by Alex Estes
Lo and Behole
Boris by the Sea
(Octopus Books, 2009)
The Present Work
(Palm Press, 2006)
Alpha Donut: The Selected Shorter Works of Matvei Yankelevich
(United Artist Books, 2012)
Matvei Yankelevich traffics in words. As a translator, editor, professor, publisher, and poet, he has steeped himself in language. One can almost picture him holding words up in the light, one at a time, a near-sighted monocular pressed tightly to his eye, flipping each upside-down, then right-side up, ensuring it holds its promised power and, if it doesn’t, saying so and moving on. In his poetry he comes to language like a jeweler to a freshly cut diamond; this Moscow-born, New England-raised, Brooklyn-based linguist gets from words all they’re worth.
In order for a poet to approach his writing in such a way, he must begin with a finely tuned set of skills; Yankelevich’s can be seen in the odd rhythm and oblique rhymes of one of the early stanzas in his first published piece, a long poem titled The Present Work:
We painted ourselves
into a corner, back to an opaque window
But soon the angels portrayed by right angles
got angry at being portrayed by a square root
At least before they were portrayed in mangers
as children, white, or at least as youth
This skill renders the reader patient and giving, which is necessary, since Yankelevich will very soon be trying that same reader’s patience. After 18 pages of poetry structured somewhat traditionally, he breaks from the stanzaic form to interject paragraphs right as The Present Work is finally reaching a comfortable coherence. He may then speak on a free-floating frustration he is experiencing related to some unquenchable thirst. The structural change seems out of line, yet there is a payoff that actually deepens the poem. At the beginning of the stanza following this intrusive paragraph the “poet bade farewell / to singularity” and when he does, the poem itself divides and takes on a second consciousness. It becomes clear that this long piece isn’t just a singular work meant as another poem simply standing still; it’s a poem of work working itself out in the present and therefore perpetually, with a second and occasionally third mind attached.
The “Borises,” short poems and theatrical pieces published by Octopus Books in 2009 as Boris by the Sea, were written over a period of time extending at least as far back as 2000. They concern themselves with a man named Boris: Boris in a room, arguing with Author, being watched by creativity-blocking Woman; Boris in a chair, in a diner, in an existential crisis; Boris having an idea that makes him terribly, terribly sad; Boris, though he has a name and a place to live, is still less character than canvas. Yankelevich uses Boris in the same way he uses poetry; he needs to work something out and for this he needs space. At the outset of the second section in a short poem titled “The Second Preface,” Yankelevich introduces what might be Boris’s most significant problem (and in turn the poet’s own): The anxiety created by taking the Saussurean idea of meaning being derived from difference and applying it to one’s own personal identity. He writes:
People want someone to lie beside them.
When there’s someone else under the blanket,
in the dark, then you know who you are
in relation to that someone who lies beside you.
Who am I alone. Missing my role.
The problem many literary theorists have with Saussure’s concept is that if a word only holds meaning because it isn’t any other word, such as “dog” is “dog” because it isn’t “log” or “frog,” then language is unable to form a stable system; there would need to be at least one word holding ultimate meaning and in this Saussurean structure that is impossible. When one takes this idea of meaning-by-difference and applies it to personal meaning, such as “Matvei Yankelevich” is “Matvei Yankelevich” because he isn’t “Dick Cheney,” a problem occurs if the individual finds himself totally alone. Using this theory to gain personal meaning creates insurmountable anxiety, the same way building a house on quicksand does—a task that, to be successful, requires constant attention on the part of the individual (something seen today with perpetual Facebook updating and furious blog writing). This is Boris’s predicament with identity and Yankelevich’s with words.
Since 2000, when the early “Borises” were written, the world has changed drastically. In today’s plugged-in existence of pop-up ads and smart phones, Yankelevich wants to speak “softly / but not so softly that you / can’t hear.” This poem, “[Untitled],” that begins Yankelevich’s latest collection, acts as a revamped “once upon a time” opening the narrative (although not a story; these are individual poems) of one poet’s life in the world as a writer of verse. Throughout these poems that so adeptly illuminate all the dark corners of the poetic mind, Yankelevich writes himself into, out of, and then back into, a hole. The title of the collection, Alpha Donut, is almost too apt.
In the second poem, “First,” he toils with identity by facing “the facebook face” that “doesn’t scar” and has a body that “can’t stand up to tanks.” A person, once digitized, is perfect but useless. Towards the end of the poem he writes “bodies breaking away, bodies / becoming and unbecoming.” A fantastic play on words, once again poking at the shaky ground that meaning is built upon.
Later, in the poem “[At Least],” Yankelevich compares his own relatively peaceful life in the States to that of the persecuted peoples of the world by invoking the fortunate fact that “at least” Yankelevich has never been tortured with “fired irons” and “rope or barbed wire.” Yankelevich’s ability to work with ambiguities is breathtaking in this poem of torture-in-the-negative when he concludes that “At least no one / is keeping me alive.” He’s obviously speaking about the horrific practice of using doctors to keep people from death while being tortured; the goal of any skilled torturer is to push the victim as close to termination as possible without accidentally crossing the flatline. But where does he sit in relation to this? Is he possibly greater than or equal to those being tortured simply because he is keeping himself alive on a daily basis? Certainly not.
The collection then oscillates between Yankelevich’s two main themes in an almost dialogic discourse; on one side sits the poet’s relationship to his masters looming large, and on the other, his distrust of language and poetry as a whole. Any poet willing to face these two facts as vulnerably and courageously as Yankelevich does can’t help but find themselves in a place where, “Looking up from the typewriter you realize you are obsolete.”
This is the collection’s final poem in its entirety. And from Yankelevich’s perspective, probably its most honest. Though perhaps not from the reader’s viewpoint. Even if Yankelevich were stripped of all his linguistic titles save for that of poet, it’s impossible, after experiencing his poetry, to agree to his self-imposed obsolescence. Much like the hole makes the donut, Yankelevich’s willingness to discover himself obsolete is precisely what makes him matter.