You Cannot Even Imagine Us

Pavel Arseniev's poems of solidarity and alienation illuminate the phantasmagoria of capitalist Russia.

A protest banner bears Arseniev's slogan at a recent anti-government protest in Russia.

In the last decade, a constellation of writers, poets and thinkers have emerged in Russia in opposition to the privatisers of the word who dominated the first post-Soviet literary scene. The radical de-politicisation of poetry in the 1990s had deep roots in the mainly liberal Soviet underground – its watchword was borrowed from a statement by Joseph Brodsky that ‘If art teaches anything, it is the privateness of the human condition’. This has been increasingly challenged, by an increasingly political art. The names of this constellation include Kirill Medvedev, Galina Rimbu, Roman Osminkin, Dmitry Golynko, Alexander Skidan and Keti Chukhrov (who works with dramatic dialogues and is also an outstanding thinker and philosopher in her own right). Reported Speech (Cicada Press) is the first collection in English of poetry by one of the major figures in this shift, the poet and activist Pavel Arseniev. What his and others’ work demonstrates is a decisively new and radical intervention in the world of poetry from a perspective connecting with real social and political movements. 

It was Arseniev himself who supplied one of the emblematic slogans of the protest movement which sprang up in Russia from 2011 to 2012, a slogan which symbolised the growing abyss between the political elites and society. A double-meaning in Russian, ‘You do not even represent us’ and ‘You cannot even imagine us’ is also indicative of Arseniev’s strategy as poet. Simultaneously both highly political and highly formalist, his work was composed in conjunction with his constant association with, and contribution to, Translit, one of Russia’s most extraordinary new literary and cultural reviews, as well as the fascinating series of coarsely produced *kraft pamphlets of critical literary and political texts. 

The title Reported Speech is something of a manifesto as well as a methodological statement. The book by its nature cannot reflect the concrete nature of Arseniev’s poetic strategies – his poems were often wrapped up in material interventions (videos or graffiti, for example) which, unfortunately, the present volume can do nothing to reproduce, apart from mentioning a couple of video links.  The concept of using reported speech – the texts, spoken and written of others – is very much linked with Arseniev’s whole poetic strategy, as well as his core vision of what poetry should be like in the twenty first century. Its ethos is often a documentary one, rescuing found footage, found speech and writing to offer what Kirill Medvedev calls a ‘subversive materialist exploration’ of reality in post-Soviet Russia. 

This focus on the concrete and the material is something that connects Arseniev with figures from an earlier epoch. The theorist and playwright Sergei Tretyakov, a friend of Brecht and victim of Stalin’s purges, appears as Arseniev’s most direct inspiration.  Other influences on his work include figures of the post-Stalin Soviet underground, notably the concrete poet Vsevolod Nekrasov, whose poetry liberated the word of the streets and the language of ‘Sovok’ from itself, offering not so much new opportunities in the sphere of literary expression but new opportunities for common parlance; and Arkady Dragomoshchenko, who fused poetry, philosophy, essayistic and journalistic prose. 

Arseniev once remarked that poetry for him was a work in progress in the struggle against narcissism. If the literary, narcissistic text ultimately represents unnecessary excess, then a new poetic figure needs to focus on documenting the very act of speech – hence the importance of Arseniev’s conception of the Poetry of Direct Action. By concentrating as much on the act as on the content of speech, Arseniev seems also to have come closer to documenting aspects of the very tenor of life and reality in the present epoch. Through using the genre of police reports or of legalese in ‘An Incident’ and ‘Forensic Examination’, or the language of adverts in ‘Mayakovsky for Sale’ and ‘Mass Median’, a series of brief news items in ‘Reports from the Field’, or the long parodic poem-diatribe in nationalist hate-speech In response to a ‘Provocative Exhibition of Contemporary Critical Art’, we discover not the poet’s perspective, but a concrete, material trace taken from excessive speech which illuminates the strange capitalist phantasmagoric world that is contemporary Russia. 

Another aspect of Arseniev’s poetry is its playful take on literary history. Whether it’s his early re-imagining of Kafka’s Metamorphosis where the character discovers his normality (Once K. woke up and realized that his hands were clean) and his rationality (The next day K., with increasing alarm, discovered that he had a cool head), Arseniev’s reimagined Kafka/Gregor Samsa character discovers that there is little hope of escaping his (re)integration into the capitalist economy: 

he looked at himself one last time in the mirror, which was
of little help now,
got dressed,
gathered his things,
and went to work for scoundrels. 

Or, he re-imagines Guy Debord settling in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar in 2012, opening up a Facebook account and organizing cultural events in the locality. Debord meets the narrator, takes them to their crash pad, (a penthouse belonging to a friend of Debord’s, the son of a local real estate mogul), they then eat and conduct conversation over a healthy meal with the owner and are asked to carry an enormous painting through Krasnodar to research local interest in contemporary art. 

Arseniev’s conception of literature predominates in the last selection (from 2016-2017), entitled Poems of the History of Literature. Situationism (again), Italian neo-realism, Anton Chekhov, and the Oberiu poets are juxtaposed with Stalin’s henchman Beria. Though it is the poem ‘you rode out to work a potato farm’, which imagines a conversation with an acolyte of Brodsky, which most directly underscores how Arseniev sees the contribution of his own generation, highlighting the martyrological romance of the Brodsky generation:

so we did not go the potato farm,
the terrible freedomless soviet potato farm,
instead we went to human rights seminars
in basically those same fields, outside leningrad 

in contrast to Arseniev’s generation where to go anywhere 

we’d have to forge a Moscow art magazine press pass

Oh, how can I sing of thee, my fake Moscow art magazine press pass!

There are finally two poles between which Arseniev’s poetry swings. That desire to break out of those fireproof, noise proof classrooms that the privatization of experience constructed in the 1990s is combined with a desire for the streets, as Arseniev’s most political poem in this collection indicates (‘A Poem of Solidarity and Alienation’). The other pole is Arseniev’s recognition that the poet no longer has a voice or a determined role of his or her own. That final relinquishing of the private and of the individual leads not to muteness, but to a realization that the only material from which one can work is concrete and social –  real, objective speech that can become that ‘universal’ which in Russian literally means common to all. 

we don’t need
augmented and improved reality
what we need
is an updated
and expanded

About the Author

Giuliano Vivaldi is a translator, blogger and writer on cultural issues. He is currently completing translations of the works of Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov and the contemporary leftist thinker Ilya Budraitskis, as well as translating (jointly with Tom Rowley) the writings of the murdered anti-fascist lawyer, Stanislav Markelov.