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Poetry at the Purist’s

Ben Mazer reviews

Monkey Time, by Philip Nikolayev

Verse Press, 2003. 99 pp. $14.00 paper.

This piece is 3,500 words or about eight printed pages long.

The period of the 60s through the 90s was an analytic period for poetry. Poetry became self-conscious, experimental, doubtful, splintered off into insular camps. More recently a few poets — Glyn Maxwell, W. N. Herbert and Nikolayev among them — have arisen to demonstrate that there is life yet in lyric poetry, particularly when it is infused with a healthy experimentalism and informed by a gifted contemporary sensibility.  
      Nikolayev’s Monkey Time is about what can be done with what we have left of our knowledge. After Deconstruction, this book is seriously concerned with the questions of what matters and what is real.  
      This poetry seems difficult to talk about. One wants to say first of all that it is very, very good. It is so good that it surprises our expectations, dazzling us with a way of being poetry that we have not quite seen before. It is enchanting to be treated so many different ways by language in a book of poems. What is truly rare about this poetry is its exceptional and liquid sophistication. It is the keen product of an all-engrossing synthesis. In this regard it brings to mind the poetry of Stevens or Auden. But whereas Stevens concentrates on a formal sophistication, and Auden upon a sophistication of world view (in his analysis of self), Nikolayev is perhaps more focused upon a synthesis or reconciliation of these potentially polar spectrums.
      Nikolayev’s subject is invariably (though not always ostensibly), as with all true poets, the poetic experience itself. Whether trained upon life, nature, literature, history or culture, or multiple arenas of perception informing each other, it is the naked eye, the naked ear and the naked mind of the poet that charges the language of these things with a rhythm and an intonation that allow them to speak of his special and native knowledge. Whether it is possible for the naked eye of the reader to grasp the imprint, the oscillations of that presence, at least in their fullness as the poet sees them, is one of the great mysteries of poetry. Poetry is not written artificially — it is heard in the head. Should the poet suppress or remove subtleties of thought that are over the head of the common reader? Should he alter them so that they become something else? Or should he be the first to lay bare new territories of perception? The electricity of Nikolayev’s poetic intelligence is such that, although with the distinctive mark of poetry that was written to please nobody but himself, everywhere his poetry seems to speak right out to the reader.
      There is ample indication that there are no limits to Nikolayev’s abilities. There are traditionally lyric poems and extreme avant garde experiments alongside each other in this collection. In some instances traditional genres and methods are combined with avant garde measures in the same poem, as in the case of a series of ‘embedded’ or ‘immured’ sonnets which, along with the other sonnets in this book (I count 20 altogether, 5 of the ‘embedded’ variety), prove once again — as in his first two collections, Artery Lumen and Dusk Raga — that Nikolayev is a master of the sonnet. These ‘experimental’ expansions of the sonnet form are much less intimidating and uninviting than they may appear if only given a cursory glance. They are really just sonnets which have been encrusted in a surrounding text of continuous prose, the whole forming a near perfect square. The sonnets are fine and classic, contemporary with Elizabethan overtones — thoroughly lyric poetry. The prose texts they are embedded in read like distorted samples of random contemporary texts — in the line of information correspondences, sometimes technical communications. The two juxtaposed texts inform or interpret each other. Often the prose wrapping puts a gloss on or interprets the sonnet. (These sonnets might be put into time capsules and sent out to space.)
   The square shape these sonnets take on the page draws attention to their similarity in shape, and in other ways, to another square block of text in the book, the poem ‘A Black Square, In Memory of Kazimir Malevich,’ — which in turn refers to Malevich’s famous Suprematist painting The Black Square (1913), one of the earliest forays into abstract painting. Malevich didn’t at first know why he had painted a black square on a white canvas, but later wrote about the black square intensively, calling it ‘non-objective,’ meaning without figures or objects. Its space is a field of emotion and intuition. The effect of Nikolayev’s black squares is more like that of peering in a tinted window. But like Malevich’s painting, Nikolayev’s embedded sonnets (I mean each square of text taken as a whole) seem to represent the flux and continuity of subjective, partial experience in relation to the unknown. They are hints or indications or microcosms of an unknowable larger truth. As Nikolayev puts it in the book’s opening poem, ‘Boxes’: ‘A blue fox in a black box is unknowable.’ There is always something that is out of view. The sonnet exists in relation to everything which is not the sonnet, both inside and outside the poem, as the poem exists in relation to everything which is known or unknown outside of the field of the poem. Thus, in another of the embedded sonnets (‘Crystals Closed, Sonnet Immured’), Nikolayev writes: ‘I throw enjambments in a house with sonnet windows.’ Here is ‘Insects in Amber’:

What is immorality? Recent research confirms that DNA can be
extracted from insects ensnared in the resin of ancient trees. These
fossilized inclusions are preserved magnificently, quite unscratched,
A friend of the Forms, yet I’m hurt by what their genes attached
Plato so influentially taught into the bargain. Today, you can buy
concerning poetry. His words again a wee forty million year old
fill me with such illuminating pain ant with a partial cockroach
that clear of sleep, on humming wings I wander in glows of gold,
into a moon-infested park to ponder which proves even part roach
the logos, anxious to concede its truth. is true art beyond reproach
It’s time to shed the innocence of youth (but it takes a long time to
about this. Poets are cicadas. Reader, gel). Today it’s easy to find
see how I’ve trilled a figure for you in meter, early to mid Geno-
purveying airy nothing, stark belief? zoic art for as few as $600 US
My feigned insomnia lulls your mind to sleep, apiece or cheaper.
and what you call the power of assertion Get an imprisoned moth
is sheer manipulation of emotion. with the fossil bug of the month
at a whopping discount. They are as if alive, embalmed in the hard
sap of gymno- and angiosperms. This bright diaphanous cement, a
100% all natural, is the only recipe, all else being trial and error.

And here is a GIF image of a typeset version with justified lines, as the author wishes it to be seen:

typeset version of poem Insects in Amber

The sonnet grapples with Plato’s original damage to the confidence of poets, ‘logos’ here meaning the Socratic philosophical argument against poetry, and is ‘anxious to concede its truth’ — that poets are not an authority on truth. Yet ‘logos’ might also refer to ‘the word,’ to poetry. The sonnet then might be anxious to concede the truth that poetic language is insufficient to express truth, or it might be anxious to concede that poetic language can attain to the authority of truth. All of these meanings are there on the fence in the sonnet’s anxiety. But the painful loss of innocence is the acceptance of Plato’s truth.  
      Poetry is not assertion — it is manipulation of emotion. The liquid luminescence of the sonnet draws us into the poet’s ‘feigned insomnia.’ But beneath all this pyrotechnic manipulation of emotion there are truths — or ideas about truth — which if not asserted (why need they be, if they are good ideas?) are quite certainly suggested, invoked, insinuated. But Nikolayev wants or allows us to view these without the innocence of unquestioning face-value acceptance: he presents them rather in all their contradictory and unsettling, unsettled relations to each other. Yet in the process he has asserted something about the language of poetry — about its method of addressing truth. It is oblique, suggestive, effecting reference by demonstrations of attitude, of pitch. It is a kind of charade, a prescribed mimicry which appeals to the emotions. It is ironic, and throws into a questioning light the very modalities of our belief.
      The ‘prose’ component of the poem begins as a discourse about how amber is formed, but becomes a kind of commentary on the nature of poetry. The right recipe for poetry will come by ‘trial and error.’ Genuine poetry, ‘the only recipe,’ is a kind of glue in which the poet’s poetic DNA will be preserved forever.
      All the things that are known and make up the world are subject to being shaken up and redistributed in Nikolayev’s lyric idiom. They are still there but they are rearranged so that their juxtapositions draw out and suggest meanings which would otherwise have been inarticulable.
      Nikolayev’s poetry is a serious poetry, by which I mean a poetry that grapples seriously with the world and with the nature of experience, even when he is at his most comic. For comedy is just that — a redistribution of the elements of the world that draws out ironies or urgencies of meaning. Jokes also rearrange the order of things, reorder the universe. The reorderings inhabit the world of unconscious symbols like those in dreams, where the world is unfiltered and subject to recombination, informing us of unconsidered relationships that alter the meanings of our knowledge or experience.
      Language has the authority of being a concoction — its elements familiarly charged, their composite a chance to see with fresh eyes the range and weight of our possibility. Things that would otherwise be impossible to say are precisely suggested / shaded by just the degree of deviation from the expected or the customary. Throughout Monkey Time there is an enormous sense of faith in the multi-directioned pull ‘reality’ has upon language. Nikolayev has in sight all that is unknowable, all that experience shows us again and again is unknowable. He allows us to eavesdrop our way into a more intimate engagement with the very limits of cognition. Nikolayev’s language constantly points to the vastness of expressible truth — truth not just as thing (object) but as nature — in its way, in its manner. Again, it is the poetic state, it is a very wide compass. There is nothing obscurant or unclear about this kind of writing. There may be an occasional sly deception, a test of the reader’s abilities, an honest refusal to say things less accurately — but the onus is there.
      This poetry has, at times, a lyric authority and eloquence such as we have perhaps not seen in poetry since Auden or Lowell or Larkin. Its voice is utterly individual and independent and yet the work firmly plants itself in the rich tradition of English language poetry (and for that matter world poetry). The sensibility is keenly contemporary — combining a sensitive and historical ken with a fluid approbation of the baldly and timelessly sudden. And though this may be international poetry, it is also American speech. It is heightened talk, the poet’s talk, rich with nuance and suggestion. Here is ‘Certainties’:

There are certainties that will reach you soon,
which are seldom evident from the start.
Meanwhile semi-meanderingly Boston
flows like magic into the empty heart,

lends a vacant hand. Frost bites off, glues on
fingernails on the bronze of giants
while a local bank shuts off with a block
the accounts of delinquent clients.

Cars advance. There is nothing to stem the flow
of pedestrian stars and celestial eyes.
Simply follow suit through a neon glow
over glaring blackenings of the ice,

but be careful just as you are alone.
An experience nothing can beat will pass,
milling neon bone to neon dust,
sweeping neon pearls through dusk neon.

Christmas nears with a vengeance: its jingling bell
like a tinkling lily in gelid fluff
overhangs the premises where they sell
alcoholic beverages and stuff.

Quickened social life as a form of art
lets all things drop into a woven waltz.
Feeling sorry for tramps and bums, the heart
is again recounting its idiot pulse

and advancing into the crowd. ‘Go home,’
whisper cabs in their yellow checkered fuss.
Early Santa, his whiskers suffused with rum,
whispers softly, whispers, and whispers thus:

‘Everything impels one to reaffirm
that inevitably there comes a time
when it’s time to tighten your grip on life
in a grim suspension of disbelief.’

This is fine, classic stuff, not unworthy of some of the finest lyrics of Eliot or Hart Crane, yet eloquently contemporary and individual. It is written in direct yet suggestive language. Nikolayev is constantly in subtle ways, suggestive phrasings, putting details into a magnified context, subjecting them to a wide reflection. His deft control of idiom and intonation, his masterful manipulation of mood, and the strong undercurrent of some urgent tom-tom beat of meaning perpetrate their attack upon the emotions, where the poem takes up its residence as a kind of time bomb of meaning.
      The end of ‘Certainties’ passes judgment on its beginning. These ‘certainties that will not reach you soon’ are not the certainties of philosophical truth, they are the certainties of necessity brought about by the exigencies of life. They are the certainties of a requisite ‘grim suspension of disbelief.’ Disbelief may be a more appropriate philosophical position toward ‘reality,’ but it simply will not cut ice with living in the world. It is not by ‘certainty,’ but ‘certainties’ — different or various certainties — that survival will be met. Nikolayev’s articulate hold on such certainties and uncertainties is of a very high order of synthesis throughout the poem. He renames in lucid, gelid detail just the ‘semi-meandering’ fiction which is typical of the stuff of life. His language and that fiction have an interlocking grip on each other, as they try to fight it out as to which one is real. Nikolayev is not questioning our belief in God, he is questioning (perhaps more relevantly) our belief in Massachusetts.  
      At every turn Nikolayev is making himself, language and us anew. Throughout Monkey Time he displays an enormous variety of approaches, modes and moods. The book is filled with astonishing performances, with strange and delightful oddities.
      There is a found sonnet — Nikolayev’s eye has spotted a 14-line traditionally rhymed sonnet lurking in the text of a label on a can of aerosol (this projects us directly into the poet’s state of mind). At the extreme of his avant gardism the traditional is not absent.
      As I have suggested, there are some wildly funny poems in this book. As humor often has to do with a multiplicity of meanings which undermine, show up, or expand upon the conventional meanings they reference, in poetry this can be a reflection of the poet questioning the ‘known,’ the ‘supposed’ — putting his faith in nothing less tangible than his own instincts. At times this amounts to a kind of ‘pure poetry’ or ‘pure lyricism.’ Another gloss on the sources of the poetic faculty? Listen to the closing stanzas of ‘Agnosticism’:

Ahoy, tell me, boy,
who was Frida Kahlo?
Wish I knew, but dunno.
To pretend seems callow.

I have found in Central Park
the remains of Noah’s Ark.
But I ask you, who is Noah?
I admit that I dunno.

‘Y’all so yellow, hollow winds,’
I’ll trill a capella.
Oh la la, why so, how so?
I decidedly dunno.

Buddy, ask me something.
Ask me anything.
For instance, is this my
tuxedo. Dunno, why?

Nikolayev is also the master of an oblique, sly humor that gets its kick from a kind of distortion of tone. In ‘Mr. God:’ a cartoon-like narrator’s voice, in a loaded admixture of high and low speech, somewhat kin to the broad tradition of American humor which has one of its exemplars in W. C. Fields, addresses God:

                      ... Small, medium or large
sprite, coke on tap or bottled pepsi? Gotcha.
I much enjoy work out in paradise.
They pay me well up here. The tips are large.
But mister, how about lettin me watch ya
transform them academics into mice?

There are two extremely hilarious parodies of Robert Frost, both sonnets (‘Frost Reminisces on Doing Farming Just North of Boston,’ ‘Frost Interviewed by The Boston Farmer’), where an apparent or slyly overt criticism of Frost does not override the hilarity of delight the author evidently finds in mimicking and even one-upping Frost’s style, with I daresay some of the ginger prickly independence of Frost himself.
      Some of the poems are just plain fun. In ‘A Cable to Hawaii,’ Nikolayev invites us to ‘inhale topless tulips’ and ‘hele with the muumuus to the luau.’ He displays his serene mastery of the silly pun (and the absurdity or beauty of propositions) in ‘A Visceral Yes’ when he says: ‘Think of all the things a noncom can do to a private.’      
      Everywhere in the book Nikolayev is exploring the limits of what poetry is. Nikolayev’s ‘experimentalism’ — or the ‘experimental’ aspect of the poems in this collection — is akin to the formalism of Ashbery when he is at his best — he is liable to do anything with his technique, but it is always in the service of a precise formal cogency. There are poems in the book which begin in a disjunctive, avant garde mode, but by a deft turning of the lens become more and more focused until the disjunctive elements inform and are informed by what turns out to be a rational lyrical discourse and a definition of art. In ‘Taboo,’ Nikolayev says a very great deal about what can’t be said in poetry:

things you can’t mention are the insects
leaves of any kind of flora moral
also all the meta words like sense
trash grandparent non referent aberration
like electrocution of the invisible
broke cameraman cataclysms of the earth
imagine being born into him or her
oh and course I forgotten the snow
noshing these things trivialize everything
make you bank make you crank out nothing
2 bit sonnets on a tea afternoon
blokes laughing you in like
all those words are too regional
s well as other things you can’t mention
haven’t done itsy bitsy rock sunset
oldsmobile have no complaint
experience forget experience
the butterfly is a flying sandwich of pollen
the typewriter a typing sandwich of lying
of trying to speak the truth in language
snapdragons on the lawns
display their leonine yawns
the mind’s verandah is clear
with its gardens of slats 2 silken
armchairs 2 bitter sockets of hope
doily what a flat woven pattern of
what you can’t recognize can’t mention
these things too are taboo in poetry

The disjunctive texture of some of the language must be taken as an inclusive assessment of the disjunctive aspects of experience or reality in relation to the poem’s consideration of the taboo in poetry. Suppression and substitution can say a lot. As Nikolayev puts it at the end of ‘A Polemic’: ‘do you copy again subvert subvert / and still meaning shines through / subvert it and still it shines through / that’s the magic.’
      It would be impossible for me to recommend this book highly enough, so singular and exemplary an intelligence is reflected and radiated in its linguistic invention, in its sweeping critical world view. Nikolayev is reviving not only classical, formal methods, but their old, original accompanying assumption that poetry should be visceral, and concerned with matters of importance, and he is combining these with an utterly wild and yet perspicacious, meaningful, contemporary experimentalism. In doing so, he demonstrates quite coherently and cogently that genuine lyric poetry is far from dead, that it is inventive and individual as it ever was. It would be a shame if Monkey Time were lost among the shuffle of new poetry books being published, and did not reach the exuberant celebration of the wide readership it deserves. These are poems that are riveting for the immediacy and urgency of a language that draws deeply upon the springs of language, while inventing new idioms to make us feel the world that we live in. They are full of lines ‘that cause tears to flow / and cheers to follow’ (‘Boxes’). Throughout, Nikolayev is relentlessly resourceful, finding ways to, in Eliot’s famous words, ‘dance / Like a dancing bear, / Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.’ The message is urgent. It is possible to be fully alive. This is poetry with ears.

Photo of Ben Mazer and friends

Ben Mazer’s poetry is published widely in international periodicals. His essay revealing a previously unknown source for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (an 1892 essay by Elisabeth Cavazza of Portland, Maine) appears in the second number of Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics. He is the author of White Cities (Barbara Matteau Editions) and The Big House (forthcoming).

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