“Back in the USSR”: Leonard Kress Reviews Bill Berkson’s Russian Notebook Invisible Oligarchs


Bill Berkson, who died in June 2016, was one of the last survivors of the original New York School that included Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler, poets who seemed equally at home in the world of art, or at least the New York art scene. The headline of his New York Times obituary tags him as “Poet and Art Critic of ’60s Manhattan In-Crowd,” and lauds

his striking good looks and insatiable appetite for the new affording him instant entree. His friends were legion, an endless roll call of the geniuses, provocateurs and poseurs who gave the decade its distinctive cultural tang.

It’s surprising, then, to realize that Berkson abandoned that cultural milieu for northern California way back in 1970, though he remained an active critic in the art world, teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and churning out over thirty books of art criticism. As well as almost forty collections of poetry, prose, and memoir.

Berkson’s latest published book or miscellany—though surely not his last—came out just before his death, and it seems to be an amalgam of his previous writing subjects—journal, travelogue, poetry collection, art criticism, exhibition catalogue. That’s a lot to compact into a short volume (sixty-four pages, at least ten of them filled with photos of newspaper clippings, concert programs, train tickets, etc). And all in keeping with his famous comment in a 2015 PBS interview that his work embodied his own “sense of scatter.”

Invisible Oligarchs records Berkson’s brief trip to Russia—Saint Petersburg and Moscow in 2006. To prepare for the journey (and to prepare his reader) Berkson begins with a short primer, in the form of a letter from Kate Sutton, an American, longtime resident of Saint Petersburg, on Russian history, literature, art, and language. In a series of letters that Berkson includes in the book, Sutton gives her take on Pushkin, Bely, Gogol, Mayakovsky, and also provides some helpful hints in navigating contemporary Russia. She even provides rudimentary language lessons and her style, at times, resembles his:

My favorite part of the Mayakovsky Museum is his letters with Lili Brik. They were illustrated, and he has one self-portrait in a cage, because that’s where his love for her has put him. Very fourth grade Trapper Keeper style for what is one of the revolutionary romances of the 20th century.

The notebook sections of the book are presented in journal fashion with dates, beginning with his perfunctory attempt to learn Russian:

I vass lybli-I love you

which he quickly abandons for museum-going and literary gossip, tourism, and finally, homage to Frank O’Hara:

contemporary art in garage of the chocolate factory
Andreas Roiter’s good little paintings


Perplex of Mayakovsky’s end. No one seems to agree.
Tatyana Yakoleve (later Mrs. Aleander Lieberman) or
New ballerina? Suicide of murder/execution? “Now
You and I are quits”—last note? Continuation of “At the top
of my voice”?


In the Kremlin Cathedral of the Annunciation, four black-robed
monks from Georgia sing—“and everyone /and I stopped breathing”

Berkson’s take on poetry and the poetry world is central to the book. Few would argue with his position that contemporary American poetry is too often melodramatic and solipsistic, too habitually personal. He contrasts this soap-opera-like stance to that of the Iraqi poet he hears interviewed on the radio, who, maintains that “the aim of poetry is to keep the language from going insane.” Though this slim volume only contains two poems tacked on the end (both versions/translations of Pushkin and Pasternak) the individual journal-like entries are very much like Berkson’s poetry. They revel in their near lack of coherence, their refusal to grant meaning, their subversion and word play, their nod to pop culture and paradox. These are the elements that perform in his early poems—“Clearing the Air,” for example, which appeared in Poetry, 1968:

You are a lamb, a hayrick, a hat trick, an abutment,
something like an old cartoon, or something that carries
mixed things over unmixed roads, I like that …

In Invisible Oligarchs, almost four decades later, the quirk is still there, the kinks in the language persisting, the word-by-word sensation, albeit a little less musical:

Arkadi, 61, married to seemingly pleasant, handsome biologist.
Friendly enough, if distracted (by?). Ostachevsky sits between us.
O & I talk, not AD & I, so it is diffuse. AD & wife talk.
Is there a protocol? High hat—“Mayakovsky’s hat worn by a horse.”


“No Democracy—dermocracy,” says the taxi driver friend
Of Maria Fushille of American Center, Moscow. Derm in Russian
Means “shit.”

Invisible Oligarchs is also full of small surprises: although most of the diary-like entries remain true to Berkson’s idiosyncratic style that includes large doses of conversation and surrealism, it appears that the grand tradition of Russian literature (Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Ahkmatova) ultimately gets to him. He concludes the book with his own translations (undoubtedly assisted by his Saint Petersburg-dwelling American friend, Kate Sutton, and these pieces, from Pasternak and Pushkin, reveal a very different Berkson, a poet at home in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Romanticism. Here is an excerpt from Pushkin’s 1827 poem, “The Prophet”:

I heard the music of the spheres,
The flight of angels through the skies,
The beasts that crept beneath the sea,
The heady surge of the vine,
And like a lover kissing me,
He rooted out this tongue of mine

Berkson has always been associated with the second generation New York School (Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Joe Brainard), poets born between 1935 and 1945, a cohort often overshadowed by its first generation elders (Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara). And Berkson’s poetry—perhaps because he abandoned the New York scene early in his career—has been less central to both groups, which is unfortunate, because his sensibility and expansive focus, even in this short collection, argues otherwise.

Invisible Oligarchs, by Bill Berkson.Brooklyn, New York:Ugly Duckling Presse, May 2016. 64 pages. $14.00, paper.

Leonard Kress grew up in and around Philadelphia and studied religion at Temple University, Slavic Literature and Folklore at Indiana University and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and Poetry at Columbia University. He has published eight collections of poetry, most recently The Orpheus Complex (Main Street Rag, 2009), Thirteens (Aureole Press, 2010), Braids & Other Sestinas (Seven Kitchens Press, 20110), and Living in the Candy Store (Finishing Line Press, 2011). Kress currently teaches philosophy, religion and creative writing at Owens College in northwest Ohio.

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