Lev Rubenstein

 
Introduction

Born in 1947 in Moscow, Lev Rubinstein worked for many years as a librarian during the Soviet period. Handling and cataloguing books for a living gave Rubinstein a keen awareness of the materiality of texts–their constructedness, their boundedness by genre, author, and geometry. In other words, surrounded by books, Rubinstein sought a poetic method to release himself from the prison of the printed page. Writing poems on stacks of library index cards, Rubinstein emerged as a true innovator in the Russian underground scene in the early 1970s. Since then, his ground-breaking texts cleared a new path in Russian and world poetry. The following poems culled from the forthcoming collection, The Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, gathers for the first time all his poetic series in a single English language edition.

Rubinstein’s work displaces the authorial presence in favor of conducting a symphony of contemporary discourses. For Epshtein, “Rubinstein is a master of displaying the tawdriness of tawdry speech formations, a matter of what is said, it all appears as merely an imitation of someone—no one—else’s speech; it is not we who speak this way, this is how ‘they’ speak ‘us’.” But Rubinstein’s texts do not simply mock these discourses from an ironic position, thus victimizing the reader in displays of mastery. In Rubinstein’s words,

“Each of my works, which I define as “texts,” both explodes its generic tethers and creates new ones. Any fragment of the text, or the text as a whole, echoes traditional genres in accordance with the genre memory of the reader. Consequently, the texts reads at times like a realistic novel, at times like a dramatic play, at times like a lyric poet, etc.; that is, it slides along the edges of genres and, like a small mirror, fleetingly reflects each of them, without identifying with any of them. The genre is, in essence, a hybrid genre, combining poetry, prose, drama, visual art, and performance.”

Rubinstein is a postmodern archivist, replete with archive fever; that is, he catalogues, on his library cards, the shreds of our speech in all its fragmentariness, degradation, and wonder.

A final note about our translation. The difficulty of translating Rubinstein is not simply in translating poetry—which is difficult enough as it is—but also of translating discursiveness, the way phrases sound in their given contexts. We opt for a flexible and nuanced approach to the poetic discourse, and also to the phraseologies of other kinds of language evoked by Rubinstein. With some texts, we try to hew closer to the formal gesture (whether of 19thcentury pastiche or contemporary conversationality) than the exact meaning, while with others we replicate the originality of the phrasing and relax our standards for replicating sound. Where Rubinstein’s text employs an insistently self-conscious poetic meter, we sometimes employ line breaks or slash marks to accompany an echo of rhythm or rhyme. To the Russian ear, such metrical formalism immediately signifies poetry; the American ear, perhaps dulled by prose and free verse, might at least be helped out by the American eye.

A book of translations of Rubinstein is itself an oxymoron, since his note card poems ask to be liberated from the page. In Rubinstein’s words, each note card is a universal unit of rhythm, equalizing all moments of speech—whether stanza of poetry, fragment of street conversation, pseudo-scientific aphorism, stage direction, interjection or simply silence—a blank card. A stack of cards can be treated as a visually manipulatable object. Interacting with this object through rhythmic leafing, successively peeling back its layers (resembling an archeological excavation), literally plunging into the depths of the text—this is a material metaphor for the process of reading as game, spectacle, and labor.

The Great Chain of Being 

1.
Well, why don’t we begin, okay?

2.
For God’s sake, quiet down already! Listen up!

3.
For God’s sake, how much can one take! Same thing over and over again….

4.
For God’s sake, you scared the hell out of me!

5.
Ugh, it itches like crazy! For God’s sake, I can’t take anymore!

6.
For God’s sake, who stunk up this place?

7.
It’s no problem at all, for God’s sake! Go ahead and take it tomorrow!

8.
For God’s sake! Will you stop it, for God’s sake! I haven’t seen your glasses!

9.
Date and signature. Here, please. Not there, for God’s sake! Well, you’ve ruined it!

10.
For God’s sake! Can’t you be quiet for a single minute? This is just impossible!

11.
This is a nightmare. First one thing, then another. My nerves can’t take this. Oh for God’s sake!

12.
For God’s sake! Did you understand yourself what you’ve just said?

13.
So when will we get started?

14.
“And now the light goes out, but still it’s visible.”

15.
What’s this, all of a sudden?

16.
“There’s nothing more frightful, nothing more wonderful.”

17.
By the way, did you see Ilya?

18.
“The pillow you sprinkle with your sweet and sour drool.” 

19.
Do you know if Alyoshka arrived?

20.
“The cover of your crib is tearing from its chain.”

21.
You have a ticket for which date? Will you have enough time to finish everything up?

22.
“The little piggy dances and sings and sways.” 

23.
Katya didn’t call you back? That bitch!

24.
“Half the picture’s above your head, flying away.” 

25.
When does it start?

26.
“The other half bursts into flame, now glows, now whistles.” 

27.
And where will it be, if it’s not a secret?

28.
“And Doctor Dolittle treats the pig for measles.” 

29.
And what time is it there now, approximately?

30.
“Your throat now feels like cotton, and the lights are out.” 

31.
What, really? You actually dreamt that?

32.
“The kitchen radio murmurs about this or that.”

33.
Here, take a look: “The great chain, or stair, of being: a common notion among naturalists and philosophers of the 18th century about the hierarchical arrangement of natural bodies, from simple inorganic (mineral) to complex living beings. The idea of a chain of being dates back to Aristotle.” Well, etc. etc.

34.
I could use something for my headache……

35.
If you really believe that art and culture correlate, like a crystal and its solution, then you are seriously mistaken. Now, listen…

36.
And who will be able, I wonder, to pronounce from the first take the word “co-contributory.”

37.
Unfortunately, he’s not in right now. Can you call back later? Thanks. All the best.

38.
It is somewhere near the Volokolamka road.

39.
You need to be patient, there’s nothing you can do about it.

40.
The last two months she practically never left the house at all.

41.
Oysters vary in number. What, you didn’t know that?

42.
You should have taught him good manners earlier. It’s too late now.

43.
Ideally, by Wednesday. Thursday is the absolute deadline.

44.
In short, I come and see everything is exactly as it was. That is, literally NOTHING was done. You know, the heart just sinks.

45.
He hasn’t written poems in a long time. Thank God, he’s been doing something worthwhile.

46.
Nothing surprises me, not for a long time. And least of all, this.

47.
Come by, everyone will be there.

48.
The guy is pushing forty, he has no brains and none are expected.

49.
And most importantly, under no circumstance should you salt it.

50.
When does it begin? Don’t you remember?

51.
“And now the light goes out, but still it’s visible.”

52.
Well, what did your Zarathustra say?

53.
“There’s nothing more frightful, nothing more wonderful.”

54.
Are you serious about it?

55.
“The pillow you sprinkle with your sweet-sour dribble.”

56.
Do you have any questions?

57.
“The cover of your crib is tearing from its chain.”

58.
Shall we start anytime soon?

59.
“The little piggy dances and sings and sways.”

60.
What’s better? Maybe, simply “The Chain.” It’s noble and minimalist…

61.
“And half the picture’s above your head, flying away.”

62.
Or is “The Great Chain March” better? That sounds more fancy. Or “The Chain Link.” That’s also not bad.

63.
“The other half bursts into flame, now glows, now whistles.”

64.
“And Doctor Dolittle treats the pig for measles.”

65.
“Your throat now feels like cotton, and the light are out.”

66.
“The kitchen radio murmurs about this and that.”

67.
And best of all: “The Great Chain of Being.” Let’s leave it that way, okay?

68.
“And now the light goes out, but still it’s visible. There’s nothing more frightful, nothing more wonderful. The pillow you sprinkle with your sweet and sour drool. The cover of your crib is tearing from its chain. The little piggy dances and sings and sways. Half the picture’s above your head, flying away. The other half bursts into flame, now glows, now whistles. And Doctor Dolittle treats the pig for measles. Your throat now feels like cotton, and the lights are out. The kitchen radio murmurs about…”

69.
Well, are we all here? Can we begin?

70.
“this and that”

Conditions and Omens 

1.
If it seems to us that we draw strength from nothing, then that’s how it is.

2.
If it seems to us that we draw strength from a mere trifle, then that’s how it is.

3.
If it seems to us that we draw strength in the process of contact with others, then that’s how it is.

4.
If it seems to us that we draw strength directly from the cosmos, then that’s how it is.

5.
If the day begins, as it were, to fade in the middle of itself, then we will not call it sunset—it’s something else.

6.
If protracted foul weather dictates to us a peculiar style of conduct, then one can only survive by clearly realizing and mercilessly formulating what is happening with us.

7.
If the natural way of our life compels us to, as it were, fruitless expectations, then why not embrace these expectations as a chance for clear and unbiased rumination?

8.
If we have to wait a long time, then doesn’t the inevitably emerging aesthetic of waiting bring peace?

9.
If we are falling asleep in the middle of an interesting conversation, then we should rest.

10.
If physical and aesthetic fatigue get mixed up and we can’t distinguish them, don’t worry about it: we’ll rest and figure it out.

11.
If at the top of the list of our experience we place what we do, is it not a desperate attempt to silence the voice of a desired peace?

12.
If the instinct of constant reinterpretation of a system of coordinates seems stronger than anything else, then we can only regret about this.

13.
If the habit of calling a spade a spade seems ruinous to us, then let’s think if we are right after all.

14.
If we talk about the possibility of end with the same mundaneity as, say, we would about the possibility of rain, then what is it—the highest wisdom or the complete atrophy of imagination?

15.
If we cannot avoid unwanted conversations, then let us at the very least nail it with their dramaturgy.

16.
If there emerges a necessity of complaining about every little thing and fishing for sympathy, then we have to think about whether everything is all right.

17.
If the axis of our spectral opposition begins to be faintly visible in the fog, then ought we not think about the necessity of its decisive displacement?

18.
If the muse knocks ever more insistently on the closed shutter of our former spontaneity, should we not give in?

19.
If we understand that what we today call optimism is only ironic manipulation of its external attributes, then this means that we understand a thing or two.

20.
If that which is usually called extreme idiocy is often the ultimate reach of our efforts, then what is it if not the search for a unique, unbiased viewpoint?

21.
If a mother reminds of the lateness of the hour, and the late hour reminds the mother, and if we are inclined to interpret this as a happy find, then that means that the grains of pre-romantic premonitions are beginning to sprout, finding the coveted soil.

22.
If pre-romantic suppositions come true, then we’ll celebrate this by the book.

23.
If mystery expectations suddenly do come true, then we’ll also acquire the right to other kinds of expectations.

24.
If the rain has passed, and the ash has thinned out, and the rooster’s cry renewed, then what is it, if not one of life-giving glimmers of lyrical consciousness?

25.
If the ambiguity of what’s happening around begins to seriously depress, then it’s a sign of yearning for high style.

26.
If the joy for which we live and strive does not last forever, then this points to the fact that everyone is given only what they deserve.

27.
If we stop abruptly in the middle of the street, absurdly gaping and mumbling something, then that doesn’t at all mean that we are struck with grace.

28.
Even if a moment might seem vaguely familiar to us, that doesn’t mean at all that we’ve lived through all this before.

29.
If we are prone to accept with gratitude the recognition of our individual virtues, then we’re nonetheless making a step toward humility.

30.
If something or other will happen, then it would be good not to find oneself unprepared.

31.
If we suddenly discover with horror that we’ve been long walking in circles, then we need to undertake something.

32.
If in our consciousness there arises a direct connection between evening twilight and extinguishing hopes, then is that really consoling?

33.
If it seems that even memory is not completely responsible for what it’s called upon to preserve, then what can we trust?

34.
If we can’t grasp, even after a long time, what’s going on, then it is no good at all.

35.
If in our head, something like a huge bell rings out, heavy and nagging, then it couldn’t be worse.

36.
If wind chases us from all four directions, and above is a merciless light, then where should we go?

37.
If a dusty storm chases us back into the house, and in the house there’s desolation and gloom, then where should we go?

38.
If we fall asleep in the desert and wake up in the desert, then where should we go?

39.
If at our appearance surprise and disgust is written on many faces, then where should we go?

40.
If we clearly have nowhere to go, then where should we go?

41.
If the inflexible decisiveness to follow further noticeably weakens, then it’s also not bad to stop and ponder.

42.
If the above and below cannot be distinguished on any level, then it’s just one of the consequences of a position born in travail.

43.
If the rule and result of a game cannot be distinguished on any level, then it’s just one of the consequences of a position born in travail.

44.
If the past and future cannot be distinguished in the increasingly absorbing present, then it’s just one of the consequences of a position born in travail.

45.
If there’s really nothing to object to, then it’s just one of the consequences of a position born in travail.

46.
If we discover that we kind of don’t know what to call anything, then it means that we’re entering yet another era of renaming.

47.
If even at the hour of death we won’t stop exclaiming: “March on, to Neverland!” then perhaps at least in this instance the words will finally acquire a relatively clear meaning.

48.
If we don’t know what’s farther, then surely that doesn’t mean that we won’t know forever.

49.
If we have to, okay, we will answer.

50.
If everything will continue in this vein, then there’s really no reason to add anything else.

51.
If one day from a swirling fog, the golden idol of our sinful memory does rise up, then that doesn’t mean anything.

 

 

Philip Metres has written a number of books and chapbooks, most recently A Concordance of Leaves (Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (Flying Guillotine 2011), winner of the 2012 Arab American Book Award in poetry, To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008) and Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, and Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry, and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, four Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Anne Halley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. See http://www.philipmetres.com and http://behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com for more information.

Tatiana Tulchinsky has translated many works of fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction, among them Leo Tolstoy’s Plays in three volumes, Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of HellAnthology of Russian Verse, and Selected Works of Venedict Erofeev. She received a Best Translation of the Year Award of the American Association of Slavists, a Winner-Brenner Foundation for the Poetry Grant, and a Creative Writing Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently she works on a project translating and promoting English-language drama for the Russian theater stage.

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