Simultaneity or Stasis? Vasilij Kamenskij's "Ferroconcrete Poems"

Timothy C. Harte, Harvard University

In March 1914 at Mixail Larionov's Petrograd exhibition "No. 4," the futurist Vasilij Kamenskij showed eleven "ferroconcrete poems" ("zhelezobetonnye po╦my"), highly visual works in which the arrangement of words overshadowed any overt rhythm or substantive meaning. For Kamenskij, the visual attributes embedded in a word or line of ferroconcrete poetry superceded the acoustic component of the composite phrase. Subsequently, it was virtually impossible to read these ferroconcrete "paintings" aloud, for both appreciation and comprehension favored the human gaze over the human ear. In the early 1910s Kamenskij had turned his attention to the city, blending his former interest in neo-primitivism with rapture over flight (Kamenskij himself was a celebrated pilot) and other futurist themes indicative of instantaneous motion. Kamenskij's ferroconcrete works, with their fractured lines and conspicuous absence of verbs, forced readers to dispense with syntax and to perceive words solely on visual grounds, all at the expense of a conventional, fluid reading from left to right. These poems, in fact, were "constructed" in a way that drew directly from the medium of painting, as Kamenskij experimented freely with typography (and orthography) during this futurist stage of his career. In the 1914 collection Tango with Cows, which included the majority of Kamenskij's ferroconcrete poems, letters, numbers, and other typographic forms contribute to the pictorial effect of the various poems, as if the poet allows elements of the modern city to participate in his urban landscape.

Why, one might query, did Kamenskij choose the term "ferroconcrete" to classify these supposedly dynamic poems that emerged during the heyday of Russian futurism? It seems paradoxical that Kamenskij would link such a solid, static substance like reinforced concrete to issues of dynamism, but perhaps Kamenskij was less concerned with the heftiness of this material than with ferroconcrete's symbolization of the developing urban landscape. For Kamenskij ferroconcrete was a substance in motion, substantively supporting the spirited growth of modern society. Kamenskij, I would argue, had taken the term and fashioned it as a symbol of a dramatic, speed-inspired push upward.

Drawing directly upon the typographical playfulness promoted by Marinetti and other Italian futurists, Kamenskij realized that the depiction of speed and motion on paper was best served by complementing poetic texts with images and patterns that would optically enhance the impression of dynamism. The ferroconcrete format of poems like "The Nikitin Circus," "The Cabaret Zone," and "The Bathhouse," among others, allows the reader to peer into these newly constructed buildings and in some cases, to enter the buildings, virtually wandering among rooms (and words). No other collection of poems at the time was able to recreate such a tangible sense of life in the city and its endless motion. On a more immediate, receptive level, simultaneity permeates these picture-like poems and their ferroconcrete structure, as the reader must peruse the verse in an unfamiliar fashion, jumping from word to word. As I will argue in this paper, phrases and words function concurrently in the ferroconcrete poems, with no true beginning and end in the works, only a sense that the words act symphonically, sustaining the poems like a building's ferroconcrete foundation. Highlighting the dynamic possibilities of print, Kamenskij had constructed poems that were static in name only.