Andrei Monastyrski, Elementary Poetry, trans. Brian Droitcour and Yelena Kalinsky, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019

Reviewed by Katherine Beaman

[Review Guidelines]



On a coffee shop patio on one spring evening, giddy recitations of "Z-zing / zillycling-zing-zing / Z-zing / zillycling-zing-zing / Z-zing / zillycling-zing-zing" was perhaps heard by somebody over the early cicadas.

We read from Elementary Poetry by Andrei Monastyrski (forthcoming in translation by Yelena Kalinsky and Brian Droitcour from Ugly Duckling Presse), which matters a little but it also doesn’t.

For, as Kalinsky and Droitcour wrote in their forward, "Monastyrski does not have a distinctive poetic voice, a style that can be recognized across his work."

Instead, his "voice" is that which draws in the surrounding world, the environment, the (oh so clever) translators, and the reader.

He erases the delineation of what is "text" and what is "poem".

He introduces unlikely juxtapositions throughout his poetic exercises.

He creates a feeling of estrangement in his readership, as if to ask of his readers to utilize moments in which they cannot penetrate into the content as opportunities for reflection into their own associations.

He pulls the reader into the execution of his work.

Viktor Schklovsky wrote, "A shift in the realm of cognition changes art."

The important thing is that the poem we read together on that spring evening had assimilated into the air, carrying our laughter through clouds of cigarette smoke and into nostalgia.

In turn, we gave ourselves to the poetry, depositing something of ourselves into its history.

I have learned that a poem does not end with the page and I have learned that a person does not end with the body.

I have heard it said that love is neither an object, nor an emotion, but rather a process.

It seems that a poem is a process too.

Without us, the poem would not have been complete.

(Perhaps it is always still incomplete.)

To read Monastyrski and be confused, to play with one’s own confusion, to share Monastyrski and one’s confusion and some laughter with others—this is to contribute authorship to his work.

"The texts lead the reader through a process of investigating her or his own perception and comprehension of the work," wrote Kalinsky and Droitcour in the forward to the volume.

In his poetic exercise "Elementary Poetry #3: The Paraformal Complex," Monastyrski directs his reader to tediously flip back and forth through a series of hypothetical questions and answers about the concept of form extending beyond content.

He forces the reader to hold their thoughts together with material action.

Monastyrski does not allow his work to be bounded by mere textual elements, but pulls in graphical elements, the form of text, the context in which the text is delivered, his readership, and the broader environment.

Monastyrski’s piece "Elementary Poetry #2: Atlas," for instance, incorporates the spatial form of text, through dimensioning and annotations, into the reader’s search for meaning within the textual content.

There is within his work a certain awareness that discomfort creates a space for exploration and, perhaps, expanded cognition, even if understanding cannot directly be achieved.

It is a practice of Monastyrski to make those who engage with his work uncomfortable.

Through his use of references and incorporation of the imagery of technical diagrams, he creates the illusion of structure where structure is more elusive than we’re accustomed to.

How uncomfortable when outcomes do not conform to our expectations!

How frustrating to not be able to readily cognize what is before our eyes!

It is in these moments when the patterns and outcomes we have come to expect are disrupted that we begin to notice and question.

In many of his interactive artistic works, Monastyrski reappropriates commonplace items for alternative functionality, something unexpected.

Two medicine bottles may be clouds.

These two medicine bottles may be sterile and inorganic, and yet, to refer to them as "Clouds" draws attention to the quality shared between two attached medicine bottles and clouds: that they glide.

In his piece "Cannon," his audience is asked to place their eye up to a black pipe, and trigger an "apparatus" which generates the ringing of an electric buzzer, as opposed to a visual outcome.

The black pipe is seemingly vestigial but is in actuality necessary for the success of the prank, to implement discomfort or shock when the outcome differs from the audience’s expectations.

There is in his work a sense of loss and decay of reality, spearheaded by the deviation from our conditioned expectations of reality.

In Monastyrski’s "I/We," a disk is spinning, spinning, as accompanying stanzas repeat in form culminating in the gradual decay of the poetic template. 

The reader eradicates that which is repeated and focuses in on that which is altered, temporal progression implied by maintenance of something constant with altered elements.

Under conditions of repetition, we begin to notice the tiny changes in patterns, to eradicate from our vision that which is repeated.

The perception of change through time requires the repetition of context.

Within moments of intense, dulled repetition, our minds drift toward the periphery.

Monastyrski’s "Elementary Poetry #5: I Hear Sounds" provides iterative descriptions of poets, their audience, the audience’s engagement, and the environment, but says little of the content of the poems.

It is as if to say that that the poems were read and the mind drifted away from what was read is far more important than whatever they contained.

He draws attention to the physical manifestations of poetry (e.g. "The door to the bedroom is ajar, and someone inside fumbles and grunts. The sound of ripping silk makes Kholin shiver and blush.").

He supplants the words of a reading with its peripheral extensions.

It is not the audience’s responsibility to cognize in any particular way, but to live and ingest our surroundings, whether consciously or subconsciously.

It does not really matter who did what or who said what, but rather, what is important is the shared experience of engaging with the world.

It does not matter how Monastyrski’s work was executed, how successful it may have been at conveying a particular concept.

It does matter that I read it on a coffee shop patio along with other people trying to figure things out.

Z-zing / zillycling-zing-zing.