Sunday 21 April 2013

Philip Nikolayev - Letters from Aldenderry

Letters from Aldenderry


Philip Nikolayev

Philip Nikolayev shows himself to be at once a master of the ‘natural’ conversation poem as well as of the most witty and ingenious ghazals, sonnets, quatrain poems, and other fixed forms… This is a truly exciting collection of lyrics, as surprising and varied as it is original.’
– Marjorie Perloff.

Review: Ann Fallon.

Letters from Aldenderry is Philip Nikolayev's fourth book of poetry and is, as you would expect from a poet with his publishing history, technically brilliant and confident. It is also   emotionally complex and personal while exhibiting his engagement with a vast cultural background in references to people and places of the US, Russia, Europe, and India.  Containing ninty-nine poems it takes us from the flight of two 'eagles' down immediately into the world of the poet, opens us up to poems which flow easily like the best  conversations, and engages us in questions of being, of art and of human frailty, until we finally exit the book from a vantage point above the seated poet, watching as he  'types a word or two and falls asleep'.   

The book opens with the poem Eagles, a curtailed sonnet which offers a glimpse of something which appears at first to be a 'rare sight, lovely against the chalkboard sky' but which in line nine, becomes a disappointment and a distraction from an essay which he was reading.


Two eagles circled over Cambridge today,
a rare sight, lovely
against the chalkboard sky.
Drawn to stare, I soon noticed
that they went around in near perfect circles
at even speed.
In fact they looked exactly identical.
Their widespread wings didn’t so much as flutter.
I heard a thin electrical whiz
and wondered if they carried
tiny surveillance cameras on board
that could scan
“Shakespeare and the Pathos of Rambling” that I was reading.

The final line is the longest and could very easily have been divided to complete the Petrarchan form which is indicated. That particular form, however, was significant for expressions of idealised or perfect love, and there is no room for perfection in Nikolayev's down to earth take on the world. The ideal of the two eagles is associated with a childhood promise, and appears in a 'chalkboard sky'. His growing awareness then recognises that they are not quite perfect and the trope comes when he hears the 'thin electrical whiz'. The disappointment of this changes to humour when he wonders if their 'cameras' might be capable of scanning the essay, and there is the suggestion that they, and their owners might benefit more from such surveillance. Given that the essay in question is from James Wood's The Irresponsible Self  and that the philosophy of that book is dealt with later by Nikolayev in the poem Revolution, it is difficult not to concur with his laconic assessment here.  

The conversational tone of Eagles is typical of the poems in the collection drawing us in and yet presenting in a very understated way the philosophical issues which life seems to offer. In The Art of Forgetting, the same easy confidential tone is used and draws attention to his own forgetfulness before examining the question of where attention should be paid. The poem therefore exemplifies his intimate awareness of the limitations of the human condition and he explores this theme by particularising it, by drawing us into the conversation and by allowing the universal predicament to be discovered in our own time.

The Art of Forgetting

Last night I cooked my socks in the microwave 
by mistake. What to do when you’re so absent
minded? As well, I have frequently
refrigerated my poems in the freezer
to the point of having to thaw them later,
and poetry’s what’s emerges in defrosting.
I have also lost to nature generations
of galoshes, coats, scarves, umbrellas,
even once an Egyptian skullcap,
whose individual names I forget.
The name of the czar escapes my mind
on whom was meant to be my dissertation,
or was it thesis. Water,
all kinds of water under the all-purpose bridge.
If I’ve forgotten so much via absentmindedness mostly,
then how much have we forgotten as a species?
One day we learn, another forget
everything, including this fact.
It’s possible given enough time and effort
to forget anything,
which’s why we like to reminisce sometimes
on those even who’ve decided they don’t like us.
We’ll fight for our memories, the truth as it appeared once.
But to remember something we need to forget
something, a different truth. My grandmother
believed that if you dab any convenient spot on your body
with iodine daily
it will help you keep your memory in old age.
Head of the Marxism-Leninism chair
at the Ivanovo Energy Institute,
where she taught philosophy and scientific atheism,
she was the kindest soul, loved and spoiled me to distraction,
and her blueberry cakes were of course the best
in this world. Baptized as a child,
on her retirement to a small apartment in the Crimea
she read the Bible, perestroika raging all around.
Everyone wrote, thought and talked of
Stalin, Stalin, Stalin, Beria, Stalin.
She read the Bible, both the Testaments.
Thus dialectical materialism was forgotten
and an ancient faith recovered.
I too would like to forget a few things,
keep trying, but tend to forget instead
all the wrong ones, like submitting payments
by the due date, the need to tie my shoestrings.
Mnemosyne, and her daughters the Muses,
and her grandsons the museums …
Literature too is a museum,
as well as Lenin’s mausoleum,
which is essentially a tomb.
As you must of course know I’ve forgotten
the remote control on the bathroom sink
where my reflection in the crooked mirror
distracted me with its scowl.
This is earth life, but like hailing from outer space.
When my daughter was born,
I spent the night with her and my wife at the hospital
and went home the next day to clean the apartment.
I vacuumed the floor very thoroughly,
my thoughts soaring far and wide. Little did I notice
that the vacuum was running in blow out mode
so the condition of the floor changed
hardly at all. This still makes my wife laugh
and may indeed be worth remembering
against all death. While stress, duress and strain,
the painful neck crane
and other stuff rotten
are best forgotten.

Reading through these poems it becomes obvious that Nikolayev is  a poet's poet, taking delight in manipulating and changing established forms and even adding new ones. Letters from Aldenderry continues his subversion of form and language by showing his craftsmanship and then resolutely breaking the rules in the service of the particular poem under construction.  In Ideas, for example, he runs the words together in a scriptaura continua, forcing the reader to work to recognise the English words and their development from the Latin mother tongue, just as the idea 'ofaprivatelanguage' is questioned along with 'whoputithere' and 'howdiditemerge'.

This idea of a private language is further confronted in his 'immured sonnets' where he uses the form to address our ability to read another person or to translate thoughts  and languages. It also questions such unconscious ideologies as whether we privilege reading from left to right, or from right to left. Hymn, a beautiful love poem to his wife, the poet Katia Kapovich, is a good example of the form. As in most of the immured sonnets in the collection the personal thoughts occur in bold type and are surrounded by the plain type of the more impersonal thoughts.

Coming across the form for the first time it is not immediately clear how to read it. During the course of the book the rules change, so that the reader is constantly being brought into challenging word plays and through these into more personal discoveries. John Kinsella describes his poetics as being 'in "cahoots" with a self-created idiomatic Russian-American English that, like Nabokov's adds to the possibilities of the word, of the line, of the overall form of expression in the text.'

His attitude towards innovation and subversion emerge from an examination of how he displays the rules of his craft before confidently breaking them in the service of the piece he is constructing. He opens the book with a curtailed sonnet, itself once a subversion of the sonnet and now accepted on its own terms. This links his innovation to past innovators, and just as Joyce referenced  the past while 'making it new' for his generation, Nikolayev continues to reference the past while creating something new.  In Revolution, he hints at the   tightrope which must be walked between the populist call for

     poetry that goes de   
     de de de de de duh

and the literary critics who demand

     dramatiqually Duhfamilriazung  
     Ourself zo 
     that oui oui oui oui oui 
     oui can no longer recognise Ourself 
     cuz oui wanna escape from Ourself

Having established his poetic credentials he subverts the rules and breaks the forms. Peppered as his poems are with mention of philosophies and philosophers from Plato to his grandmother's knowledge of dialectical materialism, Nikolayev's 'broken forms' adds to the suggestion that he is rejecting Plato's 'ideal forms', and reflecting a more accurate portrait of the relentlessly fallible and broken human condition. His innovations and 'broken forms' become a philosophical reaction against the idea of perfection and are used in the service of art and ideas, rather than a reaction to established literary manifestos.

The central poem in the collection is instantly recognisable as a ghazal but the rules are broken in line with the ideas expressed. Normally a ghazal is a poem of rhyming couplets dealing with unattained love, melancholy or metaphysical questions and containing a reference to the poet in the final couplet.  Here the reference to the poet/narrator occurs in the first couplet, so the poem is turned on its head. The strict rhyming scheme is broken in the fifth couplet just as the voice proclaims that it will not follow the rules. Looking in this kind of detail at how Nikolayev is breaking the poetic rules helps to provide an entry point for his personal aesthetic, which seems to tell us that the thoughts behind the poetic form will always take precedence. 

My name is Wormswurst, I give back to men their Zen.
I switch their here now with my there then.

Their stories of the past forgotten
Lay many generations protein,

But when our new spores come to life,
We sing them from within a hive.

We show a multitude of claws
And form a multitude of laws.

We see a world in groping mittens.
Will not obey! This music leads me,

This music leads me, leads me where?
Oh how it leads me! I don’t care!

The opening acknowledgement of his body as 'Wormswurst' or wormmeat gives the narrator an atemporal, aspatial point of view and alludes to Hamlet. This Shakespearean allusion continues in the final poem Earth, with its seven rhyming couplets. But the portrait drawn there of the 'diminished lot' could also be staged as a Beckettian drama.  Earth is however a unique expression, sui temporis, from an important modern poet at ease with his own predicament and aware of his own craft and vocation and of the insignificance of life for all that. Like Beckett he decries our efforts to express something significant, and like Beckett does so in a way which elevates human expression to a beautiful art form. 


But what to make of the diminished lot,
of what man could have got and yet has not?
But let him simply while away the day,
and soon this will not matter anyway.
Walking in vain across a cloudy sky,
he scans the grasslands with an acid eye,
like a slightly more modern Robert Frost.
But what of what man had yet somehow lost?
Staring at nature helps him to forget,
to come to terms, to cancel out the debt.
All night he whistled with a mockingbird
and now on his old keyboard types a word
or two into the world and falls asleep.
The land has willows, something needs to weep.

Nikolayev has translated Beckett's French poems into English and has run the SAMUEL BECKETT facebook page since 2009, gathering a unique collection of photographs, artistic portraits of Beckett and resources and bringing together almost twenty thousand Beckett fans worldwide. It is typical of his interest in art, culture and ideas and the high standards that he insists upon, that the page has become such an important resource for Beckett fans and scholars. 

We are told consistently that to become better writers we must read more and there is no other book of poetry which could be better recommended for this purpose than Letters from Aldenderry. On top of this the personal engagement and intelligent companionship which it offers will make you feel that you are in Paris, or Moscow or Boston conversing with one of the most exciting writers of the century.  

Philip Nikolayev. Photograph: Katia Kapovich
Having relocated from Russia to the US in 1990 Nikolayev has first hand experience of the promise of new worlds and of that which is never entirely left behind. In a century of  mass population movements, he becomes an important voice within this movement, transferring cultural insights both enriching and gaining from his new culture.  Since his move to the US he has has written primarily in English and his poetry bears the hallmark of his hybrid identity.  This is his fourth collection and it is one which both poets and the reading public will love. 

It can be purchased from Amazon and directly from the Salt Publishing at:

He also runs the Russian Poetry in Translation fb page, providing access to the poetry of Russia to the English speaking world, ( 

and the SAMUEL BECKETT fb page:

Larissa Schmailo has also published a review of Letters from Aldenderry for Jacket Magazine, focussing on Nikolayev's playfulness with the English language:

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