Poetry News

Work Working Itself Out: The Poetry of Matvei Yankelevich Gets Its Due

By Harriet Staff

O'er at The Brooklyn Rail, Matvei Yankelevich gets the full treatment, with a review of all three of his books, including the just-released Alpha Donut (United Artists), Palm Press's 2006 The Present Work, and of course, Boris by the Sea (Octopus Books 2009). Often associated and rightly admired for his running of Ugly Duckling Presse or translations of Daniil Kharms, Yankelevich has also composed a considerable (and considered) amount of poetry itself. Writer Alex Estes waxes fondly: "In his poetry he comes to language like a jeweler to a freshly cut diamond." Of The Present Work, Estes remarks that "[I]t’s a poem of work working itself out in the present and therefore perpetually, with a second and occasionally third mind attached." And of Boris:

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.

True enough. Estes continues on to the most recent publication, Alpha Donut:

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.”

Ah, but he's not. Read the full review here. Photo of Matvei at the Alpha Donut release party at Alpha Donuts, Queens, NY, May 6, 2012, taken by Brendan Lorber.

Originally Published: May 8th, 2012