Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies by Eugene Ostashevsky
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2008)
The easiest commentary first—Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies is Eugene Ostashevsky’s 12-part suite of frustrated love poems. I think it is a sign of growth, with more of his true strengths evident, and less of the image-making quirks of a writer looking to brand himself. That is, Ostashevsky’s true colors are on display.
The real Boris Pasternak was a poet whose signature fortes en correspondances were whining—but it was a whine of profoundly high order—and bragging. And he was also a poet who believed in recurrence, of a kind—the poetic spirit as orphic reincarnation—which was in vogue during his time and which he shared with fellow traveler, Marina Tsvetaeva, and German High-Romantic Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. As far as biography goes, he was the Jewish-Russian son of a musician and painter, studied music and philosophy formally throughout Europe before turning to poetry, was one of the few great poets to stay and survive Russia’s civil war and WWII and lived long enough to be a Nobel laureate in absentia. To puzzle out a comparison to Russian émigré poet, Eugene Ostashevsky, reveals a troubled inheritance full of its own implicit poetry. It would be misguided, however, to assume that Ostashevsky writes like Pasternak here; he does not.
Neither Ostashevsky or Pasternak is a stranger to annoying plaints and megalomaniacal contests with gods. Pasternak said he was a genius, the same as Shakespeare, to justify his abusive Shakespeare translations, and in Ostashevsky’s earlier poems, his DJ Spinoza was particularly fond of whining/arguing with god in proud frustration. Here we see Ostashevsky further exploring the formal tendencies of whining, extending it as an art form, and examining its structure for weaknesses and special properties, much as a philosopher would. If Ostashevsky’s poetry has sometimes been described as insouciant (and it has, even by Ugly Duckling Presse, the bookmaker he’s most closely associated with and who published the Imposternak chapbook), it is certainly not sans souci here, but might better be called childish, in the best sense. Sorrow is the operative issue in Imposternak’s world, and it is considered from the ground up. It is an intellectual response to the poet’s inability to find or make meaning with his art, as in the lines
It is possible that ideas don't suffer--
Such as the idea of suffering, for instance,--
But we are not ideas, are we?
Morris Imposternak, at least, is not an idea.
or the impossibility of meaning’s having any beauty, because of the indignity of the body. Ironically, Ostashevky’s talent for the ugly beauty of the body is on full display here, and forms the basis for his strongest metaphors. For example:
Look at the sea! Don't you think that the sea too suffers
When it pulls up its skirt at low tide
And shows the varicose veins, the ingrown hairs, the splotches
Along its cold, pale, swollen, hypertensive leg?
Do not love
For when you pop open a human being
All you find is forty feet of intestine
And how lovable is that?
Ultimately, the pleasure and pain of Ostashevsky’s poetry seems a confluence of distinct formulae: the antipodal or apophatic logical construction (a world composed of P and -P), the surrender to nonsense, or a-sense, or tran-sense (“And anything can be just so anything”), the errant allusion to Rome (Philippi) or philosophy (Bertrand Russell’s paradox for starters, and (maybe) Zarathustra and Lacan, and otherwise full of the influence of Pasternak’s favorite Germans as well), a fantasy world made of monsters and puns (DJ Spinoza and MC Squared, Morris Imposternak, the Begriffon, the toothy Knight of the Swan, and cetera), nihilism (“We can’t change the world we can only make noise”), scientific and mathematic inquiry (Ostashevsky’s PhD dissertation was on the history of zero, as he likes to remind us), and the tender touch. Not condescending, the stray allusions seem to float over the readers’ heads like chaff in the wind. These are loaded poems; the chemical signature of a complete poem, then, is a compressed analysis, and makes the critic’s job redundant to a certain extent…
At the risk of sounding ironical, these poems seem, compared to Ostashevsky’s other work, more sincere, less flip. The problem is, that he isn’t actually flip, and these poems aren’t exactly sincere, but as a matter of tone...the outrageous rhymes are less in evidence, the earnest doubts and inquiries are.
Of course, I recommend the book. I think Eugene Ostashesvky is a master in his stride (maybe a master of the minor type, like Pollack was with paint, but nevertheless (and with Imposternak we do find him stretching further)). The biggest risk he takes is in begging the comparison with Pasternak, who, unlike Spinoza, was a poet. Is he panning Pasternak? If, in response, we readers go back to Pasternak, we find gifts beyond/different from Ostashevsky’s; Pasternak was perhaps less humorous or outrageous, but just as inventive and intellectually dynamic. There’s little evidence Ostashevsky has Pasternak’s typical poetic genius for recreating the beauty of nature. The advantage to Ostashevsky is in his special mode, which Pasternak’s temper was ill-suited to: inquiry.
What are we to do with our banality?
And with Enter Morris Imposternak, Ostashevsky offers a small, but compelling answer.
J.H. Stotts is a writer and photographer living in Boston and starting a family. His essays, poems, and translations have been published in Circumference, Hanging Loose, The Atlantic, and numerous e-zines. What he can't publish elsewhere he posts on his blog, The Fugue Aesthetics of J.H. Stotts. He has just finished a shotgun anthology of Russian poetry, from Fet to Esenin to Ryzhii, in formal and experimental translations.