January 21, 2022

"House of Cards: The Poetry of Lev Rubinstein" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on Rubinstein's Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties)

House of Cards: The Poetry of Lev Rubinstein

by Douglas Messerli

Lev Rubinstein Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, translated from the Russian by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky (Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014)

Russian poet Lev Rubinstein (b. 1947) is generally described as a conceptualist artist, and is associated, as a founding member, with the group called the Moscow Conceptualists. But before we begin to categorize his poetry, it is helpful to perceive that Russian conceptualism, at least as Rubinstein and others practice it, is not focused on a shell into which content is purposefully or accidentally “poured,” but is best conceived as a literary form into which very specific, even if quite disjunctive content is shaped by the poet into a more abstract expression of ideas.

    If conceptualists from the United States (Kenneth Goldsmith, for example) might begin with an overriding construct such as a single daily issue of The New York Times or a series of radio weather or traffic reports (as in Day of 2003, Weather of 2005, and Traffic of 2007), allowing the content to be defined by the form, Rubinstein focuses upon fixed units of content which function together in a manner converging upon a more abstract whole.

If the medium determines the message (or, at least, determines the structure of the message) in works such as Goldsmith’s or Vanessa Place’s, one might argue that the message essentially determines the medium for the Moscow Conceptualists, a message which, sometimes upon reflection, is transformed into something more abstract or conceptual. And in connection with this, if the audience of US conceptualist works reperceives the message because of its new context (through the reading of newspaper articles embedded within a bound book, for example, instead of in newsprint, an aural weather or traffic report within the format of a printed page), in Rubinstein’s works the associations actually help to determine not only the meaning but to redefine the actual construct of the work—forcing him or her to ask is this “drama,” “film,” “fiction,” “aphorism,” “19th-century parody?” etc.

     Similarly, while Rubinstein’s poetry seems to have a great deal in common with the works of the Fluxus poets of the earlier generation in the US such as Jackson Mac Low and others, like John Cage, who used chance-generated systems, there are significant differences. Having worked as a librarian, Rubinstein uses library file cards to define what might be described as stanzas, lines, or other units of his poems. The cards are not shuffled or presented in random order, but represent fixed components, which the skilled translators of this work, Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky, describe as something akin to units of breath, created by the pauses within the sequence of cards. In book form these read, given the limits of space, as stanzas—most often numbered—which might arguably be better represented by separate pages—although I would argue that to do so would isolate them in a manner that does not match the performative experience.
      Certainly some of Rubinstein’s works, in their patterned series of linguistic abstractions, remind one, at times, of Mac Low’s work. One hears in the narrative directions of Rubinstein’s “Farther and Farther On” (1984), for example, echoes of Mac Low’s The Pronouns” of two decades earlier.*


            Here, the sharpest bout of nostalgia grips you.

            How it comes about is unknown..


            Here, one shouldn’t stay for too long. Later it will probably become

            clear why.


            Here each has his own floor and ceiling.

            Each has her own borders of falling and soaring.

            And not just here.


            Here, everything reminds you of something, points of something,

            refers to something.

            But as soon as you start to understand what’s what, it’s time to leave.

           Mac Low:

           He makes himself comfortable

           & matches parcels.

           Then he makes glass boil

           while having political material get in

           & coming by.

           Soon after, he’s giving gold cushions or seeming to do so,

           taking opinions,


           pointing to a fact that seems to be an error & showing it to be

                    other than it seems,

           & presently paining by going or having waves.

          Then after doing some waiting,

           he disgusts someone

           & names things.

(from “lst Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1965”)

     Yet, as critic Michael Epstein hints,** there are elements of what has been described as “the new sentimentality,” an aesthetics of nostalgia and detached meta-realism in Rubinstein’s work that one would never encounter in poems by Mac Low or Cage. And even if, through the influence of Rubinstein’s fellow poet Dmitry Prigov, he  redirected his poetry from sentiment to what is characterized as a “new sincerity,” parodying models of Soviet ideology,*** Rubinstein’s works are filled, as Epstein notes of another post-Soviet poet, Timur Kibirov (addressing Rubinstein in his own poem), with words such as “soul,” “tear,” “angel,” beauty,” “truth,” etc., that would be unthinkable in either current US conceptualism or in works by Fluxus writers or those influenced by Cage.
     Rubinstein’s work, moreover, is absolutely stuffed with numerous nods to other genres and filled with older literary references, theatrical characterizations, narrative dramatic conventions, fustian references to figures out of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekov, and Lermotov, and, even more surprising for the US reader, moralistic aphorisms and proclamations. As Epstein convincingly argues, words “which even the 19th century found overly pompous and old-fashioned…having become haughty and stiff through centuries of traditional, official usage,” are reused in Russian conceptualism not only as subjects of “carnivalesque derision,” but “are now returning to a transcendental transparency and lightness, as if they were not of this world.” Accordingly, even if Rubinstein’s audience is conscious of the banality and triteness of many of his phrases (laughing along with the poet, so to speak), Rubinstein also uses them in a way that somehow reinfuses them with new meaning.
      Clearly Rubinstein’s early conceptualist work, most notably the 1975 poem “The Regular Program,” which outlines a process of poetic writing as it actualized before the reader’s eyes, contained no such language:

               paragraph nine.

                   Grants the real possibility oriented in the newly outlined circle of concepts;

               paragraph ten.

                   Where there is time to think;

               paragraph twelve.

               Points to the deficiency of the existing cosmogony;

               paragraph thirteen.

                   Points to the necessity of defining the circle of alternative concepts;

               paragraph fourteen.

                   For the first time urges one to concentrate and think;

                        (“The Regular Program,” [1975], pp. 177-178)

But within a decade Rubinstein had already moved to a comic, yet oddly sincere, dramatic ode to a nightingale in what almost might translated as “A Little Night Music,” titled by Metres and Tulchinksy as “A Little Night Serenade”:


              Hark! Here next to branches’ veil

              The heart skips for nightingale!


              Mischief-maker nightingale

              Sings away in the shady veil!


             From the secret shade of leaf-veils

             He watches us, the nightingale!


             The angel of night, nightingale,

             Whistles for it amid branches’ veil!


             In the moonlit shack of branches’ veil

             He has settled, O nightingale!


             The muses’ captive, nightingale, 

             In the secret shade of leaf-veils:


             He sits amid the branches’ veil—

             The muses’ darling, nightingale!


             A lonely man and nightingale—

             Together in the leafy veil!




             —I wonder if premonitions come true or not.


             —What premonitions?


             —Well, there are certain premonitions…


             —About what?

                        (from “A Little Night Serenade” [1986])

    Obviously, we comprehend that Rubinstein is purposely evoking the dead moralistic world of 19th century poetry, in which, as he later writes in the poem, “A man is not a real man / If he’s really not a real man.” But his is not an either/or world, and it is intentionally difficult at moments to determine what are the absurd maxims and what are the genuine sentiments of the poet and poem:


         A man must sing a song

         If his heart demands it!


         A man must love

         Or he’s no man!


         A man must come to suffer—

         That’s how he cleanses himself!


         A man must sleep—

         His head is aching!


         A man needs all

         He cannot do without!


         A man must live

         If he’s a man!

If this is ironic, we cannot quite separate these somewhat absurdly prescriptive definitions of a man from at least a moment’s truthful commentary; and if these comments have any element of truth behind them, then might not the singing, sleeping, sighing nightingale of the first part be seen as also representing some elements of truth? 
     In short, in Rubinstein’s work what might at first appear to be simple doggerel is, at times, suddenly imbued with new meaning. Perhaps that is also what happens, in some senses, in the U.S. conceptualist works in which context changes our comprehension of the content, but here the content itself is reenergized, and it is not only the difference (Derrida’s la differance) that matters, but the simultaneity of meanings and the sentiments behind them.
     These maxims are banal and are still somehow significant, representing a kind of “and/and” pattern that is very different from American thinking. In a sense, through his library card units, Rubinstein creates a kind of “house of cards” which, while subject to demolishment at any moment, still provides a temporary domicile.
      This pattern is particularly evident in a poem such as “Elegy” (1983):


          Sometimes you ask yourself, “Could something else be possible?”

          —and it seems at that moment that it could.


          Sometimes you think, “This will never ever come to an end”

          —and the end is indeed nowhere in sight.


          Sometimes you wonder whether it’s worth it to inhabit natural

          processes. And is it indeed? 


          Sometimes it wouldn’t hurt to point out the fact that something

          nevertheless is happening, isn’t it?


          Sometimes it’s appropriate to note that at present, everything is coming

          Together and a kind of pattern, one might say, is becoming visible.



         Sometimes you rush hither and thither in search of peace, but all you need

         to do is wait and it will come.


         Sometimes you seem to be approaching something, but moves ever further



         Sometimes, approaching the forbidden line, you’ll think for a minute

         and then step over it.


         Sometime you literally can’t afford to lose a minute, but for some reason

         You keep putting it off…


                                  (from “Elegy” [1983], pp. 274-279)

     For Rubinstein, the negative can suddenly become a positive and vice versa. Again and again throughout his work what might be comic becomes serious or at least emotionally viable, a morally bad choice can be represented as a possibly good one, or a positive moral choice can just as easily be perceived to be a silly syllogism. Things change even when they stay the same, as he expresses it in “From Beginning to End” (1981):

           From the beginning, it’s the way it usually is. At the same time, so that it’s as if

           there was nothing before this, and there will be nothing after.

           Basically the same. At the same time, so that it’s as if everything’s just begun.

           Approximately the same. But so that eh feeling of the first impulse is preserved


           In the same spirit. But in such a way that the feeling of freshness and novelty

           does not weaken for a moment.

           Everything the same. And at the same time, so that the feeling of confidence gets

           stronger and stronger.

           As before. At the same time, so that it’s completely clear everything is in order,

           everything in its place.


           The same. But so that emerging doubts are either resolved by themselves or rejected

           as far-fetched.

           Same. But so that there is no place for any doubts at all.

           Same. Continue on the same principle. But so that a constant recording of

           positive states does not somehow lead to negative results.

           And so on, until the end. But in such a way that a vague feeling remains that

           There is also a real possibility of something else. 

             (“From Beginning to End” [1993], p. 296)

Similarly, in “Melancholy Album” (1993)—in which, significantly, even a chicken sounds like a nightingale—the central figure “gets lost” to “come back, against all expectations.”
     Just when all sense of self has been obscured, when the past seems to be utterly meaningless and one’s own significance in the world appears to be pointless, individuality (the “I”) reappears again, repeating its existence over and over, almost like a mantra: “Now, here I am!”




            Now, here I am!

           Could I have dreamed…


           Not even in a dream…


          …just yesterday…


          (Repeat four times)




          So here I am! Hard to believe, and yet…

                             (“Here I Am” [1994], p. 375)

If this reminds one a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” we shouldn’t be surprised, suggests Epstein in reiterating some of the purposeful sentimentality of the Moscow Conceptualists, but, as we all recognize, profundity can also exist in the simplest of expressions. Rubinstein’s world is not one or the other, but both, a world in which even the tropes of simple truisms can be somewhat restorative, depending, in part, upon the audience’s acceptance of them.*
      Throughout Rubinstein’s work there is almost a sense of exhaustion from the attempts to make sense of a meaningless past, and, accordingly, his narrator often cries out simply for a peace, a rest, a time to contemplate and, perhaps, to restore patterns of meaning that have previously proven to be useless:


         Dear friend,

         After a life of the rat race and hurrying to catch trains, it would be great to

         sleep for a long time, without dreams.


         Dear friend,

         After the successful completion of yet another campaign, let’s not prepare for

         the next thing—let’s rest.

                  (“Friendly Messages of 1983” [1983], p. 125)

     Epstein describes these phenomena through a slightly different lens:

          It now becomes clear that all the “banal” concepts have not simply been undermined and replaced: they have gone through a profound metaphorphosis and are now returning from another direction under the sign of “trans.” This applies not only to Erofeev’s “trans-irony” and Prigov’s “trans-lyricism.” It also applies to something that could be called “trans-Utopianism” This is a rebirth of utopia after its own death, after subjection to Postmodernism’s severe skepticism, relativism and its anti- or post-utopian consciousness. Here is what several Moscow artists and art scholars of the post-Conceptual wave have said about the subject: “It is crucial that the problem of the universal be raised as a contemporary issue. I understand that it is a utopia. It is done completely consciously, yes, utopia is dead, so long live utopia. Utopia endows the individual with a more significant and wider horizon” (Viktor Miziano).

    In the end, Epstein argues, and I agree after reading Rubinstein’s works, that this new “sentimentality,” “shimmering aesthetics,” or new utopianism—whatever you want to call it—represents a new era in which the Postmodern, followed by a larger stage of Postmodernity, will surely take us in different directions than Postmodernism itself. 
     Hopefully, I argue, it might take us out of a world in which, as Umberto Eco has posited, all values are necessarily parenthesized, and we can once again speak of “love,” “nature,” “experience,” even “reality” in a way that is once more meaningful and fresh. Parodying Pushkin, Rubinstein again raises just such questions of how we can find value and meaning in a world in which will end merely in our deaths:


           Dmitry Alexandrovich, I couldn’t agree more: there is still friendship

           and love in the world...


           Then why is happiness searching for us, but still can’t find us? We are

           somewhere around the corner…


           Everything is new in the world. Yet nothing is new. Everything

           depends only on who you are...


           This is how life is: the rivers drain away, and the seas dry up, and we

           Still live…


           Everyone dies. And this one too. And he’ll be buried…And forgotten

           like all the rest.


           This is how life is: you just can’t make any plans. You’d better let                                 

           take its own course from the start.

                   (“The Poet and the Crowd” [1985], p. 346)

Even through a melancholic dialogic discussion from Pushkin, one can, after all, glean truths that offer new meaning for life. In the simultaneous realities that Rubinstein creates in his poems one can laugh at and learn from something at the very same moment, as the message shimmers between poet and reader, the poet and the crowd.


*Interestingly, both of these works were adapted to other performative genres, Rubinstein’s becoming an audio-video and performance piece, what Metres describes as a “field installation”; and Mac Low’s poetic “instructions” were performed as a dance.

**Michael Epstein, from “On the Place of Postmodernism in Postmodernity,” Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (New York and Oxford: Berghan Books, 1999), pp. 456-468.

***Prigov describes this also as “a shimmering aesthetics,” which creates a “shimmering relationship between the author and the text” that  occurs in the author’s “immersion in the text and distance of the withdrawal from it.”

****What might be fascinating, although I shall not purse it here, is to consider this “and/and” perspective in light of the Russian government’s insistence on promoting multiple false explanations of the truth of international and internal events, such its explanations for events in Ukraine and other conflicts.

Los Angeles, January 19-20, 2015

Reprinted from Hyperallegic Weekend (February 7, 2015).



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