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(REVIEW) The Feeling Sonnets, by Eugene Ostashevsky


Cai Draper reviews Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Feeling Sonnets (Clinic Press, 2019) by way of ambivalence, intensity, mathematics and feeling into song.


> Found in the first line of The Feeling Sonnets by Eugene Ostashevsky (Clinic Press, 2019) is the phrase 'profound ambivalence', which – if we understand ambivalence to mean 'in two strengths', rather than 'uncertainty' – is an ideal way to describe this book of parallels and paradox.


> Its cover is a scarlet shock, pointing us in many directions before we've read a single poem: a little red book and so it is. But paired with such a title, are we not also being warned of red-hot feeling? Also, are these sonnets ‘about’ feeling, or are the sonnets themselves doing the feeling? In keeping with the finely-balanced tension between massive histories, philosophical rumination, linguistic recognizance and dry humour that runs through each line of the sequence to follow, the title and author's name are framed in harsh white borders, as if to say: here’s a lot.


> Framing is a recurring motif, the most pertinent being language itself. The first sonnet continues, 'The name feeling suggests there is something to feel for here.' We are in a world in which language – in this example, the fact and nature of a name – sets all precedent. From the mutually creative work of subject-object dynamics, to obscured histories of communism, to aesthetic experience, every other theme works inside and because of this primary frame. The notion is reprised in ‘sonnet IX’, wherein the typically droll lines announce:

We formulate feelings and then we feel them. We formulate them then we feel them.

By the second line, ‘feelings’ have been obliterated by the deictic ‘them’, inexplicably creating a new space for their existence.


> Words are playfully reformulated in other ways throughout, often by taking an existing word and employing a type of backformation to journey through novel observations. Sonnet II asks, ‘As for number, is it so named because it is numb.’ Likewise, this, in sonnet VI: 'Must belonging end with longing.' To varying degrees of existential urgency, these questions (or are they?) are posed throughout. The missing question marks leave us with these eerie hybrids which both declare and interrogate.


> Returning to the previous trope, Ostashevsky toys, 'A pair of glasses is formed of spectacles and frame.' The figure here alludes to how we might ‘read’ (glasses) any number of texts, including this poetry: the modern history of Russia and Europe (spectacles), viewed from our own linguistic vantage (frame).


> Elsewhere, the limits of this vantage are met in a discussion of the value of mathematics: ‘We have read about 13 X 149 and other numbers.’ This problem is equal to 1937, the year in which the Soviet Union’s ‘Great Purge’ reached its most bloodthirsty. By the end of 1938, Stalinist repression was responsible for the deaths of over a million people. The poetry speaks both to our inability to comprehend such scale, and the power of language to confront it: ‘Our literacy is greater than our numeracy.’


> Ending with a trilingual poem which addresses the proximity of sorrow (in German das Leid) and song (das Lied), this book is a timely reminder that our dying – but more importantly our living – at once prefigures and is prefigured by language. Here’s to singing along.

The Feeling Sonnets is out now and available to order from Clinic Press.


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Text: Cai Draper

Published 4/8/20