Poetry News

'Russian voices singing in indivisible, architectural harmonies': Joyelle McSweeney's Olympic Take at LARB

By Harriet Staff


At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyelle McSweeney covers, what else, the Olympics. The "Winter Poetry Olympics," that is. Or rather, Sochi, Zizek, a "menace-choir," and Eisenstein's film Ivan Grozny. A snippet of her as-per-usual mellifluous writing:


I am falling through time; it is time made of sound; loud, male, absolute Russian voices singing in indivisible, architectural harmonies I don’t have the technical language to intellectualize. I am tumbled like Alice to the Court of Ivan Grozny, but not the real Ivan Grozny — Ivan Grozny as rendered in Eisenstein’s film. And not just any portion of Ivan Grozny, but that miraculous scene in the second (banned) part, the raucous, enflamed dance number in which the black and white film is lit up with rapturous color, and the all-male Oprichniki (Ivan’s band of secret police) dance out the festive murder they are about to commit —

In some ways this scene is the inverse of Putin’s buttoned-up policemen uncomfortably wading through a dance hit. Yet as inverses, the scenes are also linked. One is the underside of the other. As Slavoj Zizek observed in his book The Parallax View, Eisenstein’s Oprichniki sequence, shot in 1944 and subsequently banned, “confirm[s] the carnivalesque quality of Stalinist purges.” He opines:

[H]ere we are at the obscene sight where musical enjoyment meets political liquidation.

This analysis could also apply to Sochi as a focus of Putin’s chauvinist regime, where spectacle meets the liquidation of gays, dogs, feminists and the inconvenient poor. Regarding the Oprichniki sequence, Zizek further queries,

If then, Eisenstein stages the obscene underside of the Stalinist universe, what would have been its public face, the Stalinist genre par excellence?...[T]he unique genre of the so-called kolkhoz musicals. […] There are no traitors in these films, life is fundamentally happy in them. […] In this harmonious universe even animals—pigs cows chickens—dance happily with humans.

One could ponder whether the policemen singing “Get Lucky” is more like an Eisensteinian farce, revealing the carnivalesque quality of Putin’s regime, an obscene sight which brings more to light than it intends, or if it is more like the kolkhoz musicals: the preferred genre, the cover story, where the cops “dance happily with humans.” I believe it is the latter. Maybe it could be both.


In the iron grip of the Cold War, the great Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer wrote “Till vänner bakom en gräns”/“To Friends Behind a Border,” a nine-line poem which dreams of communication with friends living in Soviet regimes. The poem (here in Johannes Goransson’s English translation) positions itself as an impossible transmission:

what I couldn’t write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned zeppelin
and drifted at last through the night sky

The impossible dream transmission of poetry mobilizes an anachronistic form of transportation — the “luftskepp,” airship or zeppelin — which is also a warship. Even in Deep Image poetry, even in the dream, technology cannot be divorced from war. In the second tercet, the dream letter falls into the hands of the censor. In the third, the poet concludes:

Read between the lines. We are going to meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten
and finally get to sleep, become orthoceras.

In this audacious stanza, the sweep of futurity forms radically long sight lines, zooms the “we” to a future in which the surveillance technology, “microphones,” become fossils, “orthoceras.” But what radical transformation will the “we” have undergone by this time? Will “we” be fossilized, or broken down into our constituent minerals and chemicals; will “we meet” molecularly, decomposing in a mass grave, or meet by being reused by a future organism? Do these fossils represent extinction, i.e. the end of time, or gesture towards its cyclicality? Will evolution reboot? And what will “we” be then? What will we be?

Read the full piece at LARB.

Originally Published: February 14th, 2014