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Kharms, Daniil, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale, Northwestern University Press, 2017. $24.95 (also available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon.com)

Early on in his career, Daniil Kharms joined a sound-poetry group with other avant writers, including the poet, Alexander Vvedensky. Vvedensky would become Kharms’ close associate until Vvedensky’s death. He died only a couple months before Kharms starved to death at the young age of 36 during the Nazi siege of Leningrad as he was imprisoned in the psychiatric ward of a prison hospital in February 1942. Both men were invited to join the Association of Children’s Writers in December 1927, and a month later they founded OBERIU. This group included writers, poets, actors, musicians, and playwrights who would perform in public until the Soviet State banned their events. OBERIU (after a Russian acronym standing for The Association of REAL Art) was a movement that developed as a reaction to, but also as an evolution of, the avant activities of the Russian Futurists (1920-1930), which included poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov.

“Zaum”, meaning transrational and translinguistic, was a phonetic sound based poetry, or deconstructed language that was reconstructed as non-sense words. Zaum does not need translating into other languages, as its meaning is asemic. A listener’s mind would naturally be inclined to construct its own meaning from Zaum language based on relationships conceived from their own experience with language. It’s no coincidence that the Russian Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov, Alexei Kruchenykh, and Elena Guro were all artists before they became writers. When looking at Russian Futurist poems that have been laid out in non-grid format with multiple fonts and sizes, a connection between Zaum and abstract art becomes evident. Zaum was included in some of Kharms’ early poems, eg. Sec (dedicated to his first wife, Esther) from 1925. From what I’ve read in a 1996 text by Gerald Janecek titled Zaum, the Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism, San Diego State University Press, the relationship between OBERIU and Zaum is fairly complex. The sounding out of Zaum phonetic poems is essential to its communication, and I can envision the eccentric character of Daniil Kharms reveling in the theatrical performance of Zaum in public.

Soviet authorities banned what they saw as political dissidence in OBERIU’s Zaum-based public performances.  Works which foreshadowed the European Theatre of the Absurd, such as Kharms’ popular “Elizabeth Bam”, were perceived as being in opposition to Stalinist realism which was oriented toward proletariat emancipation. Cigale writes in his introduction that Kharms’ plays and early Zaum-based poetry were not selected for this book for the sake of brevity. (Note that Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd, edited by Neil Cornwell, Macmillan Press, 1991, has a translation of “Yelisabetha Bam”.) What we have here is still a generous selection of early, middle, and late Kharms work presented in chronological order, with a poetry section at the end.

Russian Absurdism, much like it’s contemporary – the Dada group which started in Zurich, Switzerland – arose out of a reaction to the absurd conditions brought on by war, but also to Stalinist cultural repression. Red Horizon was a 2017 art exhibit at our local art museum in Columbus OH that I attended after I read this book. It was curated from paintings and photographs collected by Neil K. Rector from a period shortly after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 until the late 1980s and beyond, when artists attempted to represent the everyday realities of the USSR and Russia. Notably, many of those artists, like Kharms and his associates who wrote children’s literature, could only make ends meet as illustrators of children’s literature. These were Moscow based artists whose ‘unofficial’ works came to prominence in the 1960’s and 70’s. In conjunction with writing this review, I also read that the Russian punk rock group, Pussy Riot, during their 2012 trial for “hooliganism” in a church, cited Kharms’ friend, Vvedensky, as a their hero. 2017 was the centennial of the 1917 Russian revolution, and so it was so very appropriate that Northwestern University came out with Cigale’s translation of Kharms’ works.

Kharms’ nonsense exposes a high level of cynicism that can be both sad and hilarious at the same time, and sometimes violent and frightening. Cigale advocates that Kharms’ writings be grouped with the likes of Sartre, Beckett, and Camus, based on their existential bent. I’ve read elsewhere that Kharms’ imagery is like the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Columbia. Cigale gives a thorough briefing about Kharms’ short life in his introduction, and throughout the book provides diary entries and letters that give perspective on everyday life in 20’s and 30’s Soviet Union and of life with his first wife, Esther Rusakova.

Kharms’ notebooks were rescued by his second wife, Marina Mavich, and fellow OBERIU member Yakov Druskin, from a bombed-out building. Many of those plays, poems, and stories circulated illegally in underground publications and came to influence generations of non-conformist writers and later on, the Russian Minimalist poets of the 1970s and ‘80s. Most texts were not officially published until the Gorbachev period in 1980’s Russia.

In a 1937 diary entry, Kharms wrote, “I am interested only in pure nonsense; only in that which has no practical meaning. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation,” (from Cigale’s introduction to Part III, Selected Poems). So you will see old women falling out of windows one after another due to over-inquisitiveness, and men melting into thin air. These stories may end with a moral or a masterful punch line, or abruptly with an anti-climax or dead-panned “That’s All”. Readers should leave themselves open to whatever happens, as Kharms’ short stories do not follow standard forms of fiction writing.  What follows is a book excerpt from page 7, specifically the first of five “Rules for Sentinals on the roof of the State Publishing House”, from an early period in Kharms’ writing:

The sentinal may be a man of the OBERIU faith, in possession of the traits listed below:

  1. Of moderate height.
  2. Brave.
  3. Farsighted.
  4. Voice booming and authoritative.
  5. Mighty and without pretensions.
  6. Able to make out by ear various sounds and not susceptible to boredom.
  7. A smoker, or, under extreme circumstances, a non-smoker.

 

I was fascinated by Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, and learned so much about Kharms and his creative circle of writers who aspired to creativity during a time of war imposed poverty and cultural repression. The reader may want to go on to read other translations by Alex Cigale, who was awarded the 2015 NEA Literary Translation Fellow for his work on a Selected Poems of Mikhail Eremin.                                                           – C. Mehrl Bennett

Note: An earlier version of this review, edited by Eric Lorberer, was published in the 2017 Spring/Summer print issue of RAIN TAXI magazine, which is a review of books based in Minneapolis MN USA. Rain Taxi online version is@: http://www.raintaxi.com/

For further reading and references see this NY Times review online@: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/05/07/daniil-kharms-strangely-funny-russian-genius/

Read an extensive Kharms bio@ https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/daniil-kharms/

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Deo knee-lia anna estalia quatro rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnnn….
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Dewey Stalia quinoa twins go rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnnn….
Give me DaDa oh kalia kissy my rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnnn….
Feel no hoolio donna estalia tears for rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnnn….

Who’s your dahlia golly ‘oh booty o’ rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnnn….
What’s the folly of donna estalia soup o’ rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnn….
Why’s my hoolio kalia kissing my rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnnn….
Where’s that anna estalia kilo o’ beer oh rennnnnn….. rennnnnnnn….. rennnnnnnnnnn….

Above stanzas translated from LATIN into ENGLISH by GOOGLE TRANSLATOR —

Two-reaching arms of osteoporosis demanded rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
God’s knee-reaching arms osteoporosis four rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
Finley art-reaching arms osteoporosis qwen Roh rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
Keno fah-reaching Dewey osteoporosis quince O rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn

Shayna felia Dewey osteoporosis stoups this rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
Dewey twins go stale husbandry rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
Dada give me, oh my kissy Kalia rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
Feel no tears for osteoporosis hoolio grant rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn

Who’s your dahlia golly ‘booty oh oh’ rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
What’s the folly of grant osteoporosis soup o ‘rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
Kalia’s why my hoolio kissing my rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. …. ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn
Where’s that Anna kilo of osteoporosis o ‘beer ….. oh rennnnnn rennnnnnnn ….. rennnnnnnnnnnn

 

C. Mehrl Bennett 8/16/2017

animated poemAnimated version on YouTube

YouTube video by Jim Andrews – About the software ‘Alpha Null 3.0’ which he used to create this, Jim says, “The text is Mehrl’s and so is the vispo that fills the text. I created this nib specially for her work.”

I.

A

Bellissimo

Buffoon

Took to

Picking up

Ka Ka …

Ask a cow

 

II.

Real late in 2016

…possibly midnight,

This buffoon turned into

The opposite essence

of Da Da…

An Orange

Beast Incorporated

 

III.

Lacking any sense of CAUTION

It increasingly caressed then

Shredded to DEATH

All the kittens, mittens, and

Gloves in the

Wood paneled

Cloak room

 

IV.

All that remains now

In my memory of this

Nightmare is

Little Bo-peep

Wearing a

Gas

Mask

 

C Mehrl Bennett 2/13/2017 – 7/24/2017

C. Mehrl Bennett squirrel greyed

Squirrels are like rats in that they forage and build nests

However, squirrels live in trees and rats are under foot

               But who am I to judge?

 

I am just another creature like a squirrel or a rat

We also forage and build out nests, fornicate

               and reproduce, nurture our offspring

 

As a mere creature of this larger universe

These overhead and underfoot beings

               seem AMAZING to me

 

Humans, all you seers and thinkers, doers and polluters

Stop and ask: What effect do we have on our environment?

               Left foot, Left an imprint so “what/where is Right?”

 

C. Mehrl Bennett 2017

Created for Connie Jean’s SQUIRREL MAILART CALL, which ended in 2017

CONDUIT

Posted: July 1, 2017 in poetry, Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

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String IT

Enter IT

Letter IT

Finger IT

 

Saddle IT

Solder IT

Slather IT

Squash IT

 

Birth IT

Baste IT

Worry IT

Cover IT

 

Drink to IT

Tootle IT

Squint at IT

Mingle IT

 

Hum the IT

Tickle IT

Shout at IT

Noodle IT

 

Out the IT

Dust IT

Poke the IT

Leave IT

 

by C. Mehrl Bennett

July 1, 2017

it

T-shirt image viewJMB & MM purple background

Above photos are a thumbnail back view of shirt and a large image of the front of the shirt! The designs on this black vispo T-shirt are collaborations by Musicmaster and John M. Bennett, done by passing the image/words back and forth via snail mail – one of the collaborative processes often used in MAIL ART.

Zazzle Site Source: Collaborative Vispo T-Shirt

If you wonder what all the fuss is about MAIL ART, let Musicmaster (aka Thomas M. Cassidy of Minneapolis, MN) fill you in during this video interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOewE81L85w

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Remnants from one of my Fluxfest Chicago event scores (Fluxfest Chicago is an annual event organized by Keith Buchholz)- rearranged in various compositions on one of the glass block lights in the floor of the Rotunda Room at the Chicago Cultural Center, Friday May 27, 2016.

The original performance score happened in a gallery on Staten Island NY many years ago. I wore a fabric belt – same material as my shirt – took it off and swirled it into a spiral on the floor – then cut it up with grid-like cross cuts and offered the pieces to the audience. This was during NYC Fluxfest (2011), organized by Keith Buchholz, with additional Staten Island events organized by Mary Campbell and Viv Dey Dada.

At the Chicago Cultural Center event, I wore a long black scarf with gold metallic dots on it around my waste over a black T-shirt. Again, I swirled the material into a spiral then cut it up, but this time I wanted to incorporate the glass block floor light instead of sharing with the audience. I made one arrangement and called it the end of the event, and then a break was called. While everyone else went to an adjoining room, I took the opportunity to rearrange pieces into various compositions, documenting with a photo each time.