The recent writings of Russian poet and one-man social activist Kirill Medvedev, published this year in English translation for the first time, have an unusual extraliterary feature—their copyright has been “denied” by the author: “I have no copyright to my texts and cannot have any such right.” This extreme gesture of renunciation, a show of proud humility that is reflective of the book itself, is followed by an equally misleading title—“It’s No Good.”
But Medvedev, in his fashion, is completely serious even as he performs the seeding of such softly humorous ironies. He excels at telling the truth about the overwhelming “It” that is contemporary literature, Russia’s bleak political reality in the Putin era, and the depravity of his people—“Dostoevsky didn’t need to / make up his plots and his characters.” His bracing and often abrasive poems, which alternate with essays and political manifestos taken from Medvedev’s website, movingly consummate and resurrect a continual desire to find the bottom of things: “the most important thing is for a person to know their worth / …that’s what interests me the most.”
To achieve this holistic “truth” not only in his analysis of others but also in his own person, Medvedev erases the boundary between the poet’s personal and artistic life. It is his own personality speaking as the poems’ first-person narrator, as if each poem were a segment in a prolonged monologue. His continual use of an autobiographical “I” across the poetry and essays is an echo of Walt Whitman, from whose poem “Song of Myself” he quotes before beginning a poem of his own. As with Whitman’s poems, the ones in “It’s No Good” manage to make a powerful impression through the narrative force of his repetitions, striking juxtapositions and paradoxes, exclamations, and progression towards climatic outbursts of feeling.
Individually, the poems are like vignettes offering incisive character sketches of the hungry, lonely people he has encountered. He has no consolation for them, but what he does promise is a faithful description of both their situation and his own. When a male child prostitute approaches him and is turned away, he thinks of something that might have been said:
I want to whisper something in your ear;
no, closer, a little closer; all right:
poor little boy;
I don’t feel sorry for you at all.
I’d feel sorry for you
If you were a girl,
I’d feel sorry for you
If you were some kind of toad,
a little piglet, or a ragged chicken –
but I don’t feel sorry for you because you are a rock
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