PoetryWeekend

The Obscenities Are in Quotes

by Barry Schwabsky on December 22, 2012

yankelevich-alpha-donutWhatever became of the New York School? There was a first generation, the last avant-garde according to some (but not so last that there couldn’t be a second generation and a third, and …) as whatever it was that defined the school as a school, beyond the simple fact of friendship, dissolved into the common air of the culture — which is just where it belongs. Wit, urbanity, formal exuberance, a willingness to (as Frank O’Hara famously put it) “just go on your nerve,” a dandyish pose of being more casual and less serious than you really are as an antidote to the unearned solemnity that so often seems endemic to poetry, an affinity for quotidian surrealism and lumpen absurdity and “life-giving vulgarity” (O’Hara again, of course) — these could never be the doctrine of any one school or enclosed by any particular municipality. They are simply things that keep the art of poetry refreshed, allowing it to breathe again after its periodic ascents to those lofty reaches where language inevitably becomes abstract, impersonal, and (too often) lugubrious.

These days, one of the best ways to be a New York poet — “to be idiomatic in a vacuum” (one last time, O’Hara) — might be to be Russian. Yet because Matvei Yankelevich was born in Moscow, has translated the writings of the Soviet-era absurdist Daniil Kharms, and repeatedly chronicles the doings and thinkings of a character named Boris, people want to see his writing as emerging from specifically Russian traditions and have failed to notice that he could just as easily be read as one of the grandchildren of the New York School. A poet who writes, as Yankelevich does in Alpha Donut, his second full-length collection of poetry,

Metonymy! You are part of something.
Metaphor, you are something else.
Hyperbole, more, again!

has learned a lesson or two from Kenneth Koch, who wrote in 1956:

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the sentence.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, however. It’s actually pretty rare that a passage of Yankelevich’s poetry so strongly calls up the savor of any particular New York School precursor, though I did, I’ll admit, also think of Ron Padgett once or twice as I read this book. Rather, his sly precision about the quizzical nature of language and perception puts him in the neighborhood of just about any poet who senses that wit may be the most adequate response to the unreasonableness of existence, of whom the poets of the New York School are merely among the most recent examples in English. His poetry is a sort of café in which words and things meet unexpectedly but in any case, “Language enters the café before meaning.”

Matvei Yankelevich (image via lareviewofbooks.org)

Matvei Yankelevich (image via lareviewofbooks.org)

Poetic wit often means collapsing the rhetoric of depth. There’s nothing frivolous about this, as it serves to maintain freedom of mind in the face of off the rack associations and emotional manipulation. But Yankelevich sometimes goes further and collapses depthlessness too. What the Russian Futurists called, as Yankelevich recently reminded us in a constructive critique of a certain conceptualist poetics,  “the word as such” and even “the letter as such” do not solve the problems of poetry; they’re only interesting insofar as they reveal new problems, or new ways to experience (not solve) the old ones. It used to serve a salutary function to insist that writing is simply marks on a surface, but as that re-marking of the mark has become habitual, the superficial mark has become a deep groove one gets stuck in: “My work is simply writing on the page. There is no more depth. Where there is depth it gets too dark to see. Some days I feel like seeing no one.” Writing needn’t spiral in on itself, seeing no one, however; it can also spiral outward, taking in all sorts of curious flotsam. And thinking may be circular, but only when seen flat; in three dimensions it reveals itself to be a spiral, which means that even when we think we’re back where we started we may be observing life from a different vantage point, higher or lower. At least that’s how I understand what happens when the poem keeps turning around and around the Ted Hughes–ish crow of Yankelevich’s “Crow Fictions” — “Must a crow be ragged? / If it is not ragged. Then / what good is it?” — and it becomes, maybe not a Wallace Stevens-ish blackbird, but still, the kind of thing “to make the bawds of euphony … cry out sharply.” Yankelevich’s crows

cry like they’re shouting
obscenities. But
the obscenities are
in quotes because we
don’t shout obscenities
without reason, only
when there’s a reason,
and then sometimes we
cry. We are like crows.

Why are we like crows? Maybe for no more reason that likening is what “like” does, and if the crows’ obscenities are in quotes, it’s because they are citing the people who habitually put crows into words and put words into crows.As Yankelevich presents it, there’s nothing inherently strange about this — although it produces strange effects — since what language tells us is that words attach to things more through what we can only call their own needs than those of their human users:

And the noun would stop
and stand still for once

twice, three times

attracted to the object of itself

and then live

You might be tempted to dismiss such a passage as little more than an old familiar trope, that of personification. You might be right. But then if you’ve never puzzled over the way your words sometimes do things you never set them to do, an oddly human behavior, you might not need poetry anyway.

Noel-Black-UselyssesBut if you do need poetry, you might want to fit it with some New York–style moves and all the more so, maybe, in what Noel Black calls “this boring / mid-size, middle-American city,” Colorado Springs, where he lives, than you would in any one of five boroughs (with the possible exception of Staten Island) anyway. Luckily for him, Black seems to have spent lots of time well beyond boring places — though all I know about him is what it says in the one-line bio at the back of his recent book (presumably his first), Uselysses, plus what comes out by the by in the poems themselves, which turns out to be quite a bit. I feel I should be on my guard, though, because there is a certain amount of unreliable-narrator-ism in the poems, as when he asks,

What does it mean when I saw a Montana-shaped cloud
flexing its Arm & Hammer bicep
above the west side Walgreens
Mid-July, 2009?

Really, a cloud with three right angles, and a bicep too? What it means is the least of it, when the more pressing question is how one could possibly see something that is so definitively enmeshed in nothing but language unless seeing is only a word in a poem and not something we just do all the time, no matter how whimsically.

Black is too often guilty of being what New York poets are often unjustly accused of being, namely glib. I’d have been glad to do without most of the book’s second section, “The Inner City,” for just that reason. But Black is a virtuoso of bobbing and weaving his way from line to line, and when all the feints and dodges seem to lead somewhere, which they do more often than not — and all the better for the pose of modesty embedded in the pretense that this is all happening by accident — I can forgive him for sometimes practicing them for no better reason than to keep his joints limber.

Noel Black (image via moesbooks.com)

Noel Black (image via moesbooks.com)

“Everything’s almost exactly as it seems,” whispers Black’s muse. That “almost” keeps the reader pleasantly off balance. This teasing unreliability becomes especially important in the last, longest, and best poem in the book, “Prophecies for the Past.” One of its two epigraphs, from Steve Abbot, is none too reassuring: “What seems most outlandish in our autobiography is what really happened.” Did Black really meet a poet who confessed to killing her lover? (If so, please don’t introduce me.) This prose poem is a kind of personalized remake of Joe Brainard’s I Remember, but its subject is “you” rather than “I” and cast in the future tense — a double distancing. But he’s got, when he needs it, Brainard’s Geiger-counter-like awareness of the mortifications of childhood self-consciousness, and Brainard’s sense of comic timing:

You’ll notice your first pubic hair in the bathroom of an airplane, go back to your seat,
order a ginger ale and think about a friend who borrowed a banana to prove that

his boner           was as big as a banana. You’ll remember wondering what to do with that banana
after he                           proved it.

You’ll put it back in the bowl.
The bigger story, of which one has already caught glimpses in the previous poems, is about

growing up the child of gay parents—his father died of AIDS.

You’ll think you’re the only one with a gay dad for years, but you aren’t. Nevertheless,
you’ll feel a permanent loneliness you’ll never fully articulate and never quite

shake.

Another result is what seems an insatiable fascination with the florid details of his own, his parents’, and everyone else’s sexual peculiarities, which surely must have served to make his life more entertaining. Come to think of it, permanent loneliness can be pretty life-enhancing too. What makes Black’s “Prophecies” so wonderful is the underlying sense that he would not have passed up any of this for anything in the world. Eventually, the reason for Black’s casting his autobiography as prophecy, that is, for relating it in the present tense, becomes clear: it’s his version of Nietzsche’s amor fati, that deepest of all affirmations: the will to do it all over again, to want “to have nothing different… not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it.” No wonder the poem’s endpoint is the date September 2, 1972. We can assume that’s the poet’s birthday. The story can begin. Happy belated birthday.

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