Philip Nikolayev’s Embedded Sonnets: The Combinatorics of Context

Larissa Shmailo

The sonnet as written by Petrarch or Shakespeare is a contained system, in direct dialogue with its reader. Students may study its context, history, or allusions, but they return to encounter each sonnet singly, on its fourteen metered lines. As reconfigured by Philip Nikolayev, the sonnet, in addition to an identity and intent, has a built-in response, companion, or autre. Nikolayev’s sonnets are embedded into other poems; the two closely share line space and page, set apart only by bolding and italicization. This sonnet form thus brings with it, as a lover does, its own baggage. Here, after Baudelaire line, is “Moi aussi j’aime les nuages qui passent là-bas”:

You can tell by the lips of modern sensibility the α, the λ and
smoky rockies of the peripeteia and other accouterments of
our civilization, or civ. Zesty, zesty, as will bear repetition, way
Those cirrus wisps swept off stratus floors, zesty, as will
those ineluctable revolving doors bear more repetition, zesty
into something painfully blue and radiant, beats zesty beats
something painfully blue and disobedient, zesty the heart of
those dark propellers shedding the white fog, contemporaneity,
assaulting the beclouded underdog, zesty beats as zestfully as
while over those cumulonimbus piers, pounds. The heart is a
beyond their floating Boards of Overseers, shuttle cock, dives
through floodgates of the utmost clarity, through cloud after
of the utmost clarity and sincerity, cloud of strife all its life on
you can observe the oceanships of state plumes of laughter. It
sail shipfuls of shoplifters to their fate thrives, it appreciates
and shuffle sundry prisoners of delusion battle. So badminton
to their final solitary seclusion. badminton for our priveleged
colleagues, battledore for their cool cellulose spouses outdoors,
towards a suburban architecture where every shim shines, a gem.
I am there by choice. My heart craves amore, amore con carne.

The conjoined twin poems are related, if not lovingly so. The bold italic font of the sonnet suggests precedence and urgency, but also distance and otherworldliness; here, it most suggests the voice of an omniscient narrator. However, such precedence is challenged by the context-poem, which vigorously asserts itself against the sonnet and refuses to serve as mere background for it. The sonnet speaks of prisoners; the rougher, robust “zesty” poem speaks of choice and, with a strong healthy heart, cheerfully plows through Baudelaire’s “marvellous” clouds in search of an animal carnivorous love.

The poems are also connected by poetic devices, including alliterations, consonances, and assonances, with “shipfuls of shoplifters” in the sonnet, and “shim shines” in the context; there is the visual play of “craves/carne” and “colleagues/cool/cellulose” in the context poem and “pain/radiant” and “floating/floodgates” in the sonnet. Both poems utilize repetition. From alpha to zest, the context poem emphatically “bears repetition,” and doubles its hearts and badmintons; the sonnet echoes with “blue,” “painfully” aware of the woeful “utmost clarity” of the ineluctable ship of state.

Ultimately, both poems respond to Baudelaire, one in its shredded cloud dreams and the other with its suburban “modern sensibility” complete with misspelled “accouterments.” “The oceanships of state” in the sonnet evoke the ship of modernity of the Futurist “A Slap in the Face of the Public Taste” which threw overboard Pushkin, and would likely also dispatch Baudelaire. This literary context itself becomes yet another relationship to consider in the combinatorics of these sonnets as schools and movements clash and confront each other nez-a-nez.

The verbal environment created by Nikoleyev between the sonnet and its context is sometimes compatible and harmonious, sometimes dissonant and hostile. Experimental poems with adventurous orthography are set next to formalist work; technical jargon surrounds rhyming verse. Many of the embedded sonnets seem like immigrants to a new shore, straddling two cultures. In “The Cure,” lyrical love sonnets are set next to a parade of oulipo consonances and “when I kiss you/hot hallelujahs smother each other alas” meets “carbon 13, carbon 14, carven Cervin, chaffiest, cheapest, chiefist, chippiest…”. An alas is smothered in a hallelujah, and the kiss is stuck in a list, a list that comments, gossips, and exclaims upon the sonnet between words. The voices of the context poems are sometimes imagined others or possible readers. They are often an unwashed authority, or the despisers and despoilers of culture and literature. Frequently, however, they seem an integral part of the sonneteer himself, a subconscious, Id, or alter ego. This voice complements and sometimes condemns the sonneteer.

We are given a clue to these dynamics in the embedded sonnets by Nikolayev in Letters from Aldenderry. In the first poem of this collection, Nikolayev cites James Woods’ essay on the stream of consciousness technique in Shakespeare, “Shakespeare and the Pathos of Rambling.” We can see the action of such a rambling stream of consciousness in “Green Eye.”

For one who’s traveled far and wide, the strangest place is all inside.
No statistic will aforetaste or know my path to yon place as I alone
come to visit. For instance, my deep name ain’t Jimmy Turnflower
I squish the will to power, let it die. nor Catherine Lyverwater, nor
I too have stared back into Nietzche’s eye, Charles Cynthia Brown.
but I’ve got little of the will to power It is rather… but no I won’t say.
(except to trick you with my words when I A thing that can peer into
pluck out that mental landscape flower by flower), itself, like the pro
and likewise I’ve conversed with Schopenhauer microscope my classsmate
(who slept nights with a firearm by his head Sheremetyev stole for me for
and probably talked to himself in bed) my 14th b-day, which to this day
of mouthless moths, short lived—I have diffused stares into my brain
the penchant of the will to self-devour, through my right eye, supposedly
though I was moved, exercised and amused, making my gray cells grow,
lost in the sudden weeness of the hour, to find there revolutionary names
by their gravamens to my heart’s content, and objects. I also recollect
and thus consider those wee hours well spent. an earlier radio set with
a green eye, how it was staring deep inside of me. All those wavelengths
marked Paris London and Lisbon and so on, all false, what you heard
was Soviet stations, and they explained to me Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev.

We are presented with “the strangest place…inside.” The voice that “alone comes to visit” this place knows its “deep name,” but will not tell it (but no I won’t say). The unpunctuated and oneiric no seems to approach the verge of conscious thought, and then stops before it enters ego identity. It is aware of the “thing that can peer inside,” the microscope of the consciousness in the philosophical sonnet, but is not of it.

Two mental processes, one primary and one public, are set side by side here. The complex sonneteer, without the will to “self-devour” but knowing how to trick with words, must coexist with a paranoid, childish inner self’s flowing boundaries and deep reactive truth. Just as the sonneteer consciously rejects the will to power, the deep self knows the false trappings of propaganda. Here, Nikolayev flips the bolding to privilege the non-sonnet. It is appropriate that the subconscious rambles loudly in bold and the cultivated ego speaks in a quiet, unembellished font.

Wood’s “pathos of rambling” describes the use of apparently unedited speech or stream of consciousness as a key Shakespearean technic for constructing and developing characters. Nikolayev uses his ramblings to the same end. Nikolayev’s embedded sonnets provide a verbal canvas on which to draw his own gallery of dramatis personae. “Commencement Walk” illustrates the not always sympathetic pathos and disinhibited rambling of one such voice.

Landiens and gentelmurfs, some phoenix here ha’ been tryin’ to sow seditioun
Among yom folks. Tha’s why we’re here, to talk about it. That gross misdeed,
I tell ya, my young ladies and fellers, is mighty skanky to my mind, if you’ll
As abstract as an afterlife, the skyline pardon the proletarian exposition. This
suddenly dives, followed by weary eyes. is some tough shit to be reportin. How
Two cyclists pedal down the red-brick lane. much have you known of there to
The sun-struck collegiate pavement dries. be an ingenuity that would cause
With waves of Baltic ivy overflowing a blooper like this into happenin’? Who,
and winked at by occasional stained glass, I ask you, is gonna assume respon-
wrought iron grilles accompany our going sa-bility? The snifter blinks and
past rhododendrons in our slow progress. boggles! ‘Atta gwerk ideer! N other
No fresh nor uppermiddleclassman can words, givin you just the meat and
explain away the necessary pattern moral of the whole story, permit me to tell
exemplified. Wake up, walk on, resist y’uns real short. Underderstanderably
saying you know what causes you to walk. we got mighty persnickety at the
to stalk your prey, or to be prey and stalked. stinkin’ beast, the wood pussy out
We are not free. Life leads us by the wrist. there. And I’m tellin’ you like Mr.
Judge, I conduct me own investigation. I dinna hafta find the guy “guilty,” nor
“unguilty.” All I cared wuz mother justice (to our errin’ souls) hadtabe served!
He had ta be brought down so we flattened him ta road pizza good and simple.

The reasonable, educated, and weary voice of the sonnet is pitted against the “skanky ingenuity” of the context poem. The poems are presented as two characters in a play, the doomed protagonist and the dark clown, the voice of an uneducated and murderous crowd. The play is given to us by the “proletarian exposition” and can be inferred from the lines: the graduation, the mob, the putative crime, the wrongful death, the fatalistic reflections, the mourning. The embedded sonnets are a stage for the poet’s multiple voices, providing the necessary elements of drama: characters and conflict.

If there is any constant to Philip Nikolayev’s poetry, it is his versatility. Mining a multitude of languages, he uses his love of dialect, humor, inventive orthography, and cultural mashing to set his characters—which the personae of the embedded sonnets might certainly be termed—to rambling and revealing themselves. They respond to literature, to language, and to each other on the page. The result is a network of relationships that form the textual combinatorics of context in Nikolayev’s embedded sonnets.

LARISSA SHMAILO’s newest collection is #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books). She is editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. Larissa translated the zaum opera Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging and has been a translator on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her other books of poetry are In Paran (BlazeVOX), the chapbook, A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva), and Fib Sequence (Argotist ebooks). Her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew), for which she received the New Century Best Spoken Word Album award.