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She is at the bottom, with the silt...
element — water; color — green.
You really have to talk about water’s constant, non-localized, and motile presence. It’s here and everywhere. It looms up behind you. Attacks, pursues, floods. People choke in/on it, plunge into it. Suffocate, perish, drown in it. Fall and rush after it, collapse up to their knees, slip in it. This is obsession with water.
here are different waters, distinct types of bodies of water — or forms of water’s existence — from river to ocean, but one is primary: flowering water, taut with duckweed (or tsvelia, as Khlebnikov said), with water lilies, or lilies, the kind called standing water (but the whole point is that it moves: disturbed water). It’s dirty water, too, with floating trash that’s never carried away, remaining forever — candy wrappers, slivers of silver foil: a pond, but above all a swamp.
A swamp is the opposite of a river. A river naturally makes you think of oblivion (carrying the trash away); a swamp is about memory, preservation. True, there is one paradoxical image: the Ghost in Hamlet (here and elsewhere in Pasternak’s translation) talks about “sleepy swamp duckweed in Lethe’s standing water,” and here the river of oblivion is transformed into a pond of memory.
In the repeating, insistent, and overpowering image of the swamp lies the foundation for the green color that adorns her verse. (Green looms up behind and follows after.) There is nothing disparaging, demeaning, or negative in a swamp such as is ordinarily associated with that word and phenomenon; a swamp is water’s highest form of existence, living water (with all its sighing, sobbing, champing, sucking, and shuddering). This could be the water lived in. A swamp is also beautiful water (“beautiful as a swamp” is a measure of beauty). Enchanting and alluring water. A water maiden, or a maiden become water.
In its omnipresence green water is akin to air, which is also “absolutely everywhere, no matter where you fly.” That’s the sparrow point of view, at least. What air is to birds, water is to terrestrial beings, usually called human beings. If water is not just accessible but inevitable, then air has to be penetrated. You have to rise up in it. Air is for dreaming. To a certain extent, it’s an alternative. Airplanes and dirigibles, which conceal the possibility of flight, appear in Afanasieva’s poems. Or rather, the disquieting notion of enigmatic and fateful air-swimming apparatuses never disappears from her poems. Whoever is speaking and acting in the poems (and we still have to establish who this is), he is forever ready to mention (or mention himself through) them. If “thousands of holy cows” clamber across the beach, then here the picture arises of thousands of red dirigibles and the story of their father-creator (in the unusual poem “Hindenburg”). The hero is constantly awaiting a hint at a dirigible (or its appearance).
But in Afanasieva’s poems, “soaring” means falling. Or rather: soaring in order to fall, crash, perish. (The dirigible will explode, the plane smash up… . The dirigible exists, indeed, was invented-created, in order to explode; that’s why it was fueled with hydrogen. Here’s her definition of airplanes: “those droning offspring that fall.” Phaeton? Icarus?)
Water and air share a “common property”: mortality. Soaring and falling are so linked as cause and effect that “soaring” becomes the inverse of diving: soaring = diving, just as falling = drowning. Flight (flying) is described in the same terms as diving: “The air can be so thick, / that … / You must carefully / shut your eyes and ears and nose and mouth, / So that inside at least, you survive the flight” (“Not much is left after flights … ”). This shutting of the eyes, nose, and so forth isn’t a safety measure (death is inevitable and desired, multiplying and continuously experienced anew inside you, and what’s interesting here is, whose is it? and who is experiencing it?) but rather a condition of hermeticity, of the preservation inside you of flight, swimming, or whatever happened during them (and is persistently regenerated, repeated inside). But what did happen?
Although water is always present in Afanasieva’s poems, and air appears as its alternate reality, there is a place where they meet (or: where they always are), are nearly indistinguishable (they move in and out of each other), and comprise a common environment: the shore — another (after “swamp”) very natural and constant (although never named) image born of the element of water:
an exhale held, in asthma’s grip,
but for a minute
The air suddenly fills with a whistle and crunch,
a river as noisy as a dirt-road Niagara,
boughs crackle like a radio at full blast, —
the shore exhales violently, and
suddenly the bent question mark turns
into an exclamation, a thrill, a cry,
the absence of rhythm,
“She’s nodding off!”
(“I shut, fold my weary lids … ”)
The orgiastic cry (Evoe!) at meeting: of two elements, father and son (daughter and mother), lovers… .
People breathe water (not in water — and with their whole body) as they do air. Like air, water fills the body. The fisher-boy on the shore is motionless; motion goes on around and inside him. It may sway (bend) him lightly — like a tree. His “outside” and “inside” get confused, communicate, spill over into each other. The human being’s white “body-pitcher” is a boundary, weak and permeable (“transparent”) and easily annihilated; simultaneously it is a container. The body splits; its annihilation, its dissolution, is the destruction of barriers and the ultimate fusion of currents (their transformation into a single stream), which even so are constantly mixing, pouring in and out of each other. Hence the attraction to death, or for another life, which is already within someone’s reach, or has already happened to (for) someone: “undress, / change clothes / and go out ringing” (“And a ringing like a streetcar’s or loose change … ”), or flow away (“As water follows under the diaphragm … ” — with the repetition of the same formula: away, there, out of the body, according to the example cited). “Oh, the heavy burden of flesh and bones, / When might you vanish, evaporate” (Hamlet, act 1, scene 2).
Traditionally, Eros and Thanatos (the title of one of her cycles) assume each other, interacting like effect and cause: love evokes death, and the infinite experience of death is a form of love, an imitation of the deceased and his likening. Water fills the body, pours in (the body fills with water) and out, not simply overflowing, but itself becoming a source of a continuous flood: water pours from it:
When water flows under the diaphragm–
Who is the diaphragm: fish or disaster?
If fish or fief,
Then is it like that, for always?
If water pours from the mouth,
Who is this mouth: megaphone or mute?
If megaphone or ax,
Can it say, “I don’t want to”
When the water spills up to the starry heights,
Floods our neighbor Masha and Washington —
Will whoever whose heart the flood
Began to take drown?
“Hoo!” replies the omniscient owl
and flows away.
(quoted in full)
The person in whom water flows easily and freedom and its opposite (fish, fief), silence, accusation, and punishment (megaphone, ax), are balanced, is the person who drowned. Also he is clearly the sole person who can’t drown anymore — or rather, she, the drowned woman become of water. The gendered pronoun vacillates in the poem between he and she; talking about the diaphragm, it’s “she,” about the megaphone, “he.” Be that as it may, present and alternating in the poem are the two genders: she is the drowning victim; and he is the one who is experiencing her death and who identifies himself with her. These may be different individuals or one and the same.
But this is a live drowning victim (whether he or she), someone who can only live in water: for the drowning victim, / floating downstream / farther and farther away from here, / closer and closer to there / the river gait is easy / The water is with him … ” (from another short masterpiece, “The flower’s gait is easy”). This is the same drowning victim who sometimes speaks herself (or better, and in the style of the poet herself: as if she were speaking herself):
I step across silently, rustle unusually
Whisper out of place
What do the voices say? They say,
March is on the wane.
On the wane they say.
What’s that the voices say?
I look away and breathe oddly
Hear imprecisely …
I see a blur and feel kind of off…
All the perceptions and actions described here occur through water (the blurriness, approximateness, and oddness of sounds and shapes, their muffledness): she sees, hears, and speaks from the water.
This view (whose?) “from the water,” which pursues the hero, first appeared in the poem “Mama” in her “children’s cycle” (like Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album), They Shared an Orange: “I saw on the bottom not shadow, not reflection / but someone’s murky eye / I felt guilty, scared … ” — an infrequent instance of the feminine gender [expressed in the Russian grammatical forms — Trans.] speaking in Afanasieva’s poems. Unlike others of her poems, where the hero identifies with whoever is looking through (from) the water, here a de-identification has taken place: the eye is not mine (recognition, like self-identification, has been delayed). The view (whose?) condemns: “Where have I come from to be like this?” Like what? For a child this view is of a well, “this one looks from above” “at the grown-up” with the promise of inevitable death. The same reversibility (return) “from above” and “from below,” the view “from under water” and “from under air”; two forms of the curtain of bewitching darkness that they gaze out of and into. After this “initial encounter” and repetition, a fear — of wells and heights (ibid.) — remained, but it is in fact the very same flickering and reversible fear (or anticipation: of falling).
The guilt that pervades all the hero’s notions and recollections began (or always was) with that initial encounter. “Where did I come from?” converts naturally into “where did YOU come from?” Death before death, foreseen and remaining (preserved) death, or first-death, which happened once and for all (but somehow once and since then repeating, or continuously occurring). All these vacillations between “I” and “you,” the changing of guises and presentations or self-transformations, will remain as well: “Was there really a girl?” (“Was there really a feather? / And was there really an Olya?”). Or is there only an “I”?
The beloved-become-God (and only then Beloved, understood as the beloved in the dimension of late worship, prayer, and supplication; naturally, in order to become God, in order to become beloved, one must die), or God’s megaphone, or the one who stands (sits) next to God, is known from the poem cycle, Eros and Thanatos — “When I took you, I awoke, shouting your name / Oh, hear me, I awoke, shouting your name” (“Everything so beautiful as to be irreparable”), “when every orgasm I had brought me closer to god” (“But what remains”) — is the emergence of an orgiastic cult. Here, too, are all these little beings, quasi-humans, with aqueous, doleful, “magnetic” eyes, conceived “by god, not you” (ibid.), or by God through “you” — with a double or triple violation of all the laws of nature (the beloved in place of God or God through the beloved); God is of water (God of water), and her eyes are from (like) him.
Water’s easy transformation into air (and back) denotes a constant surroundedness by Her. This beloved is Maurine from Eros and Thanatos, the “ethereal girl (who is everywhere — O.D.) who would love to kiss” from “Flash mob” (“I have five lives … ”), the girl one dreams of (with the inversion, usual here, of existence-nonexistence and past-future: she is still or no longer here), and she from whom quasi-elves are born and who could be called Jeanne d’Arc (hearing voices), or Lady Godiva (yet another theatrical, clownish character: re-presented), and this is the pale Josefina from another equally incredible poem, “Candygod”: “a beautiful mademoiselle, slender as a pink flamingo,” sitting on the breakwater above the green (and grimy) waters and ashy clouds (it’s the same thing: sitting above the water or above a cloud), nearly repeating the pose of the famous Lorelei.
The Josefina-Columbine-Ballerina who has quit dancing, the circus acrobat in the jester’s hat just like the cap of the hero who dreams of her, only his cap also has (added) little gold bells, too (or is it she who has the little bells, and she is merely reflected in him, as in water? the image expands-develops), and smeared on his cheek and lips is chocolate — the token of a little boy, which serves as clown makeup (just as Josefina’s pallor is the token of a drowning victim and an actress’s powder).
Madness makes the buffoon (or buffoonery is mad). Buffoonery is a form of madness. There are no non-mad buffoons, or else he’s a fake buffoon, a buffoon-cheat and a charlatan. Is this pale Josefina before falling in the waters or afterward? “I rush after him and I fall too / fall and fall and wake” — the eternal instance is repeated (relived) in the hero’s dreams (“But what remains”).
This beloved hasn’t so much drowned as she is endlessly drowning (falling — into water), singing French tunes on the breakwater, or is a swimming and whispering, mad and beautiful sorceress who knows a thing or two about flowers and plants — Ophelia, a nymph, a mermaid, or a shadow (“In the name of this shadow / I … shall not quiet as long as my eyelids blink” — Hamlet, act 5, scene 1; a disturbing, materializing shadow)
In Hamlet the queen talks about the madwoman’s death: the willow above the stream, Ophelia, weaving garlands, picks up a bough, which “breaks,” and the heroine “collapses” with all her flowers into the water: at first the stream bears her up, and she chants “snatches of old songs,” tunes, “like a creature of a river race,” until, finally, she is “pulled” “from her melodious songs of old / To a muddy death. Laertes: Drowned!” (act 4, scene 7).
In Afanasieva’s poem, “Where my head starts to spin … ” (it continues: “from its invisible rotation, — / the world seems immobile” — above the whirlpool, a rotation — of water) there is a desperate, repeating, overpowering anxiety: “I want a child from you / and you smash your brow on a wall, / that can’t be destroyed,” “I’ll never have a child” — acquires another meaning and grounding in the context of death: of a child — from a dead woman (the ultimate despair). “Where my head spins” — above the water, which took the body (and the possibilities connected to it).
The hero makes plans: “I’ll go away to a monastery” (an imaginary Hamlet who changes places with Ophelia, if there ever was an Ophelia) or “I’ll raise cats / somewhere / in the country, / near a pond with lilies (a kind of immobilized memorial, — O.D.) … in a garden full of white, red, and yellow roses” (reminiscent of a cemetery).
The roses are from Ophelia’s tune, as is the contrast between white (death, immobility in this life: “white pitchers” — body-pitchers) and green (the other death, which is a different life and motion): “In our heads a green whin, / Pebbles underfoot … A white shroud, of white roses / A little tree in bloom” (act 4, scene 5). Like the “owl” that “flows away” (“When water flows under the diaphragm”; more modern fairytale associations are not connected to the stream, water, and current), from Ophelia’s mad murmuring: “It’s said the owl was once the peccary’s daughter” (ibid.).
The bough that destroyed Ophelia appears in a transformed (inverse, as it is in dreams) way in the dreams of Afanasieva’s Prince (in his salvational version, which is also typical of a dream: right nearby, just a little more, each time he falls and falls, which is even more agonizing): “suddenly a couple of meters from us with a bone crunch and crack a bough-made-heavy flies and we understand just a little… ” (and this “long and far” of endless lagging: “so long we haven’t seen each other so far we have lived … ”), not down but up, not pulling away but flinging at (“Sky over Austerlitz”). The drama of Hamlet and Ophelia (a pair or one, two in one) happens for the first time: the internal drama, the proto-drama and the primary characters.
In Afanasieva’s poems, the image-notion of the “prince” flickers several times.
In the rhapsody “Troy Trefoil” he dreams of a “three-handed pianist”:
if a fairytale hero — a prince for sure,
if an everyday hero — a beggar for sure,
if my hero — a father for sure,
if his husband — a wife for sure …
The connections here are made vertically, cutting off the right-hand edge of the poem: the prince is a beggar (or vice versa; a model of mutual transformations), the father a wife… . The endless and restless drama of the Beautiful Prince’s werewolfness is set in these alternating trans-formation-pre-sentations.
In the prince-beggar pair, the beggar prince simultaneously reflects Hamlet’s real poverty (“naked he debarked on the coast of Denmark,” see below) and his destitution (his dubious position in relation to the throne, Hamlet, “in need of advancement,” act 3, scene 2, and his orphanhood: just who was his father? and who is he?).
The co-occurrence of wife and father (and vice versa): Ophelia is Hamlet’s hypothetical wife, her experience of her father’s death masks something else — the remoteness of a beloved man (or woman). The father — the beloved — the beloved’s father — these alternations are what create the disturbing whirlwinds around the principal pair.
The hero’s orphanhood, which concludes the poem: “‘I imagined,’ I say, ‘I imagined you’d picked me up somewhere / like my father — this is definitely not my father, / and my mother’s lost her mind… .” The father’s doubtfulness (the problem of the true father) and the mother’s loss of memory are tokens of the “Hamlet situation.” “Who then, sunshine, is your father?” (ibid.).
In “Flash mob,” the hero becomes a king — “in that kind of room, to survive, I quickly become king” — “prince” Hamlet, who has “won advancement,” the happy transformation of a dream, a Hamlet transformed.
In “Soldier white, soldier black,” the name “Stavrogin” appears, which is what the hero “called” himself (depicted himself as). But we remember that in Verkhovensky’s sick imagination, the Stavrogin he chose as leader was drawn specifically as a fairytale “handsome prince” (he really was very handsome). Stavrogin is a Hamlet-type character, and he is accompanied by a dead girl (who also pursues him constantly), whose death he caused.
Twice (or more) in Afanasieva’s poems, the hero acts as the tempter: he is gazed upon (watched), he attracts, disturbs, and lures, and people dream of him. By his very existence somewhere, apart from and even in spite of any desire or actions of his own, the hero is the object of girlish dreams:
One girl wrote an e-mail, —
saying the stories about me intrigued her: we have a few
Friends in Common, and they all say something different about me
I want to get to know you, she writes.
This is from “Flash mob.” Then there’s “the girl from Impanema”: “the girl from Impanema looks straight at me … ” A curious turnabout of the album situation, where the hero of girlish daydreams (dreams) himself speaks.
“He,” not “about him,” not girls about a handsome prince but the Prince about the girls and himself. Poems from the perspective of the Handsome Prince. The paradox is that the “sophisticated” album character turns out to be a tragic character — done for. And the girls who dream about him are rejected and not let in to see him (and fairly cruelly, moreover) because that place is already taken — by his one and only: the dead girl.
Just as the eye “under water” appeared in Afanasieva’s poems before the actual death, so too the death of Shakespeare’s Ophelia plays out long before that death — and (the rehearsal in Hamlet’s theatrical world) first with the hero, or else it happened from the very beginning in him; it too was always there. Therefore water in the thoughts of that Hamlet would occupy a strangely primary place: in Polonius he immediately “recognizes” the fishmonger (Why “fish”? It is the first association that could have occurred to him: Ophelia is a future fish, and Polonius is selling her.) And that “someone will drown” is known in the play in advance:
And should it lure you toward the water, — Or the dreaded summit of the cliff … — And push you into madness … — That cliff (where your head spins — O.D.)
would drive anyone who sees the sea insane … (act 1, scene 4) —
Here is presented everything that is going to happen to Ophelia, just as Ophelia’s madness is a repetition (presentation) of Hamlet’s (a rehearsal), with all the characteristic devices and methods of mad speech. If Hamlet had been nearby he would have burst out laughing at the sight of this evil parody.
In the comic world of Hamlet, the imagined fall (and this presentation of it is also funny) from the cliff is the same kind of buffoonish episode as the Punch and Judy spat with Laertes in the open grave, and later the duel-clownery with him. (Hamlet should be presented in a puppet theater, or — even better — a puppet booth.)
The buffoonish, traditional clown (or circus) act, “including falls,” is played out in Afanasieva’s poem:
Here comes a man — what a silly walk. — Here comes a man — what a worn jacket. — A precipice, look, a precipice. — The man turns around — what a silly face … — What a stupid haircut … — A silly walk, the goofball, what’s he looking for, the clod? — The man’s talking, look, he’s babbling on. — About some mysterious birds … — A man in the wind, look, he fell, look … — The man fell through …
The “silly man,” also known as the buffoon, is a common Afanasieva character: the “deaf-mute buffoons” (“Flash mob”), “from their glance alone a man starts laughing-laughing-laughing, / ‘til he bursts at the seams.” The buffoon is the dark side of the Handsome Prince — Afanasieva’s principal (and lyric) hero. This buffoonery is always expressed outwardly, marked by his clothing, in the bells on his cap, in his walk.
The buffoon is recognizable, and the buffoonery exists so that the hero can be recognized. He’s marked by his buffoonery. The buffoonery both is for and alienates the viewer, separates him, draws a circle inside of which the buffoon (that is the scene) exists, makes him other and endlessly lonely and alien, and regenerates him physically: “his skin is transparent.” Presented is another traditional farcical circus act:
Just went off on his bike — No one knows where — No one knows why — But for a long time — And after that long time — Both drowned in faraway sand — in faraway water —
(“A bicycle flew into these houses . ..”)
The “buffoon’s deaf-muteness” is his ultimate reticence and sundering of connections (in both directions: from and to him). This “silly man” is invariably linked to madness (the murmuring, mumbling, various oddities) and death: the precipice, a version of the Shakespearean cliff, inevitably awaits him (or, from a different viewpoint, in the play on continuous playback already was): the endless playing out and repetition of proto-death.
The buffoon is a hypocrite [litsedei, from litse, “face,” and dei, “make” — Trans.]: he makes faces, or a face: of his beloved, his father, his father’s murderer, his mother, and so on. He is multiple, that is, of course, mad. There was no “professional” buffoon in the Shakespeare play (just his skull): the buffoon — or two buffoons — is replaced by a pair: Hamlet and Ophelia, Zanni and Columbine. Hamlet, the “silly man” (according to the play, he’s fat and clumsy; the duel with Laertes was supposed to be comic, almost like street performance). Hamlet is the heir and successor to Yorick, who held him in his lap; the orphan Hamlet has two dead fathers: the “high,” Hamlet the elder; and the “low,” the jester Yorick, who chuckles in courtiers’ faces or drags Polonius’s corpse by its feet: Hamlet imagines his father.
Hamlet is a fool or a madman (a traditional flexible combination: the buffoon-fool) for the Guildensterns and Rosenkrantzes who cluster around him, like the hero from the initial poem in Afanasieva’s cycle Piazza, Florence, Fiorentina: “Neither wasp’s sting, nor silver bullet is to be found on you / you lie in the road — no getting around you, / not a man — a muzzle … Why does he ask for trouble? / Want to be a hero? Take care: before you know it, you’re a bum… .”
This is exactly what happens to Hamlet: his transformation from hero, including literally — the naked Hamlet: “Great and mighty, know that I debarked naked on your kingdom’s shore” — from the letter of Hamlet the clown (act 4, scene 6 [sic]) The world pushes him away/out to such a degree that “even the yellow package on the shoulder, / if I step on it, won’t rustle” (says the hero), so — “rise and go hence” (Lazarus’s expulsion).
The “wasp’s sting” and “silver bullet” are here because the hero-fool (Zanni) is imagined as a fantastic creation, a hybrid, a monster, a freak: “a subhuman / with a man’s head and the body of a month-old elephant calf” (in the magnificent poem with the somber title, “Ego, Ego, Superego”), child or fiend. The combination of Hamlet the king and Yorick the clown is a frightening (and repulsive) symbiosis. (But no less frightening than the cephalopodic Ophelia-Hamlet, the Hamletophel.)
This “double vision” (G. Ivanov), which turns the world into a parody — a flower garden of a universe — a barren cliff, a vast tent of air — the accumulation of stinking fumes, and man, the universe’s pride and joy — the quintessence of dust (act 2, scene 2 [sic]) — is repulsive. The Hamlet parody, squeezed into three lines of verse: “I can read the ad on the train’s sides, so I do / “... Genius: a brilliant world surrounds you” / They say people pay fifty dollars for that kind of line” (“Two dogs, ginger and black … ”)
The identification of Ophelia and Hamlet is two-sided: their communicating buffoonery-madness (the mad clown or madness as a joke); and partial orphanhood (when the two are united the family array is complete: a mother and a father), which later becomes complete: the father’s death and the mother’s death. “Who is your father?” for Ophelia easily crosses over into “Who is your mother?” We know nothing about her mother, she doesn’t exist (and never did). The name of Hamlet’s father spreads out among the claimants (including his stepfather with his traditional formula, “our son”). Hamlet’s mother is a perjurer, a murderer practically. Agreeing that Polonius is Ophelia’s father is nearly impossible and seems outrageous. Outrageousness and dubiousness of origin enters into the images of both: two fiends, spawns, monsters, kinless and therefore doomed — to madness and death.
In Afanasieva’s poems mythological names accrue around the Hamletophel theme that are brought together by their relationship with a father. To Icarus and Phaeton (rebellious sons) we add Telemachus (a seeking son, and one with the same triangle, the prototype of the Shakespearean triangle: mother-father-son). In “Sky over Austerlitz,” “only under the sky of Austerlitz are there so many men dead” is a paraphrase of Brodsky: “so many dead men / only Greeks can toss outside the house” from his “epistle” “Odysseus to Telemachus.”
Hamlet’s place is on the shore. As is Ophelia’s. The shore is a kind of theater. It naturally takes on the form of an amphitheater (“a curved question mark,” an amphitheater is a questioning). Anastasia Afanasieva’s s/he appears on the shore, looks out from the shore (head spinning), plays out (imagines) what happened here: “In quiet contemplation, / standing at the water’s very edge, / where it meets the sand… . Thinking just like that, standing on the sand, / standing on the littered sand, at water’s edge” from her poem “At water’s very edge.” A person standing, sitting, on the shore, by (above) the water is one of the main figures in Anastasia Afanasieva’s poetry. S/he is remembering: overcome by thought-recollection (in its grip).
The shore (bereg) is protection (obereganie), or a boundary (between air and water, as between past and future). The boundary separates them but is also where they meet (it brings them together). It can be crossed, plied back and forth, dissolving in that movement (which is the usual form of madness). Protection means preservation — of memory. Theater is an archaic means of preservation (of memory) and its transmission.
How does Hamlet respond to the news of his father’s murder? With a performance — or a mass of presentations and self-presentations. All his activity (or passivity) is theatrical (the contradiction between activity and passivity is resolved in this exhaustive theatricality: he simply does not cross the boundary of the stage). The news of his father’s death evokes a surge of his acting and directing powers, gives birth to him as a hypocrite (litsedei) and leader (litsevod) (director). His inner anguish is transformed into performance. “And who are all these people / Why are they pounding on my ribcage” (from Afanasieva’s poem “Superintendent”). The actor is filled to the brim with characters (cf. the monologues and remarks of the presenting Hamlet, act 2, scene 2).
In Afanasieva’s poems theater is replaced (in a different artistic context) by film, and the viewing of films is a continuous and almost obsessive activity (like a mania); moreover, the difference between “internal” and external film is erased (or rather, it is all one continuous or reversible film).
Films are the obsession of Afanasieva’s Prince: “I like this film / Let’s watch it together,” “as a child I saw a film,” “yesterday I saw a film,/ oozy and boggy, like a swamp.” The film here is a mental one — a word, an image, a shape, there’s nothing real or prepoetic in it. And there’s no chance of distinguishing the film (continuously rolling inside him — in his mind — an endless and obsessive presentation) created by the hero because it’s being shown to him — “I imagine the pale Josefina … I imagine I’m disgustingly cheerful” (“Candygod”), “with her I was just a little boy, you know, and she was the little girl, / who thought I was a little girl” (“Soldier white, soldier black,” an infinite circle of presentations), “‘I imagined,’ I say, ‘I imagined you’d picked me up somewhere / like my father — this is definitely not my father” (“Troy Trefoil”) — a proliferating video signal, an obsession with pictures … and an astonishing paradox : “I was the most inattentive empathizing spectator” (“Superintendent”). Here the paradox is resolved: “I don’t distinguish between what I’ve dreamed and what I’ve seen on film.” An error, an error that creates action.
Each event begins to look like a presentation (“performance”) held up by “like” and “as if” (for fun) acting as silver tacks, these two phrases in and of themselves subsume the idea of repetition and reversal, like in the “children’s album” poems: “We’re like big people / He’s like he’s little as if / He were like a big person / And we’re like little people as if … ” (“Here is the flabby earth … ” — the turn of the wheel), “The little man drowned as if he were still big / The big man seemed to drown and the little man returned” (“At the dacha on tiptoe on the hot ground”).
Roles are easily switched: the performance turns (transitively, too) like a revolving stage. Theatrical mimesis turns into a childlike headwater: the “childlike” reproduction of death signifies its recommencibility (but also its ineluctability) and, consequently, its irreversibility. The performance does not take away the tragedy (on the contrary, the tragedy is relived, constantly and artlessly, “as if for the first time”) and goes back to the beginning each time, to that “before” it happened, to that “when everyone was still alive.”
Singing and dancing — natural forms of presentation — are contrasted in Afanasieva’s poems; they are mutually inimical and mutually exclusive. You might say a choice is being made between them. Afanasieva’s hero/ine — the “pose of the singer” (V. Vinogradov on Akhmatova). “All this time … singing singing singing” (“Mashenka crossed the road and there … ”) can be transposed to any other hero/ine of her poems. “Dancers” are those who surround him/her and among whom s/he feels like a stranger because s/he can’t dance (as in “Where my head starts spinning … ”). Dance, with its oscillating and revolving movements (usually a waltz) is associated with water. People plunge into dance, dissolve in it, die, drown, lose themselves (their “real names,” as in “The Pharisees”). In “Flash mob” there is an image from Swan Lake — “Here is a room full of white people who move like swans over the polished surface” — except that this is a dance of shadows, ghosts, the dead (“and in the morgue basement”).
Dancing is associated with the plural. It’s a collective action: “Here is a room full of waltzing paranoiacs, paranoiacs, ghetto captives, / they have sunglasses not eyes, turkey calls not voices.” The dancers are voiceless, as if the abilities to dance and sing were incompatible. Learning how to dance from someone “painfully pale” means plunging into the collective, the social (the young girl “dances in a hornet’s nest” — is nothing like “the young girl sang in the church choir”; see “Anya” from her “album” They shared an orange, and “Two boughs rise up, two boughs, the wind … ” from Piazza, Florence, Fiorentina).
Dancing is the typical activity of “poor, white people” who are barely alive or nearly dead. For the hero, dancing is hard labor and a heavy burden (“but I’ve been sidestepping these dances for eleven days” — “Flash mob”); it means living with everyone and quashes the threat of just that transformation: “the dancers think they’re taking me, but in fact, I’m taking hold of them” (the Guildensterns and Rosenkrantzes who thought they could play with Hamlet — or play Hamlet like a flute — and what came of that). The inability (or refusal) to dance is typical of the hero.
Singing, on the contrary, is conceived of as an individual, isolated, solitary act, viewers and listeners here are random and only interfere (Josefina on the breakwater). Singing, unlike dance, bears no horror but rather drives it away. If dancing is plunging and falling, then singing is release. “Singing singing singing” (while something is chasing after her) — it is a means of overcoming fear, or rather, overcoming what is frightening. Singing is also remembering. Afanasieva’s poems usually have to some degree a vocal, song base. Each time, Ophelia’s tune, performed by Hamlet representing her (performance by him instead of her; like “I’m sailing on a skiff / whether dreaming or awake … ”) is the core from which the hero’s monologues and cavatinas emerge.
This representation-remembering-repetition — of performance, theater, film, singing — is moved by a correcting (that is never complete, so it goes in circles, spins until dizzy) of what once happened. The second very important figure (after the standing on the shore) is the act of leaving the water, turning away from it (a saved, or released, Ophelia): “something greenish behind her… overhangs their backs always / like a swamp predator” (“The Pharisees”) — the water doesn’t so much threaten or pursue as it lags in the special sense of the prophesied past (rather than the future).
Afanasieva’s poems have an unusual theme: the back. The back is anointed (many times), on it characters are drawn in “sea mud” or a birthmark is discovered, but people also fall on their backs, a cheetah leaps at a back, it (“humanity’s back”) hurts and it’s flown on… . The back is looked at (after), it’s called out to — “a rather rotten sailor called out behind us” (“Soldier white, soldier black”):
so we go, — backs to the water, — we go — changing the shape of the littered sand. — And following naturally — the body of water travels
(“At water’s very edge”)
We have the endlessly repeating “shape changing” of a once shattering event. The pair of lovers walks away.
— There is an obsession with the back — concern over it and the constant danger (that it will turn around, change its movement — the water beckons) — and as a figure for turning, leaving (the place of death). The back is the embodiment of the gesture of turning away: not toward the body of water but away from it, and in tandem (not in isolation). What might have been (and how). The very same historic als ob [as if] that never happens (except in performance and dreams).
The constant playing out (and over) of “death — deliverance” (and the reverse) is moved by guilt. In her incredible poem “Augustine” there is a terrible word, unusual in the amorous-lyrical context, “inflicted”: “the irrepressible longing I inflicted on you … the ecstatic shudder I inflicted on you.” This listing of details evoked by conditions tends to infinity. Any period or pause in this enumeration is accidental and arbitrary. Everything that happens in the heroine-alter ego is inflicted. In his own imagination, the hero is the infinitely regenerated cause (“I did it”). Hamlet is the purest cause, and only that.
The “I loved / Ophelia” (act 5, scene 1) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is his all too belated discovery. But it’s exactly the same for Ophelia. “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy” and “will he not come again” (act 4, scene 5) is a belated recognition by Ophelia who has already gone mad (before this there was just regret over the prince). Madness is connected with the discovery of love. Not madness because of love, but love discovered only by madness. Madness as a condition of love. Hamlet is Ophelia’s ailment as Ophelia is Hamlet’s.
Afanasieva’s handsome prince loves the “ethereal girl” only after (and thanks to) her death; before this there was courtesy, play, and teasing (“Oh, so you’re a proper girl?” and so forth, act 3, scene 1): Afanasieva’s “Maurine, I was an idiot and didn’t answer, / I read your letters out loud, you hear, I did, sipping liqueur, / I sang your songs in front of everyone / Maurine, I could make you play a thousand pipes right now” (cf. “and forty thousand brothers / And all their love is no match for mine” — a belated attempt to assure himself and others). The hero’s guilt is his lack of love (or his love-come-lately, “when it’s too late”).
The guilt complex is the Hamlet complex, and his entire existence without love is guilt, everything that emanates from the hero and is conveyed to the heroine (or vice versa). It is from this moment that s/he carries a hell around inside him/her. Hell is his/her response: her reciprocal inflicted condition (compensation, or punishment).
“Hell” is heard in the poems. It exists musically in them like a motif over which everything else is added (layered). Or through which this continuous sound complex rings (comes through): everything happens on top of this rhythm — ad … ad … ad … [hell … hell … hell … ] — a rhythm, a shuddering, a tapping. It is an unconscious, now unmanageable experience, a revolving, a constant rotating in the mind.
The very word “hell” [ad], in its direct sense, suggests a theme — “for some hell,” “is … hell” — but “hell” dissolves through the poem, metastasizes, through the “mind book” or inundates it like water, a distinct sound complex (of words), in forward or reverse: krylatyi, peredache, radio, rasklad, svidaniia, kladet, gadalke, dogadki, stuchat, drozhat (in “He’s a winged [krylatyi] builder” or “Hindenburgs”; vpadinka, radost’, and, many times, popadali, and so on, as in other poems). “Ad” plays with the ear. There’s no deliverance from this hellish metronome.
“And the ban on forgetting — / is the one ban I observe” (“Superintendent”). The memory complex is the reverse of the guilt complex. (Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “From the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all signs … and by thy commandment alone / The entire volume of my brain I shall write,” “now my motto is: Farewell, farewell and remember me” [act 1, scene 5].) The natural compensation for guilt is one’s own suffering, the experience of death: to die by or instead of her/him. The regenerative death of the Lady Friend, which the Prince experiences as his own and as infinite, as death by the Friend-Maiden.
Hence the changing of garments, the presenting of oneself as her (“sick fantasies, / born for the sake of a moment’s consolation, / when you donned your own friend like a dress,” from “Soldier white, soldier black,” with this splitting imprinted in the title): The Lady Friend is in the Prince and the Prince is in the Lady Friend, Hamlet in Ophelia and the reverse, Ophelia in Hamlet. They are constantly changing places, burgeoning in each other, presenting and creating each other — a constant reversible moving-running:
I’m ready to draw big black arrows, — and turn them back so pumpkin becomes carriage
to draw my lips scarlet so my kiss leaves a trace — and seems fiction no more …
(“Soldier white, soldier black”)
This is the creation of Ophelia (Josefina) out of herself (or Ophelia’s reverse transformation). The theme of Cinderella, that is, the transformation of the Princess (from the Prince). Mutual and reversible madness.
Guilt-memory defines the law of universal transformation: Prince into Maiden (man into woman and back, this endless transformation which never ends but is now revolving), inside a container that holds something apart from what it’s supposed to (and the reverse) (“inside” into “outside”).
“A huge autumn-beetle on the ground” has Hamlet’s famous nut: “a large nut a pilot can’t see” — with the very characteristic and natural proximity to “pilot.” (In Hamlet: “Contain me in a nut shell,” act 2, scene 2). In Afanasieva: “I’d like to be inside a heron / To perch and tuck up.” Elsewhere it’s “morning streetcars inside me,” and the opposite: “as if passing inside her were / hundreds of streetcar lines.” “Inside” can be “in the closet” (children playing) or “in the heart,” or “in the chest” (“intrathoracic” is a very natural definition here), it doesn’t matter. It’s obsession with this infinite reversibility of transference: I am contained — I contain. “And who are all these people / Why are they pounding on my ribcage” — the hero-container.
But he himself is contained. The airplane (dirigible) is a place where the hero stays and from which he is ejected: “But like a real pilot, I catapulted out” (“Flash mob”). He himself becomes an airplane (dirigible) that first flies and then falls: “There, inside, to experience flight” (“After flights little remains … ”). To “become an airplane” here is akin to a beloved woman becoming a tragic moment (her death): “this place is, in essence, a beloved woman” (“Flash mob”). This is about something greater than “replacing a dead woman” but actually “becoming death itself,” both the place and the event.
This is Hamlet’s special madness, Hamlet’s “inner” sickness,” of which the Shakespearean hero spoke in personifying his “ailment,” giving birth to it in himself as another being and attributing to it his actions: the accuser and the accused (“Hamlet himself is plaintiff / And Hamlet’s ailment his offender,” act 5, scene 2 ), a death that is drowning and reliving, remembering it. All this transforms the hero into the place of the drama and into the act itself: a scene on a permanent loop.
This unbearability of birth in and of oneself is drawn in the monstrous image of a dual creature, a monster, or a werewolf: “He appeared in the thick of night, a subhuman / with the head of a man and the torso of a month-old elephant, something / giving rise not to fear — no — but to a sense of recognition.” It’s not that Ophelia is the form of Hamlet’s madness (or vice versa, that Hamlet is the form of Ophelia’s), but that the Hamlet-Ophelia situation itself is mad and a form of madness. Hence the images that do not yield to simple gender determination.
The torso isn’t a woman’s (a simpler and more understandable form of splitting) but its own body, heavier, burdensome, rending and exploding from the inside (becoming alien, alienating) and — simultaneously — eternally recent (recently born), the body tears and bursts. This component torso is ancient and eternal (that is, it always was): both in individual life and in communal life, having always (continuously) existed and constantly arising, the cave drama of Hamletophel:
as if — remote ancestors had drawn him on cave walls — his idol-sculptures had risen up in villages — he’d been seen as a child in a closet, before his vision — was spoiled by rationality — he appeared in the thick of night, — and has never quit me since …
Oleg Dark is a prose writer, essayist, and critic. He graduated from Moscow State University, and is the author of the short story collection Trilogy. He has been published in Znamya, Voprosi Literaturi, Druzhba Narodov, and other journals. He is the editor of the three volume set, The Selected Prose of Russian Authors Living Abroad (2000).