CATALOGUE OF COMEDIC NOVELTIES by LEV RUBINSTEINCATHERINE WAGNER Reviews
Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems by Lev Rubinstein, Translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004)
[First published in Interim, Spring 2006. Editor Claudia Keelan]
The Rabbit/Duck Puppet: Emotion and Irony in Lev Rubinstein
Lev Rubinstein’s work, like Paul Celan’s, may become a touchstone for debates on translation—not because of its knotty wordplay or syntax, but because what’s initially appealing about it to an American reader may be exactly what it ironizes and puts in doubt for a Russian reader. Rubinstein was part of the 1980s Moscow underground art movement known as Moscow conceptualism. He worked as a librarian for many years (perhaps still does) and the job gave him access to the catalog cards on which he composes his texts, one line or stanza or paragraph per card. For Rubinstein, the works don’t take their best form on the page. The cards are their primary and best vehicle.
His texts pull together series of anecdotes about assorted anonymous characters in comical or banal or painful situations, such as these from “Farther and Farther On”:
Someone is strolling God knows where. You can still make him out. There he is;
Here someone is trying to save himself without any help. He’ll never make it...
Someone has said something and now waits for what will come next. And what could be next?
The notecard technique equalizes each of these segments of the human comedy; there’s one segment per card, and because the cards are identical no segment is given more value than another—one could even shuffle them. But because the segments are funny or tragic or otherwise interesting in themselves, I find myself emotionally swept up in the poems, thinking of people I know or could imagine knowing who are like the people Rubinstein mentions. I revel in the feeling; simultaneously, I’m uncomfortable noticing my emotional reaction. I sense I’m being made fun of, or that the rhetoric I’m responding to is clichéd or borrowed, intended ironically.
I wondered why I felt such discomfort and looked for help. I read the excellent intro by the translators, Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky, and what I could find on Moscow conceptualism: essays by Boris Groys, Mikhail Epshtein, Mikhail Aizenberg. Patrick Henry, in a review of Ugly Duckling Presse translations of both Rubinstein and well-known Moscow conceptualist artist and poet Dmitry Prigov, explains that Moscow conceptualism “emerged in totalitarian societies at a time when the grammar of a single, dominant, passed-down art was disintegrating. In order to break down a prevailing system of signs, old imagery has to be recoded and recontextualized.” The conceptualists, that is, were doing some cultural recycling. In conceptualist writing, says Mikhail Aizenberg, “it isn’t the author who expresses himself in his own language; languages themselves, always someone else’s, converse among themselves.” The content of a Rubinstein text is, then, not an expression of his personal intent; instead, his text butts various other texts up against one another in order to put them back in motion, pushing them out of a static cultural position or breaking down our assumptions about that position. Rubinstein’s work is constructed of quotes and echoes from previous texts: familiar novels, poetry, Russian primers (in one famous instance)—textual “debris,” as Metres and Tulchinsky put it. His work would most certainly feel ironic to a Russian reader. But as an American reader unfamiliar with most of the source texts, I began to worry I ran the risk of taking the work “straight.” Perhaps for Russian readers the emotional situations in Rubinstein are so familiarly sentimental that a strong emotional response would be inappropriate. Rereading Rubinstein, I realized that despite my identification with various anecdotes, I’m not overtaken by emotion to the point of escapism. The segmented form of the poem brings me repeatedly back to the surface to notice the construction of the text; its characters pop up like variously colored puppets on the stage of Rubinstein’s stack of cards.
I’m convinced, though, that somewhere behind the curtain Rubinstein does mean to play on my emotions. The use of emotional anecdote, as well as the melodramatic moments that recur at the ends of his poems, are hints that Rubinstein stages these poems so that they’ll move me. At the same time, the quotedness of the poems and their fragmented form instruct me that Rubinstein wants me to be aware of the way I’m being manipulated.
“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.
Patrick Henry’s review of the Metres/Tulchinsky translation calls their work too literal, saying that a “good translation would not reproduce the semantic content of the text and would instead look for ‘an equivalent range of Englishes.’” For Henry, translations faithful to the original text “impose a notion of representation (translated as the mirror of the original) that the poet . . . explicitly reject[s] [in his] own work.” That is, Rubinstein doesn’t believe texts remain the same when they enter a new frame, and his poetry, which is all about reframing, proves his point. In offering us a literal translation (Henry argues), Metres and Tulchinsky prevent our access to the kind of cultural intervention the text enacts in Russian. Respectfully, and acknowledging my ignorance of Russian, I’d argue against Henry that texts that emerge from Russian culture don’t have easy equivalents in American culture, and Rubinstein borrows from such varying registers and genres in any single poem that we’d risk butchering the relationships he sets up if we attempted to translate the text as Henry suggests. A better solution would be a thorough set of notes (could Henry could write them?). Meanwhile, I’m glad the Metres/Tulchinsky translation is here—it’s elegant, provocative and compulsively readable, and though I wish it provided more notes, it includes enough to get me thinking about the textual origins of the work. Henry’s argument makes me long for versions of Lev Rubinstein in English alongside translations such as Metres’ and Tulchinsky’s—whole new poems using Rubinstein’s discomfiting, stimulating method.
Catherine Wagner's books are Macular Hole (2004) and Miss America (2001), both from Fence. Her latest chapbook is Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large (2007), from Bonfire Press. She teaches at Miami University in Ohio.