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Language, History, and My Daughters

By December 20, 2022April 25th, 2023No Comments

Language, History, and My Daughters

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Some say poetry is already translation.

Thought worded, bordered and ordered. Incorrect.

The word is its own reward in poetry. It reigns over itself.

It is sovereign. The word is weird. It is foreign.

Poetry is when you don’t understand the language.

When you don’t understand, you stand under. You listen.

What you don’t understand is poetry.

What you understand is translation.

Is that true. Or is it just poetry.

If it were true would it be just translation. (Sonnet 49, 79)

My body is multilingual. It sticks out its tongues but they say the same thing. Ah. (Sonnet 7, 15)

Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Feeling Sonnets consists of four sequences of fourteen-line sonnets that are Petrarchan in structure, followed by a short libretto about Ravel’s interactions with Paul Wittgenstein. Endnotes to the poems are light, and helpful in understanding the meaning of certain non-English words and some less accessible material referred to in the poems. The poems draw on our experience as migrants, strangers, and language-learners; on the loss of family and a father’s love for his daughters; on the tormented history of Eastern Europe’s historical “bloodlands,” primarily Russia and Germany; on the nature of translation; and on our futile but fruitful efforts to express anything using language.

Ostashevsky is well-suited to tangle with all this: born in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, he moved with his immediate family to New York City in 1979. He received his Ph. D. from Stanford and teaches in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University. Fluent in Russian and English, he has translated Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Vasily Kamensky, as well as Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, and the other OBERIU avant garde Soviet poets of the 1920s and 1930s. He believes “it is impossible to write anything serious that is not funny.”[1] He’s married to a sign-language interpreter of Turkish origin and they live in Berlin with their two daughters.

Both his critical writing and his poetry explore and attempt what he, Uljana Wolf, and others call translingual poetry. Ostashevsky defines translingual poetry as poetry in which (at least) two languages collide, neither subservient to the other, interfering with and reworking one another in the poem, each bearing its unique social, historical, literary, and political associations. Like the absurdist OBERIU poets he has concluded that in order “to see the world as it really is, we must first destabilize language.”[2] What does this mean?

The simplest level of translingual estrangement asks the poet to surrender the certainty of knowing how sentences work, what words mean, how words and things relate to each other, and even what things are, if they are. Everything has to be approached provisionally and made out anew, like during immersion in a language that is known only in part, and perhaps a small part at that.[3]

For Ostashevsky it is the only way he can write of, and from, his history: “ I once complained in a Russian-language interview that I found myself unable to write about my history in English, because it doesn’t exist in that language…”[4]

Sonnet by sonnet, beginning with the opacities and fissures we overlook within the English lexicon, Ostashevsky guides us out into other languages, literatures, histories, and to the uplands of that which defies expression but must be found and said.

Eugene Ostashevsky, The Feeling Sonnets
NYRB Poets, 2022, $18.00
Review by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.