Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Prigov Transmission

(With apologies to Robert Ludlum)

Back in the old days, before I had a blog, we all used to hang out over at the Unquiet Grave and talk shop and I remember in particular one story that I've never been able to shake. We were talking about product and process and Kent (I'm assuming) Johnson told a story about Dmitrii Prigov "the great samizdat Conceptualist poet." You can read it in his words in the comments to Tony's post on September 12, 2004. It suggests a Cold War spy novel of sorts.

In 1989, an American poet arrives in Leningrad to attend an international conference. A famous conceptualist approaches him and, making sure that he is in plain view of everyone in the room (almost exageratedly not suspicious) he hands him three packets, carefully stapled around the edges. The poet fondles the packets gently and decides that there are folded pieces of paper inside. The word "Coffin" followed by a number appears on each package, and the conceptualist explains that these are the sole copies of his very best poems. He looks gravely at the poet and says, "Take these back to your country and give them their proper burial. Do not disturb the dead." At the end of the conference the poet returns to America.

Well, two years later the Soviet Union dissolves and history moves on to other concerns. The poet eventually returns to Russia, now St. Petersburg, where the famous conceptualist still lives, having emerged from the Cold War era as a legendary member of the underground avant-garde. They meet by what the poet at first interprets as an accident. But it soon becomes clear that the conceptualist has a bone to pick with him.

"What did you do with my packets?"

"What do you mean? I did just what you told me to?"

There is a pause.

"You mean you...?"

"Yes. I burried them."

The conceptualist seems at first horrified, then he sighs, and smiles.

"You are a kindred spirit," he says. "You understand me better than my own people."

They shake hands and part. The meeting is unsettling to the poet and he relates it to his wife when he returns again to America. She listens and looks at him, slightly puzzled.

"I didn't know what else to say."

"You lied."

"Yes, but what else could I tell him?"

"I don't know. Maybe it doesn't matter."

(To be continued)

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