is a little man with a big problem. He is so perfectly inquisitive that his
questions lead him to comic extremes. This man, Boris, the character blundering
through Matvei Yankelevich's poetry in Boris by the Sea, perpetually teeters on the
edge of wonder, pondering with a childlike innocence through simple syntax
over where he begins and where he ends. He waters plants when he's thirsty.
He finds his own frontiers to be permeable and plastic. And he holds out his
hand and struggles to indentify to whom it belongs. Then finds that, 'People
need each other to open each other to open each other up and see what is
inside. And to scratch their backs'. Boris, with his philosophical microscope
inhabits the same constellation as works such as Italo Calvino's, Mr.
Alfred Jarry's, Ubu Roi (King Ubu) - all contortionists
powered with an absurd myopia that results in rendering the abstract clearly
despite great discomfort to the character's themselves. Boris is depicted as
a cartoon transformed as if by funhouse mirrors through his own obsessive,
yet relevant, inquiry with understated conclusions that surprise like
poignant self-deprecating punch lines, such as in the poem that begins simply
with, 'Boris lay flat on the ground and began to watch things happen':
got a crazy idea in his head to build something and
he began with
himself. He said to his right foot, build yourself.
And it did.
The left foot followed suit. It got boringÉ And
closed his eyes he fell asleep and dreamed of things
never build in his room, things he would never see
once he opened his eyes.
written about humor. At Chicago's 2nd City, out of which came such
figures as Steven Colbert, they teach in that in comedy, the darker the
content the lighter should be its treatment. Boris dies, more than once. He
changes gender and becomes temporarily a woman still named Boris. And
committed to experiment, he bites off the end of his finger but it doesn't
seem to be missing later. A sense of permanence and the comfort that might
afford continually eludes him while he is locked in a kind of eternal return.
Yankelevich presents a character in prose poems and theatrical sketches
through an intensely na•ve or weary voice, both being equal, since the
events, no matter how absurd, are narrated without a hint of surprise. The
resulting tone comes across as either the simple voice of child relating the
most incredible occurrences without knowing how radically different they
might be from mundane reality, or perhaps in the voice of another figure,
someone tired of language and its complicated tropes while still having the
impulse to speak and reach out to others. But that doesn't mean that Boris
by the Sea
is devoid of figurative language. The work simply employs a refreshingly
direct syntax with a commitment to economy; observable in such a passage:
'Boris has his own life. This life stood around Boris like and eyeless room,
not a door not a window. There was no way in or out'.
The voice's humor delivered throughout the work bears a resemblance to that
described by Mark Twain, in that the incredible is rendered as if unrecognized
by the narrator. Meanwhile, Henri Bergson considered the comedic element to
be present when one's behavior remains stubbornly locked in repetition. And
Freud wrote how the comic property was characterized by the surprising turn.
In the end, Yankelevich manages to satisfy all these observations while also
extending them to their extremes and in so doing has discovered a figure who,
though fantastic, is in possession of an utterly recognizable pathos. The
cartoonish and nearly Martian point of view of Boris is made real because the
boundaries he obsessively investigates are so elemental and universally
frustrating. Here, the seemingly common is made fresh. We watch as he slips
again and again on metaphysical banana peels and yet believe his anger 'that love
is not like in the songs'. Boris by the Sea is an important creation that will
endure. He is a fearless character who is radically wrenched in different
directions by the simplest curiosities. The work poses a rye charm that no
stale sketch regarding its humor can subdue, only acknowledge and admire.
Matvei Yankelevich is the author of The Present Work (Palm Press, 2006) and has
translated Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook, 2007;
Ardis/Overlook paperback, 2009), and has contributed to OBERIU: An
Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern Univ., 2006), Night Wraps the Sky:
Writings by and about Mayakovsky (FSG, 2008); and Contemporary Russian Poetry (Dalkey Archive, 2008). He
teaches Russian Literature at Hunter College and is an editor at Ugly
Duckling Presse as well as 6x6, a poetry periodical.
Robert Fontella 2010
Fontella is the author of a book of poetry, Lines Through (Seetalk
2010). A bi-lingual play of his, Clown Crossing, will be
performed at the 2010 Arizona Fringe Festival. He is currently pursuing a MFA
in creative writing though the University of New Orleans.