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Ilya Kaminsky reviews
Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics Number 2, 2003

Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics Number 2, 2003, eds. Phillip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich, at, 398pp., US$15.00, ISSN 1534-7877

Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics, edited by two Russian expatriates and talented poets in their own right, Phillip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich, is now in its second year of publication in Cambridge, Massachussetts. The editors’ foreignness — or, to put it in other words, their insight into another way of looking at things — is a stroke of luck for us readers, for it offers an unprecedented project in American letters today — think of, in an earlier period, the Nabokov-Wilson correspondence.

Strong editorial focus is present everywhere in the magazine. Nikolayev and Kapovich give us not just a magazine but an anthology. Their introduction shows a critical vigor in English combined with a very Russian and heart-felt dedication to the art (“Poetic beauty is a vehicle of hope. Poetry is all about inventing beauty where none exists.”)

The essays are various and intelligent. As one reader, I was quite interested in the contradictions and reconciliations offered in John Kinsella’s “Why I am a Pacifist”:

I am a pacifist... My poetry has often been critically described as ‘pessimistic’ or ‘dark’ or ‘full of violence’... I feel poetry is not a telling; it is an evocation, a suggestion. But though these disturbances, a possible peaceful environment is perceptible....A believer in peace might not be a pacifist or a peace activist. Peace is a variable, a relative state of being.

A conversation between Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff proved to be another instructive read:

MP: how do we deal with difficulty in the age of Billy Collins and Dana Gioia? Yours is, to quote William James on Gertrude Stein, “a fine new kind of realism.”... But can we ask readers to know what Charles Bernstein knows?

CB: We have to make the reader the offer she can’t refuse....By refuse, I mean that turning way in the face of the daunting challenge of decoding the references....before even starting to read the poem. My idea...was to make poems that allowed for ambient access, that you start by getting the hang of, more than figuring out. It does not mean that at some other point in your experience with the poem you won’t ponder those obscure references, but that the poem encourages you to go on what you experience, not just what you already know. Pragmatism, pragmatism, joggity jag.

Hugh Bredin’s take on irony and paradox offers an interesting review of philosophical and poetic intersections on the subject:

Irony as a state of mind was a subject of great interest to a number of nineteenth century thinkers... Hegel... took it to mean a refusal to commit oneself to any belief, amounting thus to a form of nihilism. “If ego remains at this [ironic] level,” he wrote, “everything appears to it as null and vain, except its own subjectivity which therefore becomes hollow and empty and itself mere vanity”... Kiergaard... disagreed... he described the ironic state of mind as ... “a negative independence of everything.”

According to Bredin, “paradox means exactly what it says; irony does not.”

Among his curious examples of paradox are Oscar Wilde’s famous words, which are worth repeating here: “It is only very shallow people who do not judge by appearances”. Bredin’s summing-up is quite impressive:

Irony and paradox...are paradigms of literary discourse: one demonstrates the power of the rules, and the other demonstrates the power of breaking the rules. If breaking the rules is not the fashion — or, to be precise, breaking the rules with much fanfare and to the sounds of applause — this is because the thing we are still fighting is the Enlightenment, whose contempt of poetry has not been forgotten and whose ideal language was like the language of geometry: precise, univocal, brilliant and thin. But writers themselves including very great writers like Yeats, Eliot and Joyce, know that breaking the rules is only part of the story. Wordsworth’s desire to write in the real language of men was truer than even he realized. For the language of poetry is in the end, as in the end it must be, the very same language as the language spoken in the home, the marketplace, and the street.

Another powerful take on the intersections of philosophy and poetry is John Koethe’s essay on Wittgenstein and Stevens, showing us how this unlikely team shares “a movement of thought in which the thinker is drawn to something from which he distances himself.” Michael B. Prince’s essay on Heidegger’s views of poetry is also very interesting; I particularly enjoyed Part III, in which Prince discusses in great detail Heidegger’s famous view that “Language is the house of Being”.

The volume’s poetry selections are quite wonderful as well: my personal favorites include John Tranter’s marvelous and wildly funny “After Rilke” (the poem begins with: “I hate this place. If I were to throw a fit, who / among the seven thousand starlets in Hollywood / would give a flying fuck?”) and David Baratier’s alive and surprising poems (“Many people will die this month but/ you do not know them. Rise your spirits./ Chin up, chipper!....Go see a movie in which/ history is so much like current ideology / the film is natural”).

I also enjoyed fan Ogilvie’s rhythms in “Installation Art”, Melanie Challenger’s bilingual presentation in “Shipped”, Ben Mazer’s “A Poem” (which consists of a quite unpredictable seventeen-line sentence), and Michael Radich’s musical “truth, will, out” and his (somewhat Simic-like) statement: “my hand is in another world / at the far end of my arm”.

Much material in Fulcrum, naturally, is written by Russian speakers. Of particular note is Alexei Tsvetkov’s “Pushkin’s Orphans”, an engaging account of his generation’s role and position in contemporary Russian poetry as well as a peculiar, brilliant and sometimes scandalous overview of Russian literary tradition (among other things he sees Akhmatova as a “hopelessly mediocre” poet, calling her form “utterly pedestrian”). There are also pieces by important contemporary Russian poets including Lev Rubinstein and Gandlevsky.

What also deserves to be noted is Fulcrum’s disregard of contemporary poetry hierarchies — for in what other publication can we find an interview with Joseph Brodsky (of particular interest here is his comparison of Russian, German and French with English) on the same pages with an interview with Billy Collins (his fans will be quite surprised by the list of poets he goes back to reread) and a table of contents that includes Charles Bernstein along with Louis Simpson? Such inclusiveness is rare and worthy of celebration.

Instead of literary wars, Fulcrum’s editors devote their attention to the concerns of the craft: the collection is centered around the issue of “necessity of thought” emphasizing its philosophical and lyrical (Someone once told / me (might have been / me) the universe’s / no meaning, but we / have to make one.”) importance. But as with any good book, this annual also attempts to argue with its own premises, finding that “the power of language is blindness”. As W.B. Keckler suggests in a beautiful poem: “Funny, birds don’t ruin ornithology / the way poets ruin poetry.”

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