As It Turned Out by Dmitry Golynko, Edited by Eugene Ostashevsky. Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Rebecca Bella with Simona Schneider.
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2008)
As It Turned Out weaves a narrative of prosperity and loss as a result of communist Russia’s transition to free markets. Golynko’s rich language and broad-arching narrative is a study in how that transition affected the economic, environmental, personal and cultural persona of Russia and its people. It is a glimpse into the mind and heart, a spiritual journey of a newly subjugated people.
Divided into nine sections, each section is a series of poems rich in language and metaphor that rewards with each reading. Its narrative arc is a broad and passionate tale about discovering the way to come to terms with our own condition as humans no matter how terrible or confused our world is.
The opening section Passing the Church of the French Consulate makes a strong statement about liberation and abandoning old ways of thinking.
I stole gooseberries, crowfoots in the municipal gardens of Tartu,
tried on the pike skeleton of the mahogany cathedral
in place of my vertebral column—the card I got, got topped,
the Mammy of God placed into my hands a vial—it shattered
Here, the poet relates the availability of resources, gooseberries, crowfoot, and locates the action in Estonia. He had been nourished on fish skeletons and the church, which was a poor substitution for a back bone. We have to wonder what is in the vial. Images raise questions. We have to keep reading to unlock the secrets and open the vial. This first section establishes the failure of communism at providing for the spirit and seeks to move beyond social preconceptions. It asks us to ask ourselves what acceptable behavior is when we are forced to survive. Like the first section, the second section, The Diary of an Ephemeral Death, asks us to define the boundaries of what it means to be wholly alive.
The third section, Elementary Things, reduces the items of necessity to faceless objects. For example, each poem in this series of twenty-five is coldly titled the letters ET and a number, ET1 for the first poem in the series. ET17 captures the desperation a person might feel coming from a communist based economy to one which suspects that an elementary aspect of commoditized resources are themselves transient and impermanent as well.
an elementary thing respects the poverty
of logic, language, the homeless, so on
many birds have gone dead and blind
not just swallows but also wagtails
warblers, chaffinches, corncrakes
rereads the ornithological atlas
the pushers gone extinct and the madcap hawkers
it’s time for the elementary thing to skedaddle
before somebody took care of it
Which is the more spiritual providing social system to live in? A system which provides are elementary necessities to live, or a system in which we are free to provide for our own spiritual growth?
In the fourth section of the book, The Faun and the Few, Golynko takes a stance on the environmental implications of moving from a communist to a consumerist based worldview. Again, the poems are linked by their titles. Each poem’s title is named “the faun and un-” the subject of the poem, for example “the faun and the unknown” or “the faun and the unearthly.” Traditionally, a faun is perceived as a male figure, but Golynko questions the gender of a faun by suggesting that it is “perhaps a woman” as he states in the first poem of this section, “the faun and unfeigned.” By positing gender ambiguity, Golynko forces us to check our own gender biases.
In “the faun and the unskilled” Golynko writes:
the faun knows how to look after
cheer up, scrub a pot
fill out necessary forms
betray someone, when it’s unbearable
suck caramels and cherry drops
nibble on halvah, clean fennel
get cash from the beat-up bankomat
the unskilled is also completely used to
breaking it down, when necessary
Perhaps, Golynko suggests that nature is capable of undermining authority when a resource is overtapped, when a woman has reached the end of her rope, she can stop providing. The woman, like nature, should not be taken for granted by a consumptive system because she knows how to break it down. This section can be read as a critique of gender roles and a tip of the hat to feminism.
In the fifth section, The Revered Categories, Golynko provides poems in a series that list categories of sadness, of misperception, of disappointment: “the category of pity,” “the category of condescension,” and “the category of stuckiness.” In “the category of intimacy” the poet describes the pitfalls and risks of intimacy in times of transition:
the situation’s desperate, there will be gossip
a femme fatale, gonorrhea, knocked up, the breeding ground
of seals, squeak-thing, rattle thing, one hoo-hoo
gone mute, third-grade cursive without pressure,
recommendations for users, hoarfrost on, shit,
what are you after, thrice-kissed in Christ, dillweed
crushed fine, what a numbskull, missed the date,
the testosterone level, ananke kicked in
lips search for someone, is the prisoner
whistling, is the mariner, the kid who stayed back
got a banana
The anxiety of having quantum possibilities at our disposal can be overwhelming. But after “the Red October piano gets hauled out,” the poem says, the memory is sharpened and the capacity of meaningful intimacy is regained. The red October piano is obviously an image of communism. Does Golynko miss the old ways?
Golynko trounces on language’s possibilities and weaves together a tale of skeptical uncertainty. We move from one shadow of communism to the shadow of corporatism. We are equally unsure and mistrustful, but the benefits offer more meaningful relationships within ourselves, with each other, with nature and with the world itself. Golynko carries on a tradition of poets raising questions.
So when Golynko moves to the final sections of the book, he offers a cause for celebration on a new found freedom. In the section “Whip It Out,” the poems have a central character, a man in a black raincoat, who discovers freedom of sexual expression, where suppressed sexual urges implicate the old way of thinking and the new way of thinking allows the voyeur to be himself, despite the fact that he is a creepy pervert looking for a place to service himself in public. The section closes with the eleventh poem in the series:
whip it out, yeah, nail it down
a man in a black raincoat
looks at himself, what a
stud, they’ll give it to him
right here, and where he’s going
further on also, and he knows
how to take it, sour cranberries
in a soaking bowl, the choice is huge
Here, Golynko suggests that doors of opportunity are open. We do not need to suppress ourselves. We cannot avoid our destinies, where we are going.
The final section of the book, For The Checkmark Or For, the poems run in a series of lost opportunities now regained. In the poem “not out of desperation,” the metaphor of new free-market foods to taste”
a pizza slice of chinese make
is taken out of the refrigerator
freezer crystals flow all over the frying pan
but not out of love, likewise two chicken
cutlets lie together on the bed of a griddle
out of desperation, having imagined
the continuation of their union, we’ll have
to hold our noses, we’re not savages after all
So, as it turned out, though capitalism is daunting, communism’s shadow looms over the evil, haunting specter of capitalism and a renewed world view. This book is an historical document of how the transition from the old to the new is difficult to navigate. But it is so much more than that. It is an exploration in language and rewards with each read.
Eric Wayne Dickey has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Oregon State University. His poems and translations have been published or are forthcoming in Blazevox, Rhino, West Wind Review, Manzanita Quarterly, International Poetry Review, and Blue Collar Review. He is a John Anson Kitredge Fund for Individual Artists grant recipient administered by Harvard University and a Vermont Studio Center Fellow. He co-edited To Topos: Poetry International and lives in Corvallis, Oregon.