Ian Dreiblatt reviews Alexander Vvedensky's An Invitation for Me to Think

On August 8, 2012, a rapt world listened as twenty-two-year-old Nadjezhda Tolokonnikova, a dissident Russian artist and the most visible member of the fem-punk collective Pussy Riot, delivered a fearsome articulation of the group's principles and goals in Moscow's Khamovnichesky Courthouse. Arrested a few months earlier for an action in which she and four others had seized the dais of the Church of Christ the Redeemer and performed a song called Mother of God, Chase Putin Away, Tolokonnikova exemplified visionary political heroism, arguing for "passion, openness, and naïveté" in the face of Russia's increasingly dictatorial and corporate state repression. "Katja, Masha, and I are in jail, but I don't admit defeat, like the dissidents [of the Soviet era] who, even while vanishing into psych wards and prisons, passed sentence on the regime. In forging the image of an era, there are no winners or losers. The poets of the OBERIU remained artists to the last, never truly explained or understood. They were purged in 1937. [Aleksandr] Vvedensky wrote, 'We enjoy the uncomprehended; the unexplained is our friend...' Pussy Riot are Vvedensky's disciples and his heirs."

It was a stunning moment—not only in terms of its immediate implications for the heroic women in the defendants' box and their place within Russia's anti-Putin movement, but also for the aesthetic and intellectual lineage that it unearthed and celebrated. The lineage was particularly surprising considering Tolokonnikova's youth and the fact that Vvedensky, who perished in state custody during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, was not published in his native country until he'd been dead more than fifty years. And even then, he was published only spottily. Tolokonnikova's statement establishes those years of hibernation as a raising of the stakes of Vvedensky's work, a period when his invisibility marked not irrelevance but an increasing and ramifying urgency.

Against this backdrop, there is cause for celebration in NYRB/POETS' recent publication of An Invitation for Me to Think, a collection of most of Vvedensky's surviving writing, edited by the poet and scholar Eugene Ostashevsky. In this volume, Ostashevsky has translated much of Vvedensky's work anew and has also included some of Matvei Yankelevich's previous translations, previously available only in tiny, though gorgeous, editions. Comprising mostly poetry (much of it in the form of several-voice verse plays) and some prose, the book is a beautiful compliment to the public resuscitation Tolokonnikova initiated, a splendid opportunity for English-language readers to become familiar with Vvedensky's vital weirdness and weird vitality, with the English word "weird" applying in its Vvedenskian double meaning of both "strange" and "bound up with fate."

Aleksandr Vvedensky was born to an intellectual St. Petersburg family a few weeks before the Revolution of 1905. It was a time marked by astonishing intellectual ferment in Russia, with Symbolism in full bloom and Futurism growing. When he was twenty, he met another young poet named Daniil Juvachov, who wrote under the name Daniil Kharms, and the two of them, kindred spirits, founded a writers' group called the Academy of Left Classics. A few years later, to dodge possible associations with Trotskyism, they changed the name to the Union for Actual Art—in Russian, Ob'jedinenie Real'nogo Iskusstva, usually shortened to OBERIU. The members of OBERIU quickly established themselves as Leningrad's preeminent avant-gardists, staging performances where poetry readings mingled with film, plays, clowning, and hijinks of many stripes. Meanwhile, Vvedensky and Kharms both earned their livings as authors of children's books. But this period of exuberant production proved ephemeral: in 1930, the group dissolved under political pressure, and the next year Vvedensky was arrested along with several others, forced to confess to writing mystical poetry and smuggling anti-Soviet ideals into his children's books, and sentenced to several years' internal exile. On his return to Leningrad, unable to publish his mature poetry, Vvedensky, like the other former members of OBERIU, sought refuge in the close circle of poet friends he'd formed in the twenties. They met regularly to share their work, developing a system of poetic images that served as shorthand invocations of bigger ideas, which they called ieroglify ("hieroglyphs"). In 1936, at the age of thirty-one, Vvedensky moved to Kharkov; in 1941, with the Nazi army approaching, he tried and failed to get his family aboard a train out of town. A few days later he was arrested, put on a train for Kazan, and never heard from again.

Like the also antically serious Frank O'Hara, Vvedensky was notoriously unconcerned with the fate of his own writing, treating it haphazardly and making little accommodation for its future. As a result, only a small portion of his output survives (Thomas Epstein repeats Mikhail Meilakh's estimation that it's less than a quarter). Most of this can be found in An Invitation for Me to Think. In Vvedensky's writing, embers of the Symbolism he revered in his youth (especially Blok's) are stirred by a poetics derived from Futurism (especially Khlebnikov's); the result is a poetry that approaches transcendent concerns with time, death, and the divine not by logical progression, but rather by enacting and progressively conjoining ruptures in logic. "I touch a stone," Vvedensky writes in The Gray Notebook. "But the hardness of the stone / does not convince me anymore of anything." Here, solidity is always taking a back seat to porousness, and sense is made to yield to incomprehensibility. The impish holiness of this approach takes time to register fully, in part because its passivity is balanced by a bracing directness, a contradiction that can be hard to take in. At one point, a dead girl reprimands God, "you press pleasure and Paris / to your impetuous breast / you dress like music / you undress like a statue." (I think "God" here is, more exactly, logos—simultaneously language, reasoned argument, and the divine itself.) As hierarchies of thought and language are continually inverted, those inversions themselves are rendered shaky and uncertain, until what finally emerges is a sense of the radical non-power that lies at the heart of power, the discontinuousness that defines our experience of time, the impossibility of true communication that animates language.

In the book's introduction, Ostashevsky compares this approach to via negativa theology, a correlation many have observed. The connection is compelling. At one point, Vvedensky writes:

...Time is the only thing that does not exist outside us. Here falls the night of the mind. Time rises over us like a star. Let's throw back our mental heads, that is, our minds. Look, time is now visible. It rises over us like zero. It turns everything into zero. (Our last hope is that Christ has Risen.)That Christ has Risen is our last hope.
Meaninglessnesses swarm within impossibilities in language like this, not going nowhere so much as barreling toward an everywhere with a lot of nothing in the trunk. What, after all, does it mean for "the only thing that does not exist outside us" to "rise over us like a star?" How can we "throw back...our minds" after "the night of the mind" has fallen? Where are "we" in this formulation? And yet, transcendent positivities do emerge from these negative gestures, like zero rising over us: time does indeed "turn everything into zero," in the form of death (at the moment of death, Vvedensky notes a little later, "a miracle becomes possible" because it is "the stopping of time."). The last two sentences identify zero, a present absence represented by an empty, endless circle, with divine transcendence, and then perform a syntactic shuffle that is semantically inconsequential, a gesture that seems to simulate relocation to the opposite point along a conceptual circumference. There's a sense in this that the affirmative is forever magnetized around the negative, that every small-p presence is interpellated by the single, big-a Absence at the heart of existence—the absence of, to paraphrase Vvedensky, any logic that can comprehend the world. What remains, then, is the experience of a mystic unity presupposed by the world's existence, surpassing the obfuscations of language and time.

If all of this sounds like a nightmare to translate, it is, and the challenge is sharply augmented by formal concerns: much of Vvedensky's poetry is rhymed and metered—which would be nearly unthinkable for a comparable modernist poet writing in English at the same time—and it operates often on the level of sound. Of course, all translators of verse have to reckon with the musical incommensurability of languages, but in Vvedensky's case the problem reaches an unusual extreme. Take, for example, the opening quatrain of the book, spoken by Prokofiev to a character named Ivan Ivanovich (the blandest Russian name conceivable, more or less equivalent to John Johnson):

Ivan Ivanovich, you're sadyou're glum and sullen and unhappyyou're looking down like a cloudIvan Ivanovich, mon amour
Ivan Ivanovich answers:

Amour as in riveror as in god with quiver?
In Vvedensky's original, the second and third lines end with very similar words: "nevesel" ("unhappy") and "povesil," ("hung," as in "you've hung your head down"). More relevant, though, are the last words of the first and fourth lines: the "khmur" of the first line ("glum," repeated in the next line) by the changing of its initial x to an a, in the fourth line becomes "amur," a word that can signify either the Roman god Amor or the Amur River on the Russian-Chinese border. Ostashevsky, who has much mad mouth in both English and Russian, has done yeoman's work in achieving a balance between transposing sound structures and conveying meaning: he renders the first "khmur" as "sad," calling out its resonance with the "cloud" of the third line, and swaps "amur" for the French "amour," preserving the nonsense polarity of the original apposition and leaving room for the Amor/Amur ambiguity. He then expands Ivan Ivanovich's reply, from the very simple "reka ili bozhok?" ("the river, or the god?") in the original to a rhymed couplet that fully unpacks the ambiguity. This is fairly indicative of his approach throughout the book, enthusiastically tossing up a construction that works to create a torque between music and meaning similar to the one that exists in the Russian original. At the same time, he reserves the prerogative of privileging one over the other when he considers it important. So when the Sea Demon from "The Demise of the Sea" says, "byt' mozhet more ty okno? / byt' mozhet more ty odno?" Ostashevsky translates it, "maybe O sea you are a window? / maybe O sea you are a widow?" even though the Russian "odno" just means "alone." Of course, a kernel of the original sense is still preserved, but preference has obviously been given to carrying across the sound structure. Yankelevich's translations are largely of prose, and so are more often spared these never-totally-winnable games. And he nails it, pulling off something very like Vvedensky's tone of bewildered comic intelligence, sometimes strident, sometimes macabre.

In all, it's a pleasure to have this book, and it's great news that English-language audiences can access Vvedensky's world, in which "we hear the sounds of objects" and "chew music like fat," while at the same time "we don't believe that we're asleep / we don't believe that we breathe / we don't believe that we write / we don't believe that we hear / we don't believe that we are silent." That the youth of today's Russia so ferociously claim his legacy is a testament to the power of outside, showing that disjunction and nonsense remain paradoxically effective as weapons against excesses of certainty. And it's high time that more readers pick up on his work to break language, to crush understanding so that what is beneath and beyond it can smuggle its miracle into our event-hemorrhaging lives.

Editor's Note: In November 2014, the American Literary Translators Association presented the 2014 National Translation Award to Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich for their translation of Alexander Vvedensky's An Invitation for Me to Think.