Alexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think

Alexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think

by Alexander Vvedensky

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“Pussy Riot are Vvedensky's disciples and his heirs.
      Katya, Masha, and I are in jail but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated.... According to the official report, Alexander Vvedensky died on December 20, 1941. We don’t know the cause, whether it was dysentery in the train after his arrest or a bullet


“Pussy Riot are Vvedensky's disciples and his heirs.
      Katya, Masha, and I are in jail but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated.... According to the official report, Alexander Vvedensky died on December 20, 1941. We don’t know the cause, whether it was dysentery in the train after his arrest or a bullet from a guard. It was somewhere on the railway line between Voronezh and Kazan. His principle of ‘bad rhythm’ is our own. He wrote: ‘It happens that two rhythms will come into your head, a good one and a bad one and I choose the bad one. It will be the right one.’ ... It is believed that the OBERIU dissidents are dead, but they live on. They are persecuted but they do not die.”
  — Pussy Riot [Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement at their trial in August 2012]

“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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"…it's high time that more readers pick up on [Vvedensky's] work to break language, to crush understanding so that what is beneath and beyond it can smuggle its miracle into our event-hemorrhaging lives.” —Asymptote Journal

“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
Praise for OBERiU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, edited by Eugene Ostashevsky:

"Vvedensky’s poems sear.... Ruminations on faith and loss abound, but there are few more churning, lacerating and willfully beautiful works in Eastern literature than the prose poem “Frother,” in which three sons hover and cavort around their dying father, trying to ascertain the meaning of a mysterious word and a mysterious truth."—The Nation

"[OBERIU] mounted a challenge in the late 1920s and 30s to 'worldly logic' by questioning and confusing the most basic categories through which the world may be rendered coherent and transformed into narrative. They did so by writing subversive poems and stories, while 'trusting in neither thoughts nor words' (Alexander Vvedensky). They practised a kind of silence through words, wearing various comic masks while pointing to inexpressible realities." —The Times Literary Supplement

"The work of Oberiu is as relevant to our moment as when it was written." —The Believer

"It's about time . . . the Oberiu . . . became a household name like the Surrealists, Dadaists and all the rest." —The Brooklyn Rail

"Oberiu is as relevant today as ever." —Bookforum

"For anyone intersted in Soviet literature, this book fills an enormous gap. It also presents some beautiful, heartbreaking poetry." —PW Annex

"Highly recommended. All readers, all levels." —CHOICE

Praise for Vvedensky's The Gray Notebook, published by Ugly Duckling Presse:
"These poems do what solid poems should.  They stand against time."  — Peter Moysaenko, bomblog

General praise regarding the movement Vvedensky started (OBERIU):
"The OBERIU writers are a revelation, an aspect of Russian modernism in the early Soviet period that has been largely invisible to readers in English.”  —Robert Hass
“OBERIU, sometimes called Russia's last avant-garde, is one of the most intriguing—and little known—movements of the years before World War II. The absurdist poets at its center—Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, and Nikolai Zabolotsky—belonged to the first generation of writers to come of age after the October Revolution . . .  Less interested in coining neologisms than in destroying the protocols of semantic coherence and linguistic realism, these poets have produced a series of inventive, free-wheeling, and often hilarious poetic texts in a variety of forms and genres.” —Marjorie Perloff

Product Details

New York Review Books
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6.80(w) x 4.50(h) x 0.80(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The Joyful Man Franz 
the joyful man Franz                                      
maintained protuberance from start to finish he never came down the porch                       
measured stars named flowers                        
believed I am you       
affixing number to time humming in rhyme he died and was deceased like the shotgun and the cyst frightened, he would see a skirt                                              
as he fantasized asleep and would sail at the helm to a melancholy elm                                       
where squads of beetles          
performed about-faces showed their mustaches to gods pronounced themselves to be clocks              
gods howled out of tune and tumbled down from the moon there in luxurious grass an ant was being stamped and the glowworm, unkind king lit up a large lamp       
silently the lightnings flashed languid animals snorted                                  
unhurriedly growled    
the waves that lay on the sand           
where? where did all this happen where did this location roam
I forgot, the sun will say sinking into the unknown all we see is the exit    
from the schoolbag of Franz of the contemporary of man the psychologist of the divine this wizard announces the party begins idle stars crowd in boring people smoke  
lonely thoughts run around everything is sad and pointless
God what kind of party is this it’s the christmas of death or something hens step around gulfs the hall hops with cupids and the iron steam-engine meditates upon cow-patties
Franz awoke from his nightmare why are all these things here?
the valet stood here like a palm before the meadows of eternity short as a reed the collar sleeps upon a chair a branch of kerosene overlooks the twilight answer me wizard is this a dream? I’m a fool but where is that wizard where is the psychologist of the divine he counts songs in his sleep growing bald as a tree he can’t come here where the real world stands he calmly multiplies the shades he does not shimmer in the sky
Turks give me my carriage the joyful Franz called give me the rocket of Oberth give me horsepower
I will ride around the world in this fascinating cab
I will orchestrate a race of the star with the prisoner earth touch the ceiling with my head
I’m a bluebird I’m […]
meanwhile out of the acute night                               
out of the abyss of the bad dream                              
appears a crown                                              
and the ramified scythe you’re an irate serpent my childless death hello Franz will sadly say                                            
each of your hairs holds more thoughts than a pot more sleep than a powder take out your saber and slice open my shirt then slice open my skin          
glue me to the bed                                          
all the same shall learning triumph                 
I’ll announce as I gurgle and create a grandson my substitute in the form of a lamp he will stand and glow write essays for school death said you are a flower and fled to the east
Franz remained alone to contemplate protuberance measure stars name flowers compose I and you lying in absolute silence in the empty heights               
[Trans. Ostashevsky]

Snow Lies 
snow lies earth flies lights flip in pigments night has come on a rug of stars it lies is it night or a demon?
like an inane lever sleeps the insane river it is not aware of the moon everywhere animals gnash their canines in black gold cages animals bang their heads animals are the ospreys of saints the world flies around the universe in the vicinity of stars dashes deathless like a swallow seeks a home a nest there’s no nest a hole the universe is alone maybe rarely in flight time will pass as poor as night or a daughter in a bed will grow sleepy and then dead then a crowd of relations will rush in and cry alas in steel houses will howl loudly she’s gone and buried hopped to paradise big-bellied
God God have pity good God on the precipice but God said Go play and she entered paradise there spun any which way numbers houses and seas the inessential exists in vain, they perceived there God languished behind bars with no eyes no legs no arms so that maiden in tears sees all this in the heavens sees various eagles appear out of night and fly inane and flash insane this is so depressing the dead maiden will say serenely surprised
God will say what’s depressing what’s depressing, God, life what are you talking about what O noon do you know you press pleasure and Paris to your breast like two pears you swell like music you’re swell like a statue then the wood howled in final despair it spies through the tares a meandering ribbon little ribbon a crate curvy Lena of fate
Mercury was in the air spinning like a top and the bear sunned his coat people also walked around bearing fish on a platter bearing on their hands ten fingers on a ladder while all this went on that maiden rested rose from the dead and forgot yawned and said you guys, I had a dream what can it mean dreams are worse than macaroni they make crows double over
I was not at all dying
I was gaping and lying undulating and crying
I was so terrifying a fit of lethargy was had by me among the effigies let’s enjoy ourselves really let’s gallop to the cinema and she sped off like an ass to satisfy her innermost lights glint in the heaven is it night or a demon
                        January 1930
[Trans. Ostashevsky]

Meet the Author

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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