I have been waiting for Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Life and Times of DJ Spinoza ever since I saw his ribald virtuosic performance five years ago in some obscure midtown gallery. Yes, let me repeat that: He didn’t read. He performed. He even (and beware the white male poet who dares to rap before a podium) rapped. The rapping was 1.5 generation Russian immigrant geek rap but give the guy respect for having rhythm. His brilliant collection is finally out from Ugly Duckling Press.
The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza is made up of absurdly hilarious narrative poems starring the battle-happy philosopher hero DJ Spinoza who engages in lethal food fights with Andrew Marvell (“Then DJ Spinoza throws frutti di mare all over the metaphysical poet”), vanquishes Che Bourashka (notorious for “killing the emperor of China/by a fusillade of thumbtacks”) and feuds with his ultimate nemesis, the contradictory Heideggerian monster, the Begriffon. You’re not going to find too many poetry collections that are this action-packed. But while DJ Spinoza might have more testosterone fueled bravado than a pack of sauced British soccer fans, he is also prone to both meditation and action, pausing mid-battle to spew math equations or ponder the ontological nature of reality, morality, love or the limitations of language. And of course, there’s also a love story involving the Bride of DJ Spinoza, a mathematician in her own right: “I’m not an engineer, I’m a mathematician. I’m not even an applied mathematician, I’m pure.”

Much of the brilliance of this book stems from Ostashevksy’s mastery in cramming a wild variety of registers and languages (high, low, French, Russian, Latin, math equations, urban slang, bad puns) into loose heroic couplets or verse plays. Actually, it’s not his mastery but his apparent lack of mastery. Ostashevsky’s iambs are tone-deaf and his rhymes are terrible (“The crow snaps its wings, caws erratically/but the cow only smiles enigmatically”) but that’s precisely the point. I remember watching a documentary on the artist Nam June Paik and his curator commenting that Paik spoke five languages but he spoke them all badly. Ostaskevsky writes verse like a bungling immigrant who mangles English and then some. But his clumsiness is still disciplined and deliberate; he will pull off dexterous word play, hilarious double-entendres, and ram crass and clever juxtapositions of high and low references: “The bride of DJ Spinoza/has an absolute cleavage/like that between natural numbers and Aleph-null.”
In the book’s latter half, DJ Spinoza falls pray to his own neurosis. Even God, DJ Spinoza’s fair-weather companion, is neurotic, always asking for affirmation of his existence. DJ Spinoza becomes less action hero and more like that other Shakespearean hero, as he obsesses over his incapacity to break out of his solipsism and kvetches about exile (God punts DJ Spinoza out of his country). I know few contemporary American poets who write like Ostashevsky. He is more akin to his Russian predecessors such as Mandelstam, Brodsky and more closely the Oberiu poets (Ostashevsky edited an invaluable anthology of Obeiru poetry), a little-known group of Russian Absurdist poets from the ‘30s who also had a penchant for parody and bad rhymes. And to give you a sample of such verse, I will leave you with an excerpt of Ostashevsky’s poetry:
Now Mc Squared gets his turn
He looks more stern than a Mesosoic fern
He squeezes the trigger and cries,
“O gosh! Now I have to wash
again! What a dumb error! I squeezed the brioche!”
And he retires from the theater of operations
Frantically sprinkling baby powder on his expiring shirt
The bride of DJ Spinoza emerges on the balcony
THE BRIDE OF DJ SPINOZA: Who’s that that stalks by the zoccolo
(note: this line is in Cyrillic and I can’t get it on my computer)
studying me through an ocular
What an invasive f*** you are
DJ Spinoza: It’s me that stalks by the zoccolo
(note: again in Cyrillic)
Come down softly and open your door
Cause I got more rhymes than Joseph Brodsky
Cause I got more rhymes than Leon Trotsky
She comes down and drop-kicks him in the head.

Originally Published: December 15th, 2008

Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo'um, (Hanging Loose Press, 2002); Dance Dance Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2007), winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; and Engine Empire (W.W. Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the...

  1. December 16, 2008
     Bill Knott

    . . . in his intro to a selection of translations from Hagiwara Sakutaro,
    Hiroaki Sato writes about the poet's employment of
    a favorite mode of Hagiwara, according to Sato,
    who defines it as
    "Translation style . . . writings that read like clumsy translations."

  2. December 18, 2008

    There are reviews of his two earlier collections, most of which were folded into the new collection, posted at Galatea Resurrects. More about his poetic heritage, more quotes, a different take...
    Here are the links:
    Enter Morris

  3. December 19, 2008

    There are reviews of his two earlier collections, most of which were folded into the new collection, posted at Galatea Resurrects. More about his poetic heritage, more quotes, a different take...
    Here are the links:
    Enter Morris

  4. December 19, 2008
     Jason Crane

    Thanks for this review. I bought the book based on it. I just finished the book and loved it.