Metaphysical Banana Peels


Boris by the Sea, Matvei Yankelevich (62pp, £9.35, Octopus Books)


There 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. Palomar and 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':

      Boris 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
     when he closed his eyes he fell asleep and dreamed of things
     he could never build in his room, things he would never see
     before him once he opened his eyes.

Many have 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


Robert 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.