Monday, May 17, 2004



Poets don’t reflect their societies directly, but neither are they entirely free of the societies in which they work. When those societies go through profound transformations, for good or ill, these upheavals reverberate throughout the work & careers of all of the poets affected. A century from now, perhaps, someone will be able to step back and see clearly just how profoundly, for example, the collapse of the old Stalinoid regime of the USSR played itself out through the work of a generation of superb Russian writers that was just then coming into its own. These poets – Alexei Parschikov, Nina Iskrenko, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Ilya Kutik, Ivan Zhdanov, Dmitri Prigov & more – had been the “victory babies” of the end of the Second World War, a war that had been waged on their land. They had grown up within a society that had evolved into an Alice-in-Wonderlandesque open-closed system under the concept of Perestroika, an elaborate façade of official, unofficial and “official-unofficial” publishing institutions that incorporated everything from the self-publishing of samizdat to mass runs of state-published poetry. Then, just as most of these poets were just reaching their early 40s, that world disappeared. Nearly 15 years later, everyone in Russia & the other nations that have emerged out of the old “actually existing socialist” Soviet bloc are still putting the pieces of a new order together.


Americans can find a lot of echoes in the work of their Russian contemporaries – both countries are complex multicultural societies deeply ambivalent about their relationship to Europe, and both societies have brutal histories that are still playing themselves out in ways that are often appalling. Reading the best contemporary Russian poetry often feels like looking into a mirror in some sort of parallel universe – the parts are all there, but not as you would expect them.


Thus when a press proposes to bring out the work of several major contemporary Eastern European writers, it’s a major event. Ugly Duckling Presse, a small press collective that has also published books by bloggers Aaron Tieger & Mark Lamoureux, is doing just this in its still relatively new Eastern European Poets series. The volume I have in my hand – Lev Rubinstein’s Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, a selected poems translated by Philip Metres & Tatiana Tulchinsky – is impeccably printed & produced. It’s all the major work by a major poet, one of the founders of Moscow Conceptualism, and aptly tanslated. There is no question that this is one of the “must have” books of 2004 if you have any interest in poetry.


Yet at the same time, I find reading it extremely frustrating, simply because Rubinstein’s poems were written originally for note cards & putting them down here on the page requires fixing them into a single unalterable order & one of the key elements in the work is precisely its many-sided potentialities. Consider the following passage, the first page of “The Hero Emerges”:



Well, what on earth is there to say?



He knows something, but won’t tell.



Who knows, maybe you’re right.



It’s better for you, and tasty too.



At seven, by the first traincar.



It goes on about the student.



Let’s go. I’m also heading there.



Have you decided something now?



I rode the bus to the very end.



Hey listen to what I’ve just written.



You go this way, straight through the yard.



Aren’t you fed up with him by now?


To accentuate the discreteness of the cards, the translators have numbered each one at the outer margin.* Yet almost invariably fixing them into any kind of order here transforms them into something very close to a narrative – you can hear, perhaps, a card that is “out of place,” such as Hey listen to what I’ve just written, which might in fact have appeared first had this been a “real” narrative poem, but the fact that you can identify something like out-of-place-ness only reveals just how much fixing the text into any order on the page generates narrativity & figuration. Perhaps this is more true for a poet like Rubinstein, who is closely attuned to the social aspects of the text (as distinct, say, from the more linguistic elements), but it’s an inherent risk in converting something like this from one medium – unbound cards – into another, a book.


When I was editing In the American Tree some 22 years ago, I had a devil of a time convincing Bob Grenier to let me excerpt 28 sections of his own card volume, Sentences. Grenier was concerned – rightly – that freezing an order on the page would insinuate a narrativity that he wasn’t so much arguing against in this work as he was simply looking beyond. He didn’t want readers to become distracted. In republishing the great “Chinese box” edition of that work on the web, Whale Cloth Press has done a great job of ensuring that the reading experience there replicates the “shuffling of the deck” experience of the cards themselves. No two trips through the sequence will be identical.


In “52 surfaces,” the not-quite-title poem of John Tipton’s Surfaces, he attempts something similar on the page directly, by juxtaposing numbered lines in as consciously anti-narrative an order as seems doable, & then playing with the question of order:



it would diagonalize out of our conversation


how often we have spoken of branches in winter


they made arrangements for the end of marriage


she would hear him sobbing in the wake of the last scene


the previous statement is false


someone spoke each metaphor


he has a book of all possible utterances


bottle is a phonic section


if I say ‘market’ this becomes a political poem


oaks & oxen & crows


everything depends on the size of the sample


it snows


M. Bourbaki writes a poem with arbitrarily long lines


carve brittle leaves of wood


& puts his cats in a sentence


At most, fifty-one of these are about themselves, or they all are


this line is called the violence of the market


the tulips have collapsed on the pavement

Tipton’s poem(s) could have been produced on cards, but this carefully calculated anti-narrative sequencing – note which ones begin with capital letters, for example – does a good job of both signaling their “jumbledness” as well as giving us some old-fashioned hits like the rhyme between 26 & 28. I wish, in retrospect, that Rubinstein’s translators had ordered their reworkings with more of this kind of eye. Or that Ugly Duckling** would note that a web version of several of Rubenstein’s key works already exists on BlazeVox, visually in the style of the Whale Cloth web presentation of Grenier’s Sentences, but there also in a fixed – and thus narrative -- order. Until a version that can be shuffled exists, however, it’s worth noting that Catalogue of Comedic Novelties is a book that is better read by jumping around in these complex, wry pieces than it is plowing straight through.

* To the right, after the text, on right-hand pages, such as the page quoted here, & to the left on left-hand pages.


** I’ve decided that name must refer to the hideous extraneous “e” in Presse.

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