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Patrick Henry, Context

On stage, the poet Dmitri Prigov has been known to sing and dance

In the work of poets Lev Rubinstein and Dmitri Prigov, the way the word is said is as important as the word.

The term "poetry reading" doesn't do justice to the spectacle of the conceptualist writers Dmitri Alexandrovich Prigov and Lev Rubinstein performing live. On stage, Prigov is capable of anything, from dancing to singing to dignified recitation. On one occasion he sang the opening lines of Pushkin's novel in verse, "Eugene Onegin," in the characteristic manner of a Buddhist monk, a Russian Orthodox priest and a Muslim muezzin. Critics have likened his antics to those of a "yurodivy," or holy fool. In the West, Prigov is perhaps better known as an artist and installationist. He frequently incorporates visual and musical elements into his performances.

Rubinstein, long a professional librarian, records his texts on the cards used in library card catalogs. At readings, he flips through the cards one after the next. "This underscores the weighty materiality of the poetic word, which exists fully not only in the author's voice but also in his physical presence," the critic Vyacheslav Kuritsyn has observed. The performance constitutes the "form" of the text. The pauses that occur as the poet flips from one card to the next supply a rhythm independent of the words themselves.

Fortunately, both Prigov and Rubinstein, now considered "living classics" of Russian conceptualist poetry, continue to perform both in Russia and Ц Prigov especially Ц abroad. Their work has been published widely since the late 1980s. For anyone interested in late Soviet literature and culture, and in postmodernism generally, the work of the Russian conceptualists is required reading. This spring, Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Presse has brought out two volumes of Russian conceptualist poetry in English translation: Prigov's "Fifty Drops of Blood" and Rubinstein's "Catalogue of Comedic Novelties." Prigov's cycle, published by Ugly Duckling in a bilingual edition, first appeared in Russia in 1993. The Rubinstein book contains texts produced during a 20-year period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.

Conceptualism arose in unofficial Soviet art in the late 1960s in the work of such artists as Ilya Kabakov, best-known for his albums and installations. Almost immediately it penetrated literature as well, where writers such as Prigov and Rubinstein focused their attention on the process by which language determines consciousness. Poet and theorist Mikhail Aizenberg has noted that unlike traditional poets, Prigov and Rubinstein make no attempt to create a unique, coherent poetic language. In their work he finds instead a "plural" language, a "language of languages." In conceptualist writing, he notes, "It isn't the author who expresses himself in his own language; languages themselves, always someone else's, converse amongst themselves."

To the Western reader, this statement sounds very familiar. After all, the notion of "language speaking" in literature goes back to Stephane Mallarme in the late 19th century. It is the crux of Roland Barthes' famous 1968 essay, "The Death of the Author." For the devotee of Western postmodernism, however, Russian conceptualism contains a number of unexpected twists. Prigov has characterized the conceptualists' work as the observation of various hierarchically constructed layers of language Ц the rhetoric of official pronouncements, the language of high culture, of religion, philosophy, science, everyday life, the gutter Ц each of which represents a "mind-set and ideology." So far, so good. But as Aizenberg puts it, the conceptualists adopt a "detached, demiurgic stance" to the languages deployed in their poetry. Prigov, for example, describes his function as that of a director, standing in the wings but still in control of the action. To the Western ear, this sounds suspiciously like the author attempting to return from the grave.

The goal of Russian conceptualism is also distinctly "old-fashioned." For Prigov, the purpose of art is to manifest absolute (albeit unattainable) freedom from any ideology, any language that poses as the heaven-sent truth, oppressing the speaker of that language from within. The respected American scholar Marjorie Perloff has noted that this urge "to 'expose' the ideologeme" that conventional poetry would try to mask runs counter to the practice of American conceptualism, "which rejected the notion of hidden meaning outright, making the case that psychological depth was itself an anachronism." This and other discrepancies led Perloff to ask whether the term "Russian postmodernism" might not be an oxymoron.

The translators of Prigov and Rubinstein face a daunting challenge: Language in conceptualist poetry, as Aizenberg noted, is always someone else's language. Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky, the translators of "Catalogue of Comedic Novelties," note in their introduction that Rubinstein's work "displaces the authorial presence in favor of conducting a symphony of contemporary discourses." The texts, in other words, are collections of linguistic ready-mades. Prigov is less radical in this regard, but his work tends in the same direction.

To get a sense of the difficulties this presents, consider a single sentence: "Mama myla ramu." A literal translation into American English might read: "Mom was washing the [window-] frame." This sentence appears on the first card in a famous Rubinstein text from 1987, and it occurs in the first poem of Prigov's "Fifty Drops of Blood." Metres and Tulchinsky translate the line as: "Mama washed the window." Christopher Mattison, translator of the Prigov book, opts for "Mama washed the pane." You could argue that "Mama" isn't quite "American" enough, or that the translators have substituted glass for wood, window for frame. But the real difficulty lies elsewhere.

The phrase "Mama myla ramu" comes from the ABC books used in Soviet schools when Rubinstein and Prigov were growing up. Language itself is talking Ц in this case, an official language that has become part of the common experience of childhood. It is almost inconceivable that a Russian would read this sentence as, say, the beginning of a narrative about a real mother actually washing a frame. The referential function of language is disrupted by the overwhelming familiarity of this stock phrase. By placing the phrase at the beginning of the work, Rubinstein and Prigov provide the reader with a key for understanding the function of language in the work as a whole.

Prigov first builds on this automatic association, then short-circuits it with an "inappropriate" detail: "Robky pervoklassnik u chyornoi doski: / Mama myla ramu / Slezami." Mattison gives a literal translation to these lines: "A bashful first grader at the chalkboard: / Mama washed the pane / with her tears." The Russian lines paint a typical picture of a boy sent to the blackboard to write out a phrase from his schoolbook. In English, there is no obvious connection between the classroom scene (the boy at the board) and the phrase that follows. For a functional American equivalent of "Mama myla ramu" we would have to go back to the instructional books of our own childhood Ц something like "See Spot run." Joanne Turnbull, who translated a volume of Rubinstein's texts for Glas in 2001, aptly chose "The cat wore a hat."

Mattison takes a literal approach to translating Prigov, at times too literal, as when he transliterates the name of the late North Korean dictator as it is written in Russian, Kim Ir Sen, rather than providing the standard English spelling, Kim Il Sung. Metres and Tulchinsky opt for what they call "a flexible and nuanced approach to the poetic discourse," though in practice they, too, remain committed to the reproduction of semantic content. Such fidelity is misplaced in translations of conceptualist writing, however, because it imposes a notion of representation (translation as the mirror of the original) and expression that the poets explicitly reject in their own work. When the source text is conceived as the "observation of various hierarchically constructed layers" of the Russian language, the translator would do better to respond with an equivalent range of Englishes.

Patrick Henry is completing a dissertation on contemporary Russian poetry at the University of California, Berkeley.

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