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Alexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB/Poets)by Alexander Vvedensky
Synopses & Reviews
“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.
Alexander Vvedensky, co-founder with the poet Daniil Kharms of OBERIU, a small avant-garde collective in late-1920s Soviet Leningrad, is the least known of major Russian twentieth-century poets. He stands apart like a dark star in a constellation that includes Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and Khlebnikov. Younger than these poets by a decade, Vvedensky came of age under the Soviet system, when the language used to describe reality appeared to have lost all literal meaning. He saw his task to be “the poetic critique of reason” and claimed “time, death, and God” as his main themes. His poetry is suffused with a philosophical lyricism that recalls the ending of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It can also get quite hilarious: the author had a day job as a children’s writer. After incarceration from 1931 to 1933 for “literary sabotage,” Vvedensky kept his poetry private, sharing it only with Kharms and others in their tiny underground circle of writers and philosophers. When war broke out in 1941, the authorities rearrested the pair as potential subversives: Kharms died in a prison asylum and Vvedensky in a prison transport. Both were only thirty-seven years old. Their manuscripts were published during the collapse of the Soviet Union, half a century after the deaths of the authors; An Invitation for Me to Think is Vvedensky’s first collection to appear in English.
About the Author
Alexander Vvedensky (1904–1941) was a major Russian poet, the founder with Daniil Kharms of the avant-garde and left-wing artist collective OBERIU, a neologism standing for the Union of Real Art. Following OBERIU’s forced dissolution, Vvedensky was imprisoned and sentenced to internal exile; he was subsequently permitted to return to Leningrad and to write children’s books but not to compose poetry. Soon after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Vvedensky was arrested, put on a prison train to Kazan, and died of dysentery en route. Most of Vvedensky’s work has been lost. In 1980 his collected writings were published in the United States; during perestroika his work began to be published in his homeland.
Eugene Ostashevsky is a Russian-born American poet from New York City. His books include OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism and three original poetry collections: Iterature, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza, and Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies.
Matvei Yankelevich is the author of Alpha Donut and Boris by the Sea, and the translator of Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. He is one of the founding editors of Ugly Duckling Presse, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit publishing collective.
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