Dmitry Golynko-Volfson, 1969-2023

Dmitry Golynko-Volfson (standing, far right), with Viktor Sosnora’s literary club, in 1987 or 1988.
Photo by Viktor Tikhomirov. Courtesy of Elena Novikova

Mitya and I met in 1987 at Viktor Toporov’s translation seminar at the Leningrad Youth Palace. Translations and all sorts of quasi-literary and professional news were discussed at the beginning of the seminar, while at the end there were readings, first by the novices, then by the old-timers. One day Toporov announced, without a tinge of his usual irony, that a young genius, fourteen–year-old Dmitry Golynko, was about to read. And indeed, a young man, almost a boy, got up and read his own rendering of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which reproduced the meter, stanzaic form, and length of Wilde’s original. Everyone sat listening, their mouths agape. Mitya and I quickly became friends. Mitya also attended Viktor Sosnora’s literary club at the Tsiurupa Recreational Center on the Obvodny Canal. About once a week, Mitya hosted the Sosnorovites at his own home on Bronnitskaya Street. They took turns reading their work and drank tea — Mitya’s mother strictly ensured that there was no alcohol, not a single drop. Thanks to his mother and her friends, who rubbed shoulders with the dissidents, Mitya was a child prodigy and a polyglot, a treasure trove of all sorts of knowledge. He memorized the poems of Gorbanevskaya and Brodsky, not to mention Sosnora. I don’t know whether his own poems from that period have survived, most likely not. But there is a website that contains slightly later pieces, from the late 1980s, and they show that he already wielded an intricate mastery of versification. Sosnora’s training was manifested not only in Mitya’s virtuosic and diverse technique. He also chanted rather than recited poems, and, like his mentor, he subscribed to the tragic model of the damned poet. And he set himself daunting tasks: never content with what he had already done, he consistently sought out new architectonics and fearlessly discarded old forms like spent rocket stages.

In the 1990s, he wrote large complex multipart poems. Enchantingly witty, they featured elements of kitsch and parody, an abundance of neologisms and anachronisms, and a carnival debunking of literary centrism (e.g., “The Tale of the Istanbul Lady Treasurer,” “Sashenka, or A Diary of an Ephemeral Death,” and “Dead Ears, or The Death of Anton Petrovich Shchedrikov-Saltyn”). We could call this his neo-baroque or postmodernist period. Gradually, as the 1990s drew to a close, this baroque harlequinade was adulterated with “cyberpunk”: hi-tech and dystopian subject matter emerged in his poems, while humor and eccentricity yielded to sarcasm. In the early 2000s, Golynko-Wolfson abruptly altered his style: he began producing gloomy serial compositions, ringing the changes on one or two colloquial phrases, sometimes obscene, deploying these “idioms” in an endless monotonous spiral spinning down into nothingness, into the black hole of the Real. Starting with “Elementary Things” (2002), his texts are dominated by an aesthetic of the abject. His poems explore various gradations of alienation and reification (commodification) at the micro-level of human and non–human relations; they are chockablock with cold despair, misanthropy, and often (let’s be honest) misogyny. The latter is a trace of romantic wounds. (Mitya was loved by wonderful young women, but every one of these affairs, of which, I confess, I was a little jealous, ended in a breakup, and Mitya wound up alone.)

Acting the role of the accursed poet at some point ceased to be an act. Friends left the country and died, and his circle of friends fell apart. For some time Mitya was sustained by his academic research, his collaboration with Moscow Art Magazine and other contemporary art periodicals, and the latest philosophical concepts. (He continued to be a polyglot.) But as a poet — as an outstanding poetic innovator who had created not one, but several original poetic systems — he clearly did not receive the recognition he deserved, at least at home in Russia. He was fired from the Institute of Art History, where in 1999 he defended his PhD dissertation, “The Contemporary Russian Post-Avantgarde: Styles, Models, Strategies.” At Borey Gallery, which published his first book Homo scribens (1994), the Petersburg fundamentalists [a right-wing group of writers] had firmly established themselves. The atmosphere in Russia was becoming poisoned. I noticed more and more often that when Mitya spoke or read, the corners of his lips drooped in a disgusted, contemptuous half-smile, and his face was like a mask. He was consumed by an object-oriented disgust, and it was this disgust that fueled his writing. At some point, it turned on him as well. For the last three or four years, he had been slowly killing himself with alcohol. I watched it happened, horrified, realizing that there was nothing I could do. (Once upon a time, when his mother died — and she died young, and Mitya, still very young, was left an orphan — he moved for a while to a communal flat on Rubinstein, provided by a friend, to collect his wits, as they say. One day he telephoned me at the boiler plant where I worked and said that he wanted to make himself eggs sunny side up, but he couldn’t manage it. Couldn’t I come over and help him? I went to the flat, made the fried eggs, and sat with him in the kitchen as he ate them, before quickly returning to my shift. I remember his shaking hands and childish confusion. I will always remember them.)

Dmitry Golynko-Volfson — a poet of metaphysical orphanhood and despair — has left behind a huge legacy. With his departure, a similarly huge hole has formed in Petersburg’s cultural fabric — and in my heart. Goodbye, dear friend, and forgive me.

Source: “In memory of Dmitry Golynko-Volfson (9.12.1969—6.01.2023): Alexander Skidan on the late poet and New Literary Review author,” New Literary Review, 7 January 2022. Translated by Thomas H. Campbell, who met Mitya in 1995 and for several years lived a few doors down from him on Bronnitskaya. His funeral and wake took place earlier today in his hometown of Petersburg. You can read more tributes to him by his fellow poets here (in Russian).

UPDATE: 16 January 2023. Eugene Ostashevsky writes: “For a pdf of Dmitry Golynko’s 2008 UDP book As It Turned Out, please go to https://uglyducklingpresse.org/publicat…/as-it-turned-out/ and click on ‘View Digital Proof.’ The book is bilingual and includes work from the 1990s and the 2000s.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s