Chuvash Poet of the Week: Gennady Aygi

by on Nov.28, 2011

I am a techno-mystic poet and I love mystic poets, even when the content of their mysticism (Humanity; Humanism; God) contrasts with mine (Non- or Ab-humanity; the Inhuman;Art). I feel like we are driving towards the same thing: revelation: the point at which the medium of the poem, the cave we have built with language and image in order to spelunk through, goes suddenly convex, bursts back at us with an unsurvivable strafing content. For me that content is Art, mediumicity itself, dark matter; for nicer people, it’s God, compassion, etc.

In the case of Alice Notley’s Culture of One, that relevatory force is Mercy, though I think her Merc y is of such multiply positive and negative valences that she goes in both categories. The Sublime, it seems to me, goes in my camp: it’s just Pow’r, Pow’r itself, and like a horifically high dose of radiation, it has no message of healing for us at all.

The translator Sarah Valentine and Wave Books have made it possible for we Anglophones to finally read Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi (tho’ Aygi poems are all over the internet on blogs etcs as well as in several indie press editions). Valentine’s very engaging introduction makes Aygi’s eminence clear, as well as the drama of his 20th century life; one of the greatest avant garde poets of the former Soviet Union, he stopped writing in his native Chuvash language because to do so earned it the label of ‘hostile poetry’; at the same time, he changed his name to a typically Chuvash surname, in order that his minority identity  would not be eradicated, even as he went on to write in Russian and publish outside the country  in smuggled and samizdat editions.

I enjoyed the breathless texture and brevity of these poems– as if they could barely bear themselves– but most of all  I liked the light and limbic and almost chitininous mysticism of the earlier poems in the book.  My favorite is “Dream: Flight of the Dragonfly.” This poem starts out in a radiant nowhere, alight on the confused and desperate drafts of catastrophe.  It begins:


but bright—as if the soul were in a burned-out barn

at night!

I love the Hopkins-esque seizure of this—each ceasura a clenching or spasming, the burned-out barn seemingly built from the blacked-out inversion of the fire itself. The poem continues:


and the lake restless as a sleeping

resistance camp: oh just as you would slowly trace a beauty’s face

with a white Japanese flower!

across haystacks like white roses

slow and quiet


I love how the individual clarity of each phrase invites us into its intimacy with ecstacy with that pronoun ‘you’, yet overdoes its similizing, keeps bringing the white flower back up, so that the white flower is like the interruption of beauty into the landscape, the little white hand of messanic time stroking the landscape and pulling up little exclamation point-sized erections out of the poet and the earth.


Those faces/haystack/flowers return in the final compacted/impacted image of the poem, which is set in parentheses not so much to mark it as ‘apart from’ or as ‘commentary’ as to drive the image even more compactly together, so that the content of relevation cannot survive its own relevation but gets converted into mediumicity of revelation itself: a mise-en-abyme of ecstasy:


(to the death in blue night

of that faintly shining mind


into his head as if made of roses

dashing themselves down with love).


This self-obliteration of the rose-mind with roses is love. An obliterative mise-en-abyme of love. Not a nurturing but annhilating live. Inhuman. Rose. (Aygi, as Valentine’s introduction makes clear, was a humanist and would not share my reading.)

Reading Aygi, I think of Seyhan Erocelik, Artaud, Rimbaud, Alice Notley, St. Therese of Liseux, John Clare, Blake, Artaud. In my perversity, I think of Lars Von Trier and Andy Warhol.

Mystic poets of Montevidayo, this book is bejeweled with minor ultimates and I lovingly invite you to order it this Holiday Season TM.

Much love,



5 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Nice to see this post. Aigy had big impact on some of the leading avant-garde poets who emerged during the Perestroika period (Aigy was a generation or so older than most of them). For those interested in reading more widely in recent experimental Russian poetry, this book was the first anthology in English of a-g poetry from the Glasnost era: mainly covering the two main schools, Metarealism and Conceptualism. It has accompanying essays by all the poets, too, and critical materials as Appendix, including an important overview of Metarealist and Conceptualist poetics by Mikhail Esptein, probably the leading Russian theorist alive. Aigy gets discussed a bit in the book. There have been a couple similar anthologies since this one, (which was published in 1992) that bring in the younger generations, but this collection captures a canonical core of experimental Russian poetry from the late 20th cent. and the essays by the poets are fascinating, to say the least.

  2. Kent Johnson

    Thre is also this New Directions translation by Peter France of Aygi from a few years back, titled Field-Russia. There was a larger collection published by Northwestern some time ago, but I’m not finding it for some reason.

  3. don mee

    Joyelle, So happy you wrote about Aygi. Sarah Valentine gave a most incredible reading of “Now Always Snow” at Wave Books Poetry Festival’s group reading.

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Don Mee, wish I could have seen/heard that. Plus would love to hear some Russian, any day!

    Kent, thanks for thoughts and linx!

  5. Valery V. Petrovskiy

    Dear Joyelle,

    Happy to read such a fine introduction to Aygi’s creative activities. He is my country man, and I met him in the Chuvash Republic several times before he died.

    Then I was editor-in-chief in a weekly where we first published an essay on his work in 1988, after decades of silence. He is buried at the same obscure country village he was born.

    Nowadays we have Aygi Society in Cheboksary City.