“Poetry for those who haven’t read much poetry” – A User’s Manual by Jiri Kolar

According to the book’s publisher, Twisted Spoon Press, Czechoslovakian poet/artist Jiri Kolar (1914-2002) was arrested and jailed in the 1950s by the country’s communist regime. He became famous in the 1960s for a series called Weekly 1968 that merged texts with collages in 52 poems that have been collected as A User’s Manual.

After I had read about half of the very simple, short poems in A User’s Manual, themes began to emerge and repeat themselves: absurdity, randomness, and colossally inane gestures that mock authority. The poems generally start as commands or directives that involve the reader taking some mundane or ordinary action: “sit down at the table” and “write your beloved’s first name/across a sheet of blank paper.” But the next step or order slides into the outrageous or surreal realm: “jump up/toss away the pen/run out the hall.” These lines, which come from the very first poem of the collection, set the tone for the entire collection of 52 poems. 

This short poem opens with a couple of clear, seemingly rational directives that are quickly subverted:

“Remove the pictures from the wall

get rid of the carpet

gather the furniture in the centre of the room

cover it with wrapping paper

as if preparing to paint

stand in the corner facing the wall

and stay there as long as you can” (15#)

Taking down pictures from the wall and preparing to paint are responsible, sane reactions to the order. Refusing to act any further are the decisions of a person with an unknown, almost subversive agenda.

Poem 17# is much shorter and ends on an even more absurd note:

“Empty a room

lock, stock, and barrel

and sign the doorstep

as though you were signing

a poem or painting”

Here the reader has moved beyond simply emptying his room; he’s chosen a more active role of an artist who is so proud of his non-action that he has autographed it. 

Love is another typical poetry theme that is upended by Kolar. In poem 23# the reader is ordered to make love on a statue and calculate the places where kisses and affection were received and shared. Love is reduced to numbers that can be tabulated like sales figures. In poem 27# the lover’s mission is quite different. He is urged to cull through history for the names of lovers who died without actually getting married, print wedding announcements for them, and “hand them out on the street/on the day and hour/stated/ on the wedding announcement.” Love isn’t valid until it has been sanctioned by the government. This mocks the more natural order of love and weddings.

Sometimes the absurd commands involve a destructive activity or action. Poem 10# commands the reader to gather from the post office box all of the mail that has been collected and “tear up/and scatter to the wind/without being certain/who sent or wrote what.” In a communist regime, such callous treatment and destruction of government property would probably be considered traitorous or even grounds for arrest because propaganda and rules would most likely be mailed to citizens.

Some of my favorite poems were the blatantly absurdist ones. In poem 8# the reader is commanded to scatter coins outside a children’s school playground just before school is finished. The reader is urged in poem 11# to say nothing all day and then at the end of day to “buy a live fish and release it in the river.” In the next poem the commands are even more extreme and absurdist: “say hello to a rubbish bin/pour a bottle of perfume down the drain.” All links between the order and the action have been expunged.  This is one of the many poems that is clearly influenced by the Dada movement of the 1920s that prioritised playful silliness and absurd randomness to emphasise that there is no point to be made.

For the most part Kolar’s poems avoid any overtly political calls to rebellion or insurrection. They demonstrate how individual people can exhibit their displeasure in small, daily surreal acts. One poem commands the reader to pack a suitcase for a long trip “as though expecting/a thorough search by customs.” In another poem the reader is getting instructions about how to prepare for a mugshot. First, the description is simply directionally: from “the front/then from the right and then the left.” Then the actual definition of what data to include in a mugshot is expanded to add “weight/height/chest waist neck measurement/length of arm leg penis.” Mugshots have become more invasive, threatening, and comprehensive.

For each one of these 52 poems, a collage is presented on the opposite page. Some were striking or evocative. Unfortunately, grasping the interplay between the book’s collage aspects and its poems is very difficult because the pictures are just too small for scrutiny. I’d love to experience the poems and the collages displayed coterminously in a large exhibition. Explanatory footnotes could identify the figures or place them in a 1960s communistic, Czechoslovakian context.

Any Cop?: In many ways, Kolar’s A User’s Manual is poetry for those who haven’t read much poetry or don’t think it can be understood or enjoyed. These 52 poems are short, written in clear, understandable language, and very accessible. Perhaps a perfect holiday gift for the readers in your circle. 

 

Chris Oleson

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