blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



Chapbook Omnibus Review Part 1:
Work by Eugene Ostashevsky, Jonah Winter, and Charles Jensen

Postmodern. Formalist. Prose poems. Love story. Mystery. Science fiction. Philosophy. If the three chapbooks reviewed below have anything in common, it’s their resistance to pigeonholing, their willingness not so much to defy categorization as to embrace multiple categories.

For that matter, even the publishers of these books avoid easy definition. New Michigan Press, which produced The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon, is the alter ego of the online journal DIAGRAM and jointly sponsors an annual chapbook competition. Octopus Books, the source of the other two of these chapbooks (and of others reviewed by Randy Marshall), resists even that much definition. Octopus, an online literary annual, produced, for its eighth issue in 2006, a (printed) set of eight chapbooks under the imprint of Octopus Books. (It published an unrelated online edition as well.)

DJ Spinoza’s Dozen by Eugene Ostashevsky (Octopus Books, 2006)

spacer DJ Spinoza's Dozen
   Octopus Book, 2006

It requires a stretch, but try to picture seventeenth-century rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza as comic book hero. The “DJ” in the title apparently comes from associations with beatboxer MC Squared, who figures as Spinoza’s sidekick and occasional intellectual sparring partner. At one point, for instance, “DJ Spinoza and MC Squared / reason on reason” as they “stand in an ideogrammatic landscape // composed by 1000 creative writing students / with dog-hair brushes.” Later, after a Winnie-the-Pooh-ish adventure in not slaying a philosophical monster (“DJ Spinoza Does Not Fight the Begriffon”), they agree (in “DJ Spinoza Does Not Fight MC Squared”) that

The mathematical project is over
and the criterion for truth is gone.

There’s only language
in which you can say anything.

Well, why not, in a book rife with mathematical formulae, scholarly Latin, offhand (and occasionally distorted) literary allusions, and punning plays on German and Russian phrases? (Ostashevsky has, incidentally but not coincidentally, translated the Russian Absurdists of the 1930’s.) A few examples: The recurring character (or chimera), the Begriffon, hybridizes the heraldic beast, the griffon, with the German begriffen (“understood, comprehended”). When Spinoza first does battle with the creature (later revealed to stand “for me, Eugene Ostashevsky”), he makes these preparations:

On a periodic table
he lays out his definitions
like dentist’s tools before drilling a cavity

In another poem, Spinoza attempts to allay God’s existential doubts (“I was just thinking: If I really am Absolutely Transcendent, then I / don’t exist at all, do I?”) by exhorting Him to “remember the cogito [ergo sum]: If you think you don’t exist, you exist!”

The jump cuts between erudition, absurdity, and pop culture just never stop coming in this tiny book. Despite the title, DJ Spinoza’s Dozen contains only eleven poems, many involving some form of combat, mostly metaphysical (although La Chanson de Roland does appear in one), suggesting, more than numbers, the verbal competition called “playing the dozens.” Or is this one more sly allusion to Spinoza’s work—did he perhaps demonstrate that eleven is twelve?

The multiple meanings, the sometimes deadpan, vapidly conversational tone (“Well, some philosophers wake up one morning with a big L on their forehead, standing for LOSER / but that never happened to DJ Spinoza”), the forays into doggerel (“Frightful is the Begriffon and sharp are his claws, / He disobeys rules and cares nothing for laws, / He is full of effects but do they have a cause?”) keep the reader constantly off-balance. And that is both the fun and the problem: You can spend an inordinate amount of time online  and among dictionaries, trying to work out all the allusions (did you know that Che Bourashka is a Russian cartoon character?), or you can sit back and enjoy the ride, all the while knowing you’re probably missing a lot. I recommend trying a little of each.

Eugene Ostashevsky has published two full-length volumes of poetry, Iterature (2005) and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (2008) as part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Eastern European Poets Series, as well as several chapbooks. A native of Russia, Ostashevsky has also translated and anthologized the work of the OBERIU writers in OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern University Press, 2006).


The Continuing Misadventures of Andrew, the Headless Talking Bear
by Jonah Winter (Octopus Books, 2006)

spacer The Continuing Misadventures of Andrew, the Headless Talking Bear
   Octopus Books, 2006

Don’t be put off by the relentlessly whimsical title. The chapbook itself is much better than that, and you don’t have to think about the bear at all; he’s probably a carryover from Jonah Winter’s work as the author of children’s books. What you might think about as you read The Continuing Misadventures is how poetry clearly written in the Capital-P Postmodern aesthetic fits so comfortably into two sequences of sonnets. You might think about how formalism (little-f in this case, but the same reasoning applies to capital-F [Neo-]Formalism) and PoMo appear to be polar opposites but actually can quite easily occupy the same ground.

Formalism, obviously, concerns itself with how things are said, while Postmodernism deals in a strange way with what is said, even if that what deliberately undercuts all your expectations of narrative and association. Why shouldn’t a poem involving zebras and football players (who “run a larger risk / of being gazed at by the abyss”) express itself in fourteen lines? Winter’s poems do so quite nicely, using just about all of the identifying markers of the sonnet except iambic pentameter: All the poems are broken into some combination of either three quatrains and a couplet or two quatrains and two tercets. Quite a few rhyme, if very subtly (“astronauts / sonatas,” “awakened / The End”). Where the sense shifts from phrase to phrase, the “turn” is, of course, either ubiquitous or nonexistent.

A certain playfulness works in and around the form. Fractured allusions, mostly literary but also phrases almost taken from the blues and minstrel shows, abound: “My lover’s lips are nothing like the phone. / For one thing, uhm, they’re way more nonexistent?”; “your body, Eurydice, oh, stretched out // on a long, white
table. . . ”; “I might have wept, as de ebening sun went down.” Non sequiturs and absurdities show up at least every few lines: “One by one, the angry toaster ovens / apply to graduate schools.” One couplet reads, “Now, vague spiritual yearnings, a general sense / of acute appendicitis.”

For all this skillful nonsense and deliberate subversion of expectations, however, the sequences are not exactly lighthearted. Although, despite its title, no argument gets fully developed in the first sequence, “A Certain Argument,” the question under consideration is surely some version of “to be or not to be”: the poems go back repeatedly to issues of dying, existential angst (in one, Winter warns, “You are, in essence, erasing your existence”), and identity and how it is reflected or distorted in the context of a “thou” (“the way a face will open like a flower /  in relation to another face displaying ‘passion’”). All these meditations are set against a backdrop of apocalypse. The first line of the first sonnet reads, “One of those World War I bombing extravaganzas.” Dead bodies are everywhere, including in a pair of powerful Renaissance paintings (Caravaggio’s Deposition from the Cross and a Grünewald crucifixion, which Winter describes with weird accuracy as “the grey flesh and curling fingers like laughter”).

In “The Pit Is the Pendulum (and Vice Versa),” the questions raised by Poe’s story (“I want to know:    what crime did I commit?”) and an analysis of what makes the punishment so frightening (“It’s not the water trickling down the stones / . . . or the rats that crawl / across your stomach, or the lack of light”) appear in one of the sonnets. Even those that don’t deal explicitly with “The Pit and the Pendulum” present a Poe-like danse macabre: strange theatrical performances—drama, circus, movie, perhaps even a son et lumière show (“scenes from The Past are projected on the walls // of the burning cathedral/escalator”)—are desperately acted out on the edge of the Void.

Actors uncertain of their parts show up in many of the poems in this section (“The Old Witch might wander through the night / in search of an ending, only to find her role / in this story had never really been worked out”). One speaker, disguised as a three-toed sloth, asks, “what else is there besides the mask?”

A good question since this sequence also employs repeated images of nullity, including a “Nameless City” and an “Unavailable God.” One quatrain suggests the weirdness of “Beauty and the Beast”:

Sure, there’s a forest, a sense of being lost.
Maybe the animals are actually human.
Maybe there’s a cottage lived in by No One,
a meal prepared for invisible guests . . .

The final sonnet, however, moves to a strangely calm and painterly, post-apocalyptic landscape, in which “everything is as it should be,” including

                        A Picnic for No One:
A blanket on a hillside, a jug of wine,
an ancient bowl, filled to the brim with grapes,
a bunch of wild-flowers picked in haste.

It’s almost as if order has been restored after the Bomb, the old arguments have become irrelevant, it’s okay to write lyrically again.

Jonah Winter is the author of Maine (Slope Editions, 2002) and Amnesia (Field Poetry Series, 2004). Winter is also an award-winning children’s book author. His collaboration with Ag Ford, Barack (HarperCollins, 2008), is an illustrated introduction to the presidential candidate.


The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon by Charles Jensen (New Michigan Press, 2007)

spacer The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon
  New Michigan Press, 2007

Unlike the Octopus authors, Charles Jensen doesn’t play mind games with the artificial distinctions among categories. Rather, he creates a collage from bits and pieces of various genres in the service of a real, honest-to-god narrative. Of course, how to characterize that narrative poses problems of its own. Jensen gives us a (possibly) mad scientist who has invented a machine (the “physiotranslator”) for journeying to another dimension, a love story that continues beyond death (wasn’t there a movie about that?), as many clues as a Golden Age whodunit.

A young physicist, Edward Dixon, discovers the new dimension he calls “The Ghost-World” in 1921. As he writes in his thesis, “There are no palpable entities within this further dimension and so, much like the ghost stories of our youth, all that exists . . . are disembodied voices. Or, to put it plainly—language and its verbalization: the sound wave.” Thirteen years later, when he has constructed his physiotranslator, Dixon’s cancer-stricken wife Maribel, for whom “the Ghost-World was her only hope to survive the year,” volunteers to become “the first test subject.” What happens to Maribel after that can be reconstructed only indirectly, for she has disappeared from this world. Although Edward, in 1972, “confesses to the unintentional murder of his wife,” we are encouraged to surmise that she survives as a voice, able to reach her grieving husband by telephone.

So, is this a poetry chapbook or a piece of genre fiction (and if the latter, which genre)? Yes, it is. All of the above. Jensen tells the story as an assemblage. An excerpt from Edward’s thesis, an interview with his brother, and bits of a faux-biography do the heavy lifting—although none of these prose fragments achieves real understanding of the Dixons’ strange saga. 

The “truth” emerges through the prose poems of Dixon’s diary entries (“Our voices connect in the Ghost-World. The overlap is all we have to give”) and the poetry of shredded documents “recovered from the Dixon papers” and reassembled. The literal-minded biographer notes that “these documents seem to be transcripts of a voice unlike Dixon’s” and quotes another scholar’s theory that they constitute “‘automatic writings’ resulting from the extensive drug and alcohol use of Dixon’s later years.”

We, smarter readers can guess that the speaker in these shreds is Maribel. Who else would declare herself like this?

To be shapeless
     is what you’ve given me
          I can’t describe the form of your voice, its energy
                or the timbre of our love, which has its own noise.

Some sort of contact exists then, between the lovers, and Edward continues, over the decades, to seek a reunion with Maribel, which he may or may not have achieved when he vanishes on the night that a mysterious fire destroys his physiotranslator. One journal entry dated around the time of his disappearance reads in its entirety, “How do you love a lightning bolt? The answer: you do it quickly, and once.” A “singed fragment” found on the site of his “burned laboratory,” however, notes sadly, “They say lightning does not strike twice. It is true, it is true.”

Or is it? The final entry, another shredded and reassembled document, concludes:

There is no riddle
more complex than us. Simply say,

You have no need for body,
I am filled with you already.

Existence as disembodied language goes back at least as far as the myth of Echo and Narcissus and has beguiled  poets from Ovid to the present. Don’t we imagine the survival of our words as a form of immortality? In Maribel Dixon, Charles Jensen finds another form—and quite an appealing one—to embody this eternal fascination with the power of the tongue (or sound wave).  

Charles Jensen serves as the assistant director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He is the author of three chapbooks, including Little Burning Edens (Red Mountain Review, 2005) and Living Things (Thorngate Road Press, 2006). His poetry has appeared in Bloom, The Journal, New England Review, Spork, and West Branch. He is the founding editor of LOCUSPOINT, an online poetry magazine. 

return to top