Today He Wrote Something
By Matvei Yankelevich
United Artists Books, 2012
There are times when trying to write something feels like this: “Words. Can’t say something with them. Can’t say something without them.” A writer can strive for all the clarity, precision, accuracy, and care she or he can muster, but there’s always a certain slipperiness in and among the words, a problem that cannot be completely erased. It’s like what Winston Churchill once said about Russia, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It’s the mysterious burrito of language. We are vexed, but our worries are not merely the over-scrupulosity of post-everything writers. Ask any decent Russian poet from the 1930’s if words were allowed to say something. More often than not, permission was withheld.
Or you could ask Matvei Yankelevich. Yankelevich was born in Moscow in 1973, but moved with his parents to the United States when he was four years old. Today, he is a founding member of the volunteer editorial collective at Ugly Duckling Presse, translates Russian poetry—most particularly the work of the futurist Daniil Kharms—and teaches at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. He has published three books and chapbooks: Boris by the Sea (Octopus Books), The Present Work (Palm Press), and Writing in the Margin (Loudmouth Collective). He now has a fourth, full-length book, Alpha Donut, The Selected Shorter Works of Matvei Yankelevich. Alpha Donut pulls together poems, prose poems and prose texts written from 2000 to 2011. These are mostly standalone (or standalone-ish) poems; woven in and among them are short pieces, set off by asterisks or octothorpes, from two different series Yankelevich has been working on, Writing in the Margin, and Bar Poems.
Yankelevich writes “I want to be plainspoken,” and, at first glance, the pieces in Alpha Donut appear direct and candid. They have clarity, precision, and attention, as well as—when needed—perfect comic timing. So yes, he is plainspoken, but that doesn’t mean that Alpha Donut is unperturbed by or unaware of the enigmas of communication.
If there are two poles to Yankelevich’s writing, you can detect them in the last pieces of the book, where he writes,
Looking up from the typewriter you realize you are obsolete
It’s time for me to speak
in your ear
though you cannot
see me. Your ear is turned
toward me. And I am
turned toward your ear. It’s
as if it were made for poetry,
your ear, facing me as it
On the one hand, the writer falls into disuse—is no longer needed—at the moment of writing. Yankelevich writes in the first piece of the book “I am afraid more and more of writing. It reveals my inability to write.” As Paul Muldoon has said, “a writer is someone who has problems writing.” Writing is a problem for writers in a way that it is not a problem for the rest of us.
On the other, what’s written continues to speak, and when you read it, your ear—an ear “made for poetry”—is turned to where the writer’s voice is. There’s no obscurity or confusion when speaker and listener are close. Hearing what’s being said isn’t hard. This is the place Yankelevich may finally want to be:
Most of the
words I’ve wanted to say
I’ve already said. To say
them again would seem
redundant. But the simple
words can be said more
If only he can get there.
In Alpha Donut, Yankelevich makes both these points of view—moving away from and towards writing’s gravity well—delightful and engaging, as in the poem “Buster Keaton Will Not Play Mayakovsky”:
Buster Keaton puts on a poker face and leaps
into oncoming traffic, Mayakovsky emerges,
tire tracks burned into the steps of his nose.
Their eyes meet in mortal combat over
the avenue of thought called a movie.
I would never have seen the family resemblance between Keaton and Mayakovsky without Yankelevich pointing at their mutual combination of manic seriousness and dour slapstick. At the end,
It’s warm enough as it is. Can’t you see I’m
blind? BUSTER: The novel will be about Paris
because no one will let me go to Paris
where love is free. VLADIMIR: Everybody gets
their just desserts. BUSTER: all I get is jello.
Is it wrong of me to hear a faint echo of some Estragon and—ahem—Vladimir, some “Waiting for Godot” shtick in this? Maybe, but Alpha Donut is rife with references, both glancing and direct, to other writers and artists:
“Artaud says, “I am my mind.”
“Gertrude Stein didn’t make it there.”
“Grid Kafka and you get…/(I don’t know, Pynchon, or something.)”
“…make your home/a little brighter utopia Khlebnikov/predicted…”
“only the red (wheel/barrow/has such small) hands.”
The book also includes a translation of Mandelstam’s “Silentium, 1910,” and titles like “To Li Po at John Jay,” “For Henri Michaux,” and “In Memoriam Daniil Kharms.” These other poets are embedded in Alpha Donut. They do not feel external to it. They feel integral. Why? Because they evince the poet’s real relationship to these varied masters, and because what we read and absorb is also part of our world. There’s no screen between primary and vicarious experience. As Emerson writes, “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”
Though Yankelevich has absorbed the broad array of poets and poetries that have preceded the current century, he seems uninterested in pushing severe formal strategies or in torqueing and deforming syntax or grammar for its own sake. In Alpha Donut, estrangement takes place at a more fundamental level. If his poems seem “not difficult” (“My work is simply the writing on the page. There is no more depth. Where there is depth it gets too dark to see”), their complexity creeps up on you.
Take, for example, “How to Use a Library,” a strange travelogue that seems random (“Favor crowded tables. Ask for directions. Take care the turnstile moves around only once. People who dress smart are often stupid. Settle fitfully into a blue, tepid armchair”) until you realize it’s a building filled with words. One of the book’s untitled poems is a list of tortures that “no one” is performing on the speaker (“no one has taken a hammer to me; no one//is binding me with rope or barbed/wire, no one is piercing me/with knives, nor scarring me/with broken glass;”), ending with the one atrocity that requires no agent. “Thought is Cypher” riffs on the surprising non-transparency and political entanglement of thought (“Last year thought was bourgeois/This year I can’t afford it.//Thought—the new poverty-chic.”), while “Epistolary Poem,” a close look at the fabric of language (“They say/a letter should communicate, but it only/exists as part of communication. A sound/alone isn’t much. Some letters, though/make me very excited. Vowels mostly,/long and emotive. Not screams/exactly, but close. More moans/than screams.”) is as full of tension as a Hitchcock thriller.
If Yankelevich has his concerns and worries about the act of writing, and connecting through writing, they do not take precedence over the poem on the page. If what comes up throughout is that recurring donut hole, the problem of writing anything, of speaking and meaning, it is also true that a book made of nothing but donut holes would soon be dreary, like translating Willard Quine’s Word and Object into Braille Esperanto. The world is here in these poems, too, and it’s delicious and vivid. Yankelevich can evoke New York City or Russia, as in “End of a Poem for Douglas”:
…on the way back from the station
the grates underfoot resemble, better
identical to, the Empire State. I navigate
the spray—men in yellow boots pound
the pavement with hoses—
and a bail of hay emerges
among orange barricades, tossed cups
& plastic straws.
or in one of the many untitled pieces in the book:
I had the best little caramel fudge
in Novy Sad with my espresso.
A good cappuccino later in the square.
Belgrade: several good coffees a day
not spectacular always, but good.
I feel fat from the whole bottle
of buttermilk & the horn of bread
& the banana at noon.
So there are not two kinds of poems here. There are many kinds of poems with differing precepts and varying conceits and outcomes. It all goes in the mix. One of my favorites is “Nown.” I love how Yankelevich compresses “noun,” “now,” “own,” and “known” into the title. The first stanza starts out as a pastoral grammar:
Hop hop hop
goes the busy noun
following its chosen object
like an angry bee, but more
like a frightened rabbit
running away from the buzz
of saws in the woods.
The poem mirrors Mandelstam’s bees (“busy bees”) of Persephone, where bees are the incarnation of words, and where the word is the object’s soul (its “nown”), hovering over an abandoned and beloved thing. Here the naming word is suddenly a terrified prey being chased out of the forest by the sound of tree after tree toppling. It’s not the buzz of honey-collecting, but of decimation. It is only through that brutal leveling that language can attach itself to the world:
And the noun would stop
and stand still for once
two, three times,
attracted to the object of itself
and then live
In “Buttons”, a poem early in the book, a necklace of buttons with words written on the inside side takes the place of Mandelstam’s necklace of dead bees (“But lay to your heart my rough gift,/this unlovely dry necklace of dead bees/that once made a sun out of honey.”) with the same kind of transformation as in “Nown”.
the war, all the buttons fell off. Those
that didn’t fall off were cut
from the clothing of
the people. No the buttons no longer
touch the clothing—instead
they touch each other
on all sides.
I’ve never been so afraid
Everything is just as serious for Yankelevich as it was for Mandelstam, despite the differences between the regime Mandelstam lived under and the one Yankelevich lives in today. So it’s important to stay as sharp and tender and funny as possible.
Is it worth noting that in topology, a donut, a coffee mug, buttons, and our bodies are equivalent shapes, that one can be turned into the other through deformation? Or that donut “holes” are the most existentially fraught of all foods (You’re eating a “hole”?)? Who is the alpha donut?
I’M THE MONDAY POET
AT THE ALPHA DONUT
Yankelevich happens to be in a particular place at a particular time, no more, no less. Still, he can write to us, and we can hear him; it turns out we have a lot in common. So, as much his poems scare him and complicate his life, they have a little bit of a crush on us. There’s nothing like reading a poem that likes you. Is life like a box of donuts? Not even close, but sometimes reading —or writing—a poem can be as satisfying and fun as a couple of glazed with a good mug of coffee.
Michael Gushue runs the micro-press Beothuk Books and is co-founder with poet Dan Vera of Poetry Mutual, a poetry incubator that sponsors events, publishes books and builds community among writers and audiences. His work has appeared online and in print, most recently in the journal Gargoyle and the online journal Locuspoint. His books are Gathering Down Women, from Pudding House Press and Conrad from Souvenir Spoon Books. He lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC.