Tuesday, May 18, 2004

 

Yesterday I looked at Lev Rubinstein’s Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, translated from the Russian by Philip Metres & Tatiana Tulchinsky. Metres himself has a new chapbook out, Primer for Non-Native Speakers, part of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Series Three. This series is published by Kent State University in Ohio, and has adopted an institutional look to its booklets that is, as is this one, very 1940s. If I hadn’t been reading Rubinstein, I’m sure that I would not have made it past the cover here, especially as I’ve never heard of either this series or press before. Of the other 31 volumes in the Wick collection to date, I recognize the name of only one poet – Thomas Sayers Ellis. If there is a press that does a worse job of getting the word out about its writers, almost by definition I haven’t come across it.

 

So this turns out to be a moment of some serendipity, because there are a couple of exceptional poems in this slender collection. One is the title poem, a 22-part poem that I’m certain is influenced directly by Metres’ confrontation with the modular poetics of Lev Rubinstein, but which – even with its explicitly Russian content – comes across much closer in the American context to, say, some aspects of the poetry of the late Ted Berrigan. That’s a connection I never would have made reading Rubinstein alone, but it jumps right out from Metres’ text:

 

XVII.

 

If anyone asks for me,

I’m in Chapter Ten.

 

XVIII.

 

This is a label.     What is it?

A libel, a labia, a lust, alleluia.

 

XIX.

 

And this?              A table.

Some bread and a plea.

 

XX.

 

Please.

What is it?

You are wanted on the phone.

 

There is no dial tone.

The telephone is out of order.

I’ll be waiting for your call.

 

XXI.

 

Goodbye, dear friends.

I wish you every success.

Have a safe journey.

Please stay.

 

XXII.

 

Let me introduce myself.

I feel sick.

How much must I pay

for excess baggage?

 

One might say that this is the side of Berrigan’s work that leads more or less directly towards that of Joseph Ceravolo, and you could see how somebody who is interested in Russian writing that has its roots in the absurdist tradition there would share sympathies with that world view. Yet even before one reads this poem, Metres has already demonstrated himself as capable of moves that Berrigan would never have imagined. The first poem in the book, which is about the act of translation, not just between languages but between any two humans in a relationship, is predicated on a literal understanding of its title, even as it screams to be understood on a meta level: “Ashberries: Letters.”

 

Robert Creeley picked “Ashberries: Letters” for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2002 after it had first appeared in the New England Review & you can see why instantly. The poem’s literalness heightens the “hidden” metaphor immeasurably. Here is the first of the poem’s four sections:

 

Outside, in a country with no word

for outside, they cluster on trees,

 

red bunches. I looked up

ryabina, found mountain ash. No

 

mountains here, just these berries

cradled in yellow leaves.

 

When I rise, you fall asleep. We
barely know each other, you said

 

on the phone last night. Today, sun brushes

the wall like an empty canvas, voices

 

from outside drift into this room. I can’t

translate – my words, frostbitten

 

fingers. I tell no one, how your hands

ghost over my back, letters I hold.

 

A poem as perfectly executed as this makes me literally tingle with excitement as I read it. I note that it, as well as each of the poem’s other three sections, both is & is not a sonnet. Indeed, one of the dramas here & in several of the other poems in this volume are the ways in which it both is, and is not, actively within the confines of the School of Quietude. Thus, for example, what may be the most straightforward poem in the book carries the Cavafy-esque title of “Days of 1993.” It’s not surprising to find a sestina among the book’s eleven works – it’s the one poem from this collection that you can find in its entirety on the web. Metres has an almost Borges-like attraction to tight, complex structures, close enough to make you think of the so-called new formalists except that, unlike Timothy Steele et al, Metres seems to be serious about it.

 

The other dynamic that is going on here is the volume’s “Russian-ness” – Akhmatova in particular hovers over the text, as do common every-day details (“The telephone is out of order” is almost a classic instance of this). It makes me wonder if either Metres has other manuscripts about that bring together a broader range of concerns – it would make sense, particularly given the title of this chapbook, if it represented not the whole of Metres’ work, but perhaps one side or aspect of it – or if he does indeed suffer from the translators’ disease of seeing everything through the frame of his engagement with another language. Metres has a review of Michael Magee’s Morning Constitutional in Jacket 22 that does indeed frame Magee’s work very much in Russian terms, but there is also a major piece on Barrett Watten’s Bad History in Postmodern Culture that strikes me as entirely free of this, even though Watten’s own confrontation with Russian poetry & poetics is an important dimension of so much of what he does. So I think the jury is out on this with regards to Metres. I’m certain that I want to see more of his poetry – much more than the 28 pages gathered here – while I try to figure out what somebody teaching at the local Jesuit college in Cleveland is doing pulling together all of these different threads from the contemporary literary environment.





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