Eugene Ostashevsky: “Blessed be the undiscovered person whose language is his.”

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“An outcast whose language is all his own.” (Photo:Kritzolina/Wikimedia)

You know how it is. The stack of books piles up by the bedside. With the best of intentions, you commit to reading it all. But you’re already reading and writing all day and all night long, and you’ve long since given up any kind of a normal life so that you can do both… and you still can’t catch up…

So it has been with Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pipublished by one of my favorite houses, New York Review Books. I’ve been meaning to read it for quite some time, but the backlog is formidable. Fortunately, fortunately, we have people like Boris Dralyuk (we’ve written about him here) over at The Los Angeles Review of Books who goes forth to read for us. Here’s what he has to say about Ostashevsky’s glorious treasure: 

From Homer to the relative merits of Ginger and Mary Ann in Gilligan’s Island, nothing is lost on Eugene Ostashevsky, the Russian-American poet and translator who’s hatched The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi. This “poem-novel” is a seriocomic linguistic performance the likes of which we rarely see, in any tongue, but it wasn’t plucked out of thin air. Ostashevsky, whose two preceding collections are titled, tellingly, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008) and Iterature (UDP, 2005), has been developing his patchwork technique for years, stitching high theory onto deliriously playful, Edward Learian rhymes, in an effort to make each element pull more weight than it would in isolation, but also to loosen things up. Hierarchies be damned; the pursuit of wisdom is a free-for-all, a real “pirate party, so shake your booty”: “Never mind The Groundwork / For the Metaphysics of Morals — / Shimmy with your scimitar and uncorral some quarrels.”

The Pirate has his forebears. Lear is one, as are Lewis Carroll, the Dadaists, Joyce, and the loopier representatives of Oulipo, but few of Ostashevsky’s predecessors have plumbed the philosophical depths of nonsense with the aplomb of Daniil Kharms (1905-1942), Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), and the other members of the short-lived Soviet avant-garde group OBERIU (“The Union of Real Art”). It’s not by chance that Ostashevsky has dedicated so much of his creative energy to introducing the work of the “Oberiuts” to a broad Anglophone audience, editing OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern University Press, 2006) and co-editing and co-translating, with Matvei YankelevichAlexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets, 2013). Like The Pirate, the Oberiuts’ writings are perched (AARGH, is there no escaping the psittacine puns?) above a chasm of meaninglessness. Their delightfully comic gestures always point to the failings of language, its propensity to undermine itself, and, hence, to the impossibility of communication. The matter of incommunicability should concern us all, but it’s especially pressing for an émigré poet. And this brings us back to the pirate’s confession:

I suddenly became frightened — I don’t really know of what — that I wouldn’t be able to represent any of this in language
and the experience would vanish from the sensory world but at the same time take root inside me

unformulated; ineffable; and therefore not even truly a thing; certainly not truly mine
yet also no one else’s but mine; mine exclusively, inalienably

and so locking me at once inside and outside itself
although always in solitary confinement…

He concludes: “And yet, it is a beautiful song, broadcast by an outcast whose language is all his own: ‘Blessed be the undiscovered person whose language is his…'”

Read the whole thing here. By the way, the book is currently on sale, here.


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