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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Rambling: A Review of Letters from Aldenderry, by Philip Nikolayev

reviewed by Larissa Shmailo
Salt Publishing. 1844712-79-6

In his famed essay, Isaiah Berlin maintains that thinkers can be divided into two camps: foxes, which do many things, and hedgehogs, which do one thing extremely well. In Philip Nikolayev’s Letters from Aldenderry, the Nabokovian wordplay, neologisms, puns, mastery of many lyric and experimental forms — indeed, the creation of a lyrical experimentalism—suggest a fox is afoot here.

Yet we have the opening poem “Eagles.” Admiring the symmetrical kettling of the raptors, Nikolaev begins to suspect their perfection and wonders whether they (falcon infringers of copyright?) are using electronic devices to scan his reading material, “Shakespeare and the Pathos of Rambling.” The essay in question is by James Wood and describes the genesis of the stream of consciousness technique in Shakespeare.

Rambling, letting go with words, is a mode where language reigns but authenticity trumps all. In Letters from Aldenderry, there is one authentic voice that speaks through the myriad of form, even if it hides in Southern and “proletarian” and original Russian accents and behind characters and masks. There is the letter writer, demurring and affirming his epistles (“I am no epistolary apprentice”) but signing each poem. There is one voice heard, reflecting on life and its meaning in true hedgehog form.

The language of Letters from Aldenderry is dazzling and turns on a dime: As soon as one technique is mastered, another is presented with equal brilliance. Perspective shifts also: from the CIA eagles, we go to a world of inversions, where turnabout is fair play and the underside of the rock never stays hidden. We are invited by Nikolayev, in “A Plaint on the Parting of Inversion from Poetry,” to

     Let together then us perform
     inversion formal of the norm.

Poetic norms and forms are overturned, using the both formalists’ arsenal and cunningly crafted experimental voices. Subject matter follows suit: Child-proof lighters explode, sandboxes harbor mate-eating mantises, Soviet childhoods are happy. Hell itself is new: “Old Hell” demonstrates the switches and flux of this shifting landscape.

                                                                              The mind
    boggling web of continual shifting transitions,
    locations, defined reference, refined deference points…
    This is the surface part of Old Hell’s township.

And from “On Falling Asleep in August Hot Wee Hours”, with its rhyme of “%” and “-ly”:

     Evolution happens every day, incidentally.
     Between life and death we change 100%.

New and synaesthetic words are needed to describe this turnabout terrain: “musicolored,” “thermonucleozoroastrian,” “happenstranscendence,” “expecrementalism.” Poets from all schools can try to divine their fates from the following from “Revolution.”

     Thus easily af4ded
     all spirits re5ed
     feeling tight ~ good
     self-banished from the shelf
     of the lyrrhic szelf
     once and for hell.

Ghazals (“Suffice it to say, as we Sufis say,” puns Nikolayev) appear alongside elegant quatrains. End rhymes change letter by artful letter. Nikolayev is quick to find catchy assonances, alliterations, and internal rhymes—riffing on “refer,” “referent,” “reefer” in one case, “olive” and “oblivious” in another.

All the poems have an intense lyricism born of a powerful poetic ear for prosody and syllabification. “A Life, In Five Hundred Words or Less” with its columns of nouns and verbs and the several “found” poems written in computer manual speak are no exception. I was delighted to find here the English version of my favorite Russian nursery rhyme, a rhythmic ditty about a boy who gets bitten by a crab, with every stress absolutely, clap-hands intact (“Folklore”).

The central and most powerful device of the poet is his embedding technique, placing a bolded and/or italicized poem into a Roman one, or vice versa. The poems fit like the pieces of a puzzle, and it is to the reader to figure them. From “Target Practice:”

     The only touch of autumn to our ear Our eyes swim brilliantly
     (which only xists nsome transcendental realm. In our galaxy,
     which actually nevers gone so far with a silent pipe in a tin lizzy
     as tactually xist, as toverwhelm parked on the hill, light off, the
     us with itstark reality) perceives radio off, in the silence of
     its own autumnal self as vertigo. The fireflies wind their woe
     Our troubled tissue knows not where to go. dew, twinkling with
     The silly yellow reach of willow leaves. the faulty periodicity

The use of the italic and bold formatting invite questions of quotation and precedence. The relationships change with order read. This juxtaposed language of stylistically different poems—prose poems coupled with formal verse, technical manual jargon with love songs—creates a tension of new meaning. The poems dialogue, fall silent, collaborate, engage war. From “Commencement Walk,” which begins

     Landiens and gentelmurfs, some phoenix here ha’ been tryin’ to
          sow seditioun
     Among yom folks. Tha’s why we’re here, to talk about it. That
           gross misdeed,
     I tell ya, my young ladies and fellers, is mighty skanky to my mind,
          if you’ll
     As abstract as an afterlife, the skyline pardon the proletarian
          exposition. This
     suddenly dives, followed by weary eyes. is some tough shit to be
          reportin. How

and ends

     No fresh nor uppermiddleclassman can words, givin you can’
          you just the meat and
     explain away the necessary pattern moral of the whole story,
          permit me to tell
     exemplified. Wake up, walk on, resist y’uns real short.
     saying you know what causes you to walk. We got might
          persnickety at the
     to stalk your prey, or to be prey and stalked. stinkin’ beast, the
          wood pussy out
     We are not free. Life leads us by the wrist. there. And I’m
          tellin’ you like Mr.
     Judge, I conduct me own investigation. I dinna hafta find the guy
          “guilty,” nor
     “unguilty.” All I cared wuz mother justice (to our errin’ souls)
          hadtabe served!
     He had ta be brought down so we flattened him ta road pizza good
          and simple.

The worldview of Nikolayev’s poems, as may be inferred from the above, is not sanguine. The final line, poem, “Earth,” asks

     But what to make of the dimished lot,
    of what man could have got and yet has not?

Solace is found in the sensory world of nature, of birdsong and the tapping of a typing poet. Solace is found in love for other people, grandmothers, lovers, friends. But ultimately:

     The land has willows, something needs to weep.

The poet, not content to descend into world-weariness or sentiment, offers his compassion in these brilliant, insightful, and erudite ramblings between the sky of perfect eagles and the terrain of Earth. The imperfect personae who inhabit this sphere and its new and old hells love passionately and strive mightily. For its masterful art and sheer beauty, and for its unique voice, the hedgehog ably acting the fox, this is a collection which should be read and returned to often.

This review first appeared in Jacket 34.

Larissa Shmailo is a poet and a translator whose new chapbook is A Cure for Suicide (Cervena Barva Press 2008) and whose new poetry CD is Exorcism (SongCrew 2008).

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