Tuning into Tom Benson’s Work

Tom Benson, Installation View of Front Room, Larry Becker Contemporary Art

Tom Benson, Installation View of Front Room, Larry Becker Contemporary Art

In British artist Tom Benson’s current exhibition at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, the artist has laid the foundation for an investigation into seeing. A series entitled “Exhibits (A) and (B)” (2014), greets the visitor upon walking into the gallery. Each work in this series – there are five in the gallery – is split in two. The top half consists of eight small rectangles of color. The bottom responds to the top with eight corresponding halftones. These works are small in scale and simple, but they implore the viewer to take a closer look. The smooth surface of the colors, ranging from pink to orange to black, look as if done by machine. There appear to be no brushstrokes. This is the compelling illusion of these works – they were done by hand with Benson’s own mix of pigment and ultraviolet-cured ink. Benson used a printer for the halftones.

Tom Benson, Installation View of "Graph" Series, Larry Becker Contemporary Art

Tom Benson, Installation View of "Graph" Series, Larry Becker Contemporary Art

Next to the “Exhibit” series are pieces from two other series, “Graph [Blue]” and “Graph [Red].” Astonishingly, the graph paper is made by hand. In these works, Benson juxtaposes order with seemingly random watercolor marks. Regarding their placement, there is no esoteric meaning to be unlocked. But, as I looked, there seemed to be another dimension that opened up, thanks in part to the sheen of the glass covers. The works suddenly had more depth than at first glance. By the time I arrived at the fifth one on the wall, “Graph [Red] (#6),” I noticed the reflection of a woman’s face.

When I turned around I was looking at “Someone Like You” (2016), a double portrait. This work is unique not only within the context of Benson’s show, but also within the context of Becker’s gallery. Becker and his wife Heidi specialize in presenting monochromatic painting. After some time with Benson’s more austere works, “Someone Like You” shifts the focus of the viewers’ eyes with its presentation of a beautiful woman. But even though the female face is traditional portrait material, Benson finds ways to elaborate on standard presentation.

Someone Like You, 2016 Synthetic paint, ultraviolet-cured ink, aluminum panels and components, steel pins; 18” x 29 5/8” x 1” as installed

To make this work, Benson took roughly 1,000 photos. He chose two and printed them with ultraviolet-cured ink on aluminum panels. In a statement for the gallery, he describes his interest in Oskar Schlemmer’s paintings of figures in tight spaces, such as classrooms or stairwells, and “how the attention given to a turn of the head sets up a range of tensions within that space.” This influenced Benson to consider a series that “charts the transition between introspective reflection and a more direct gaze, where the eyes of subject and viewer meet.”

The woman in the photo on the left is looking down while the photo on the right, taken immediately after, shows her gaze moving upwards. Attached to the photo on the right, Benson has vertically placed a narrow piece of reflective aluminum. Is that what the woman is looking at? Certainly, it catches the viewers’ eye. If there were another frame, this woman might meet the viewers’ gaze, but Benson leaves hanging that moment of anticipation.

Throughout all of Benson’s work, the artist relies on optic and haptic engagement. In other words, the senses of sight and touch, as they relate to perception, are integral to Benson’s practice. For the artist, the touch is literal. He uses his hands to make these objects. The viewer, in contrast, has only their eyes. The changing textures and materials of Benson’s work made my eyes feel as if they had been rubbing against their surfaces. If the material was smooth, my eyes relaxed. When the surfaces were more textured, as in “Rework [1]” (2016), my eyes responded in kind.

“Prima [Grey]” (2015), a monochromatic painting, shares the wall with “Someone Like You.” While both works employ gray, they are not interested in the same things. In the absence of the human form, the eye follows Benson’s lead and refocuses on the textures and materials of the painting. Curiously, this work reflects nothing when viewed directly, but when standing to the side the sheen and the brushwork become more pronounced. This painting makes a nice counterpart to the “Exhibit” series where Benson’s brushwork was invisible.

Tom Benson, Installation View of Second Room, Larry Becker Contemporary Art

Tom Benson, Installation View of Second Room, Larry Becker Contemporary Art

In the gallery’s second room are two more monochromatic works in the “Prima” series. Benson produces work in series as a method for exploring aesthetic concerns and as a means of resisting the notion of the finished work. In the transition from the first room to the second, “[White]” (2015) creates a pleasant shift in focus. The surface of this work is different from the wall, which is also white, behind it. Instead, the brushstrokes break up the surface, making it feel more inviting, while also showing the variations within the seemingly single color painting. “[Green]” (2015), another compelling monochromatic work, hangs a few feet to the right.

It seems to me there are at least two levels of enjoyment with Benson’s monochromatic work. There is the color and there is the way that the artist manifests that color on the surface. The brushstrokes encourage one to consider the interplay of light with the art. In this regard, Benson’s work insists that the viewer slow down. This means putting away the smart phone, blinking one’s eyes a few times, and taking a few breaths. American painter Joseph Marioni, who is also represented by Larry Becker Contemporary Art, and is currently having an exhibition of monochromatic works, Notations, at the Philadelpia Museum of Art, equally resists the short-attention span of the contemporary mind in his painting. Work like Benson’s and Marioni’s are worthy counters to the one glance and I’m done milieu of contemporary culture.

Benson, in a conversation with Pascale Lamche, compared his own work to a transistor radio, sending as well as receiving signals. Until I encountered this comment from Benson I had been thinking his work was quiet. I still think that. But the notion of a radio got me thinking about communication, clarity, and static, as well as news reports and play-by-play baseball. The metaphor also put me in mind of the San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer, who thought of the poet as a radio receiving transmissions. The associations I made, in other words, became a part of the viewing experience. Benson doesn’t propose alternate realities. He supposes viewers all have a reality they bring with them to the work. As he put it to David Connearn, when they were discussing monochromatic white paintings, the work is “part of the space that a viewer exists in.” If one comes to Benson’s work in need of quiet, then perhaps that’s what they will find. Likewise, the noise of contemporary American politics could just as easily become part of one’s viewing experience. So much depends upon one’s own signal that day.

Tom Benson: New Work continues at Larry Becker Contemporary Art (43 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia) through March 19.

Subjective Topography: The Painting of Ying Li

Ying Li, "Alaska (Autumn Leaf)," Gross McLeaf Gallery

Ying Li, "Alaska (Autumn Leaf)," Gross McLeaf Gallery

As I came in off the street and went up the stairs to Gross McCleaf, where Ying Li’s new show, Wanderlust, is exhibiting, I was pleasantly surprised by the change in atmosphere. The gallery is on 16th street, smack dab in Center City, amongst all manner of restaurants and commerce of the dullest sorts, copy shops and banks. All of that dropped away in the gallery. About half way up the stairs, Li’s “Alaska (Autumn Leaf)” should catch one’s attention. It’s among the smaller of her paintings in the show and hangs on the small wall at the top of the stairs. Initially, I didn’t know what I was looking at and didn’t care. It was a painting. That’s what I’d gone there for. Li’s focus is so tight on the object that the textures of the impasto, the dense orange, pink, blue, and ochre astound more than the leaf the abstraction draws from. After a minute or so, I looked at the title – wow! This painting was born in two places: Li’s imagination and a state most viewers have never been. Some painters can sharpen a painting with a title. Willem de Kooning did it with “Excavation.” Franz Kline with “Cardinal.” Li does this, too, in her Gross McCleaf show.

Moving around the small room, which holds just the right amount of Li’s work, my focus shifted for each painting. While much of the artist’s style is consistent there is nothing about the work that is rote. In a YouTube video, made in association with a show at the Michener Art Museum, Li discusses her process. She wants each painting to be direct. She’s not interested in describing a place. She wants instead to capture how the place feels. Of particular interest is her comment that she wants each painting to feel as if “dug out of the earth.” She’s not interested in polish. By the same token, when she’s painting the sky, the painting feels as if she’s taken a hunk of air and cloud. Li is a master of the materiality of paint and all that makes up an atmosphere. This can only come it seems from her dedication to working year round in plain air. There is no better way to know what the weather is up to than hefting a bunch of painter’s supplies onto a hillside. Every inch and texture of atmosphere is accounted for the same way one might do carrying overloaded bags on a crowded subway platform.

Ying Li, "Leaf Walk, Red," Gross McLeaf Gallery

Ying Li, "Leaf Walk, Red," Gross McLeaf Gallery

Li’s strong work ethic might come from how hard it was for her to become the artist she is. Before moving to New York in 1983, she had lived through the Cultural Revolution in China and separation from her parents. Her father was a scholar of Russian literature, but when the revolution began he was sent to a labor camp for ten years. Li was also sent to a camp. During rare moments of down time she would doodle, as a way to create some space for herself. Today, Li’s paintings seem like extensions of her need for individual expression. Once the revolution had ended and the universities were reopened, Li found that she didn’t qualify. But with the assistance of a professor who knew of her interest in art she was able to gain admission to Anhui Teachers University. While there Li received training in realism, the only style of painting acceptable under the communist regime. She then taught art for six years before her emigration. When she arrived in New York she was “struck by the volume of light” and started to develop a fondness for the city. She also managed to visit MOMA, seeing her first Picassos in person, as well as the Whitney Museum’s Willem de Kooning retrospective. The influence of de Kooning is palpable throughout Li’s work, as is the spirit of improvisation. Li is a jazz aficionado.

Ying Li, "Winter Lilies of Hanover I," Gross McLeaf Gallery

Ying Li, "Winter Lilies of Hanover I," Gross McLeaf Gallery

It makes sense that de Kooning comes up in discussions of Li’s work, but “Leaf Walk, Red” put me in mind of Alberto Giacometti’s ability to render the kineticism of the air around the objects in his paintings and sculptures. With their heavily ridged and layered canvases, Li’s paintings are sculptural and seem committed to a drive similar to Giacometti’s, though Li herself describes this characteristic as an interest in chaos. She accepts the challenge of finding the order in it. Jasper Johns comes to mind too with a painting like “Winter Lilies of Hanover I.” Particularly, his paintings “False Start” and “Map,” both of which, like Li in “Winter Lilies,” rely heavily on gestural strokes and the color orange. In Li’s painting, there is a cap to a tube of paint stuck in the upper left corner of the painting. It’s a nice touch. The cap, in the midst of what’s essentially a landscape painting, seems like a tip of the hat to Johns’ and Robert Rauschenberg’s inclusion of bric-a-brac in their work.

Ying Li, "Lago Maggiore at Sunset (Seen from Luino)," Gross McLeaf Gallery

Ying Li, "Lago Maggiore at Sunset (Seen from Luino)," Gross McLeaf Gallery

Li walks the line between the standard classifications of figurative and abstract. “Lago Maggiore at Sunset” is perhaps one of Li’s paintings that most distinctively move between classifications. When standing up close, the top third of the picture is predominately blue and white. It feels as if the picture is sworn over to abstraction. The other two thirds are filled with microclimates of color: deep orange, slim pockets of green, more smatterings of white, and some browns. But when I was across the room looking at another painting, I looked back at “Lago Maggiore,” and the lake and the clouds became more distinct. Li gives us many paintings in one painting. This is no clever sleight of hand. This is skill. As far as Li is concerned, “all paintings are abstract.” As she said in the video I mentioned above, “It’s paint. It’s paint. And it’s shapes. It’s a stroke.” Notice that the last part of her statement is an action – stroke. Li thrives on the physicality of painting.

Even though Li’s paintings are not literally in motion, they are alive. They feel as if, given time, they could move just as the landscapes on which we walk are slowly shifting beneath our feet. The more I’ve thought about Li’s work, the more her paintings seem like topographic maps of specific territories in time. The purpose of topography is to provide an overview of the terrain in an area. It seems to me this style of map is more about determining the natural boundaries between areas than it is in charting borders. Very few painters, if any, have gone so far as Li to chart the ridges of our climates in the ways that she has. If we were to run our hands along the surfaces of her paintings, we would know not only the contours of the landscapes she depicts, but we would also know, just as she hopes, how they feel.

Ying Li’s Wanderlust exhibited at Gross McLeaf Gallery (127 S. 16th Street, Philadelphia) Oct. 7 - Oct. 31, 2015.

Review of Joseph Ceravolo’s Collected Poems

* this originally appeared in an online issue of Zoland Poetry, which seems to no longer be publishing. the wordpress software I’m using doesn’t maintain the integrity of Ceravolo’s line breaks, but they are close.

Collected Poems

By Joseph Ceravolo | Review by Stan Mir

Wesleyan University Press | $35.00 | 596 pages | hardcover | ISBN 9780819573414

In spring 2005, a friend loaned me a few cassette tapes with readings by poets such as Clark Coolidge, John Godfrey, and Bernadette Mayer. Written on one of those tapes was a name, Joseph Ceravolo, only vaguely familiar to me at the time. The friend said that I should really check it out. He was sure I would like it. The recording, which dates from spring 1968, is now available on PennSound and is only seven minutes and forty-four seconds. Ceravolo’s brief reading, recorded at the poet’s Bloomfield, NJ home, arrested my attention with a voice both dreamy and determined, as the poet read over a stereo playing a range of pop and opera quietly in the background.

Over the next few weeks, I mentioned to some friends my newfound enthusiasm for Ceravolo’s work. One of them said he had a PDF of Fits of Dawn, first published by Ted Berrigan’s “C” Press in 1965. Did I want him to send it my way? Sure. The only caveat, he insisted, was that I could not under any circumstances share the document with anyone else. It did not take me long to realize that this hush-hush tone had been keeping Ceravolo’s reputation alive for quite a few years. Part of the tiptoeing around the work was due in part, so I had heard, from the poet’s widow, Rosemary Ceravolo, keeping a tight hold on the publishing rights. Because of this there has been a small audience for Ceravolo’s work, but it has been a devoted one. Prior to the publishing of the poet’s Collected Poems earlier this year, the only other book of his that was affordably available was a selected poems, The Green Lake is Awake, published in 1994 by Coffee House Press, which focused mostly on the poet’s work from the 1960s. Now the bulk of Ceravolo’s work is in one place, and safe to say, a devoted following will grow.

The Collected begins with a brief introduction by David Lehman who informs the reader of some basic facts. Ceravolo was born in Astoria, Queens in 1934 to immigrant parents from Calabria, Italy. In 1954, he graduated from City College. While in the U.S. Army Ceravolo was stationed in Germany and began to write poetry. Lehman also points out that the poet took his first poetry workshop with Kenneth Koch at the New School in 1959. Less than ten years later, Ceravolo would win the first Frank O’Hara award, sponsored by Columbia University Press, for Spring in This World of Poor Mutts, still perhaps the poet’s most read work. For his working career, he was a civil engineer.

One can see reading the Collected that Ceravolo’s sensibility formed during the 1950s & ‘60s. As the Abstract Expressionists explored the materiality of paint, poets in the so-called New York School did much the same with language. In the book Transmigration Solo, containing poems written in Mexico in 1960 and New York in 1965, the poem “Feast of Visions,” exemplifies the poet’s early explorations of language as material:

Seizure! blue wailing

questionnaires of noonday

under the rotting trees.

Gracias mis amigos,

the river holds much mud

and he works for el gobierno

de Mexico

guarding trees,

riding a bicycle.

Ceravolo delights here in the sounds of both English – “Seizure” and “questionnaires” – and Spanish – “Gracias mis amigos” and “el gobierno.” Worth noting is that Transmigration Solo was published in Ceravolo’s lifetime, but not until 1978. By then, Ceravolo had already published a few books. The editors of the Collected, Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers, have made a wise choice here to arrange the poet’s books chronologically rather than by publication date. This decision allows readers to develop a more sophisticated view of Ceravolo’s evolution as a poet.

Fits of Dawn was the first book in Ceravolo’s lifetime to see print. Then, and now, the book is wild, a taste of Stein with a touch of Coolidge, though Ceravolo comes chronologically between them. What differentiates Fitsis the poet’s interest in primeval expression. The original cover of this book, reproduced in the Collected, renders what looks like cave art with a disproportionate sun blazing awfully close to a hairy porcine creature while a lanky stick figured man and a one-legged bird hover to the left. In the lower right, the title of the book and the poet’s name. The accompanying epigraph, by C.G. Jung, reads, “He did not think, he perceived his mind functioning.” Below that: “Dedicated/to the Release/from Suffering.” Book I of Fits begins with these lines attributed to “Bushman”:

Thou son of a great woman

Thy body looks like a cow’s body,

Thou big acacia with large branches

Thou red bull,

Thou son of a red she-bull,

Thou who didst drink my milk,

Thou to whom I did not give my breast slowly

In this passage, Ceravolo harkens back to the prehistoric when, according to Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse, there was supposedly a shorter emotional and intellectual distance between the animal and the human. Eshleman writes quite eloquently, in that book, about the prehistoric art found within the caves of southern France. In some of the cave art, there are human figures with stag heads, which represents, for Eshleman, a struggle in the movement from wilderness to civilization. Notably, the eighteen-year-old Marcel Ravidat and some friends discovered the most famous of these caves, Lascaux, in 1940. Did these caves actively capture Ceravolo’s imagination? Difficult to say with a book like Fits, yet it is hard to deny their presence in his work.

Much of what happens in Fits lacks coherence in the traditional sense. In other words, the reader feels language as the place of action rather than experiencing language as the vehicle for a narrative:

How I lift yesterday

the maybe pland-o g-dumb

imposable ness hop will

Reach unbade menacuric look

dome it healthy shafe amomry

attack renear close brick benigher

tuyeres ayer hier bare

For readers of Spanish, it is possible to see the last line of this passage as a play on the word “tuyo,” which depending on context is either an adjective or pronoun for “yours.” The end of the word, “tuyeres,” also contains “eres,” which is a conjugation of the one of the Spanish verbs for “to be.” But, the word “tuyeres” is actually a word in English for a pipe through which air is blown into a furnace. What makes Ceravolo’s play more apparent here is the fact that the next word, “ayer,” is the word for “yesterday” in Spanish. ThroughoutFits, the astute reader will notice pure as well as bastardized Spanish again and again. In this regard, the placement of Transmigration Solo before Fits primes the reader for the appearance of Spanish in the latter.

After freeing himself of standard syntax and usage in Fits, Ceravolo went on to publish two additional books in the late 1960s, Wild Flowers Out of Gas, a chapbook from Tibor de Nagy, and the previously mentioned Spring in This World of Poor Mutts. One of the poet’s most well known poems in the latter is “Ho Ho Ho Caribou,” with these as its opening lines:

Leaped at the caribou.

My son looked at the caribou.

The kangaroo leaped on the

fruit tree. I am a white

man and my children

are hungry

which is like paradise.

The doll is sleeping.

It lay down to creep into

the plate.

It was clean and flying.

Throughout the rest, of his career Ceravolo continues to include his family life in his poems, quite often with an energy and eccentricity similar to the passage above. At the same time, the poet’s work shows a deepening interest in Christian spirituality.

After publishing Spring in this World of Poor Mutts, Ceravolo began work in 1969 on a long poem, The Hellgate, which shows the poet continuing his engagement with Christian theology. Until now, the book only existed in handwritten manuscript. In the second section of The Hellgate, “Departure,” Ceravolo includes a playful litany that begins with the following:

O God let me pray for you

O rock let me pray for you

O broken branch

O leaf

O cumulus let me pray for you

With some poets, it may be easy to write this litany off as a received literary move and nothing more. When taking into account Ceravolo’s 1979 chapbook INRI, the Latin for “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews,” the reader cannot simply ignore this interest. The poet Joel Lewis, in a note at the Electronic Poetry Center, has even gone so far as to claim Ceravolo “the great religious poet of our time.”

Work such as Ceravolo’s bucked the Eastern spirituality trend in the 1960s and 70s, exemplified by poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, and the founding of the Naropa Institute in 1974. With this in mind, it is no stretch to wonder if Ceravolo’s selected, The Green Lake is Awake, published after the poet’s death, did not include much of the work after the 60s because of its more obvious Christianity. Possibly, the work from the 70s and 80s is ignored because of what seems to be a decrease in Ceravolo’s experimentalism through the 1970s, and not from the increased religious content. Whatever the case, the Collected provides the range of the poet’s work for the reader, if one wants it.

In addition to The Hellgate, the Collected contains the previously unpublished Interior of the Poem from 1971. As editor Parker Smathers points out in his Editor’s Note, the backstory for the poem is unique. Ceravolo dictated the poem to his wife one weekend while painting their kitchen. Here is the first stanza:

My hair is black, my eyes are black,

I am the dictator of the poem.

The poem is in front of me

I am writing on its face.

The soul of the poem

is inside the soul

which is inside the poem.

There is no mystery to me

because I can be seen.

The poem continues for just over five pages. Along the way the reader gains further understanding of Ceravolo’s relationship to his poetry: “Where do I end/and where do I begin?/The poem is talking, I am not./When will it stop/so that I can talk?” In Jungian fashion, just as with Fits of Dawn, Ceravolo lets his unconscious shape the poem.

The last book in Ceravolo’s lifetime to see print, in 1982 by Kulchur Foundation, was Millenium Dust. Many of the poems in the book are interrogative, showing concern for the fate of man and his soul. For instance, “Cross Fire” ends with this question:

What have I gained

by lying in this abyss,

waiting for the masonry

to show a little slit

for my soul to get through?

In this book, Ceravolo also moves away from the fanciful wonder that many would associate with his earlier work. In its place, there seems to be a sense of resignation, but instead is actually a wonder grounded in what one can know and what one cannot, as seen in the first two stanzas of “Longer Trip”:

I found out

that the ducks on the ocean

are ospreys resting

on their longer trip.

To where? I don’t know.

My son said

a kite can reach the full moon,

and a sea gull can,

and a bullet can,

but he wasn’t kidding.

The Ceravolo of the 1960s most likely would have not included the last line. Tonally, and this grows more apparent the longer one spends with Millenium Dust, the poems are richer than the early Ceravolo. Does this mean that one period of the poet’s work is more rewarding than another? No. Ceravolo’s concerns changed, as anyone’s would over the course of a life. Just because the nature of the poet’s fancy changes does not mean the poet has lost his stuff. Complexity is not static. And neither should the poet be.

If one needs further proof that Ceravolo was kinetic in his work, the editors have included Mad Angels, which like The Hellgate was in handwritten manuscript until now. This book contains poems written in the last twelve years of Ceravolo’s life; he died September 4, 1988 from bile duct cancer at midlife. Where the poet may have been oblique with story in his early work, he does not shy away from directness in these late poems. “Darkness Ode,” from March 26, 1986, begins with a narrative of remembrance:

He was in his 70s then

and he told me that 25 years

before then the doctors told him

he had only a year to live.

As the poem progresses the reader learns that Ceravolo knew this man, a black custodian at CCNY, when the poet was 19 or 20. While “Darkness Ode” may feel as if the poet was eulogizing his own life, this is largely coincidental, as it seems that his death was not imminently expected. Ceravolo goes on in the poem to call the custodian “noble and one of the great men.” In the details that follow are possibly Ceravolo’s preoccupations, embodied in this man:

I remember him as if he were here

leaning on the dust mop

every word relating to life.

I think it was he

who got me through the first 2 years.

Remember him in the daylight

as he reaffirmed my feeling that there was spirit.

From Transmigration Solo to Mad Angels, Ceravolo kept returning to life and spirit. He married, had a family, engineered roads, and wrote poems, all these more or less the concerns of a life. All the while, Ceravolo wrestled with suffering and salvation, whether in the imagined primeval of Fits of Dawn or the questioning ofMillenium Dust. These concerns cause Ceravolo to stand a bit apart from New York School compatriots such as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. As word of Ceravolo’s work spreads, thanks to the publication of the Collected Poems, it will be interesting to see how much the poet’s spiritual concerns matter to his readers when so much of what has drawn readers in over the years is his playful disregard for typical syntax and the feeling that Ceravolo could say anything and it would sound wonderful. For this reader, the poet cannot be broken into parts. Without spirit one cannot have the concerns of a life.

Robert Creeley at Goddard College May 18, 1973

Over the past two weeks my attention keeps turning back to this reading of Creeley’s. Prior to my accidental discovery of it I had no idea what a treasure it would be and is. One morning I was scrolling through R.C.’s page at PennSound and thought to listen to one of my favorite poems, “The Plan is the Body.”

I clicked on this Goddard reading because this poem leads the set. The first thing that interests me is that there isn’t an actual introduction. Whoever’s doing the introduction trails off after not saying much more than “As you all know,” and then there’s simply a cacophony of voices. The next thing you can hear clearly is Creeley asking, “Can you all hear?”

As R.C. moves along it’s clear that he’s in a joking mood, asking at one point “Do you have a cigarette, man? Just testing the resources of the room.” From there he slips into the poem, but he doesn’t get very far before having to start again, not once, but twice. Before the second time, though, he engages in some chatter with the audience saying “I didn’t make these arrangements. I’m just simply here. Up against the wall, motherfucker!”

All the while the audience is listening, laughing. A bit further in the reading, though, there is a heckler who dislikes one of Creeley’s poems. It’s not really clear what the heckler says, but Creeley replies, “I’m just trying to have an experience.” Eventually, R.C. starts up again. Throughout he shifts from poetry to fiction, chats a bit, and phones ring and babies cry in the background. At one point, Creeley even says “The acid is beginning to work!” Truly incredible!

Meaning is a Change of the Ink - On Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

CAConrad, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein, Stan Mir, Jack Krick, Ryan Eckes, Debrah Morkun, & Carolina Maugeri

CAConrad, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein, Stan Mir, Jack Krick, Ryan Eckes, Debrah Morkun, & Carolina Maugeri

Not long after I graduated from college in 2000, I was working in a Border’s in Tucson, AZ and I discovered Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry. This anthology, brand new at the time, includes poets such as Dmitry Prigov, Aleksei Parshchikov, Ivan Zhdanov, Nina Iskrenko, and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. To say this book broadened my understanding of poetry is an understatement. Specifically, the poems within this book helped me to come to terms with language as a construction rather than language as inherently meaningful.

At The Kelly Writer’s House last Wednesday night I was fortunate enough to see and hear Arkadii Dragomoshchenko give a reading and interview for Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening. In total, Dragomoshchenko read and talked for nearly two hours. In one of his poems, unfortunately the title escapes me, he says “meaning is a change of the ink.” As a poet, Dragomoshchenko continually explores the fact that language and meaning are constructions. This is not a concept I learned in college. In fact, I don’t think I heard anyone, professors or otherwise, ever mention this to me. Or, perhaps they did and I didn’t listen. Or, perhaps I already knew, but couldn’t articulate it.

In his introduction to Crossing Centuries, editor and poet John High points out that “[p]ropaganda in [the Soviet Union] made language itself suspect.” It’s as if language is a material (or a resource) that can be fought over/for in much the same way countries wage war over borders or oil. Language is the primary vehicle that dictates our thinking, so it would be necessary then to control how it operates. Perhaps Rea Nikonova’s “A Free Alphabet” first pushed me towards the idea that language is a contested resource:

A_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Z

Jack Krick, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, & Charles Bernstein

Jack Krick, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, & Charles Bernstein

During the interview Dragomoshchenko suggested that hearing and response are the core of authorial responsibility. He then added that the fat cats of poetry have made it a bit more difficult. Who are the fat cats? He never said, but perhaps one ought to insert one’s own fat cat. Dragomoshchenko’s line “meaning is a change of the ink” foregrounds materiality in terms of physical substance while his insistence that hearing and response are crucial to a poet’s practice make clear that meaning operates in interrelated realms: aural, oral, and written. I think Dragomoshchenko put this idea best when he said at another point in the interview, “explain to the page why you write.” As I sit here, I’m impressed with how precisely Dragomoshschenko compresses his ideas into epigrammatic statements not only within his poems, but also within his speech.

After the reading and interview had ended a bunch of us decided to head home rather than heading out for a drink. Fortunately, we all talked and lolly-gagged long enough at KWH to change our minds and luck into having a drink with Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko at Bridgewater’s Pub in 30th Street Station. They were both catching a train to NYC that night. As we drank and talked, I asked Dragomoshchenko about contemporary Russian poetry and whether or not he feels aligned with poets such as Ivan Zhdanov and Aleksei Parshchikov, poets whom the editors of Crossing Centuries refer to as Meta-Realists. He said, no he doesn’t, but that’s not to say they aren’t his friends. In fact, he said he feels connected to French poets, not Russians. He didn’t say which French poets. And I didn’t ask because he was talking and I didn’t want to interrupt. The one American he feels similar to? John Ashbery.

As we were all about to share a toast with our last drinks before Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko’s departure, Ryan Eckes said, “We say cheers in the U.S., what do you say in Russia?” Reluctantly, Dragomoshchenko said, “We say na zdorovye (to health), but no one says it anymore.” “Okay,” we all said, “then what do you say now?” At first, he said, “Nothing.” But, then he surprised us. “Now, we might say,” as he demonstrated by raising his glass, “I kill you.” We all chuckled at Dragomoshchenko’s black humor. But, now I see his ability, perhaps his predilection, for epigrammatic statement at work once again. In one brief moment Dragomoshchenko demonstrated to all of us at the table that what we hear about contemporary Russia is true. In other words, a culture of vast inequality, an oligarchy in Russia’s case, breeds murderous competition. Not one for killing, “Na zdorovye, Arkadii, na zdorovye.”