Bending at the Elbow by Matyei Yankelevich
(Minutes BOOKS, Hadley, MA, 2011)
I'm still chuckling three days after I read Bending at the Elbow (loved the dry wit in some poems). By itself, those lingering chuckles must mean I should at least try to review Matyei Yankelevich's chap.
First, the non-chuckle stuff so as to pretend to do justice to this collection. Among its strengths is that always-difficult-to-pull-off combo of seemingly simple language ("plainspoken," to quote from the opening poem) with multiple layers of content and/or significances. For instance, the elements of (seeming) autobiography, poetics, physicality/tactility and ars poetica in the second poem:
I had the best little caramel fudge
in Novy Sad with my espresso.
A good cappucino later in the square.
Belgrade: several good coffees a day
not spectacular always, but good.
I feel fat from the whole bottle
of buttermilk and the horn of bread
and the banana I had at noon.
Writing is, as you can see, rather
superfluous to my situation. It's
a last resort to see if something
singular is going on in the cafe,
in the square, on the pedestrian
street in the middle of Belgrade.
One can't begin to imagine that
other cities are out of bed and
doing things all over the place.
And the villages ... the towns ...
Someone gestures--a kind of
yawn, a sip of coffee--not hot
enough--a drag on a cigarette.
Not to mention work... Well, who
knows. That's not saying enough.
There's no tension, except
for every move--secondary--
and self-conscious. Tension
between action & idea, between
thought & expression. Tension
between shoulder blades. Fingers
holding the pen. Repetition.
And the above excerpt also shows up another strength: a strong presence. It's easy to imagine the poet hanging out in a cafe writing these poems, "bending the elbow," between cigarette puffs. Yes, the presence is almost tactile -- I don't respond to the poems as texts but as utterances-by-a-particular-someone.
I want to call some other poems to be sly witness poems, e.g. from CROW FICTIONS":
Crows wire messages
by tapping their crow's
feet. Smart quotes
resemble smart crows. Crows
cry like they're shouting
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.
And, ultimately, I want to say it's as if these poems were written casually to be minor poems ... but somehow failed to be minor. Here's a fav:
THOUGHT IS A CYPHER
Last year thought was bourgeois.
This year I can't afford it.
Thought--the new poverty-chic.
Bubbles. Code for breaking
into one's head. The reversal
of the dirt. The leap of thought.
Last time I thought closer
to my soul, my mind
lost to your queen. Or was it
knight-errant? Look at the rhetoricity
of the command. Will the woman
to walk through the door. Will
to stink less of life. Thought, you are
restless, but where is the key?
Think. Exile and dentists. What party
were you not invited to attenuate?
Thought--you are fickle. How the war
got so cold? A rough-speaking silence.
Thought is but potential; i.e. every little thing
she does lost in a pile of happy endings.
By the hedge,
the pool, the lost era of pure thought--
Could thought be nothing in the face
of action, a pretty face. Fill in
the thought. Sex is a thought. So are YOU.
What's your move, Creator Rick?
How does thought proceed--shot. Plodding
along, listen to real things in the world.
Ask the real things how they feel
about being real. What's their news?
Breeze is thought
Grid Kafka and you get ...
(I don't know, Pynchon, or something.)
If only I had a penny for it. This whole
poem cost me a dear twenty in beer
and that's not counting
my hourly wage. Lacklulster stuff.
Shoot the thought that made us
believe we can beat death for instance.
As a poet moiself, I envy the seeming ease with which these poems surface even as their underlying knowledge seems have been hard-fought to realize, or at least rigorously attained--one poem begins "At least no one is putting hot nails into my body, no one is putting out / their cigarettes under my skin, / no one is raping me" to end with "At least no one is keeping me alive."
It's interesting how these poems could have been written way more aggressively than their seemingly-casual, off-handed -- just bending the elbow -- style. That he didn't means the poet knew how to extend impact. Or to judiciously excise from his "EPISTOLARY POEM," let there be "[m]ore moans than screams.... I / pray for it to keep burning, but / nothing burning ever lasts long. / At least on paper."
From these poems, I learned stuff and more than stuff. Which is to say, these are poems that will make you smarter. So thank you, Poet, for having written them.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. But she is pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA, a collaboration with j/j hastain, is reviewed by Joey Madia at New Mystics Review; Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field 6; and Zvi A. Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene. She also just released a new poetry collection, 5 Shades of Gray (i.e. press, Florida, 2012).