The specter of Joseph Brodsky haunts the pages of Kirill Medvedev’s debut English-language collection of poems, essays and actions, It’s No Good, like a ghost done wrong—an unshakeable haunting clinging to the memorial plane, filling empty rooms with its anguish. Maybe that’s a little much, but let me put it this way: understanding where Medvedev is coming from—or what he is trying to accomplish with his writing—requires an understanding of Brodsky’s great struggle and ultimate triumph.
In 1964, Brodsky was a poet accused of “parasitism” and his subsequent trial propelled him to infamy. He made articulate cases for his personal dignity, for his right to be left alone to create art, and ultimately wound up doing two years of hard labor in the northern village of Norenskaya. In 1972 he was exiled—and in ‘87 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Four years later, he was the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Jump forward to modern-day Russia with its mutated capitalism, its images of a bare-chested Putin riding horses like Conan the Barbarian, its intensely apathetic and disgruntled youth. The same way that the Soviet era gave birth to a poet like Brodsky, who argued for the freedom to simply be a poet, the Putin era has given birth to a poet like Medvedev, who argues for uncompromised honesty, both from himself and his contemporaries.
In his 2004 essay, “My Fascism,” he writes: “Everyone has his or her own fascism. My fascism is the fatal inability to understand and accept anything falling outside not only ‘humanity,’ but my own personal humanity; it’s my attempt to hang on to various ghosts instead of admitting that though we’re still filled with the shards of the old culture, we’re standing now on bare ground.”
Medvedev is a true 21st-Century poet. He has renounced all copyright to his poems and most of his writing is published directly to his website, where anyone can access it and republish it, if they so choose. He has claimed, rightly, that arguments over poetry do not spill over into real life and are therefore irrelevant. He does not believe in contracts and encourages piracy of his own work. He is intensely critical of the poet who seeks to differentiate their public art and private life. Most importantly, he lives his life by his own standards and actively criticizes those he finds hypocritical.
It’s No Good, then, is a collection that screams its own importance. It is simultaneously a book of arguments and pleas, a book of great beauty and horrendous ugliness, a level-headed comprehension of why things are the way they are and a tight-fist of destructive anger.
Of the poems included here are the first Medvedev had published, the collection It’s No Good, as well as selections from his second collection, Incursion. Among the later selections is the long poem “Europe”—Medvedev’s final published poem before he renounced the literary world—and it’s a real standout. Here’s an excerpt:
I see that all tourists
are like these sick people,
I think of what one can do in such situations,
one should anticipate them
journey, and not look at real ruins
with lizards crawling on them
not drag one’s already
dying body (one’s weak, ill-formed or alternately well-formed and
slightly foreign body)
through these pleasant evening cities
Four translators collaborated on It’s No Good, including publisher and n+1 editor Keith Gessen. Their efforts are magnificent, especially considering Medvedev’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation and capitalization and deeply embedded historical and cultural references (footnotes give invaluable context for those of us who aren’t up-to-speed on contemporary Russian issues.) The variety of forms are sequenced nicely to keep the reading experience feeling fresh. A lengthy essay may lead into a brief manifesto, followed by a self-contained body of poems. Eventually a greater vision becomes apparent. Medvedev is using his poetry and essay writing interchangeably; he is dictating his actions—and going out and living them—as a living art project.
It’s particularly fascinating to see Medvedev’s embrace of technology shift through It’s No Good. From published collections to Livejournal to using his own personal website, it’s clear that Medvedev not only believes in what poets are saying with their words, but also that there is meaning to be found in both how and why those words are delivered to readers.
Perhaps no excerpt makes that intention more clear than this one, taken from Medvedev’s cycle “Love, Freedom, Honesty, Solidarity, Democracy, Totalitarianism:”
for a long time I wanted
no one to know about me,
and then I wanted
everyone to know about my anonymity
and for everyone to understand this as