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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

A User's Manual

Jiří Kolář

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To purchase A User's Manual

Title: A User's Manual
Author: Jiří Kolář
Genre: Poetry
Written: (1969) (Eng. 2019)
Length: 142 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: A User's Manual - US
A User's Manual - UK
A User's Manual - Canada
Gebrauchsanweisung - Deutschland
  • Czech title: Návod k upotřebení
  • With collages by the author
  • Translated and with a Note by Ryan Scott
  • Includes the original Czech text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : attractive volume; appealing idea and well-realized

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A User's Manual collects fifty-two of Jiří Kolář's 'action poems' (composed earlier, some as far back as the 1950s) and pairs each with a collage from his 'weekly'-series, pictorial commentary on an event from each week of the year (1967, in this case) -- though poem and event/illustration are not (necessarily) obviously (or otherwise) related.
       Each collage also has a descriptive heading/title -- as does each poem (with only occasional overlap or connection between the two). The events captured in the collages range from the readily recognizable and internationally familiar -- Week 49, 'Homage to a Heart Transplant', celebrates Christiaan Barnard's famous first -- to the more cryptic (Week 14 is: 'F.Z. + V.') or general (Week 9 depicts: 'Conversation', Week 37: 'Student').
       Many of the collages do use larger pieces of recognizable documentary material, including pictures and documents, but in many Kolář very effectively arranges small bits of writing (including foreign alphabets, as well as, for example, musical notes), sometimes also with other images, as in his 'Homage to O. Březina':

       Elsewhere he creates images through his arrangements; quite a few of the pieces are portrait-variations such as this 'Frontispiece for E.J.' (Emil Juliš):

       The poems are instructions (or suggestions) -- not so much exhortations to action as prodding to more playful exercises of sorts, action-experiments as thought-experiments; much of this is reminiscent of Yoko Ono's Grapefruit with its performance-piece/conceptual art instructions. (The English title of this collection is accurate but perhaps not ideal, in its misleading echoes of Georges Perec's famous work as well as sense of some specificity; the instructions are mostly almost general and random.)
       Many of the poems do suggest what can be considered conceptual art pieces: for example, 'Poem or Painting' directs the reader to:
Empty a room
lock, stock, and barrel
and sign the doorstep
as though you were signing
a poem or painting
       'Sonnet' suggests a (very roundabout) way of creating such a work:
Take a novel
you don't know
slice off the spine
remove the page numbers
and thoroughly jumble the pages
In this disorder
read the book
and in fourteen lines
summarise its contents
       While most of the poems stand more or less on their own (sometimes in some relation to the corresponding collage), occasionally sequences emerge that suggest the poet's shifting oblique engagement with real-world conditions, as in Weeks 18 through 20, where the poems move from a sense of defeated resignation to capitulation to reinvigorated (re)action:

In an empty
room entirely whitewashed
lean against a wall
an unfurled banner
with half-faded slogan
from a parade
festival or demonstration


From an empty birdcage
a white flag


Break down the door
tear out and smash the windows
tip over the furniture
tear down the pictures
scatter what you can
and muck up what you can
like the aftermath of a terrible
explosion or quake
       If mostly not overtly political, occasionally the poems certainly read very much like commentary on the absurdities of the rigid Communist system of the times and its demands and expectations. 'Parade' is absurd and extreme -- but many of the elements were all too recognizable in that time, making it not nearly as absurd as, on its face, it should be:
Stand in the corner
shut your eyes
count to a hundred
open your eyes
and put your left foot forward
and march to the opposite corner
so that without
sitting lying
or changing direction
the journey will take at least an hour
Make a note of everything
at least in slogans
that comes to our stands out
in your mind this whole time
       A User's Manual is a lovely book -- another beautiful volume from Twisted Spoon, who are always attentive to the physical feel and look of their books -- and a fine introduction of the work of Jiří Kolář. The poetry is enjoyable -- quite amusing, and some of it very effective -- and the collage-pieces often impressive -- though readers are encouraged to seek out more samples: Kolář was a very talented artist, and much of his collage-work is stunning. Usefully, this volume also includes all the poems in the Czech original as well, in a separate section. Translator Ryan Scott's Note is also of interest -- though additional supporting material, specifically in the form of annotations regarding the weekly events Kolář was reacting to in his corresponding collages would have been welcome; while some events and names are readily identifiable, many are not. As such a specific work, at least on the pictorial side -- reacting to the events of 1967 -- more background about these likely would enrich appreciation (and understanding) of the work as a whole

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2020

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A User's Manual: Reviews: Other books by Jiří Kolář under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech artist and author Jiří Kolář lived 1914 to 2002.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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