Iterature by Eugene Ostashevsky
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2005)
Reading through Eugene Ostashevsky’s Iterature I had to fight the sense that the poems were all diarrhoetic (словесный понос), or (to make an adjustment Ostashevsky would probably appreciate) diary-tics. There is a strong sense that this is all a testing out of his powers, ludic experiments with verse and language that don’t necessarily get very far or say very much. But in stray moments, and in cumulative effect, there is much to praise. There also seems to be a guiding principle, inspired and borrowed from the poets he claims as predecessors—Daniil Kharms, Aleksandr Vvedensky, Osip Mandelstam—Russian poets from the first half of the twentieth century who learned to exploit formal devices and arbitrary poetic standards to reshape their language and to generate new meaning out of a violently deflated Soviet culture. Old cloth techniques like rhyme and meter were used to create random associations and juxtapositions, and it was out of these new constellations that poetry could be revitalized. Kharms and Vvedensky especially were outrageous and humorous language poets, experimenting with orthography, a-logic, and pure flights of nonsense fancy. Ostashevsky has spent a great deal of time learning from them, translating their poems, reading and collecting their notebooks and marginalia. He edited an anthology of poetry by the circle of writers associated with Vvedensky and Kharms called OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism. He clearly sees his own poetry as a continuation in that vein, excepting that he wears his effuse multi-lingual influences on his sleeve, from his academic interests in philosophy, literature and mathematics, American pop and underground cultures, his (I assume) Jewish and (obviously) Russian heritage, with snippets of French and German, and an abiding concern for repairing his split spiritual identity.
When Ostashevsky says in his autobiography poems “I have no native language/I can’t judge, I suspect I write garbage” and “I found myself with no native tongue,/only two prosthetics to flap among/teeth and gums” I like to think that he’s taking veiled shots at some of the other Russian-émigrés of his generation who like to pretend that they’re American poets—such as Philip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich, Ilya Kaminsky—or at least putting words in their mouths that they are too self-[un]aware to say themselves. Though they might all be to varying degrees capable of a clever or interesting phrase in English, and have certain strengths as poets, and may be functionally fluent, excepting Ostashevsky they don’t seem to me fluent on the poetic (that is, the highest) level. Their poems have a tendency to be carried on mangled or else tired English, but Ostashevsky, for all his humility, has a sure ear, writes laconic enough for his two-liners to sometimes feel like the blues, and is ludic in the sense that he really does play with language instead of trying to bypass it. Just to emphasize how this is meant as a compliment, I’d add to the list of poets that Ostashevsky overshadows Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. And of those six, he’s the only one who seems to have understated, rather than overstated his proficiency as a poet in English. Nabokov, despite being a great writer in many respects, never seemed to understand that fluency had any measure other than the length of his personal lexicon.
Ostashevsky, in modeling himself after OBERIU’s poets, is a much more committed formalist and humorist than, say, Mayakovsky. And people who think of Mayakovsky in Russia and Frank O’Hara here when I say absurd will be surprised by how strange and cerebral and talented Ostashevsky is compared to them.
Situating him in the American scene, though, is not so easy. The first person that came to my mind reading Iterature was—surprisingly—his fellow New Yorker, Paul Simon:
I was walking down the street when I thought I heard this voice say
Say! Ain’t we walking down the same street together on the very same day?
And I said, Hey, señorita, that’s astute.
Why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute
We had a lot of fun, we had a lot of money.
We had a little son, we thought we’d call him Sonny…
…Sonny gets sunnier day by day by day
Rhyme is used as a disinhibiting device as well, allowing him to talk about sex and the body, much like the dirty joking of teenage boys. For example:
So stay in bed & hold in that pee
for that way at least something inside you be
plus a laboratory technician may not
decipher your character in a chamber pot
Your body flopped around like a sturgeon,
though five minutes before that you were a virgin.
It makes sense, then, that some of Iterature is immature, uneven, and embarrassingly bad. And that’s when it feels as if you are going through a young writer’s journals, where there is no self-censorship. There is another, related, sense one gets from Iterature: that these are apprentice works. Especially in the section called “Smotherland,” which is a punning nod to Vvedensky’s long poema, “Frother” (frother is Ostashevsky’s translation of the Russian потец (potets) which splices together the words for father and sweat). "Smotherland" contains his allusions and dedications to Mandelstam, Kharms, Vvedensky, and Pushkin, and explicitly continues the themes of their poems and biographies.
The desperate stories of the poet-heroes who were destroyed by Stalin and the Communist experiments have the effect of significantly sobering Ostashevsky’s tone throughout this section and of numbing/humbling us all:
You are excused from seeing
the bloody bones on the wheel
the soggy bones in the ground
the grey bones in the air
You will never taste
cat, human meat
boiled leather, sawdust
Ostashevsky, poet-as-embarrassed-witness, takes on a whole new gravity after these poems. Poetry is a container for his outrage, psychosis, frustrated love and philosophy. Iterature also plays the vital function of poetry as testimony and heritage, constellating Ostashevsky’s American verse among the Russian language-monger/martyrs.
It is an essential document of Eugene Ostashevsky’s development.
J.H. Stotts is a writer and photographer living in Boston and starting a family. His essays, poems, and translations have been published in Circumference, Hanging Loose, The Atlantic, and numerous e-zines. He's exhibited his photography and paintings in Boston, Russia, and Mexico. What he can't publish elsewhere he posts on his blog, The Fugue Aesthetics of J.H. Stotts. He finished an 'inauspicious' shotgun anthology of Russian poetry, from Fet to Esenin to Ryzhii, in formal and experimental translations and is currently at work on a selected poems of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, to come out in '09 from Whale and Star Press.