Wednesday, April 23, 2014

From Khlebnikov to Edmond

I spent part of last week writing an introduction to Then It Was Now Again, a collection of some of the essays, reviews, letters, and interviews produced by the poet and dramatist Murray Edmond over the past four decades. I was pleased when Brett Cross, the proprietor of Titus/Atuanui Books, told me that Creative New Zealand was helping him pay for the publication of Then It Was Now Again, because I think that the book is much more than a set of literary studies.

As I try in my long-winded way to say in the introduction to the book, Murray Edmond began his career in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a time when politics and culture seemed, for a young and rebellious generation of men and women, inextricably connected. The Word Is Freed, the literary journal that Edmond and other scruffy revolutionaries published from their lair in bohemian inner-city Auckland, denounced both American imperialism and old-fashioned attitudes to punctuation and spelling.

Although the agenda of Freed may seem quixotic today, when the bans on smutty or subversive books and films that characterised the postwar decades have been replaced by a sort of patronising tolerance, and when even the most outrageous forms of culture can be recuperated and commodified,  Edmond has remained a dissident, and has retained his belief in the necessity of linking literature to social and political issues. As it advances through New Zealand history, from the heady seventies to the chaotic eighties to the neo-liberal nineties, Then It Was Now Again describes protest marches and bomb blasts, as well as poetry readings and literary spats.

One of the most moving texts in the book juxtaposes the death by cancer of Kendrick Smithyman’s son Christopher, the murder of the trade unionist Ernie Abbott, and the abduction and roughing up of left-wing playwright and alleged rapist Mervyn Thompson to create a portrait of the crisis of New Zealand society in the fateful year of 1984.

Perhaps because he has spent much of his career on or near a stage, Murray Edmond is a fine performer of his poems. A month or so ago I turned up to the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Auckland Zen Centre to see Murray read a series of short poems he had written whilst riding a bicycle east across Poland to the border of Ukraine several years ago. Murray combined his reading of these pieces, which he called ‘baiku’, because of their resemblance to the haiku associated with Zen Buddhism, with reminiscences about his journey and reflections on this year’s Ukrainian revolution.

As Edmond described crossing the sites of World War Two battles and sleeping in the former bedroom of the general who had brought the Red Army into Poland, I was impressed by the contrast between his slow and solitary journey east and the great and terrible movements of armies and refugees that Poland and the Ukraine witnessed in the twentieth century. 
When Murray explained that he would be spending another month in Poland in the middle of this year, I wondered whether he would take to his bicycle again, and end up riding into a convoy of tanks despatched by Putin, that avatar of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. Would the veteran of New Zealand’s cultural avant-garde have to climb down from his modest vehicle, offer his notebook to some agitated tank commander, and try to explain that he was a poet, not a spy or a revolutionary? How would his gentle, ironic baiku be received by Putin’s troops?

Murray Edmond is hardly the first poet to journey deep into Europe’s east in search of inspiration. In the early decades of the twentieth century Velimir Khlebnikov walked huge distances across his Russian homeland, and into neighbouring nations like Persia and Azerbaijain. Khlebnikov, who liked to describe himself as ‘The King of Time’ and the ‘President of Planet Earth’ was the inventor of a form of logic called ‘beyonsense’, a gloriously illogical language called Zaum, and a set of mathematical-etymological formulae that were allegedly able to explain all past and predict all future events. It was in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, at the end of one of his prodigious journeys, that Khlebnikov discovered these formulae, and wrote a text called ‘The Tables of Destiny’, which was intended to make the whole of human history luminously clear. 
Khlebnikov was a member of Russia’s fissiparous club of Futurist writers and artists, but he arguably had more in common with the adherants of Cosmism, a doctrine popularised by the nineteenth century scientist and mystic Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The Cosmists regarded death as a humiliating encumbrance that humans must throw off, and considered planet earth an enormous trap. Science and technology were the weapons with which humanity would conquer time and space.

Many of the Cosmists saw the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 as a victory for their creed. They submitted proposals for the construction of spaceships to the new government, and denounced mortality as a legacy of the vanquished bourgeoisie. When Lenin was embalmed and displayed to the masses in Red Square, Cosmists decided that the Bolsheviks were preparing the great leader for the day when he could be resurrected by scientists. They urged Lenin’s successors to establish a ‘global cemetery’ in the permafrosted far north of Russia, so that the rest of humanity could also await immortality. 
Khlebnikov died in 1922, after suffering from typhus and malnutrition; many of the Cosmists perished a decade or so later in Stalin’s gulags. The gap between the Cosmists’ vision and the reality they were forced to inhabit is, for me at least, poignant rather than ridiculous. I hope that Murray takes care on those eastern roads.

 A Short History of Russian Cosmism (for Murray Edmond)

In exile, amongst the library stacks
or on the Steppe, Fedorov remembered
to steer by the stars: the earth
is a trap, he muttered, into the tin ear
of his cup, as they queued together for soup
beside barracks walls.
The earth is a trap
we must escape.

Later, after their guts had been sated,
Tsiolkovsky drew three lines
in the dust. This is a rocket
ship. He drew a circle, stubbed a thumb in it.
This is spaceship
earth. We will travel
the universe, retrieving cosmic particles,
resurrecting everybody
who has ever lived.
Dead Tsars would be the first to stir
in the labs of spaceship earth.

Khlebnikov walked east, one soup queue
at a time, escaping the city’s libraries
and museums, those learned brains floating
in self-contemplation,
like ancient insects in amber.

Now Khlebnikov could think.

The intellectual must turn irredentist
and reconquer his body, its lost provinces
of fur and salt. The mind must be broken up
and dispersed around the body, so that it lights
each extremity.

Khlebnikov walked further east, thinking
with his feet.

The earth is nothing
but an overgrown brain, abandoned
to revery and introspection,
a billion boulders and thornbushes
waiting to shatter and burn.
Let us break open
and engine the earth,
and fly east, toward resurrected stars.

On the horizon a new set of barracks walls grew.
Khlebnikov could smell soup.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard an interesting comment of those that can go by before you realize what someone just said.

It was a phone in show on radio and the caller asked why on earth they would build these nuclear power plants so close to a fault line or right on top of one?

Now this makes sense to me....because these high energy points assist the nuclear there is a very real reason why they would build them on such obviously bad spots.

This is scary stuff because it suggests they know a whole lot more than they are letting on. They know full well how dangerous this practice is, but are willing to gamble in such a reckless fashion. What's the worst that could happen, a whole lot of people die and parts of the planet become unfit for human life or any other kind of life.

What these high energy spots do is increase the energy differential affecting the nuclear fuel...whoa!

This never occurred to me before today, but once I got it I realize how important this passing remark was...of course a lot of people are going to dismiss it as rubbish, but if you view it in the context of Unity you realize this is a very real consideration and how they actually site these nuclear power plants.

7:17 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

They are also in places such as the Eastern US where there is no fault line as such. It is almost impossible to avoid earthquakes. There is always a risk with technology of energy production.

They are not hiding anything. Nuclear fission has no connection to any outside thing. You are thinking I think of Tesla who had some rather crazy theories in his old age. Which is a pity as he developed most of the very good ac power systems we now use.

9:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

When did Smithyman's son die? Was that during his life? If so it must have weighed heavily on him.

I know about Khlebnikov. He was also quite crazy but had some interesting ideas. Murray is a good poet for sure, I would be interested in seeing that book.

I have a few of his poetry books and one book of his plays.

But I advise against traveling near Russia or the Ukraine. The big danger there is from the US and right wing NATO forces. The fault is not Putin's. He is trying, rightly, to undo the damage of fragmentation of the Russian Empire which it is essential keeps it's military power to counter the dangerous ambitions of the US and other Imperialists who are undoubtedly fishing for the possibilities of military and financial expansion into the Russia via the Ukraine. Obama is creating a crisis there (as he undoubtedly did in Syria), they are angling for "Lebensraum' and ultimately war (any where in the world) and subsequent impoverishment of as many as they can.

There are no revolutions going on. These are bogus actions by pro US right wing activists or ultra Nationalists.

9:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

taylor follows the neo-stalinist predictable...

9:55 pm  

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