Artery Lumen: review by Louis Simpson

This review by Louis Simpson of Philip Nikolayev's first collection of poetry, Artery Lumen, appeared in the spring 1997 issue of Harvard Review (pp. 176-7). Louis Simpson is an eminent US poet and Pulitzer Prize Winner.

Artery Lumen by Philip Nikolayev.
Barbara Matteau Editions, 1996. $6.00 ISBN 0964551616
Philip Nikolayev was born and raised in Russia. He learned English from a linguist, his father, and consequently he writes better English than most Americans. The range of his vocabulary and his command of syntax are impressive. He writes for the most part in meter and rhyme. Writing in traditional forms seems natural to this writer - the lines dance because the language does. His joy in language overflows so that at times he doesn't seem to care whether or not he is being understood. But this is the easiest of all faults to correct, while there is no way for a writer to exude joy if he doesn't come by it naturally.

Here is a stanza from a poem by Nikolayev titled "Enter Our Spring."

You may shrug off my daft loquacious
prattle, yet you'll abide my swell
enlightened optical elations.
You laugh, you love me, I can tell.
The writing is uneven - this too is due to high spirits. The first line, the poet poking fun at himself, disarmed this reader. The word "swell" in the second line is strangely out-of-date - I say strangely because in other places the writer has a perfect grasp of current slang. The third line is obscure - you can figure it out, but why should you have to? The fourth line is inspired - it sounds like young love. Here form follows feeling, as it does in any poetry one remembers, whether in meter and rhyme or free verse. The phrasing of "You laugh, you love me, I can tell" is perfection.

The language of Artery Lumen is alive, so you are swept along. But if you do pause to observe the writer's style, you'll see remarkable things taking place. For instance, in "The Irreparable" sentences travel like ocean waves for a considerable distance without a stop.

The sceptic blunders: reason is no knave
to passion after all; so in my new-
found hell your lucid reasons reign and pave
with lack of love my raving pain. A few
redundant points to clinch, knit brows to mend,
adieus to add: and all that light is gone -
as irretrievably, as to no end
though my slow fingers your swift hair has flown -

The line this passage ends with makes one pause. Nikolayev writes memorable lines, a sure mark of poetic talent.

There is talk of a reaction by "new formalists" against free verse, the dominant mode in American poetry. It is true that most free verse is inert, and writing in form could be a refreshing change if it is indeed new. But if this means writing sestinas and villanelles, I don't think the practitioners will cause much excitement. As Baudelaire said, art that hearkens back to the "classic" produces an "abstract and indefinable beauty." It is the struggle to express the contemporary that makes poetry seem alive, and contemporary life can hardly be expressed in the forms used by poets four hundred years ago.

In the first place there must be a poet, someone gifted with unusual powers of imagination and a flair for language. Such a person could make meter and rhyme answer to the times. I don't want to make great claims for Nikolayev - there's far too much of that going around. The present state of reviewing has brought poetry into disrepute - readers think that so much mediocre and bad writing is being touted that no book of poems can really be any good. Obviously Nikolayev is only at the start of a life of writing poems. But it is a strong and original start.

Though he has been living in the United States, Nikolayev is still very much a Russian poet. With us it is always a good thing to change. Television commercials are always telling us so, but before television, in the time of covered wagons, Americans were on the move and changing their habits from one place to another. Nikolayev's zest in writing verse comes from a background of people to whom poetry, even complex poetry, was a song, and they didn't see why a way of singing should be abandoned as long as it gave pleasure. Pasternak said, "I have never understood those dreams of a new language, of a completely original form of expression." But many of our poets, since Pound, Eliot and Williams appeared on the scene, have sought and found "original forms of expression."

We know what to expect of American poets these days - they are nothing is not original. They have nothing to say. Nikolayev's experiments are different: they are made with feeling and with language. To write out of your feelings, to express love and other emotions, to be a lyric poet in the dead, academic atmosphere of American verse at the present time, and to have, as Nikolayev does, the language to express a range of thought and feeling, is certainly new. I look forward to what the poet of Artery Lumen may write in the future.

Louis Simpson

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