USA, Literature, 2013


Photo: Eugene Timerman

Eugene Ostashevsky is barely eleven when, in 1979, he leaves his home of Leningrad with his family and, as part of that period’s great Jewish exodus, shortly before the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan, immigrates to the USA. America becomes his second homeland and American English his second language. He grows up bilingually and becomes all the more sensitive to the gap between individual languages and their relationship to the world.

As the owner of two languages, every language from now on seems to be a highly unusual, since artistic construction. Repeatedly, he experiences with his own body what happens when one language “upsets” the other and he develops from this experience a fine intuition for the ludicrous aspect of linguistic incommensurability, upon which the fundamental impetus of the word games of his poems are based. Ostashevsky made his first major appearance in the 1990s. He studied during this period Comparative Literature at the Stanford University and meanwhile gives literary instruction at the New York University. He is a member of the writers’ collective 9×9 Industries, responsible for his brash readings as well as Vainglorious, an artists’ performance organization. His first volume of poems, “Iterature”, appeared in 2005. The title is self-explanatory: using numerous cycles made of two-liners, Ostashevsky plays within a humorously-subversive manner with the semantics of phonetic structures and, in the process, mixes elements from his adored Russian classical avant-gardist OBERIU writers with idioms as those found in American English. Rhythm and rhyme stand in the foreground of a phonetic painting suggesting Dadaism, but where below the playing area there shimmers deeper reflections about the entity of cultural affiliation. Indeed, he said, in the interview with the magazine “3 A.M.” (April 3, 2012), he experienced his most genuine culture shock when confronted with American poetry for the first time: no rhyme, no rhythm, no poetic meter, only words, and often silence. By comparison, he grew up in a poetic tradition in which classical prosody was indispensable. Ostashevsky was strongly influenced by Daniil Kharm’s work, the Russian poet who co-founded, among others, the 1927 artists’ group OBERIU, whose absurd and grotesque way of thinking first was condemned in the Stalinist context and later prohibited. Not unlike Kharms, Ostashevsky expresses a natural sensitivity for rhyme and rhythm, and early in his life he made up his mind to commit himself to the reception of the OBERIU. In 2006, his much praised by the “Times Literary Supplement” anthology, “OBERIU, An Anthology of Russian Absurdism”, appeared as the first collective volume of such poetry in the English language. “His” Kharms, as Ostashevsky expressed in the said interview with 3: AM, is one that not least of all writes about mathematics and asks in the process how the world would appear if the theorem n+1 = 1+n was not automatically true and led to the conclusion that the world has long been so created in this very manner. Correspondingly, Ostashevsky’s work is riddled with various languages and language systems, all of which are distorted to the same degree, the languages of mathematics as well as those of logic. In light of this critical love of language also reveals his 2008 volume of poetry “The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza”, offering, according to Ostashevsky, meditations on the classical rationalism in the light of the Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and other calamities, which befell Spinoza’s dream of a universally valid language meant to let the world completely designate and explain itself. Like a DJ mixing the new from the old, from the movement of a “drifting spin”, as a teenager Ostashevsky learned to appreciate the art of American rhyme in high school with the help of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. He encountered the beat of rap at Mayakovsky and “Fox in Socks”, the tongue-twisting children’s classic. Brought together were MC Squared, the Begriffon and Che Bourashka, based on Cheburashka, a popular Soviet film and novel character for children. Brodsky places himself beside Trotsky, and DJ Spinoza leads a cryptic conversation with god about existence. If one follows DJ Spinoza, communication is a thing of sheer impossibility because there isn’t existing any word that would be “true”, capable of possessing the same meaning for everybody. According to Ostashevsky, in a June 2011 interview with the Canadian magazine ‘Maisonneuve’, “DJ Spinoza” is ultimately about loneliness and, like Spinoza, what it means to be Jewish and living in exile. Lonely is also the title-giving figure of his third volume of poems in 2008, “Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies”, translated into German by Uljana Wolf (“Auf tritt Morris Imposternak, verfolgt von Ironien”). Morris Imposternak asks himself how one finds genuine feelings in a world in which everything depends on language and likewise on interpretation and misinterpretation? For Ostashevsky’s part, in his current work he turns with more strength than before toward the playful approach of childrens’ literature, something which likewise makes him a descendent of the avant-garde literati. A wondrous impression of this “New Infantilism”, as Ostashevsky’s ironically calls his own development, conveys his ideas in this work-bound cycle “The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Pi”. Here, based on the tradition of European children and nonsense poems, as well as on the Russian-Jewish pirate folklore of the 1960s, Ostashevsky brings every single word into play and shows what happens when beings – in this case a pirate and a parrot – fail to communicate with one another and when the path from ‘disparate to desperate’ is sometimes only two written-letters long. Endowed with the black humour of the Marx Brothers on the one side and inspired by the mental wealth of linguistic relativity on the other, thus characterizing the overall world experience via the grammatical lexicon structure of every language of every form of thinking, Eugene Ostashevsky proves himself once more as a “pundit” of language: as a master of poetic word games, transforming with biting humor the chasms of what for him is both fundament and object, into light-footed poetry.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
Translation: Karl Edward Johnson

Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies. Poems. Translated from American English by Uljana Wolf. SuKuLTuR Verlag. Berlin, 2010

Three Poems translated from American English by Uljana Wolf and chosen by Katharina Narbutovi? – in: Das Magazin der Kulturstiftung des Bundes Nr. 19, 2012


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