(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)
Andrei Monastyrski’s Elementary Poetry is both a history and artifact of the Russian Conceptualist movement in the 1970s and ’80s. Monastyrski, scarcely known in this country but influential in Russia since the days of the Soviet Union, is a founding member of the Collective Actions group, largely credited with the advent of contemporary Russian performance art. The anthology, edited and adeptly translated by Yelena Kalinsky and Brian Droitcour, assembles his poetic compositions in the years directly preceding the group’s seminal Trips Out of Town (Poezdki za gorod) performances, in which conceptualist luminaries such as Monastyrski, Lev Rubinstein, Erik Bulatov, and Dmitri Prigov staged some of the first “happenings” within the USSR—and for which a small, in-the-know audience traveled to the snowy fields outside Moscow to be beguiled and enthralled.
Monastyrski was fascinated with the boundaries between the written work and its imperative, attempting to craft objects of all sorts that activate when looked upon. Interspersed throughout Elementary Poetry are documentations of actions the author made throughout this period, such as Pile (1975), in which participants are instructed to place objects no larger than a matchbox on a piece of paper, and record their entries in a handbook nearby. But Monastyrski’s poems themselves call for action, and by their very nature draw attention to the activity of reading. His early work shows a debt to Lettrism, in which the poems demand performance simply through their nonsensical, onomatopoeic quality. (Lines like “rednosenosenewvenous/ overwinterternewvenous/ eveningningnessnessnessnessvenous” must have been heady to read aloud in their original Russian). Then, gradually, the artist ups the ante.
“Nothing Happens,” from 1976, stands as an extended reckoning with the sensorial void. Nothing happens for 36 pages of dense, free-verse poetry, outside the narrator’s happy and frustrated dementia of deprivation. As the work stretches toward exhaustion, Monastyrski’s protagonist comes to resemble the embodiment of Kant’s phenomenological doubt, or a player in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who realizes they are seeing shadows flicker on the wall:
this was an important thought
everything here is a lie
designed for the illusory perception
of fleeting existence
it begets a feeling
By far the longest work in the collection, “Nothing Happens” is a meditation on nothingness itself as substance, and presages the artist’s lifelong interest in the empty field as staging ground.
Monastyrski’s mature work, arriving just as the Collective Actions group began planning their performances in secret, was published as a series of artist books, each titled “Elementary Poetry,” which were distributed samizdat amongst the intellectual community. These works, which make up the latter half of the Ugly Duckling anthology, are long-form poetic pieces which call into question “the formal relationship between sign and meaning produced by the acts of reading and looking,” so say the translators. Becoming concrete to a level never before seen in American letters, they call into play our very understanding of symbols (a series of parallel and perpendicular lines could be a ladder or a railroad), and arrange these symbols spatially across the page, making the act of reading the poem as constructive and situational as performing a score by John Cage.
Monastyrski, in fact, was a devotee of Cage’s, and believed in a kind of art entirely subjective to the audience’s interactions with it. The first monograph to inaugurate Collective Action’s Trips Out of Town was not a compendium of these actions but a collection of audience members’ recollections of them, usually contradictory or bewildered. “Elementary Poetry No. 3: The Paraformal Complex,” takes instructional cutouts from a Soviet cookbook and then asks the reader 198 questions about them, assuming the answers will provide some sense of understanding or enlightenment. These works do not exist without the reader’s personal interpretation, and it is here that we see the enduring potential and import of conceptual performance applied to the written word. Likewise, included with a physical copy of Elementary Poetry is a sandpaper bookmark, which, left unattended, “eats at the book, erasing the text, and thereby functions as an action object in the present.”
The last work anthologized in the collection is “Elementary Poetry No. 5: I Hear Sounds,” which, uncoupled from the conceptual puzzles and aesthetic contrivances of previous editions, feels almost elegiac in its sensorial specificity. The piece is a veritable history of Russian poetic work, describing the great authors of the past, as well as Monastyrski’s contemporaries, reading their pieces aloud for one another. Here, the author’s central point is made plain (though it is the only time he uses mimesis to make it)—poetry, like all art, exists only as an operation between people, between creator and receiver specifically, a contract of attention and care. How well we listen to the author before us, either on the page or in the room, is up to us. Monastyrski, like any artist hoping to captivate, sets about gathering elements for his viewers’ activation.