January 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

poetry

The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza by Eugene Ostashevsky

There’s been a lot of debate over the past 350 years about what it really means to be a Spinozist, but surely, Eugene Ostashevsky (or at least his verse alter-ego, DJ Spinoza) is the genuine article. He’s obsessed with the kind of neat axioms that use the bitter power of logic to cut you off at the knees. At the same time, he’s kind of like that squat uncle at your Bar Mitzvah who laughs at his own jokes as he pulls a shiny nickel out from behind your ear. (Not that I’ve ever had -- or attended -- a Bar Mitzvah. But I’m sure DJ Spinoza has.) The poems in this little volume are filled with groaner puns (“The Origins of the Specious”), absurdist rap, and other laugh-out-loud humor, and sometimes the flirt with the profound. Some are equal parts Mayakovsky and Dr. Seuss (especially the Peepeesaurus poems, and the wonderful rhyming, mathematical “Alphabet for Tamar”: Q is for Quotient: ‘You guys smoked all the dope!’/ R is for Remainder/ or so we hope...W is for Whole/ that equals its part./ X is a variable/ made up by Descartes.”) Others, like “Now the Lord Said to DJ Spinoza,” cut through the humor to a poignant depth. All of them reveal a skeptic’s love of language.

I still love poetry, deep down, and I still sometimes write it, so I’m troubled by how impossible I find it to enjoy the works of most young(ish) American poets. If I like them even a little, I always find out that they aren’t really ours. Ostashevsky was born in Russia, but I will count him as a young(ish) American poet, since I count Belgrade-born Charles Simic as an old American poet. The Russians probably want to claim him, too. He has obviously suckled at the teat of Soviet absurdists like Daniil Kharms, who got the concepts of rhythm and irony, two things that are tragically missing from the lame, boring work I’ve read in hipster journals. In fact, he’s apparently known as a translator of the OBERIU poets. Whenever I’ve read the fantastic works of Kharms, I’ve probably been reading a little bit of Ostashevsky, if not DJ Spinoza himself, mixed in.    

In my opinion, a good poem should quietly eviscerate you, so you’re left bleeding and hunching into yourself, screaming, but it should also be funny. Or it should run through your head as you walk down the street. In the best cases, both.  

Ostashevsky’s work is best when he follows his natural instinct for rhyme and rhythm, and especially when he turns to zany, historically-rich references: I should have known they were Basques/ Roland says to DJ Spinoza/ By the looks of their casques/ By the widths of their masks/ I should have known they were Basques. There’s a moment, for example, when Andrew Marvell wakes up: AM: Boy, that’s what I call a snooze! That felt, like, thirty thousand years. Hm, and my pants are stained. (Hee! And, ew.) There’s some punk-rock bravado that reminds me, in a good way, of The Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso was Never Called an Asshole”: Yes, I’m a radical rapscallion/ cruising around in my Spanish galleon… There’s a satisfying rap about Brodsky and Trotsky -- It’s me that stalks by the zoccolo… cause I got more rhymes than Joseph Brodsky/ I got more rhymes than Leon Trotsky -- that ends with the DJ getting drop-kicked in the head. And there are some truly powerful conversations between the DJ and the Lord God, who needs Spinoza to convince him that he exists.  Kierkegaard shows up, lest you were worried he wouldn’t.

The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza is a loveable little book, with fitting illustrations by Eugene Timerman. I’ll ignore the fact that it’s part of the Ugly Duckling Presse’s Eastern European Poets series and, I’ll ignore the fact that this is unmistakably Russian poetry, and, when someone asks me which young(ish) American poets I like, I’ll recommend Eugene Ostashevsky.  I’m sure DJ Spinoza could find a zany way to rationalize this. After all, There are so many axioms/ there is not a single proof. And, Is there a beginning that is not also an end? Twenty-three years of school and I don’t know whether ‘this is my foot’ is a true statement.

The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza by Eugene Ostashevsky
Ugly Duckling Presse
ISBN: 0981552102
112 Pages