Translated from the Georgian by Lyn Coffin and Nato Alhazishvili

    Dato Barbakadze's poetry in some ways might be said to further the exploration of language initiated by Gertrude Stein and extended by some of the "Language" poets of the U.S.A. "In the beginning was language, and all that language should have expressed / In the beginning was a tower, and all who should have destroyed it / In the beginning was hope, and all who should have been skilled in hope..." he writes in "Classical Disharmony," eschewing narrative and lyrical modes in favor of achieving a cumulative and philosophic modality.

    These earliest poems were written in the 1980s during an energy crisis in Tbilisi, composed by candle or kerosene light while the poet lived in a state of perpetual hunger. They carry a sense of bitter winters, the poet says, when he was sleeping in his clothes, his apartment frozen. The poet immersed himself in the writings of Pasternak, Celan, Musil, Greek literature, medieval German mystics, Thackeray, Pascal, Blake, American poets, nineteenth century French novelists, Hegel, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, French structuralists, psychiatric literature. Surprisingly he does not mention Stein here, and Wittgenstein comes only later. The latter's observation, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world," would fit comfortably within Barbakadze's earlier poems.

    Mention "philosophical poetry" in the U.S.A., and one can almost hear the infinite number of eyelids slamming shut. And yet all of our best poetry at least implies a philosophical stance toward reality. The opening lines of "Thieves" might have been written by Brecht while pondering the nature of capitalism:

        "They stole what was mine.
        From then on I could only give what wasn't mine.
        I never knew how what wasn't mine became mine.
        And I did not know how to bestow it.
        I had no other way but to steal what belonged to another,
        in order to understand how to steal what belongs to another.
        As soon as I stole what wasn't mine, I realized
        that before I could grant what wasn't mine
        it would be stolen. And I also realized that I had stolen
        what really belonged to whomever I stole it from, though it wasn't his..."

    In a long dramatic monologue, he takes on the persona of a killer who finds his knife to be his god, concluding:

        ...Then this knife is my God
        And I love this knife
        As I love my life standing by the head of the one I killed with the
        knife in my hand
        As I love it every time everywhere I hold this knife in my hand,
        As I love everything that isn't like anyone or anything else
        As I love this life that is very lonesome
        And is—simply—everything that happens on this terribly cruel

    Can or should the poem be read with overtly political implications, as well as the more obvious morality tale it unfolds? Where the world is harsh and cruel, the poet struggles to understand from an imaginative point of view. He needn't name names or call out figures of state to make his insights clear.

    Later poems were written during a more tranquil stay in a Georgian monastery that dates from the Middle Ages, and still others during a stay in Germany. It was there that he turned to Wittgenstein, Descartes and others, along with classical German literature. Beginning with "Monastery in the Hills," the poems adopt a calmer, less tortured tone, while still revealing a deeply questioning philosophical engagement with his immediate environment, as in these opening lines from "Monastery":

        Each morning I fetch water from a hidden spring
        and quietly watch the changing clouds.
        I do not know if I will see another winter
        but I am still happy, surrounded by mountains and green places
        where so many mortals—so many weak ones—live.
        I do not think about the pines because they're me.
        Each time they think of me,
        I stop wondering why the white walls of my retreat
        do not look like snow on the bamboo fence.
        The paths of fishermen and woodcutters intertwine
        and even after a hundred years I would not want to untangle them
        Nor am I tired by memories of a past I never had....

    Here his philosophy seems very close to Zen, lines composed almost as if by an ancient Chinese mountain hermit: "I do not think about the pines because they're me." It's a striking poem for its clarity of image and timelessness.

    The more recent poems are less dependent on syntactical structures or philosophical, feeling increasingly "organic," almost if though the poet is seeking within the poem rather than directing, especially when he speaks of trying

        "to escape from the ruinous evenings,
        unendurable poverty and already manageable madness;
        such is this place, which starts almost nowhere,
        on almost roadless slopes and dry earth,
        which like pebbles jingling in a dark purse
        disturbs your peace, opens your invisible heart
        and penetrates it like questions....

    What can or cannot be remembered is a burning issue in these poems. Even the remembrance of "what is lost" is lost. He says, "Our death was torn from the pages of a fading book..." The temporal world is simultaneously known and unknown, and remembrance is an unreliable tool, even in the hands of a poet-historian.

    Dato Barbakadze speaks with a distinct voice and rare vision in poems that invite contemplation more than dramatic reaction. If they sometimes feel a little cold at first reading, that may be because they carry the shivering realities of a life lived under harsh circumstances seen through eyes that did not turn away from tough questions. But always, poem by poem, there is within the poetry the warmth of real humanity and the brightness, the hungry intelligence of his song, fresh as new-fallen snow.