Ugly Duckling Presse

Invisible Oligarchs
Invisible Oligarchs

Bill Berkson

Poetry/Essay | $14 $12
Spring 2016
Buy"a breathtaking total immersion job…"
Bill Berkson’s Invisible Oligarchs is like a book jotted on the back of a poet’s hand—a hand that picks up everything that sings to it, from gold-leaf proverb to chopstick sheath, on its quick trip through a few places in urban Russia, 2006. Across faintly ruled Japanese paper, many pages reproduced here in facsimile, snapshots change hands, new poems blink, and poetry politics meet political gossip over lunch in St. Petersburg. Berkson’s educated guesswork about that elusive quality once known “the Great Russian Soul,” is framed here by letters from his friend Kate Sutton and encompassing encounters with poets and cab drivers, Moscow conceptualists and a White Night at the Mariinsky Ballet. As a sharply observant poet and the most soulful art critic alive, Berkson knows how to get us behind the set, and reading this book is as nice as taking a high dive with him into a perfectly mixed white russian. Excerpt ˇ


from St. Petersburg Details

“No democracy – dermocracy,” says taxi driver friend of Marisa Fushille of American Center, Moscow. Derm in Russian means “shit.”

Social services broken down. Pensions lost. Old ladies without pensions make living as museum guards. Old folks stand on sidewalks of major thoroughfares singing the Internationale, raising Stalin banners high.

Peter’s trashy streets. Morning after Graduation Day of All the Russias in St. Pete teams of women with whisk brooms tied with red rags sweep up cigarette butts from cracks in pavements, plastic vodka bottles from Palace Square.

Dostoyevsky in “White Nights”––how life in St. Petersburg is “that life which is a mixture of something purely fantastic, something fervently ideal, and at the same time (alas!), something frightfully prosaic and ordinary, not to say incredibly vulgar.” ...

St. Petersburg’s yellow, blue & white or plain white facades must be repainted every ten years. Good town for house painters. A team repaints the black enamel railing of the horse-tamers bridge (Fontanka). At Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the stucco Titans at the rear were originally gold leaf; the leaf fell off after a single winter. Gold leaf on stucco no good in this climate, if any. Now they are painted a horrid shit yellow. Putin asked the Director what would it cost to re-gild the statues. “I have no idea! It is impracticable!” “Come on, you know these things!” “Millions––but . . .!” Days later, Putin calls with a plan: cover the Titans with form-fitting titanium sheathing and put gold leaf on that. Putin is serious; it might get done.

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About the Author

Bill Berkson
Photo credit: Connie Lewallen

Bill Berkson was born in New York in 1939. He moved to Northern California in 1970 and now divides his time between San Francisco and New York. He is a poet, critic, sometime curator, and professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught art history and literature for many years. A corresponding editor for Art in America, he has contributed to such other journals as Artforum, Aperture, Modern Painters, and His recent books include Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems; BILL, a words-and-images collaboration with Colter Jacobsen; Lady Air; Not an Exit with drawings by Léonie Guyer; Repeat After Me, with watercolors by John Zurier; Snippets; and a collection of his art writings, For the Ordinary Artist. A new collection of his poems, Expect Delays, appeared from Coffee House Press in 2014.


Advance Praise

Invisible Oligarchs is a breathtaking total immersion job! Delightful to be with the ever curious studious erudite Berkson who sweeps us along as guide, as envoi, as paramount poet invading Russia with panache, armed with the ghosts of Pushkin, Balanchine, Mayakovsky, and a cast of so many others. A wonderful docu-mini-epic with book lists, ancestries, politics, memorabilia, correspondence, photos to boot, and most of all the kinetic minute-to-minute jottings of a restless “on” consciousness. “In the mind of the poet, all times are contemporaneous”, Ezra Pound quipped and it’s true. Buy this guide to St Petersburg and get on board.—Anne Waldman
An intrepid Gautier for our modern age, Bill Berkson is a man of all countries. Whenever he is traveling I imagine his open notebook, his quips and snippets fusing into wire and lights through a sheer, deft phrasing. There is a sharpness to his gaze that penetrates to the core of art matter. Invisible Oligarchs is another station on his improbable journey through contemporary air. His agency is total and still somehow contained. In his travels, no lack of yen can keep him from the temple of his choice, no lack of can opener will keep him from the soup, he is already inside making plans for tomorrow. Bill is among the greatest soldiers poetry has produced, leaving no man or woman behind, no jewels unturned. The pull of his rhythms will haunt your mind. If Bill had been Russian, he would have discovered America. Instead he funneled the rest of our universe into his poetry.—Cedar Sigo