Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Yana Djin: The Dead Don’t Die | The Poetry of Dmitry Melnikoff

From the very outset my goal in writing this was to remain as objective and passionless as I could muster. Objectivity and a tone devoid of emotion is a difficult task when it comes to subjects that evoke either admiration or disdain. That being said, I would like to stress that the poet who is the focus of this piece, due to the complexity and the innovative nature of his work, deserves more than just an emotional outburst, positive or negative, on the part of anyone that takes on the job of writing about his body of work. The poet in question is Dmitry Melnikoff and this short preamble is more of a precaution to my own self because I happen to believe that his poetry is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest ever written in any language. In what follows I will try to show the reader why I believe this to be a fact and not merely an opinion.

There is a famous, overused line from the Bible according to which there are no prophets in one’s own land. Or – in one’s own time. This is indeed an often-practiced, intentional nearsightedness since prophets, though bearers of good news ( благая весть), almost always simultaneously carry a sword with which they sentence their own time without pity. It is much more convenient to silence them as soon as they start spreading their word. The measure of punishment varies. Some are crucified. Some beheaded. Some burned. Some imprisoned. Others – exiled. In our, seemingly humane times, and seemingly humane locale called Western Civilization – the punishment of choice is silence. This particular method follows a primitive logic that if something or someone is ignored consistently his/her voice becomes mute and therefore irrelevant. Basically –  the antithesis of Himmler’s rule of constant repetition. The consolation that the so called “nearsighted” who employ this method feed upon consists in the lowly knowledge that, although politically correct compared to murder or exile, it is also the most painful and cruel.

Prophets come in all genres. A great poet is always a prophet since the medium of expression is the Word. And the word needs to be heard in order to realize its potential power and salutary strength. The “nearsighted” are usually intelligent enough to realize this. However they are not keen enough to see the fault in their logic nor are they brave enough to look the facts in the eye. If they did they would understand that any punishment here is pointless. A prophet’s voice tears through them and reaches the destination regardless of earthly manipulations. A prophet is a messenger of a higher authority than any earthly dealings and the intentional nearsightedness renders the manipulators blind leaving the prophet one choice – to crush them. Were they able to crucify Jesus’ message? Were they able to imprison Mandelstam’s verse? Were they able to exile Brodsky’s poems from Russia? Moreover with the existence of Internet and its widespread availability the above-mentioned, politically correct method of intentional disregard becomes obsolete and trivially helpless. With the advent of Internet, there is no more favoritism. “Connections” in real life do not work. What matters is the quality of the material offered. Quality of the text. Certainly, in social media there is a way to show complete indifference by not responding with pitiful “likes” and “unfollowing”. But once again, let them not take consolation in their ill intentions and simply remember that Jesus had 12 followers and according to Josephus the Sermon on the Mount gathered a rather scant crowd.

Dmitry Melnikoff turns fifty this year – a date notable for both a lay person and a poet. It was precisely through the internet that I happened to stumble upon this poet’s significant body of work – on an open website for poets a few years ago. Melnikoff lives in Moscow and writes in Russian, a language, which arguably along with English, has consistently granted the world the most number of geniuses in the realm of literature. Being a poet is a trying task; being a poet writing in Russian – doubly so. The hierarchy has long been set in that language and those that populate its highest ladders are heavyweights that only a very few would dare to go into the ring against. The very first lines that I read were “war was a matter of life, poetry –that of death/ to burn in a ditch behind the scenes stayed youth,/ like the APC stuffed with flesh. The guards/ have hoarsed into the alien skies curse words.” I was immediately struck by the comparison of poetry with death and war with life. Everyone else, after all, insisted upon the opposite. The second stanza continued in the same vein, developing and hammering out the comparison: “war was a matter of life — then, in the burned out village,/ you dreamed of birch trees — white upon orange/ now you dream of stones, roads, bare feet of children against the earth,/ ice upon gun barrels — poetry is a matter of death.” I was shocked by the words. By their meaning. It was only after I had read every single line by Melnikoff published on that website did I understand that for him the words life and death are interchangeable and his treatment, both contextual and linguistic, of these notions is entirely new in any language.

One more refrain – it had happened to me once before that I read several lines from a poet and was so consumed that I had to go on reading everything written by that author which was available to me as soon as I possibly could. This author was Joseph Brodsky. I read several volumes in one single day and to paraphrase the British satirist, I realized that despite of the people who insist that Brodsky is a great poet, he really is a great poet. So it happened with Dmitry Melnikoff. By the end of the day, when I went through most of his poems it became apparent that I was reading a heavyweight of poetry, that before me was an entirely new material, an entirely new world.

Another overused phrase from the Bible which is a favorite of cynics is that there is nothing new under the sun. And, indeed, they might be right. Most of the time, that is. There is nothing new under the sun if you happen to be standing under the same one. However, there are those who create different suns. They are very few and far in between. In laymen’s words they are referred to as movers and shakers – no matter which endeavor one is dealing with. Poetry is no exception as far as endeavors go. In Russian poetry of recent times Vladimir Mayakovsky comes to mind. And after him – Brodsky. These are the two heavyweights of the twentieth century that Russian poetry produced. There were others, of course, who might have been more accessible, or vice versa, more linguistically innovative and therefore limited to the narrow following. But the above two combined the contextual innovation with linguistic straightforwardness and presented us with completely different suns. The above two are the prophets from poetry of the 20th century – because what makes a prophet different is not his style of delivery alone, or the message he carries but their hitherto unheard and unseen combination. That is also – what makes a genius.

Mayakovsky wrote:

Crowd wet, as if it’s
been licked.
Air sour smells like mildew
Hey!
Russia,
How about something new?

And, indeed, he gave something new.

But back to Dmitry Melnikoff. If the 19th century is remembered in terms of Russian poetry as the era of Pushkin and Lermontov, and the 20th – of Mayakovsky and Brodsky, then if we follow the same rigid standard of judgment, the beginning of the 21st century belongs to the poetry of Melnikoff. All great poets stand upon the shoulders of their great predecessors but in order to earn the right to stand head to head with them, they must surpass them in one way or another if only by being equal but different. Such is the simple and authoritarian rule of art, any art, for that matter, not poetry alone. It is not enough to encompass the achievements of the past suns. In order to last in Time you must be able to give birth to your own. And Dmitry Melnikoff did just that. After I read all of his poetry available on the internet, I, naturally googled his name with the hope of finding some material on him written either by his colleagues or just contemporaries. There was practically nothing. A few publications here and there, some in prestigious but now outdated magazines, the equivalent of the New Yorker with equally dwindling subscriptions that before the age of the internet had soared. I did discover that Melnikoff had published two books in Russia – a criminally minimal amount considering the magnitude and the physical body of the work. Much to my joy, however I saw that his page on the above mentioned open-source poetry website had gathered a significant and consistently growing following of readers – the best gift that a poet can have. In this way open source and unmonitored internet sites are similar to poetry – they are not political or if you will democratic in nature – purely hierarchical. Just like business – numbers speak. In my further searches I discovered a single interview with Melnikoff taken by a young Russian critic, Boris Kutenkov. In this interview the poet confirmed what I already had gathered from reading his work: “I have already written and am continuing to write the New Russian Poetry.” I have only one correction to this statement: I would omit the word “Russian” from that sentence and the reason, I hope, would become more or a matter of fact later on rather than a strong opinion.

Vladimir Mayakovsky complained of the stuffy, mildewed air and opened the windows of Russian verse. He let in the sun – the sun of his own creation. Mayakovsky “splashed some colors from a tumbler/and smeared this drab world with emotion/”, a world which had grown too self-absorbed and too egocentrically, melodramatically dark. He let in the outside light. The poet-prophet became a streetwalker who played a nocturne on a drainpipe. Every great undertaking is pregnant with risk. Mayakovsky took the risk – he paid the price for the light that he allowed in by giving away his own inner ego, which, like everyone else’s is occupied with its own and only its own salvation. His hands were outstretched high and wide leaving his heart an open target. Brodsky took the aim and shot right at it. Stylistically speaking, he did not miss the mark. But, paradoxically, both of them were on the same wavelength. Both of them spoke in monologues – Mayakovsky directed towards the outside, while Brodsky’s monologue was with time completely internalized. These two giants, although linguistically, totally different, shared one decisive common ground to quote Mayakovsky: I despise all kinds of deathliness, I adore every kind of life. They shared a worldview of duality of life and death.

It is precisely here that Dmitry Melnikoff comes onto the scene of Russian poetry. And this is where it, the Russian poetry, becomes New. Melnikoff’s world is not a duality of light and dark, of life and death. It is one world which contains both of the specters and they are interchangeable not opposite. Here is what he says :

Fom the cabbage leaf’s green lace
to the fields and blackened plains
it’s too familiar a place
and obscure to the point of pain

a church, next to it a store
life and death – to left and right
aspen’s bones, bare, soar
into the sky in silent light.

Life to the right, death to the left. Could be the other way around. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that they stand together and inseparable – life and death. This is the primary theme throughout Melnikoff’s poetry – the inseparable and mutually penetrable idea of life and death. And it is stated matter-of-factly, not with the grandiosity of Mayakovsky’s orchestral sound, or with Brodsky’s consciously subdued monotone. It is stated as a direct speech – and stated throughout Dmitry Melnikoff’s poems, regardless their subject matter. And the latter – the subject matter – is yet another strikingly fascinating aspect of Melnikoff’s work. It is more diverse than anything I have encountered in anyone’s poetry. He writes on love, war, past, present, Russia, America, religion, pop culture, afterlife with equal natural comfort. It is as if he possesses a tool which can synthesize time and space easily and gracefully and present us with a picture that makes sense to us, that puts us at ease and does not make us feel discomfort for the seeming rift. His poems on America, for example, which he had never visited before, leave the American reader with a sense of total recognition. I myself am a witness to that as are many of his English speaking readers, who have read his work in authorized translations. All of them feel as if the poetry at hand is as American as Wonder Bread. Melnikoff contextually is as old as universe itself but his delivery is modern in style: his work reflects the cinematographic quality of the times and his style, although musically refined, he manages to retain the quality of simplicity which is accessible to all. A very rare gift. One that makes a poet a great one and a people’s poet at the same time.

To repeat if Mayakovsky was talking to us directly, and if Brodsky was talking to us through a conversation with himself, Melnikoff speaks with us. Together. His poems are polyphonic in nature, a conglomeration of voices – all which are his own, of course – different in sound and message, yet forming a complete, perfect symphony. A good example of such a polyphonic sound is Melnikoff’s poem on St. Peter:

Street singers in the park,
grow tired towards the dark,
the poor and the blind,
stand idle at night, chat,
or just chew the fat.

Times Square is hell
Forty Second is fierce
but knowing the route too well
towards the Chelsey piers
I lead my singing hordes
along the neon signs
and into my only eye
adversary-star shines.
At night it’s full house here,
New York throws its swag,
From the skies, clear,
descends a bike like a brag.
Peter dismounts the bike
like some Major-General, cross
and all by himself
starts towards us.

“With music behind you back
I won’t take you to paradise!
What’s there inside your sack?”,
he looks into my eyes.
“I see you are not blind
and know what’s where and why”
“Listen, apostle, it’s bread,
nothing forbidden or sly
a greeting card for New Year
from a child.
Here!”

Street singers you scum,
what do you want you bums.
What do I make of your way?
What can I take away?!

Peter you are too hard,
like some major general there,
rattle us low and high
it’s music, Adonai,
just music for Him that’s all,
nothing lighter than that
do we have in this world as a whole,
save for the light itself,
like your stripe red,
it separates you from us,
you get the better part
All burning light, gas,
sarin, pyrite that reeks,
pain for those that now
here knowingly speaks,
amidst ashes and snow
that for stretches fall
speaks for us, one,
speaks for us
all.

Here is time and space coming together in a cinematic masterpiece of a poem. St. Peter is on a bike in the modern streets of Moscow or New York – being the eternal Rock that he is and he was 21 centuries ago. Melnikoff simply revived him – saw the eternal in the temporal – and that is the purpose of poetry as a whole. The writer and philosopher, Igor Yefimov, curiously, wrote the following to me after I had sent him a file of Dmitry Melnikoff’s poetry: “I familiarized myself with the poems of Dmitry Melnikoff which you sent me and am absolutely in agreement with your opinion: this poet is magnificent, a formidable outlaw from the world of “here and now” into the realm of “always and everywhere”. Antiquity and Bible, music and visual art, “the spirit hovering over the void” – he is at home everywhere. I used to like to repeat to my students in Oregon my own theory that there are “poets of monologues and poets of dialogues”. It warms my heart that Melnikoff so often introduces the tonality of a dialogue into his poems.” I would venture to say that it is not merely tonality of the dialogue but precisely the quality of polyphony which is inherently present in Melnikoff’s poems and which makes them purely original in their nature”. Further, Yefimov adds: “In the end, it boils down to the fact that the strife to take an octave higher might turn into a bait of predictability. Leo Tolstoy felt deeply that the most important in in a human being’s life is death. It is difficult to remember even one of his works, where the hero or any other personage did not die. The theme of death, of dying is integral to almost every poem of Melnikoff. It is, indeed, extremely important. But the danger consists in it being important irrefutably. A protest might arise in a reader, a desire to break free from the atmosphere of a funeral. Six year old Vanechka Tolstoy, the writer’s youngest child, would invariably beg when he was offered a bedtime story: Anything but not about good and evil. They already read so much to me about good and evil!”

Elegantly stated, yet not completely true. First of all, the strife to reach an octave higher is a strife of true poetry throughout its existence in any language. If the Psalmist or the author of the Song of Songs did not reach an octave or two higher we would either have ended up with platitude or self-deprecating gibberish which insults the ear with much abundance these days. Secondly, great poetry constitutes within itself the taking of the great risk – the leap upward is always risky. The great poets whose names I have mentioned here all took these leap and ended up on their two feet intact. Third, although, amusing, the example of a six-year-old Vanechka should in no way serve as a model for figuring out what themes must be regarded as “appropriate” or “worthy of attention” in life or art. It certainly did not deter his great father, Leo Tolstoy, on touching upon them – the themes of death and good and evil – till his very end despite the little boy’s capricious pleas. Fourth, and most importantly, even though the subject of death is pervasive in Melnikoff’s poetry – it arises not out of the poet’s wish to deliberate upon it – but simply because it is all-pervasive in everyone’s life. It’s simple, after all, we, those that live, all will inevitably die. Whether we like to be reminded of it or not. What is not simple and noteworthy is Dmitry Melnikoff’s treatment of death as such. Perhaps no other poet with the exception of Brodsky has spent as much time on this subject and in this fashion, Melnikoff pays respect to his older colleague. Brodsky’s whole body of work could be regarded as his battle with Time, i.e. – death. He fought against it with the passion of an Old Testament prophet and the fight was at times on equal terms. What Melnikoff does instead is not fight against Time or Death – he incorporates it within himself, within life. Death to the left, life – to the right – on equal levels. They are indistinguishable in Melnikoff’s poetry. Interchangeable. He breathes into the afterworld and it comes alive – in all too familiar and life-affirming fashion. And here, in this affirmation of life, is his nod to his great predecessor, Mayakovsky. And the nods to both end right there. When Mayakovsky says no to death – Melnikoff just shrugs and lets it in. When Brodsky says no to life – Melnikoff’s answer is the same – he just lets it in. His figure and capacity for breath seems to be big enough to encompass both comfortably and without conflict. Dmitry Melnikoff breaks off with the dual tradition of the Old Testament making it obsolete. His poetry marks the end of the duality of life and death, light and dark. He synthesizes both into a whole and presents us with a completely new poetic vision. A totally new contextual poetry. In Melnikoff’s verse, death flows into life and vice versa, the two bear the same face of one and the same coin. Death is not an end in itself. It is a transition, a transformation. To put it simply the dead do not die! In this way, Dmitry Melnikoff could be considered the first major poet of the New Testament where death is only a part of life and life is life and life only. After Melnikoff, it becomes difficult to wave words in poetic protest and state your NO! to creation. It now seems like a farce, an exaggeration. The same way that it seemed like a banal exaggeration to pluck out an eye for an eye, after the Savior’s words on loving one’s enemy. Here is another of the many examples of Melnikoff’s poetry which is an homage to this theme of life and death being interchangeable and transitional. Of essentially being one and the same. It is sent in a strikingly cinematic imagery and these particular personages are the “departed” Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera:

At midnight Rivera comes to his Kahlo,
glass sticks out Frida’s eye socket, lo,
a steel rusty monocle crooked, set tight,
and inside Frida’s mouth –  a green light.

The right leg is thinner than the left,
the right leg is thinner than the left.

Frida is miffed:
“Where is your grave, Diego?”,
she asks, stiff.

“My grave is on the other side of the wind,
my grave is on the other side of the snow,
my grave has been pillaged and looted thin”,
spills Diego in reply as the tears flow.

“Then come to me quickly my baby, my dear
do you see how the balm streams through clay
this dirt will lift your pain and tears
just as my paintings helped me that way.
Do you see how from inside devours the tomb
the purple halo?
That is hell raging in Frida’s womb,
in the brainpan of Frida Kahlo.”

And they lie at the edge of light alone
at the place where snow never hits
Kahlo embraces Diego’s barebone
and they emanate heat.

The affirmation of life and incorporation of death into it is a conscious choice on behalf of this poet. He is the one that “decides”. And this decision gives birth to a New Poetry. Contextually new poetic vision. Dmitry Melnikoff humanizes, revives death – a feat hitherto unseen in poetry. Death is no longer a scary symbol – it is part of us. It is – us, much like life itself. And the poetry henceforth changes its course whether we like it or not. Such are its rules. We, poets or non-poets, should not feel alarmed at this in any way. Dmitry Melnikoff’s poetry, after all contains one more essential element, one of consolation. Here, once again, he is a true poet of the New Testament. He embraces the reader, caresses the listener, offers consolation and says:

You just need to blow
upon the hot water,
you just need to clean off
these stains by a blotter,
these shadows from the face,
this gray winter,
in this world devoid of grace,
like a moon glitter,
I’ll stay with you,
even if my town
in infernal gloom
goes down.
Even if –  the sadness,
even if –  the parting,
even if –  no hope for us,
doesn’t matter.

As I mentioned before, Dmitry Melnikoff turns fifty this year. He belongs to my generation. He is a living proof that there, indeed are, prophets in one’s own generation and one’s own time. Provided, naturally, that we open our hearts and ears for our own sake and recognize and honor them. Objectively, but with utmost gratitude for the consolation that they provide. Speaking of one’s generation, I would like to conclude with yet another favorite representative of that generation, the American poet, Edgar Gabriel Silex – in his own right one of the strongest and original voices upon today’s poetic canvass. Here is what Silex writes on Melnikoff’s poetry:

“I like the lyrical ease in Dmitry Melnikoff’s poems filled with mythological allusions and with the euphony of internal and end rhymes. I especially like the way his images shift between the real and surreal as his poems slip from story to a newly emerged myth. The poems gather into musical clouds with lyricism as they pull “infernos from you” with their mythical storms. Melnikoff reminds one of that old line, “fiction writers write to make things appear real, while poets write to make things appear as if they have always existed”, because reading Melnikoff’s poems you sense old myths becoming renewed, reestablished, reborn out of the existential despair of a twenty-first century Russian life. These poems make you feel the gods playing with men.”


Copyright 2017 Yana Djin. The translations of the poems were authorized by Dmitry Melnikoff.

Yana Djin was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and now lives in New York.

Dmitry Melnikoff

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