The End of the Line in Russia
|Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album, by Philip Metres. University of Akron Press, 83 pp., $14.95.
It is a testament to American poetry’s ongoing vogue for political writing that Philip Metres’ Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album, follow-up to his acclaimed 2015 collection Sand Opera, has garnered barely a fraction of the critical attention its precursor drew. While Sand Opera, a response to the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, has been lauded across the nation’s top journals—and rightfully so—Pictures at an Exhibition has, as of this writing, received not a single significant review. And yet Pictures, written after Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano suite of the same name, seems the more lasting—which is perhaps to say less fashionable—contribution to both American and world writing; it is, at the risk of generalizing, the more intellectually complex, ethically deft, and emotionally layered of the two nearly simultaneous collections, and its relative obscurity points to the limitations of a poetry scene more concerned with fads than with futurity.
A collection in ten “movements,” like Mussorgsky’s own Pictures Metres’ latest returns to the subject of much of his earlier work, namely the ruins of post-Soviet Russia in the mid-1990’s, where Metres spent a fellowship year translating Russian poetry and, as he puts it in a coda to Pictures, trying to “live … like a Russian” among “end- / of-the-line train depots / Snickers bars & statue graveyards.” As this passage suggests, much of Pictures documents the transition from a failed Communist regime to an emergent, yet already strangely late, capitalism, a period characterized by vast extremes of wealth and poverty—private dachas and bread lines, literary cafés and boarded nightclubs—and by a once-imposing culture reduced to kitsch and consumerism—Tsar Peter cigarettes, pay toilets in the shadow of the Kremlin, something called the “Museum of Atheism and Religion.” Like its modernist predecessors—among them Eliot’s Waste Land and Benjamin’s Arcades Project—Pictures gathers as if to preserve them the scraps of a culture in the midst of profound change, attempting to assemble some kind of functional whole from fragments of language, culture, and geography. “How,” Metres puts it, “to rupture / into usable scraps, ritual // to hew / to?”
Yet Russia, the book suggests, resists such stitching. Russia—unsuitable, Metres jokes, for travel or tourism, too large, too cold, country that defeated Napoleon—defies efforts to wring from it any kind of conventional poetic beauty, particularly insofar as that beauty remains predicated on assembling whole narratives or realizing some sort of poetic—or political for that matter—totalizing vision. Russia, in other words, will not be framed like a picture on exhibition, will not be reduced to lyric. Another way to say this is that Pictures both formally and thematically, is a book of fragments, of poems that—purposefully— don’t quite come together, a book of missed connections, conversations overheard, and images glimpsed only in passing.
This idea—that perhaps poetry’s most ethical response to the world is to witness to its brokenness—extends to the considerable “Notes” section appended to the poems themselves. It is difficult, these days, to find a poetry collection that doesn’t include “notes,” though more often than not the information housed therein seems superfluous— unnecessary source attribution, sentimental dedications, glosses of arcane references. Themselves an inheritance from Eliot, contemporary notes seem designed to give poetry the illusion of serious intellectual inquiry—sources! quotations!—while removing unwieldy particulars from the poem itself, preserving, thereby, a Romantic conception of the poem as an hermetic lyric into which other kinds of discourse— historical allusion, intertextual citation, mundane facticity—never enter. Notes, that is, allow poetry to gesture toward intellectual heft while ensuring that poems themselves, those delicate vessels of self-expression, aren’t weighed down with too heavy a dram of the ideas to which they refer. While Metres’ notes, too, sometimes descend into tartuffery— “lines borrowed from a tour guide,” “See also…”, “This is a work of friction”—the appendix to Pictures is often thoughtfully integrated into the main project of the book proper, documenting sources at risk of vanishing, and preserving the cultural and textual genealogy of a nation undergoing rapid transformation, in this case, from Communist superpower to dysfunctional failed state to, as today, resurgent global force. Pictures, including its notes, wants to capture, to frame, one brief moment in this transformation.
Too, Metres improves on much contemporary writing, including his own Sand Opera, in his willingness, in Pictures, to situate his discourse among broader systems of oppression with which poetry—with which we all—are often complicit. Refusing to defer on the pressing imperative of self-critique, Metres powerfully enacts the ethical dilemma of his own touristic encounter with post-Soviet Russia. “[L]ook,” he writes in the book’s fifth movement, “no looking / ’s free: impossible / to navigate Nevsky // & take a snapshot / without babushka / giving you the finger.” This is a book, on one level, about attempting to understand, encompass, and express a place in a language—in this case American English—not of that place; but, on another level, Pictures registers the complicated ethics of such a project, the collisions of history, emotion, and culture involved in what poetry calls “witness.” In the book’s seventh movement, Metres describes a woman “lugging a yellow / tank of kvass” down an empty street:
as if she were
to the machine—
how a mouse leans to open
the jaw of the snake—
she lifts her face
only after I snap
Metres lets that unsettling, discomfiting encounter—it’s a “shot,” after all—linger, and the effect is that we too, as readers, feel caught up in the ambivalent, complexly layered feeling involved in the woman’s interpellative stare. Pictures, as this moment suggests, is a welcome reappraisal of poetic witness, locating poetry itself in a wider cultural economy in which it exists, still, as a powerful form of capital. “Two street pirozhkis […] 9 rubles,” Metres write in “The Marketplace,” “Chicken Kiev at the Literary Café […] 160 rubles.”
At times, Metres’ interest in re-conceiving what the book object can do, as object, leads to the same kind of gimmickry that sometimes marred Sand Opera. The earlier collection’s transparent pages— allowing the reader to “see through” the schematics of an interrogation cell to the poem below—have become, in Pictures, poems that run throughout the book in its headers and footers, a single line placed above and below each traditionally formatted poem, “framing” it. Yet aside from this small indulgence, Pictures is ultimately a formally deft and intellectually challenging engagement with some of the most lasting, because most vexing, problems in poetry. In poem after poem, Metres uses his localized experience in the ruins of post-Soviet Russia to imagine how poetry itself might better attend to the economies of suffering—another kind of ruin—it often quite powerfully protests. “Because ruin,” as Metres writes toward the book’s close, “is the mother of future.”
Christopher Kempf's book of poetry Late in the Empire of Men won the Levis Prize from Four Way Books and is forthcoming in March 2017. A former NEA and Stegner fellow, he is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.