In the middle of his first book, the long poem Zero Readership (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), Filip Marinovich writes of his familial and aesthetic allegiances, two preoccupations that appear throughout this marvelous text: “The grampa brings me a cup of coffee while I type. Have I told you about him. Grampa Chaki. I’ve ever / fog / forgotten how to be a surrealist…” (103). Marinovich’s poem is partly about the effort to remember those aspects that sustain his life and art, to retain one’s allegiances across time and space. But forgetting can be fun. Or at least Marinovich makes it fun. And who wants to be a surrealist anymore anyways? (We do.)
The first thing you should know about this book is that it was composed on a typewriter between 2001 and 2006 during visits the author made to see family and friends in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Serbia and Montenegro. (You should also know Filip is my friend and I think this is a brilliant book, so it’s pretty hard to be objective about Zero Readership. OK, back to the book and Mr. Marinovich.) The typewriter part is important because Ugly Duckling Presse has chosen to publish the book with a beautiful large-size format illustrated with Marinovich’s charcoal and crayon drawings, and using antique typewriter-style font. As one reads the poem, one senses the energy of the manual typewriter as an instrument the poet uses in order to break up space in his own mind as well as on the page. The narrow column format of this blog won’t allow me to render the exquisite care and beauty of the improvisations Marinovich works with throughout the book. This isn’t to say the poem wanders aimlessly, as its author definitely has a purpose and he achieves it with grace and precision. Rather, he wants the reader to have fun, to enjoy the interplay between poet and (antique) machine.
So, when he jokes that he’s “forgotten how to be a surrealist” the poet is reminding us that all great poetry must forget its ancestors, must start over with each page, no matter how loyal one might feel towards certain aspects of the past. As John Wieners wrote in the opening pages of his journal in the spring of 1958: “I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me.” I mention Wieners because he’s one of the “ancestors” (comrades, really) one finds hovering throughout Marinovich’s poetry. Not necessarily in a direct manner, but in the poet’s awareness that there is no true separation between life and poem, that they bleed into each other constantly.
(The last time I saw Filip was in October of 2006, when I was in New York City for a few days and we unexpectedly ran into each other at the Poetry Project. We spent some time talking over a period of two days and I remember asking him what Jack Spicer book I should read first. After a few minutes of consideration he said: “The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether,” where I would later find this: “Promise to whatever is promised / Love to whatever is loved / Ghosts to whatever is ghosts…” Like Spicer, Marinovich understands poems as avenues the poet travels & inhabits, which is to say, he doesn’t control them, he’s merely a factor within them.)
This book is also an epistolary collection, as e-mails and letters to friends back in the U.S. are mixed in with journal-type sketches, automatic writing exercises on the typewritten field, meticulously measured stanzas that will suddenly break into prose or seep out onto the full page, bringing the reader into a variety of forms and moods, sometimes coffee-fueled (“I can drink as much coffee as I want to here and feel alert not panicky” (20)), at others in discomfort or perplexity at the complications of transnational family diasporas. One of these discomforts is the author’s awareness that he is returning to visit his family with a U.S. passport, a representative of an empire whose weapons and policies have devastated places such as Belgrade. One of his interlocutors says to him, at one point, in reference to his use of place as a muse:
“You like Belgrade?
You like the inspiration
you receive here
among family—million cousins—?
deal with traces of
depleted uranium bombing
by NATO in ’99” (63)
Part letter/e-mail to friends, part journal, part ecstatic automatic poem, part paean to heritage and place, part travelogue, part pamphlet critiquing the U.S. as self-absorbed empire, part epic (as the subtitle says), Zero Readership never stands still. Let’s jump to some of the moments when Marinovich is at his best, surprising himself and his reader with sudden leaps in language and consciousness:
four black suitcases lined up against the china cupboard
ORIGIN in white lettering down their sides
where are we going?
ancestor ancestor what is an ancestor?” (16)
“oh but to find things where they be—
Muse do please assist me—
you flicker in Mark’s lightblue email screen and
the quiet things he types me— (—
“Muse, hah? Sounds progressive!” ” (47)
“Will US know it’s war until we have to use rations?” (52)
“You find a machine
and hit it hard
until it coughs up
a page for two
and throw out the poison
accumulating in you.” (91)
“refuse to be influenced
ache one step at a time” (97)
“and the naked will topple your governments, West
and nothing will be left not even nafta nafta nafta” (114)
I admit I find prophecy in these pages, though it might be more accurate to call it awareness. (Ginsberg is another comrade floating through this poem.) Our poet knows that his notebook and typewriter serve a greater purpose. He takes on the task of family scribe, tribal ear. And yet his poem remains a solitary excursion, one as concerned with sex and self as it is with the collapse of our shrinking world. The “epic” alluded to in the book’s subtitle is the adventure of the individual in a dangerous age, the awareness of poetry as a chronicle we can never fully translate but that sustains us in our grief and fear. He chooses a measured optimism: coffee and beer for the poet, along with books, lovers, friends and airplanes. New York City and Belgrade, the poet’s split homes, end up being one and the same in this vast pamphlet. In Zero Readership, Filip Marinovich’s typewriter joins them in an impossibly sweet concert, never too dreamy or too serious; equipoised.