“By shifting our attention from the ‘I’ to the ‘we,’” David Carr writes in Experience and History, “it is not necessary to leave the first-person point of view behind; we merely take up the plural rather than the singular first person.”
In Hit Parade, by the Orbita Group, we are presented with the work of a self-defined poetry collective, a group of poets who compose works as individuals, though often presenting them in intermedia presentations—in video, or musical collaborations. It is questionable what the benefit of handing something as personal as one’s lyrical identity over to a group might be, but it isn’t facetious. Though a collective, these poems are ostensibly written in the traditional manner, i.e. they are poems written by individuals. What’s common to the experiences of the poets that make the Orbita Group—Sergej Timofejev, Artur Punte, Semyon Khanin, and Vladimir Svetlov—is a poetry that conveys the experiences of both the individual and collective. The poetry moves between the present moment and historical setting, critiquing both the traditional lyrical voice, and the experimentation of the modernist.
A little background: The Orbita Group is made up of Latvian poets who write in Russian. They are based in Riga, Latvia’s cosmopolitan capital and largest city. Moreover, the poems themselves are based in Riga, a fact that becomes visible to the reader as they move through these poems. Torn over centuries between Eastern and Western identities, the present-day Latvian society looks both West and East, but the stamp of Russian literature is evident, and plays an interesting ghost in these poems.
The Orbita Group looks in both directions at once. The poetry is clearly cosmopolitan: Russian official verse culture is very traditional, steeped in rhyme and meter, a tendency only used in Hit Parade very occasionally for effect. On the other hand, the specter of Russian literature is very much at hand, and the Russian identity of the poets is apparent. Regardless of whether the antisocial tendency that recurs in these poems is something to be attributed to an ethnic conflict, the poets do wear this identity as a badge at times. As often, there is a sense of alienation conveyed by the subject of these poems, which can also come across as the frustrations of assimilation.
The other major thematic matrix underlying these poems is the culture of technology transforming landscape, relationship, and personality. The first poet presented in Hit Parade, Sergej Timofejev, writes from this position among people torn between desire for technological sublimation, and an imagination possessed by the impossibility of meeting more than the most basic material needs. The poems look both into the past and future when making these illustrations. “Books are read / more slowly now” he writes in “Planet No Money,” “the music doesn’t play all the time.” A poverty taking the form of material longing has connotations both for the individual and the culture.
Timofejev serves as an appropriate opener possibly because, in representing the geography he does, he uses a depiction that has some purchase with the West. “I sit and calmly eat my vodka,” he writes in “The North.” “Just no calls to other mobile networks— / that’s the one rule of our society.” The rendering of capitalistic impositions on society has some familiar reverberations, in a sentiment that is classic Russian absurdism. While reading this particular poet’s selections, I put together a list of his many allusions to material poverty. The poetry is populated with empty cupboards, stalled automobiles, run-down houses, as well as more elaborate and emotionally complicated illustrations of a less-than-luxurious livelihood—smoking on an empty stomach, playing soccer in the driveway, etc. And as if from the mind of a character living in such a scenario, many of these poems also move to express escapist fantasies in the form of romance, crime, and science fiction. Elsewhere he re-imagines the past that has begotten the present by a different route than the historical: “I saw the old world’s birth, / Whole streets of dilapidated houses / Were erected, with rusty rain / Down spouts.” Is the world Timofejev refers to this world—the old world geographically removed—or is it a world buried under this one, i.e. the past, a dilapidated origin story that explains away the emptiness of the present world?
As far as he writes himself into these poems, Timofejev presents himself as alienated from the world he inhabits. In “Postcard from the South,” he is a loner sunning himself on the beach, in a world reduced to a beach, where he has no social connection, nor interest in getting in the water. He is “darker than the rest,” though the social wanting is the climax of the poem, when he tells a fellow beachgoer to “Go ahead and slap my shoulder.” It may be an emptiness he sees in the climate that leads him to inscribe desperate, wild, and absurd narrative impressions of the world around him.
Artur Punte’s Riga is not an altogether different place; it has the same tenor—that is, one alienated from its sources. Punte, however, is less likely to follow Timofejev into the distinctly Russian territory of creating absurd narratives to explain the way the world is. Punte—“squeamish to breathe / in a crowd, / to take change, / or start conversations”—shares with Timofejev a tendency to poeticize a self-imposed solitude but has a little more humor regarding it, and his awareness of the conflict between different collective identities gives a social insight to situations that have no exact counterpart in the United States, though their conflicts may shed some light on our own.
Consider two poems, an untitled poem (and note that about two-thirds of the poems in Hit Parade lack titles) concerning “the gang from Tallinas street” and “Gastarbeiters.” The first of these describes a scene where the poet and one of his friends are in a taxi. Both the friend, Imant, and the driver are ethnic Latvians, or the driver at any rate is a Latvian speaker. The friends are discussing PCs and Macs, a conversation that is disrupted when Imant “mixes up computers with my nationality and breaks off…” The driver notes the social and linguistic divide between his passengers and chimes in—switching to “pretty good” Russian—about how one ethnicity always sounds like an insult when named by someone with an accent. He then bends the conversation into something resembling a racist joke, concerning Roma and indigenous Russians—Chuchkis—and is met with silence.
The titular subject of “Gastarbeiters” is a social class that doesn’t really exist in the United States, presumably why the translator chose not to render the title as “guest worker,” which is an accurate literal translation of the title. In the poem, Punte describes “our first experience in this city / that no one accepts us here, that even doors / with photosensors don’t always open when we come near.” My understanding is the gastarbeiter as a social class doesn’t really exist in Eastern Europe any longer either (compare Dubai or Riyadh), but it does historically, and may account for the provenance of being a Russian in Riga, or perhaps describe what it feels like to be an outsider, a tourist in your own town.
The estrangement between the poet and the other is even more exaggerated in the third poet of Hit Parade, Semyon Khanin. The people in Khanin’s poems are generally only represented by pronouns, an effect that makes them come off alien, almost deistic in their ability to cause change without being experienced in and of themselves. There is something of this quality to the whole of Khanin’s world, lacking contextual foundation to assist the reader in making sense of just what is going on. The approach is effective in rendering an atmosphere of psychosocial exile, but some readers might find the dissociative airs not completely compelling, or at least warm, as far as poetry goes. You have to know what you want to get into. One runs into similar issues reading Beckett, Dickinson, and Plath. That is to say, the poetry is excellent, if alienating.
While there is unfamiliarity to much of this poetry that stems from the contingent cultural position of its authors as well as the intentional experimental voices applied to it, there is a footing that can be found in resonances that pop up again and again from author to author. For example, both Khanin and Punte refer to the Russians leaving Riga. Khanin says they will “fly off to Moscow and won’t come back…the light will be out in the whole building again / and there will be no streetlights in the entire world,” a sentiment that could be a continuation of the last poem of Timofejev’s in the collection, where “Power’s fallen off the grid […] walk through empty editorial offices / Turning the lights off.”
An interesting motif recurring throughout the collection is a sort of religious materialism that connects the different poets. This is brought explicitly by Punte in “Grandfather.” The poem, which is one of the few written in prose, relates the story of Punte’s grandfather (“he called me Arty”), who was rewarded for his materialism by the Soviet authorities with cars and land. Punte’s grandfather was religiously observant and attended Orthodox services, but not a believer, and in the summer he considered wandering off into the woods with his rifle to kill himself. But instead, in the winter, he used it to hunt. There are echoes of doom across these poems as networks are shut down, information flows dry up, and all the people need is an electrician. But, in “Truths,” Timofejev tells us “All the lights on the other side of the river / Will never—imagine that—never go out.” As if Gospel, the poets regularly threaten to exile the citizen or reader to some literal “outer darkness.”
By the time you’ve read some work by the last poet in the sequence, Vladimir Svetlov, you’ll realize that the book was organized in a progression that moves from the expected to the unexpected. At the same time, Svetlov’s poems are raw, terse, and emotional, Creeley-esque, without the bouncing-ball rhythms. In one untitled poem he proposes to his romantic partner that they move back in time, preceding their discovery by the outside world. The poem then moves line by line, lyrical chunk by chunk, surveying the events in reverse sequence from lovemaking, to the kiss, to their first encounter, with the fidelity of a VHS cassette rewinding before you. The conveyance is clumsy and lyrical at the same time, allowing the reader to inhabit the lines as they otherwise might inhabit a thought, in a poem roughly the length of a sonnet.
In a progression of Russian poets, perhaps marching away from Riga, Svetlov struggles the least “in a land / where night is longer than summer / never got used to the sun / never regretted the days” and brings the book full circle. One might expect a more direct collaboration from poets who operate as a “collective,” but the Orbita Group experiments by showing that juxtaposition alone can re-organize identity, and offer the reader insight into the experiences of persons and people half a world away.
James Yeary is a bookseller in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of numerous chapbooks of poetry, many of which were written in collaboration with other artists and writers. His review work has elsewhere appeared in Rain Taxi and Galatea Resurrects. He has taught poetry in the classroom, the museum, and on the street.