Toni Frissell: Weeki Wachee spring, Florida, 1947

My recital of Zariyah Zhadan’s poetry lasted twenty-five minutes, during which time I was able to remain more or less oblivious of the audience, invisible in the near total darkness and silence that appeared like a curtain in front of the wide, bare stage, its only features a pair of spotlit lecterns, the one to my left occupied, it seemed to me, by Zariyah Zhadan’s accusatory absence. As I read from her poetry in its English translation, to the surrounding and near total darkness and silence, I was able, I thought, to discern a meaning of some kind gathering around me—I was able to see how I appeared to those watching, from inside the near total darkness. And I appeared, it seemed to me, basically as a pained, beleaguered figure, straining to lift the name that I appeared beneath—literally, as the name of Zariyah Zhadan was projected onto the backing screen with accompanying Cyrillic script. I could offer only a kind of fried connection to the absent poet, who that morning had been denied access to these islands, it had been announced to a ripple of interested discovery, and therefore to her own recital at the Festival of Culture. The audience had seemed profoundly grateful for learning this fact, I had thought as I waited in the wings with a pale, young man with a walkie-talkie: it was something to latch on to, something in which to carry the meaning of the occasion—the poet was denied access, they would enjoy saying later when making their report of the evening, she was detained at Heathrow. They were excited by the prospect of being able to speak these words, it seemed to me, although sadly, of course, as they would say, they weren’t surprised by them. I even thought that this statement, which was made during the introduction of the recital by an unseen announcer with a flutey voice, was intensely gratifying to the majority of the audience members, and it was clear to me then that my own presence, and the presence of Zariyah Zhadan’s poetry, would simply slot alongside this piece of information, which the audience members immediately recognized as the only worthwhile thing about the evening. It was all that they would remember of it, and for the next twenty-five minutes it was all that the poems would cast their light on, and in turn be lit by, that is, as authentic missives from a suppressed artist. There was safety in this meaning, that the poems were immediately broken down to fit, and which the audience held on to, I could feel, with the passionate gratitude of people clinging to jetsam in the aftermath of shipwreck. When I had almost finished the reading, having resigned myself to the incontrovertible and flattening effect of this information, when I was on the second-to-last poem, I heard something from the area of near total darkness and silence in front of me—I heard a sound that I assumed at first was feedback from the microphone, a high-pitched hum with no obvious origin. It continued steadily, and in the gap between the second-to-last poem and the final poem I looked around for a second—it seemed to be coming from the audience, or rather the area of near total darkness and silence before me, this low whine, or high-pitched hum—I recognized it then as the sound made by someone running a finger around the rim of a wine glass. A resonant, unmodulating tone, the precise location impossible to pinpoint. I continued with the last poem, sensing some distraction in the audience, who probably dismissed it as a technical fault—but by then I was certain, it was the sound made by a moistened finger circling the rim of a wine glass—it went on for the remainder of the recital, until it was drowned out by the applause, which was loud and extended, but also unemphatic, adequate, completely formulaic. As I walked offstage, I realized that the tone from the wine glass had come almost like a warning, a signal intended to draw the audience’s attention to something, and that inexplicably it was a feeling of being caught out that the sound of a finger running around the rim of a wine glass had provoked in me. There wasn’t really anything wrong with what I had been doing, I thought, as I made my way to the green room in the company of another assistant, there was nothing to really warrant this feeling—in other words, there wasn’t anything wrong with my reading out the poetry of Zariyah Zhadan in English translation in front of an audience of close to a thousand. Besides my own microanalysis of the ethics of the situation, which despite the amount of time and energy I seemed to expend on it, I regarded basically as a private entertainment, I couldn’t think of anything—and if there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with my actions, then why had I had this feeling, of being caught out, as I put it, when I had heard the resonant, unmodulating tone produced by a finger circling the wetted rim of a wine glass? It was certainly an antagonistic gesture, I thought in the green room. It was not a gesture undertaken by someone appreciating the event, who was absorbed in the poetry I had been reciting— on the contrary, it was a statement of boredom, of disrespect, of extreme disrespect even, expressed in a playful or childish manner, similar to the way malicious children might disrupt a class they found tiresome, or when they didn’t like the teacher. It was also completely fearless—there was no fear of reprisal or of recognition—the other audience members sitting near the culprit must have been aware of what he or she was doing, and which made them, the, say, five to ten audience members sitting in close proximity to the person running their finger around the moistened rim of their wine glass, complicit in this action, or at least partly complicit. It seemed to me that no one had tried to prevent this behavior either. They had allowed it to continue, for a period of two or three minutes, which in reality is a long time to keep up disruptive activity of this sort—two or three minutes of sustained disruption, caused by the running of a finger around the rim of a wine glass, to some extent ignored and to some extent covered up by the ten or so people surrounding the culprit. Perhaps more. Perhaps more members of the audience had become aware of the intentional disturbance, and with their silence came close to sanctioning it, to acquiescing to it, at least—perhaps part of them secretly approved of the disruption, because they had detected something in the event, namely in my recital of Zariyah Zhadan’s poetry in English, that was deserving of this kind of response, that in a certain way invited it. They had sat there with all their worthy feelings about Zariyah Zhadan’s poetry, perversely enjoying the disruption of the recital by a finger circling the rim of a wine glass. But even if this was the case, why had I been so struck by it, why had the sound, when I had recognized it, caused me to react with something close to horror? Was it because, despite my misgivings about the recital, I had undertaken it with a kind of complacency? Even though I was sure there was something not quite right about it, something self-congratulatory, I thought, in terms of its staging and production, I had, through necessity, managed to convince myself that this didn’t matter, and then I actually managed to dismiss it from my mind completely—but I had realized, when I heard the tone produced by a finger circling the wetted rim of a wine glass, that I myself was the form of that congratulation, that my recital of Zariyah Zhadan’s poetry was how it was articulated. An interchangeable part: that was how I had viewed myself, I thought in the green room. If it wasn’t me reciting the poetry of the revolutionary Ukrainian poet in English translation, then it would have been somebody else, I would have reasoned before the event. Before the event I would have argued that my identity was beside the point, that it was incidental, beneath consideration, that it didn’t count, but all of that melted away once the tone produced by a finger circling the rim of a wine glass had cut through the air, making it clear that somebody else—an observer—regarded the event in a different light. Because at that moment, I—me personally—became the target, and the fact that it was me and no one else reciting the poetry of Zariyah Zhadan was suddenly of the utmost importance. The person using a wine glass to sustain a resonant, unmodulating tone had either attended with the intention of pointing this out, or it had occurred to them during the course of the recital, and they had spontaneously chosen to communicate what they knew—that the event was an expression of a culture capable of taking a dissenting sentiment such as that found in Zariyah Zhadan’s poetry, and utilizing it for its own purposes of self-congratulation. I had assumed, I thought, on some level, prior to hearing the note caused by a finger circling the rim of a wine glass, that my motivations were in some way separate from those of the culture at large, and that my personal reservations, despite the fact that they were heard by no one, observed by no one, somehow counted for something. I had thought that such a thing as the culture at large could be said to exist, even, in any meaningful way as something that encompassed my actions and relieved me of responsibility. Somebody else present at the recital had made it clear they didn’t agree with that assessment, I thought to myself in the green room. They had also made it clear that what I called my microanalysis of the situation had merely been a kind of game, an insurance policy that I could take comfort in, having anticipated, or so I believed, every interpretive facet of the event and essentially ignored my own conclusions, which remained safely in the abstract realm of argument and counterargument. But even as I was experiencing this horrifying feeling of exposure, which my thoughts seemed to slow down or extend in duration, so it could be experienced in agonizing detail, and the maximum yield of information extracted from what had just happened, part of me was aware, sitting in the green room in front of an array of herbal teas that were offered to performers free of charge, that after a certain amount of time had passed I would be able to reduce these feelings to their correct proportions, to view them as a semi-irrational response to something that, even if it was malicious, was hardly the major derailing it had seemed for the minutes directly following it, and which I was currently living through. It would shrink to the dimensions of an amusing story, part of me already hoped.

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Excerpted from Dead Souls by Sam Riviere. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2021 by Sam Riviere.

Sam Riviere

Sam Riviere is the author of three poetry books, all published by Faber: 81 Austerities, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, and After Fame, and a book of experimental prose, Safe Mode. He teaches at Durham University and lives in Edinburgh, where he runs the micropublisher If a Leaf Falls Press.

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