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Sneaking Poetry in the Back Door

by Gerald Janecek

Lev Rubinstein builds a work of poetry like a house of cards. In his case, these are index cards, each containing one word or statement, stacked in a precise order and read in performance by the author, card by card, from the upper surface down to "the depths."

The organization of the material is much more important than the material itself and since the poet's works are collage-like assemblies from widely scattered sources, it is often difficult to say what they are about, other than states of consciousness or patterns of language use. The title usually gives a clue; then it is up to the reader to create a larger picture out of the given pieces. In "Here I Am: Performance Poems," the result is often a Zen-like meditativeness or a subterranean musicality.

Sometimes the cards have short pieces of conversation, as in "The Hero Appears" (1986): "[3] I don't know. Maybe you're right. [4] It tastes good and it's good for you. [5] By the first car at seven." (The numbers in brackets indicate the sequence of separate cards.) Sometimes they are items of armchair philosophical speculation or heart-to-heart confession, as in "An Elegy" (1983): "[2] Sometimes it seems: This will never end! And there really is no end in sight. ... [6] Sometimes a quick glance is enough to understand, if not everything, then at least the gist." Many works involve presenting alternative possibilities for action: "[104] You could not accept the given possibilities and decide that nothing happened; [105] You could continue in the same spirit; [106] You could stop all this any time — that's one of the virtues of comical novelties." Most of the components, taken independently, would not be considered poetic at all.

Yet Rubinstein sneaks the poetry in by the back door. The one-line conversational fragments that form the first 94 items in "The Hero Appears" are in fact in iambic tetrameter, as traditional a meter in Russian poetry as there is. His genius centers on his ability to translate language junk into poetry. But how poems shamelessly grow out of weeds and other litter — to use Anna Akhmatova's image — is something of a mystery. It seems to have something to do with his careful organization of the raw material — mindless clich╬s we use in ordinary daily activities.

As a founding proponent and leading member of Moscow Conceptualism, Rubinstein turned international Conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s, in which art was presented in the form of documents, into a major Russian literary movement based on a sophisticated play with borrowed styles and quotations.

Joanne Turnbull's translation is a major event. For the first time, the English-speaking reader has access to a substantial sampling of works by one of the most important and original contemporary Russian poets, one of the founders of Moscow Conceptualism. The sampling is a good one with a variety of types of works, including several of Rubinstein's social commentary essays. I would have liked, though, to have seen what for me is Rubinstein's masterpiece, "Vse dalshe i dalshe" (Farther and farther, 1984,) included among the translations. The Glas edition attempts to suggest the card structure of the works, a problem for any normal book publication of them, by having each page scored off in three sections. And the text is typewritten to resemble the manually typed cards of the authorial version. Unfortunately, no doubt to save space, the edition often violates the original principle by putting several short items in the space delineated for a single card.

Turnbull's translations are for the most part quite fine and resourceful. They do an excellent job maintaining the repetitive structures of the originals — more of a challenge than it might seem. Rubinstein tends to exhaust the semantic possibilities of repeated phrases, and the translator has to come up with a translation that works in all instances. She is also quite accurate stylistically and literally, making substitutions only when absolutely necessary (for example, replacing the alphabet book phrase "mama myla ramu" [mama washed the frame] with "the cat wore a hat"). She also provides a few vital translator's notes. Where she isn't as good is in bringing the hidden poetic structures into play in the translations. The metrics of "The Hero Appears" are not observed, and there are only a few instances of rhyme in "That's Me."

But the power of Rubinstein's poetic designs is still there. We have the tragic force of inaction amid a profusion of possibilities ("A Catalogue of Comical Novelties"); the mysterious fascination with dreams ("Thursday Night, Friday Morning"); the Zen meditations of a schoolboy ("The Hero Appears"); and the metaliterary games of "The Cat Wore a Hat," "That's Me" and "Here I Am." There are only isolated cases of English-language poets using comparable poetic procedures, and none have concentrated their efforts on them with such spectacular results. Perhaps this book will start a new trend in English poetry.

Gerald Janecek is a professor of Russian literature at the University of Kentucky specializing in 20th-century Russian avant-garde poetry.