Archive for September 24th, 2011

Remembering Russian poet Alexei Parshchikov, and a meeting in Cologne

Saturday, September 24th, 2011
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A gifted photographer as well (Photo: Eugene Ostashevsky)

I found out about the 2009 death of Russian poet Alexei Parshchikov accidentally.  At a meeting recently, someone casually mentioned that a memorial had been held for him at Stanford.

That comment was already some time ago. My memories and feelings piled up and became complicated, and so I postponed for months writing a few words about him.

In truth, he had scared the bejeebers out of me when we met in  Germany.  Here’s what happened.  We agreed to meet at the Cologne Cathedral, a good central spot where I wouldn’t have to wend my way through back roads of an unfamiliar city.  Friends dropped me off at the cathedral, and I thought I could trot over to his house with him.

Not so.  He lived some distance away.  We went on a metro for a seemingly interminable distance to the outskirts of the city – it must have been a half-an-hour’s ride at least.

He was acting in a manner that alarmed me – was he on drugs?  Had he been drinking?  Here I was, in a city I’d never been in before, trundling along to an unknown destination, with a stranger whose behavior struck me as oddly disconnected and lethargic.

It takes far, far less to spook me. I scare easy.  How would they ever find my body days later in “a built-up industrial area under the permanent curse of the deafening trains”?  I wrote later of our eventual destination:

“In a row of white buildings, Parshchikov’s flat is small, spare, clean, almost monastic. We sit in an austere kitchen with a white-painted table and two chairs. The only other room, the bedroom, is in bold, primary colors. A Macintosh sits on a desk in one corner. Photographs – 10-by-12 black-and-whites – are scattered here and there, for Parshchikovis a gifted amateur photographer. ‘Empty, empty space,’ he says, looking around. ‘My place in Moscow has more books.'”

He described to me the breakdown of his marriage.  “We quarreled,” he said, gazing at me and pausing for what seemed an impossibly long time.  “You understand?  We quarreled.”

I thought I could get the picture.  I wrote:

Some will find his literary style, well, odd. “As Russian poetry goes, he is difficult and more demanding on the average reader. But he’s worth the struggle,” says [Oxford’s G.S.] Smith. Publisher’s Weekly called his imagination “troubled and powerful” and noted, “The defining feature of Parshchikov’s poetry is its fantastical elaboration of metaphor, not as a decorative device or an occasion for clever display, but as a fundamental mode of apprehending and transforming the world.” Examples: “potato roots protrude from the earth like elbows from a fist fight”; a dying fish “[freezes] up, like a key growing thick in a lock”; “history is a sack, an abyss of money inside it.”

“Alyosha’s work has a quality at once ancient and entirely new,” says American poet Michael Palmer, Parshchikov’s friend and translator. “His poems present and project the turmoil of the present in a manner that is entirely his own, a tone of this particular fractured and diasporic moment, where the unsettled is the norm, and where all is in continuous flux.”

Self-portrait

Marjorie Perloff befriended him at Stanford – I seem to remember interviewing her, but in the end did not quote her in my article.  He had fond memories of the university where he got a master’s degree, and of his “beautiful, more-or-less durable bike and the opulent libraries I’ve never seen again the world over.”

We discussed Allen Ginsberg, a sort of soulmate for him. Our meeting lasted for several hours.  My friends eventually found me after a confused and panicky rendezvous at the metro station – we were waiting on the wrong platform, and the “metarealist” poet was phlegmatic and not terribly well-oriented. One of my friends, a young Russian woman, began laughing uncontrollably when she began talking to him – a typical Russian type, she said.

I corresponded with Alyosha (as he signed his emails) for a time afterward – and a few other poets contacted me to find him, but  eventually the trail went cold.

In one email, he described his meeting with Joseph Brodsky (I quote it in full, with its idiosyncratic English, for any literary or historical value it might have):

"Opulent libraries I've never seen again the world over" (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

At the time I’ve met Brodsky at Stanford I was missing Europe, I meant Moscow and one abstract Europe on which I had only fuzzy ideas, the Europe to which belonged my Swiss wife. I’ve realized that there was nothing to do more in Stanford and my inner time has been expired. Just being in such a mood I met Joseph Alexandrovich [i.e., Brodsky – ED] while he had his lecture and readings in our University and in Palo Alto Jewish Center. After Brodsky’s lecture I handed out my Russian book to him and he asked me to call him next morning; then we appointed a place near coffee house and spoke about 3 hours. The common judgment about his arrogance has evaporated very soon: he was quite practical and knew about Moscow writing more then I’ve expected from him. We briefly skimmed contemporary poetry map, figured out “who is who” and switched to the topics concerned with the relevance of certain poetry devices and their imaginable opportunities in a given situation. He traced the plumb axis in whatever examples he had put. He was focused on how to bullish the value of the word (he used ironically the market notions sometimes) and spoke about ways to sublime the theme in our robustly reasonable world.

He told me that poetry is named a fine art just because the music is prevails in its tissue over the rational mind. “Poetry is a MELIC ART nevertheless,” – he wrote me later (“Music must be paramount… And everything else is mere literature,” – P. Verlaine), and advised me to expand my rhythmical repertoire. Whether he implied that I was too rational or it was only a premise for the further discussion, remained an enigma for me as he contradictorily told me about unpredictability and unpremeditated features of some of my images. Thus, I’ve got critical notes and encouragements simultaneously. He was enough sceptical, for instance, about the length of my subordinate clauses, although I used them not for drawing information or make the rhetorical figure, but for the further transformation of images which allowed me
to set the main event at the end of some respiratory phase (I enjoyed this Baroque style).

An artist argues if not with his opponent, then with himself. I was interested in him, he was interested in himself and it was entirely sufficient, for I realized that he was looking for another messages and triggers which affected him. While I listened him, it was important to prefigure the room, to define the vacancy for the new poetic applications. Just not in a rational way, but to imagine a space in which new experience would get a chance to be revealed.

Sorry, I have made a lot of notes on the margins of his books, and now it’s hard to arrange all of them.

You see why I postponed writing about him? This post is already long, and I’m left with a puzzle – the mystery of brief meetings that leave a lasting impression, and the memory of my misplaced fear of this oddly sweet and guileless man.

There was very little written about him a decade ago – now pages and pages are on google.  Here’s his poem, “Oil.”  And here is Ron Silliman‘s memoir of him, at an extraordinary moment of courage in a Moscow pub with a bunch of skinheads.

Alyosha died a month before his 55th birthday, of cancer, in Cologne.