The Chush of Kharms: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

By V. Vizu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26

Hi Everybody-

If I can swing it to play hooky from work on Thursday afternoon I’m going to attend  About Fred Moten’s poem ‘Come on, get it!’  I want to learn more about Fred Moten, and this conversation, about the challenges of translating his poem to French for an art show, sounds as if it might get into some of the cross-modal issues I like to think about.

This week I’ve been reading Danil Kharms ’Today I Wrote Nothing” translated by Matvei Yankelevich (Ardis, New York, 2009). (Yankelevich also translated Vvedenskys Rug/Hydrangea a couple of months back on Poetry Daily ( Today I Wrote Nothing has me at the title because I love anti-aesthetic memes. Kharms (and Vvedensky) were part of a group of Russian writers who formed the collective OBERIU, dedicated to the absurd (Yankelevich takes great care in his introduction to break down the trope of the Stalinist artist battling totalitarianism with absurdity: it’s very much worth reading.) Kharms wrote in 1937 that only “chush” was of interest to him. In his introduction, Yankelevich enumerates the meanings of “chush”: nonsense, baloney, a bunch of crap, stuff that just happens by chance (“au hasard”), the seemingly meaningless.

The book contains a number of prose pieces that are the antecedents of James Tate’s ’The Government Lake’ which I talked about in an earlier letter. One begins:


Tumbling Old Women

Because of her excessive curiosity, one old woman tumbled out her window, fell and shattered to pieces.

Another old woman leaned out to look at the one who’d shattered but, out of excessive curiosity, also tumbled out of her window, fell and shattered to pieces.


By the time the brief piece is finished 6 women have died. In the end: “I got sick of watching them and walked over to Maltsev Market where, they say, a blind man had been given a knit shawl.”

The pattern of a natural human impulse (here it’s curiosity) leading to bizarre catastrophe (they shatter) is established in piece after piece, and the “conclusions” are no conclusions at all; they’re merely trivia. (There’s a famous novella in here, a take on Crime and Punishment, in which a caterpillar balls itself up at the end as if it wants to be some sort of metaphor for the whole story, but the author says “At this point I temporarily end my manuscript in the belief it has drawn on long enough”)

What is the core impulse or dilemma, the universal, that sets off the poetic machine in our world? Is that in your poem?

Can you create a pattern of bizarre developments in your poem? (Jim Klein does this in An Egg Heated In Vinegar, in RWB 13)

Should you write a poem that resists all coherence? If you say no, perhaps that’s because of your answer to the first question?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture

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