semi-identifiable forces. These qualities are uproarious in the context of the global middle of the twentieth century, politically and economically and culturally and geographically, and in Tumult, revered poet, poignant leftist, and ambitious traveler Hans Magnus Enzensberger finds a foothold in his own life to explain the lives of so many others.
The book in question follows the form of layers: a book that is divided into five major works, Notes on a First Encounter with Russia, Scribbled Diary Notes from a Trip Around the Soviet Union and Its Consequences, Premises, Memories of a Tumult, and Thereafter. All translated from German into a furtive English by the award-winning Mike Mitchell, these works take the author’s autobiographical journeys and bridge (or triangulate) them through many chapters of his significant relationship with Maria Alexandrovna Enzensberger (“Masha”), which carry the weight of a self-proclaimed Russian novel.
However, my interest in writing an autobiography leaves something to be desired. I absolutely have no wish to make a mental note of everything that happens to me. It is with reluctance that I leaf through the memoirs of my contemporaries. I don’t trust them one inch. You don’t have to be a criminologist or an epistemologist to know that you can’t rely on people’s testimonies on their own behalf.
From Premises (2015)
The book in its entirety, an entirety that’s bound to lose and loosen its own identity through gigantic, wavelike rhythm, is thick with description, overwhelmingly so, but as such becomes successful through an achieved accessibility by its own curves. Narrative moments blend, blur, peak, bounce, and slap up against one another, and through a powerful proclamatory style that creates harmony between the macro and the micro, Enzensberger achieves a whispering peace. The book is fascinating in its array of lenses and magnitudes that are as scrupulous as they are forgettable. The interweaving and networking of the narrative are incredibly overwhelming in their highs and lows of ambiguity; a certain edgy value system dictates qualities of flow and tone but remains implicit as subtext.
Who is Enzensberger in these diverse sequences of positioning, and where is there humanist connection, intimate conduction, and the overall action that undoubtedly draws in the reader? I felt compelled while reading this with the same emotional resonance of a quasi-serialized popular mystery novel, or Bolaño: that is, put simply, the effects result in a quirky unpredictable knowability, like the entering of a labyrinth, the approach toward a vivid landscape of walls with boundaries and growths and decays. Pushing forward while pressuring memory to uproot and upturn through reversal.
It’s very hot and his guests are suffering in their dark suits. Our host invites us to go for a swim. He’d like to get into the water himself. His visitors haven’t brought bathing costumes with them. Shock, horror! What does protocol say? Some are at a loss what to do, others don’t feel like a swim. Can one take a dip in the nude, as the head of state suggests, and that in the presence of the author of The Second Sex? Most prefer to sit down on the steps, chatting cautiously, while our host disappears into one of the two bathing huts. Only Vigorelli, an unknown author and I feel like a swim. We get changed in the other hut where we find three pairs of oddly shabby bathing trunks laid out for our host and in his size. They come to our knees. I have to hold mine up with both hands. The 10 minutes I spent in the Black Sea were possibly the only comfortable ones of the day, for our host and for us. Only the bodyguard in his boat, ever-ready to save his master, showed any concern for our well-being.
From Notes on a First Encounter with Russia (1963)
As a person who did not live to see the Cold War, to see mythologized Soviet Russia, to see the tensions between the right and the left, between capitalism and communism and socialism, most of this book for me was a surprisingly enthralling experience looking at the lives of individuals overwhelmed and inundated with systems of rhetoric and resolution. From the sanctuary-esque Norway to the thrashingly on-edge Germany to the vast (endlessness) of Russia to the pressurized turbulence of Havana to the quaint USA, the world of the 6th and 7th decades of the 20th Century is one that is flourishing and fully realized by a man who lived through them. And exquisitely, Enzensberger did his share of living to reflect his share of writing. No landscape was left unexplored, and in this exploration there was a serious commitment to the detail in-betweens of each image.
There exists an underlying empathy that is supported with both coordinated arrangement of people and sheer lists of descriptive information of the objects surrounding him. The presence and distribution of a thorough representation transformed this book from a spirited autobiographical description to a fantastical world. This hyper (hyperized?) realism, filled with trepidations and alleviations of truth, brings new faces to the world of unknown. Oddly, I think about Enzensberger taking on a role of relative neutrality and emotional responsibility that becomes offset through a degree of coldness from an intellectualism, and how what results contributes to an accessibility. Can such accessible writing, a production and a respectful body of compassion, expose greater waves of empathy that exist beyond (after) the text?
The person is made from old newspapers that have been soaked and are then pressed into a hollow plaster mould and dried out. Once a day the mould is opened and the human being is born. It’s full of holes, fully grown, rough and empty. Brain and lungs, heart and spleen, bowels and sex organs are all missing. It’s open, hollow, unprepossessing; leading articles from the Party newspaper can be read on its skin. Then it’s scraped smooth and polished. At the next table a woman dips it in garish green paint: that’s the primer. Next an eerie pink is slapped on.
From Memories of a Tumult
“Tumult” is defined in Google as “a loud, confused noise, especially one caused by a large mass of people.” Oddly, and perhaps with slight irony, and perhaps with slight intention too, this book pauses before the realm of the “tumult” of which it is named. Following the granularity and texture of the world and its spectrum of perspectives and inspections, a greater thematic curve extends out of a unison of the sections of the book (reinforced by the poet’s interjections and reflections). The bursts of energy out of that curve tempts the levels of noise, the confusion, the booming, but there is a consistency of comfort through the breaking down of intensity by a strict, authorial control.
As much as Enzensberger jokes about his work being distinctly Russian (he even mentions, in a blink, Dostoyevsky as one of the greatest writers), the book indeed blossoms into a quintessentially Russian mode. And, without being too self-aware of itself and its format, it does provide gentle critiques of systems that have previously and concurrently exist, fail, and continue to operate. Despite it all, human romance is what holds the author, and the life around him, together.
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All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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