In Eugene Ostashevsky’s book-length sequence of formally varied poems, The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, a pirate and his parrot go a-raiding, partying and punning their way across the high seas:
They raided packet boats, pedal boats
and boats at once packet and pedal,
palanders, pirogues, pontoons,
and gondolas made of metal,
dhows, dinghies, baidarkas,
catamarans and clippers,
feluccas, garrookuhs, tankers,
bathtubs and bathroom slippers!
(“The Ballad of the Pirate and His Parrot,” 11)
“We’ll pester people for piasters, those irrational stars,
As we sail seas unsoiled both near and far
With our Jolly Roget and our fun pun 2πARRRGH!”
(“Pirate Parrot Love (feat. Israel Hands),” 46)
Like Robinson Crusoe (or the crew of the Minnow, from Gilligan’s Island), the pair find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island – yet, as the Parrot points out to the Pirate, “It can’t be deserted if we’re on it.” (76)
Although he spins his tale in outrageous and hilarious rhymes across several languages, including English, Greek, sign, logic, math, and Russian, Ostashevsky is deadly serious. He’s a father of two young daughters and a fan of Dr. Seuss, and he no longer thinks it is “possible to write anything serious that is not funny.” The pun is one of his preferred tools:
For me, the heart of language is the pun. Puns are its opacity and materiality. They at once obstruct meaning and multiply it … Puns are about non-understanding and plural understanding, and understanding with unresolved contradictions. What they are not about is the one-truth model. (Interview, May 2012, with Jack Little. Ofi Press Magazine, Mexico City, No. 20.)
While we laugh as the piratical pair contemplate “whether booty actually is truth,” at the core of these poems lie the opacity, instability, and deep pleasures of language; the tragic and comic encounters between discoverer and “native” and between self and Other; and the unreliability of translation or communication. “Hello, nice weather we’re having, says the parrot. How do the grammatical structures of your language affect your experience of it?” (“The Island of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” 111)
These matters are the crux of Ostashevsky’s project. They were likewise central to his previous book, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), in which our Pirate and Parrot made their first, brief cameo appearances. These questions also haunt the Russian OBERIU poets of the 1920s and ’30s, such as Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, whose work Ostashevsky has edited and translated. If we speak different languages, if your native language is one I have acquired, do we experience the same thing in the same way? If, upon my arrival, you suddenly become “the other,” can we communicate at all? Does the effort to acquire and use another language change what we see? If the ultimate “other” is a member of another species, then can beasts reason? Do they have souls? How can you tell? In Ostashevsky’s book, Meliboeus and Tityrus (characters from Virgil’s Eclogues 1) debate the question here, and Descartes weighs in with a definitive answer (which Ostashevsky draws from a letter Descartes wrote to the Marquess of Newcastle on November 23, 1646):
The only way a man shows his body is not just a self-moving machine, but harbors a soul with thoughts, is by using words or other signs that stand for particular concepts and yet do not express any passion. A parrot can be taught to say hello to its master only by making the utterance of this word the expression of one of its passions. Thus if it is trained to say hello with a cracker, its hello will express its desire to eat one…. It is because animals have no thoughts but only passions that they cannot speak. Having no thoughts, they have no souls.
(“The Nudnik Who Became a Jihadnik: III. Cartesian Meditations,” 61)
Yet here’s a fragment of the conversation between our castaways, as they relax on the beach of their island:
Where does happiness come from, asks the parrot.
Where does your happiness come from, asks the pirate.
I feel happy when I am having an abstract thought, says the parrot. But that occurs very rarely.
Why, asks the pirate.
Because I’m not so intelligent, says the parrot. This is my Great Inner Grief.
You’re much more intelligent than me, says the Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi.
I know, says the parrot. But that’s not enough.
The existential difficulties rooted in language; the intimate but circular conversations fraught with gaps, frustrations, and misunderstandings; the risks and hope behind each attempt to communicate with another are present and enacted in the poems. We are faced with the loneliness of trying to make meaning in a world which, like the value of pi, is infinite yet offers neither pattern nor sequence. We can respond with both humor and beauty:
Of ARRRGHs and the pirate I sing
and of the parrot and entailments.
The pirate tells a tale of great odds. The day ends.
The nearsighted evening,
evening out all prizes, all signs of shipping,
dissolves what cut on the horizon
harbors his pie.
The parrot ponders what his tale meant.
(“Of ARRRGHs and the Pirate I Parrot,” 95)
In addition to fragments of Shakespeare, Poe, Keats, Stevens, Russian poets and Yiddish songs, embedded in the poems are texts of 16th and 17th-century explorers, describing their encounters with “natives” and “beasts,” both of which suddenly become “indigenous” upon the ship’s arrival. A glossary of words and phrases compiled in the late 16th century by explorer John M. Davis feels both utilitarian and utterly opaque, both languages unfamiliar to the modern reader:
Kesinyoh, Eate some.
Aginyoh, Go fetch.
Yliaoute, I mean no harme.
Ponameg, A boat.
Paaotyck, An oare.
Asanock, A dart.
Sawygmeg, A knife.
(“Particular Natives,” 117)
In this collection language is examined and experienced as a source of bafflement, tragedy, and pleasure. The poems are deftly woven from a variety of languages, traditions, and texts. Ostashevsky, whose first language is Russian, spins his song from the displacements and discoveries of his own voyages for our reading pleasure. Even the pirate and the parrot step out of the frame and away from the text to converse on matters existential:
“What a beautiful song,” said the pirate. “I wish I knew all the ship-names in it.”
“Shhh,” said the parrot. “We’ll look ’em up later.”
“Later when?” asked the pirate.
“When this book is over,” said the parrot.
The pirate fell into deep thought.
“Will we exist when this book is over?” he suddenly asked.
“If it’s a good book,” said the parrot.
(“The Ballad of the Pirate and His Parrot,” 12)
Despite being buffeted by storm and shipwreck and existential questions, our pirate and parrot never lose their balance. Neither does Ostashevsky in this hilarious, deeply serious, collection.
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NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, the author confesses that she has lived for 42 years with a yellow-naped Amazon parrot named George, who, upon hearing it read aloud, also fell in love with the book. He objects to the fact that Ostashevsky’s references to Hafiz, al-Ghazali, and parrots in Persian literature are excluded from this review. All his other suggestions have been incorporated.