Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lev Rubinstein/Poet as Listener

After my grandiose statement that Catalogue of Comedic Novelties is the most important book of poetry in the last fifteen years, I should at least explain myself. First of all, I think it is the most important book for me, for the reasons I mentioned: it was my first real encounter with the avant-garde (other than Stevens and Williams), and it "exploded my idea of the possibility of poetry, a post-lyric poetry that is warm and traditional and edgy all at the same time."

Ten days ago, Lev Rubinstein came to John Carroll, and we gave a bilingual reading, along with an orchestrated performance with 25 students and faculty of his text Life Everywhere.

Of that text, Catherine Wagner wrote:
"Life Everywhere," a fairly typical Rubinstein piece, is constructed mostly of cheesy pseudo-quotes based on a quotation familiar to Russian readers that begins “Life is given to us . . .” (it’s from Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered). These echoes, each given its own notecard, are interrupted by announcements in capitals from, apparently, a mysterious film director, who tells the “speaker” or “speakers” of these echoes to “GO AHEAD!” or “KEEP GOING . . . GOING” or “PERFECT!” or “STOP.” These instructions seem to bear no relation to the moralistic philosophobabble that’s being “filmed.” We can’t take the observations made about life entirely straight—they’re things like “Life is given to us humans for a reason./Be good, my friend, and worthy of your life.” Despite such cheesiness, the observations build to an emotional climax, a melodramatic maximum that persuades me that at least one of the trajectories this work carries me through is an emotional one.

At the same time, the quoted, mass-produced feel of the text makes me embarrassed to be moved, in the same way that the 1980s AT&T ad campaign “Reach Out and Touch Someone” made me simultaneously weepy and self-conscious about the ease with which I'd been manipulated. Of course, the AT&T ad was straightforwardly twiddling with my emotion-buttons in order to get me to make expensive long-distance telephone calls. Rubinstein’s work, on the other hand, exposes the manipulation: it drives a wedge between cultural production and the culturally produced. I’m not expected to do anything or buy anything, I’m flickering between emotion and ironic awareness; that is, I’m learning about the way I work when I encounter language. Rubinstein's work reminds me of those visual puns known as figure/ground illusions—the famous rabbit/duck picture, for instance—that instruct the viewer not to choose between one view and another, but that it's possible to train the eye to flip between both views. Rubinstein lets me acknowledge both my human emotion and its quoted, cultural ground.

Wagner's assessment is exactly right; Rubinstein simultaneously functions as sentimentalist and parodist of sentimentalism. At the end of the day, almost despite the quotational feeling of the project, there is the heady encounter with other voices...and with our inevitable end, beyond those voices.

Rubinstein is, among many other things, a poet of the ear, the ear as democratic space, who hears in the sundry voices that, as Stafford once wrote, "it is not quite prose we speak." Here is what I wrote in the libretto for the reading:

Born in 1947 and one of the founders of Moscow Conceptualism, Lev Rubinstein is among Russia's most well known contemporary poets living today. He has been called a “Postmodern Chekhov.” His work is conceived as series of index cards, a poetic medium which he was inspired to create through his work as a librarian at the Lenin Library. His work was circulated through samizdat and underground readings in the "unofficial" art scene of the sixties and seventies, and found wide publication in the late 1980s. Rubinstein lives in Moscow and writes cultural criticism for the independent media.

In 2004, Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein was published, about which, Ron Silliman writes: “The major work by a major poet, one of the founders of Moscow Conceptualism, and aptly translated. There is no question that this is one of the 'must have' [poetry] books of 2004...” Andrew Wachtel writes: "In the precise translations of Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky, this witty and elegant work is available to an English-language public in its full glory for the first time."

Rubinstein—an ex-librarian whose obsession with books is apparent—might be described as a symphonic director or an archivist; he catalogues, on his library cards, the shreds of our speech in all its fragmentariness, wonder, and degradation. Rubinstein’s place in the Russian literary tradition is thus built upon a contradiction: a postmodernist in his method, he is a modernist in his results. In his heavy reliance on citation, he is a postmodernist par excellence. This whole book is one unceasing quotation or, more precisely, an arrangement of quotations, with sources ranging from the eighteenth century to the present; from actual literary works to imaginary discourses; and from belles lettres to street talk. But the fruit of Rubinstein’s efforts differs from his fellow postmodernists. Rubinstein imposes patterns on the debris, rhyming bits and pieces of waste, turning belches and grunts into units of meter, cataloguing the chaos where each object now has its assigned place. He aims at order and harmony, and in that sense he is a true disciple of the modernist tradition, in Anna Akhmatova’s “classicist” line. Her words, “If you could only see what useless waste/Gives rise to verse” would make a good epigraph to his work.

Performative rather than monumental, playful rather than dour, Rubinstein’s work is both vividly futurist and yet haunted by ghosts. We should ask nothing less from poetry.

--Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky

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