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  • A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature by Jacob Edmond
  • Sonia I. Ketchian
Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. xv + 272 pp. $20.00.

With a generous introduction and intricate narrative, Jacob Edmond’s six skillfully interwoven chapters discuss the similarities and differences of six poets from three cultures: Yang Lian and Bei Dao from China, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Dmitrii Prigov from Russia, and Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein from the United States. Triangulating between Russian, Chinese, and American examples, Edmond argues for the resilience of post–Cold War poetry and the transnational Asian emphasis that informs current literature and cultural studies. Edmond brings tremendous erudition, copious archival research, unpublished materials, consultations with the poets, and original analyses to this richly complex book. His conception of the global shaped through the poetics of strangeness derives from Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of estrangement. In turn globalization is associated with postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s. Amid the “transnational turn” in literary and cultural studies, comparative literature adheres to the “binary of commonness and strangeness,” recalling the Cold War dichotomy of “them” and “us” and the post–Cold War opposition of the local and the global, of sameness and difference.

Edmond advances the concept of “superimposition” that penetrates the obscuring of singular elements when analyzing texts through an “overarching schema.” To overcome comparative literature’s Eurocentric legacy, Edmond examines Yang Lian’s exilic flaneur, introduced after Chen Jingrong’s Chinese translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry. Yang’s walker-in-exile remains alone in the bustle of Auckland, recalling Baudelaire’s “Le cygne.” Conflating the spaciotemporal dimensions of the city with the page, Yang shifts to the plane of language.

Chapter 2 treats Hejinian’s 1983 meeting with Dragomoshchenko (after Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech) and their fruitful cross-cultural literary collaboration through poems to each other and translations of poems. Their active work together continued through the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Dragomoshchenko dedicated poems to Hejinian, included drafts of poems in letters, and inserted extracts from letters in the poems for their project “The Corresponding Sky.” Dragomoshchenko employs the figure of the unfilled cup in “The Corresponding Sky” and plays on “yazyk” as “language” and “tongue,” hence as a linguistic, interpersonal, even sexual encounter with another’s “tongue.” Edmond adeptly decodes the artistic correspondence between Dragomoshchenko and Hejinian by parsing word, sound, and definition play, as in the poem “Instructing Clarity in a Confusion.” Like the “cup,” Dragomoshchenko’s “mirror” in his “Accidia” evokes memory as a mirror to reality. In the final poem, “Nasturtium as Reality,” Edmond defines the global, spatial, linguistic, and interpretive border creating and perpetuating the piece as multiple readings of bifurcation and amorous allusions. [End Page 242]

In chapter 3 Lyn Hejinian of the avant-garde Language poets embraces Shklovsky’s concept of literary estrangement, “seeing the world anew,” while introducing her terms “experience,” the “person,” and “description.” Hejinian links estrangement to the poetics of everyday life through “description” that allows her “to enact her dynamic conceptions of personhood and the ‘experience of experience’” (p. 78). By engaging with the Soviet Union, Hejinian escaped attacks on the Language poets and was able to oppose the essentialist binary models of identity central to Cold War politics, such as Soviet versus American and Communist versus capitalist. As common ground “to unite Russian and US writers, estrangement came to stand for the idealized vision of an artistic community that would bridge the Cold War divide” (p. 79). Ties with the USSR’s unofficial writers related poetry and poetic estrangement to social and existential questions of consciousness and experience. Russia became an escape for Hejinian through strangeness, and Edmond states that she “discovered in Russia a place where estrangement could merge art and life, Russian and American poetry” (p. 94).

In chapter 4 Edmond assesses the “shifting readings of Bei Dao” over several periods as “an allegory of the transition from a natural to a postnatural world” (p. 95). Bei’s use of allegory privileges the historical change and controversial readings eventuating in the present. Unlike in...


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