The Gray Notebook
The Gray Notebook did not originate as a book of poetry. Rather, it was, literally, a gray notebook that Russian avant-garde writer, Alexander Vvedensky, kept from 1932-1933.
At 17 pages long (excluding the endpapers, a “Translator’s Note,” and the colophon which brings the published version to 24 numbered pages), the Ugly Duckling Presse edition presents the entirety of Vvedensky’s notebook. Like the original, the UDP version has a gray cover—hence its name. The original was found with two loose pages of prose: one piece addresses “Stomach grumblings during the confession of love” and the other the terror of “Contracting syphilis, amputation of the leg, extraction of the tooth.” The UDP version includes two loose prose pieces as inserts and they have the feeling of “authenticity” for they are typeset, errors included, in Myriad (typewriter font) on dove-gray paper of a different stock than the rest of the book.
While the UDP book is not a facsimile edition, it gives the sensation of being so throughout. The soft covers of the book are sewn with a rough machine-stitch, the endpapers of the book are graphed composition notebook paper, there is no title page, and the book is 6 by 7 inches—notebook sized. The poems, translated by Matvei Yankelevich into English, are not presented with the Russian originals and the book designers have used an innocuous sans-serif font (Caslon), which feels both slightly “early-twentieth century” and personal. If you squints your tactile and mental eye, suspending disbelief, it is fairly easy to pretend you are holding the actual artifact in your hands. As such, UDP offers what is as close to a piece of this history as we can likely get. The book, part of UDP’s Eastern European Poetry series can be purchased for $10.00 ($8.00 direct from the press).
What does the possibility of possessing such faux-historical artifacts say about our present moment and its relationship to the past? Is this book an indication that we feel the past is something we can possesses, in artifact form—a sort of poetic-chic that I can display on my bookcase with all of my other beautiful Ugly Duckling Presse books? Does the fact that when I hold the book in my hands I feel as if I were holding a little bit of history account for my immediate and physical attachment to the book? These questions show my unease with the object, but I must confess to being obsessed with it anyways.
Such questions are particularly to the point, here, for much of the book’s immediate resonance hinges on its historical context. Vvedensky’s biography and the circumstances by which he came to write his book* are in many ways why we, in the 21st century, care to have access to the thing. In addition, the historical circumstances of the book inform the great length to which Ugly Duckling Presse has gone to in creating the book’s unique physical body—to give us the feel of the thing as it must have been in the writer’s hands.
Born in St Petersburg in 1904, Vvedensky studied art and poetry under the Russian Futurists in Leningrad during the early 1920s. Along with Daniil Kharms he founded the avant-garde group OBERIU (Union of Real Art)—practitioners of absurdist literature, performance, and children’s literature. In 1931 Vvedensky found himself imprisoned for anti-Soviet activity and was detained, along with Kharms, until 1932. After his release from prison he lived in Kharkow and died—or was killed (the “Translator’s Note” at the back of the book provides this suggestive “or”)—in 1941 during the evacuation of the Ukraine. His poetry was not published in Russian until glasnost and the majority of his writing has been lost. Writing that we do have, we have because it was stored in a suitcase Kharms had given, in 1941, to a friend for safekeeping.
What does it mean that I can—and very much want to—possess a book that encourages me to pretend that I own such a piece of history, so personally and socially resonant? In some ways the impulse feels a bit like logging on to ebay to bid on a piece of the Berlin Wall that you are pretty sure, because it is so cheap, is not legitimate. But it would look really cool mounted on the living room wall and so you want it anyways. A conversation piece, to be sure, and who can afford the real thing? Besides, in a time when the hyperreal status of Disneyland and virtual reality is nearly passé, what would it mean for such a thing to be “real” anyways?
After entertaining such thoughts I underwent a guilty shudder over my American capitalist tendency towards possession and tucked the book into my book bag muttering something along the lines of “well, its not just the packaging…I mean, the language in this book is just gorgeous.” And it is. The book opens with a poem beginning: “Above the dark good sea/ the boundless air rushed here and there,/ it flew like a blue falcon,/ silently swallowing night’s poison.” The book includes a philosophical-poetic dialogue, a meditation upon the inadequacy of language to engage with the reality of time (“Our human logic and our language do not in any way correspond to time, neither in its elementary, nor it its complex understanding. Our logic and our language skid along the surface of time”). Meditations on verbs (“They are like swords and rifles piled together.”), objects, animals, nature. But, if I have to be honest, as much as the language intensifies my desire to possess the book, my feeling for the object goes beyond its sentences and phrases.
Such puzzles of desire and possession rarely settle with a shrug and a sigh. Long after I dismissed my attachment to the book as pure capitalist impulse I continued to carry The Gray Notebook around with me. At great misfortune to my back I soon added Harvard University Press’s 1088-page edition of The Arcades Project to the books tucked into my book bag and one day, by chance or good fortune, the following passage of Convolute N reopened the questions I had about the resonance of Ugly Duckling’s edition of Vvedensky’s book. Benjamin writes:
It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal one, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent” (Benjamin 2002: 262).
While Benjamin does not give an analytical account of what exactly constitutes the dialectical image, he insists upon its centrality to the methodology of The Arcades Project. From his writings we know that the dialectical image is not a literal image, but emerges in language. And it is not simply a linguistic representation of the moment that the past meets the present, but, instead, renders a dimension of reality recognizable to the reader/viewer in a moment of language. Furthermore, if we follow this line of thought, we might say that the dialectical image is necessarily made of quotation—made of historical material itself. And we might say that the power of such a methodology is to lift language from one context to another, allowing us to see it—to relate to it—anew.
The Gray Notebook doesn’t employ direct quotation, but there is traction here. UDP’s publication of the book imbues the book with the power of a shift in context akin to the shift in context created by Benjamin’s method of excerpt and quotation. In a way, we can see UDP’s publication of a near-facsimile book as a “quotation” of the original, transported from its unique, initial historical context into our mailboxes, book bags, libraries and homes.*
In an essay titled, “The Measure of the Contingent: Walter Benjamin’s Dialectical Image,” Eli Friedlander parses the shift Benjamin creates in the following way: As Benjamin’s quotations move language from their original context to the context of the project, the text is raised from a relation to reality by means of language, to the plane of language itself. Furthermore, “whatever truth can be wrested from [the] material…emerge[s] not from the correspondence of factual content and independently given reality, but from the relationships formed between the ways of meaning.”* As such, the dialectical image—the relationship between present and past—is not made, but is revealed through the shifting of historical material from original context to quote.*
Applying this logic to the shift Vvedensky’s work undergoes when it is taken from one-of-a-kind-notebook to UDP’s mass-produced-near-facsimile, we arrive at the following: the “truth” that we get from the UDP book is not simply a product of the ways in which Vvedensky’s notebook jottings correspond to his lived, historical moment. Rather, “truth” emerges from the relationship between Vvedensky’s original, singular notebook and the “quotation”—the mass-produced-near-facsimile—that UPD has produced. As such, the UDP rendition of the book is actually a far cry from my initial analogy of part of the Berlin Wall up for sale on ebay. The body UDP has given the book is not merely a fancy extra, but is a necessary vehicle for the revelation of the relationship between the past and our present.
Herein resides the power of UDP’s version of the book. This power resides in relationship and contrast. Note the vast distance between the circumstances surrounding the original and the circumstances surrounding the beautiful copy that we can hold in our hands. Imagine: a one-of-a-kind original notebook that—made in the image of its maker who suffered the fate of so many artists of his time—was shoved into a suitcase and almost did not survive. Contrast this with the freedom and wealth of small-press publishing in contemporary America that can create such a thing as a beautiful near-facsimile (flash to the AWP bookfair here). The distance between the two is dizzying, demanding that we ask: to what purpose can we put our current wealth? Three cheers go up for the editors of presses such as UDP, who have given work, like Vvedensky’s, back to the world. The fact that such a work must be re-given, and that we are at a point in time where a publisher might (with, admittedly, great effort) do so, speaks precisely to the relationship we hold with the past.
Further: the power of the book resides in what the UDP version, despite the wealth that it embodies, cannot achieve. Vvedensky, a poet of apophasis, would appreciate this, for parallel to the way in which he shows us that language cannot embody the reality of time, near-quotation can never hold the aura of an original. So much is lost in translation from Russian to English. So much is lost in translation from the imperfection of the hand to Caslon’s machine perfection. So much is lost in the fact that this poet—imprisoned for his work and forbidden to publish poetry after his release—will never know that his notebook has been translated into English and disseminated, as The Gray Notebook, to unexpected places, such as rural Pennsylvania, where I sit and read. The power resides in such loss, of knowing that what you clutch onto for dear life is a near-facsimile. What truth in this.
* For a biographical sketch and an insightful overview of Vvedensky’s context and work, see Thomas Epstein’s essay in The New Arcadia Review.
* This shift is interesting in relation to Conceptual Writing such as Goldsmith’s Day, which relies on just such a shift to do its work. Perhaps UDP creates a variation on this theme, providing us with a model of editor-as-author of the conceptual aspect of a text.
* Friedlander, Eli. “The Measure of the Contingent: Walter Benjamin’s Dialectical Image.” boundary 2 35:3 (2008).