The Cosmic Prospect: On Galina Rymbu’s “Life in Space”

December 30, 2021   •   By Joseph Albernaz, Kirill Chepurin

Life in Space

Galina Rymbu

everything is visible. everything is watched: sated and weary
from the message of the book of decay, we sleep. […]
stars effervesce over this quarter, emitting noxious fumes,
emitting the spirits of the dead and their singed uniforms,
the skeletons of cars and old machinery hiss in the night clouds.

— Galina Rymbu, “Stripped of Signs”

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YOUTUBE COMMENT SECTIONS are strange places. Amid the banality and the vitriol, there are oases of anonymous, moving communion. The comments for a playlist called “1 Hour Of Melancholic Sovietwave” provide one such example. The top comment, written in broken English and with almost 20,000 likes, explains to non-Russian listeners what this hour-long playlist of haunting, retro-futuristic music specifically evokes:

Many of the other comments follow this example of vulnerability, alternating between Russian listeners confirming this feeling and non-Russians who, despite the gulf in cultural experience, relate on a deep level to the devastations of post-Soviet life: “It weirdly feels like listening to a memory that’s not my own.”

The communist prospect, to borrow Jasper Bernes’s term, was always also a cosmic prospect. When the former collapsed in Russia, the dream of life in space collapsed with it; time itself collapsed. The poems in Life in Space — a powerful collection of selected writings by the young Russian poet Galina Rymbu, published in a dual-language edition by Brooklyn’s Ugly Duckling Presse and translated primarily by the deft hand of Joan Brooks — unfurl across this scarred landscape of economic, fleshly, and cosmic decay. “Cosmic Prospect” is the title of one of Rymbu’s poetic cycles in this volume, alluding at once to the (typically Soviet) name of an avenue in her native industrial city of Omsk in Siberia, and to the prospect of a cosmic future dreamt of by the Soviets. The downfall of this dream and the cosmic promise that persists despite this downfall loom in the background of Life in Space.

As such, Rymbu’s poetry cannot be confined to the Russian or post-Soviet context. Just as our entire planetary present has been shaped by the Soviet collapse, so too Rymbu’s poems resonate cosmically, out of this collapse, with the contemporary moment, in which billionaires and states seek to expand their colonial and extractive practices beyond the planetary and storm alien stars with renewed vigor. Life in Space inhabits the cosmic void with a bracing intimacy, foraging for another beginning, mapping for us way stations in the desolation of the present — fragments of life in space and time that beckon elsewhere: “this isn’t the collapse of communism / only the beginning / what do you feel? that’s something’s catching up to the future in the past” (“The Sleepers”). This volume thus introduces Anglophone readers to one of the most visible, as well as politically active, contemporary Russian poets (Rymbu is now based in Lviv, Ukraine, where she spearheads the antagonistically queer and feminist collective F-pis’mo). Amid the ongoing cosmic fascination, Life in Space probes what it would mean to inhabit space and time collectively, as what we have in common. Its singular poetics is a materialist and speculative poetics of this kind of inhabitation — and the publication of this volume in English is a genuine event.

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Rymbu’s poetry is flecked with shards of time — personal, collective, and elemental experiences of temporality all intertwine. Like David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mystical noir, Twin Peaks, which Rymbu name-checks (and with which post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine had a peculiar obsession in the 1990s), Life in Space mines tattered dreamscapes and nameless, unsettling images to plumb the catastrophe of the 20th century and the experience of time it has bequeathed the 21st. In both the varying rhythms of her lines and her intricate formal experimentation, Rymbu makes material out of these discordant temporal textures, tracking especially the ruinous flood of privatization and neoliberalism that swept into the post-communist 1990s. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto that “in Communist society, the present dominates the past,” but once this emptied-out promise collapsed in Russia, things held together only by the thinnest bonds, what Rymbu calls the “ligaments of gray time” (“Life in Space”). Rymbu writes through the sense of being “stuck in history,” with the static flatness of a “frozen time” permeating all experience. In this world, the commodity has infected time itself: “and the groceries hang in murky time, all for one price” (“Holiday”).

And yet other times persist, buried in the “Time of the Earth” (one poem’s title) and that of the stars, echoing down the corridors of personal and collective memory. These open not simply other possible futures, but other pasts and presents, lodged in the secret names of things that children know and that poetry can unlock: “a child, / pressing into the wall, prays to another time, to food, calls bread by its secret name” (“Fragments from the Book of Decline”).

Life in Space is dotted with deeply personal experiences and memories: her father’s factory; forays of street protest and feminist political defiance; the travails and surprises of motherhood; passing an old lover downtown. Yet even the mundane is imbued with a visionary dreariness, the layers of intimate biography peeling away to reveal some cosmic turmoil at the heart of earthly life. In Rymbu’s poetic topography, all the battles we must fight — personal, familial, political, intellectual, economic, environmental — are reverberations of a deeper, stranger war of which we have only intimations, and for which we have no real language, save that of poetry.

The astonishing, Tarkovskian final passages of “Time of the Earth” stage a kind of resurrection, where fragments of memory and images of a childhood home are recomposed from ruin, opening a portal through which the earth is rent and upended, “everything like before and like it never was,” a new time:

the ruins of their memory still exist, but they are indistinguishable from the fern growing beside this place; perhaps there will be a time when this moment will be recreated exactly, with no loss of content (when we see them), gathered from another vision: only clay and stone hold them back from the perception of what is happening above;

then we could return again to the house: everyone there now is absent, but we go out into the yard, not in memory and not in what happens later: everything like before and like it never was: the clouds of night communities hang above barrels, old staircases are scattered in all directions, between them—the fire of perception; changing the boundaries of a dry body, the time of the earth

In poetry, in memory, in struggle, “life in space” can be seen for what it genuinely is: not an escape to the stars or a colonizing dream of other worlds, but life on earth as already cosmic: “to sing of wide-open time / communing with everything around” (“Fragments”). As one with the endless night of the universe, the earth itself is an immanently alien star.

Rymbu’s is a materialist poetics of darkness and of fire: these are, as it were, the two elemental poles of the universe — the darkness of the cold infinite void, the fire of countless stars and galaxies — that infuse her poetry with a fierce tension. The darkness conveyed by her poems is thick and material. The Russian word mrak, insistently repeated throughout the collection, invokes a high-density, frightful, almost impenetrable darkness: darkness as substance. It is related to morok, a dark mist that intoxicates the mind, veils and disorients it. In Rymbu, darkness seeps like toxic vapors out of the netherworld of the post-Soviet collapse, out of the (post-)industrial wasteland, the world of death and decay. It envelops the mind and the body, hindering resistance and binding one to this “pitch dark world,” dividing one from others and restricting individual and collective movement — and finally foreclosing the cosmic prospect:

they will cover the whole sky with a flag of death as if there’s nothing there
no galaxies at all (“White Bread”)

“They” are the powers of this world, political and metaphysical. Russia’s present political regime is one obvious target here — and, in the long tradition of dissident poetry in Russian, Rymbu writes powerfully about the fiery energy of political protest. At the same time, the frightful power to foreclose the skies exceeds any particular territory or political configuration. As such, Rymbu’s broader targets are all enclosures of the common cosmic prospect — and even death itself, as the ultimate power of division and subjection.

“The pitch of order is bottomless” (“дна в мраке порядка нет”) Rymbu writes strikingly in “Language Wrecker” — a line that, in the Russian original, immediately and antagonistically invokes disorder: “порядка нет,” the two words on which the line ends, can be translated as “there is no order,” whereas the concluding “нет” may be read as refusing the preceding “pitch of order.” The effect is a dis-ordering in which fire, as the element opposed to darkness, erupts against the constricted, atomized existence in the orderly realm of the dead. Against this order, Rymbu affirms the collective act of insurrection, of coming-together in love and revolt, as the resurrecting fire emerging from the ashes, sweeping through the bodies and burning away the divisions of the dead world:

and there is no salvation. mama, we are all saved. you just need to see:
here they are, the marches, the millions, their desire, fury, their fire. (“White Bread”)

One could say that there are for Rymbu no bodies in the plural. What is affirmed in revolution, as in love, is the “common body” (“наше общее тело”), one with the earth and the skies, a body that exists both before and against the social divisions through which order is imposed. Even in darkness, we share the one common body, and although one cannot see, one can feel the body of the other — so that sex and physical togetherness in Rymbu’s work reveal the shared materiality that engenders the immediate spreading of revolutionary fire. By the same token, sexual violence and gender oppression (themes taken up and battled throughout this volume) exemplify the divisions to which revolution and love are jointly opposed. Revolution itself is but the “shards of creation” (“осколки создания”) reassembled. As Rymbu writes,

if we gather them, even here, we might again sow
trouble and wheat. (“The Sleepers”)

In this, Rymbu’s cosmic communism emerges as a contemporary refraction of the tradition of Russian Cosmism, in the latter’s dual insistence on resurrecting the dead and assembling a cosmic commons without domination, hunger, or strife. The word smuta, translated here as “trouble,” means also “disorder,” “confusion,” and “riot” (myatezh). Those who have been proclaimed dead arise in Rymbu’s poetry against the world that renders them dead in the first place, and that turns the stars themselves toxic: “stars effervesce over this quarter, emitting noxious fumes, / emitting the spirits of the dead.” The cosmic prospect becomes, by contrast, the prospect of reassembling the infinite common body that is already here, but scattered by the present global order — the prospect of being immanently one with the fire of endless galaxies and alien stars. This is also the prospect of revolutionary struggle, bound to persist “until the world night fills with peace” (“пока не исполнится миром ночь мира”): a phrase in which the coincidence of “world” and “peace” in one Russian word (mir — historically also a word for “commune”) signals the abolition of the present order of the world as one built on division and strife.

But after this order is abolished, what would the “wide-open time” of communion look and feel like? Rymbu sketches several scenes and thresholds to this other experience of time out of time: in eroticism, in the streets, in revelry, and recurrently, through invocations of the Sabbath. In the thrilling last sequence of Life in Space, “Fragments from the Book of Decline” (also rendered “Book of Decay”), translated superbly by Anastasiya Osipova in collaboration with eight others, Rymbu writes of this shattered book, which is both her book and not, in relation to a “shabbat eternal,” an apocalyptic rest:

and we run onward, covering up our child,
embracing loss, our books of decline
tremble. shabbat is here,
shabbat eternal, the world
you want (and don’t see)
begins in love,
in idleness.

please, open your eyes.
there, beyond the borders of day, the insurrection has begun.

In this universal Sabbath, love and idleness reign. It is a time of cessation — but the stasis of this idleness is radically different from the “frozen time” of the commodity and its cancelled futures. Here what is withdrawn are the temporalities of work, productivity, and extraction, guarantors of the bottomless violence of order, which give way to the felt sense of infinite beginning in a Sabbath “insurrection”: one undertaken “beyond the borders of day,” in another darkness, as a struggle over time itself.

The poem “Holiday” offers a utopian glimpse of this time of common idleness, starting with its title — the Russian word for “holiday” (prazdnik) is closely connected to “idleness” (prazdnost’). The poem ends with Rymbu bringing fruits, now spread abundantly on the earth, to friends and lovers who have gathered around an oil derrick and converted it from an extractive structure (one named after an executioner) into a dancefloor: “we will gather and carry them to the oil derrick, where instead of drilling, our friends are playing music and drinking.” The poem ends in the future tense — we have not reached this inoperative feast. Rymbu is on the way, approaching, bearing fruits, which are her poems, gifts from the cosmic earth. But before an oil derrick can serve as a platform for music, food, dance, love, and play, it — all oil derricks — must be destroyed.

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Joseph Albernaz is assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His Twitter handle is @albernaj.

Kirill Chepurin is senior lecturer in philosophy at HSE University, Moscow.