“Once upon a time I walked poisoned down a road, / and time walked in step by my side,” Alexander Vvedensky writes a mere four pages into The Gray Notebook, a compilation of thoughts written between 1932 and 1933 after his return from exile (4). Yet, had I not told you of the translator’s note of how aged this text is in comparison to us, you might, as I did, imagine this text to have been written much more recently based on the questions it asks and Vvedensky’s uncomfortable degree of honesty.
Vvedensky’s notebook may be separated into three distinct parts: an epigraph like poem on page one, followed by a multi-voiced poetic conversation, culminating in seven prose-like musings broken into titled sections. Its lack of linearity asks a reader to engage through following.
Though there is a sense of order. The first poem, untitled, employs elements of rhyme and repetition; it creates a comfortable footing for a reader to enter the notebook on. Yet, even in this poem, Vvedensky begins to question: “Why shouldn’t man, like death or stone, / watch the sand without a word” (5). And with poem’s end, readers are introduced to the multi-voiced poetic conversation beginning with Kolokolov offering cheers “to the bird in the air, / who flied like a frantic / circling over bushes of excitement…” (7).
Circularity is a common theme in Vvedensky’s notebook. He returns and stutters over numerous ideas: time, zero, the ability to make sense of language. “Before every word,” he states, “I put the question: what does it mean, and over every word I place the mark of its tense” (11). Tense, in relation to time, leads Vvedensky and likewise his reader to consider philosophically the movement of existence: “Our logic and our language skid along the surface of time. / And yet, perhaps one can try…” (13). The most surprising moments of Vvedensky’s notebook exist in moments of hope: “And yet, perhaps one can try and write something, if not about time…then at the very least try to fix those few positions of our superficial experience of time” (13).
The Gray Notebook is highly poetic, modern, and challenging. With such sections as “Time and Death,” and deep delves into language in “Objects” and “Verbs,” Alexander Vvedensky’s notebook acts as a literary field guide in which he tries to identify movements in language that coincide with time. In the section entitled “Verbs,” Vvedensky states, “When we go somewhere we take the verb to go with us” (16). His poetry is statement driven. And yet, his poetry is playful:
It is not very often one meets a writer in this mode of sussing out; nor is it very often one comes across writer as vulnerable and noticeably under pressure. This is the joy of The Gray Notebook. It is honest. It reminds one of the confessional poets, although it is wholly unaware of itself. And more so, it is unfinished: the final word halted, only two letters long, asks his reader to eternally wonder what he meant.
Read The Gray Notebook for free at Ugly Duckling Presse
Allison Donohue is a new and emerging poet. Born in Washington DC, she grew up in Centreville, VA. She received a BA in English, Creative Writing from Virginia Tech in 2012 where she also received the Graduation Award for Poetry. Currently, she is pursuing an MA in English Literature with a focus on Poetics at Texas Tech University.