Celestial Hobo Book Club: "An Invitation for Me to Think" by Alexander Vvedensky
Celestial Hobo: Poetry for people who don’t usually read it. (Poetry-readers welcome, too! Teach us some stuff that we don’t know.)
This month's book club pick is An Invitation for Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich.
“I raise[d] my hand against concepts,” wrote Alexander Vvedensky, “I enacted a poetic critique of reason.” This weirdly and wonderfully philosophical poet was born in 1904, grew up in the midst of war and revolution, and reached his artistic maturity as Stalin was twisting the meaning of words in grotesque and lethal ways. Vvedensky—with Daniil Kharms the major figure in the short–lived underground avant-garde group OBERIU (a neologism for “the union for real art”)—responded with a poetry that explodes stable meaning into shimmering streams of provocation and invention. A Vvedensky poem is like a crazy party full of theater, film, magic tricks, jugglery, and feasting. Curious characters appear and disappear, euphoria keeps company with despair, outrageous assertions lead to epic shouting matches, and perhaps it all breaks off with one lonely person singing a song.
A Vvedensky poem doesn’t make a statement. It is an event. Vvedensky’s poetry was unpublishable during his lifetime—he made a living as a writer for children before dying under arrest in 1942—and he remains the least known of the great twentieth-century Russian poets. This is his first book to appear in English. The translations by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, outstanding poets in their own right, are as astonishingly alert and alive as the originals.
"Unlike the Symbolists, his aim is neither to create an aesthetic paradise nor to suggest or build a bridge to another world--Vvedensky's is an aesthetics of martyred aesthetics, of not knowing, of the defeat of 'poetry' in the service of truth.... His poetic sensibility combines the Russian Symbolist concern for transcendence, God, and 'other worlds, ' with the Futurist orientation toward syntactical and semantic deformations that draw attention to the artifices of language." -- Thomas Epstein, The New Arcadia Review
Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941) was born into the liberal intelligentsia of St. Petersburg and grew up in the midst of war and revolution, reaching artistic maturity just as Stalin consolidated control over Russia. After attending a progressive high school, Vvedensky spent a year working at the State Institute of Artistic Culture (GINKhUK) as a researcher in a lab devoted to Futurist abstract poetry. Along with Daniil Kharms, he then became a major figure in the short-lived underground avant-garde group OBERIU (a neologism for "the union for real art"). Unable to publish his poetry--by the 1930s there was no tolerance in the USSR for work of such shimmering invention and provocation--Vvedensky made a living as a writer of children's literature. In 1931 he was arrested for his so-called counterrevolutionary literary activities, interrogated, and sentenced to three years of internal exile. He was detained again in 1941, and on February 2 he died of pleurisy on a prison train, leaving behind his wife and four-year-old son. Though much of Vvedensky's work has been lost, what remains has established him as one
of the most influential Russian poets of the twentieth century.
Eugene Ostashevsky is the author of the poetry collections The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza and Iterature, both published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He is the editor of OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, the first collection of writings by Vvedensky and friends in English translation. Ostashevsky teaches in the liberal studies program at New York University.
Matvei Yankelevich is the author of the poetry collection Alpha Donut (United Artists Books) and a novella in fragments, Boris by the Sea (Octopus Books). His translations of Daniil Kharms were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook/Ardis). He edits the Eastern European Poets Series at Ugly Duckling Presse.
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