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Lev Rubinstein


ISBN 5-7172-0058-7, 192 pages

Translated by Joanne Turnbull

Sample writing Here I Am

"These monologic poets (Rubinstein in particular) parody what might be called the idiocy of daily life by treating this idiocy as something incredibly serious and important. They seem to be writing a kind of personal and sociological mythology. In their more complex gestures to bracket mass culture in ironic and parodic terms, they can be likened to some of the poets of the New York School and pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein." — Andrew Wachtel (NWU)

"Rubinstein gathers his language ready-mades on index cards (commonplace expressions, overheard statements, sentence fragments), and then organizes them in such a way that we seem to be observing the creation of a poem from raw material. However, we are left to build our own context in which to combine these disparate elements into a meaningful whole." — Gerald Janacek, University of Kentucky
Reviews Excerpt

"Rubinstein's 'texts' can be compared with computer hyper-texts, where each message conceals a larger context and where you unavoidably leave certain files unopened on each page as you go onů His poetics can be described as that of fatally missed opportunities and in this sense he brings to mind Chekhov, a fact that has been noted by many critics."
— Ekaterina Degot in Commersant Daily

"Rubinstein juxtaposes different styles and finds them all wanting. He tries them on for size, offering numerous variants of the same thought in an attempt to establish their possibilities and resources. He shows the relativism and the limits of any utterance, and in the pauses created by his index-card device, we become equally aware of the necessity and impossibility of expressing ourselves adequately and in full, a feeling that permeates all Rubinstein's texts. His approach could be compared to the lofty irony of German romantics: suffice it to recall their love of 'fragments'."
— critic Andrei Zorin

"Rubinstein's texts undermine our faith in the independence of our judgement thereby posing the difficult question of our linguistic identity. In order to speak for ourselves we must overcome 'the Other' in ourselves, but this is not at all simple. The Other has already said so much: all of our oral and written literature, all that has been accumulated over the millennia of 'speaking man' belongs to him." — Michael Epstein, Emory College

Legend has it that a lack of typing paper led to the invention of Lev Rubinstein's unique poetic and performance style. Index cards, on the other hand, abounded in the Moscow public library where he worked for some twenty years when the Soviet Union still existed. Rubinstein typed out separate lines or verses on these cards and organized them in long boxes, sometimes inserting blank cards to indicate meaningful pauses. "What is the purpose of this 'card system' for me?" says Rubinstein. "Primarily it is a material metaphor for my understanding of the text as an object, as a three-dimensional unit, and of reading as a movement into the depths, a sequential removal and overcoming of layers, a metaphor for my understanding of reading as a labor, as spectacle, and a game."

Born in 1947, Rubinstein studied language and literature at Moscow University. He first made a name for himself in the '70s as a central figure in the Moscow conceptualist movement. Needless to say, his unorthodox poems were not printed in the official literary journals of the time, but circulated instead in samizdat, in boxes or ring-bound. At the same time, Rubinstein began performing his poetry in private settings for audiences of one to a dozen people. Not until the early '90s did his poems begin appearing in Russia's "thick journals". The acclaim was instant. But the standardized format meant sacrificing Rubinstein's preferred form of presentation: text fragments — a line of verse, a theoretical remark, a bit of descriptive prose, snippets of phone conversation, a stage direction, an expletive — on separate index cards.

Art directors experimented with boxes on a page, or even actual cardboard boxes filled with cards. But most chose instead to use numbers to indicate the original 3 x 5 cards. Meanwhile Rubinstein's performances became more frequent and the venues public — clubs and even formal stages — with audiences into the hundreds. A short, wiry man with a scraggly gray beard and a perpetually hoarse voice, Rubinstein has an unassuming manner that at first, deceptively, suggests a lack of confidence and even a lack of familiarity with the cards he is holding uncertainly in his hands. One often gets the feeling that he is about to shuffle them — a trick that never fails to enlist his listeners as willing co-authors. Rubinstein's talent for engaging both new and long familiar audiences has caused his popularity to endure and grow through the last decade, despite the upheaval in post-Soviet tastes and cultural priorities.

Rubinstein catalogues remarkable speech fragments, disjointed bits of various discourses and staggeringly bad "traditional" rhymed poetry. These found objects he presents as poems which the reader or listener feels he must have heard somewhere hundreds of times before without noticing. "Each card is a universal unit of rhythm equal to any vocal gesture. A pack of cards is a non-book, an object of verbal culture existing outside the Gutenbergian realm."

Rubinstein's fragments invariably elicit a series of associations in any reader or listener, even one who fails to catch the various allusions. As a result, these brief texts have a modern universality that cannot be lost even in translation. The Moscow critic Ekaterina Degot likens Rubinstein's work to computer hyper-texts where each message conceals a larger context and where one is necessarily forced to choose some of the many possible connections over others. She describes his poetics as that of "fatally missed opportunities". This quality has prompted other critics to compare Rubinstein's work to Chekhov's.

"The artistic system which I profess," Rubinstein explains, "deals not so much with language as with consciousness. Or rather with the complex interrelationships between individual artistic consciousness and mass cultural consciousness. In conceptualist art, the center of gravity tends to be somewhere between the author, the text and the reader: the text is as important as, but no more dominant than, the other two participants in this creative act." That makes Rubinstein's work an ongoing interactive process in which this book — the first such collection in English translation — represents the next logical step.