Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt
Like the astronomer, Dr. Steven Vogt, who, from the spectrometer on the Keck Observatory in Hawaii searches for extrasolar planets, in Matvei Yankelevich’s latest collection the poet becomes a seeker—the occupation of both proving on-going, probing, inconclusive, revelatory. Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt also suggests an openness to other possibilities, other poetic formulations, other configurations and speculations, even as the series of 45 poems has come into being by the words of others quoted before each section, some of whom include Robert Duncan, Laura Riding, Daniil Kharms, Kazimir Malevich. The book inserts itself in poetic tradition, the matrices of language, dependence on that which has been written before. And the author himself, a member of the New York world of poetry, founder and supporter of Ugly Duckling Presse, translator, especially from the Russian (for example An Invitation For Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky, Today I wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms, publishes and promotes other poets, ushering their worlds into ours.
This suite of lyric poems assembles and disassembles various “worlds” for the reader to contemplate in all their specificity of recognizable stuff: benches, arms, boats, pens and pencils, bricks, egrets. And also to contemplate as artifacts put together by means of words, genres, quotations, literary references, rhetorical devices, adjectives. Each “world” comes into being and then quickly disappears as we move from Roman numeral I to XLV, each poem with short lines usually taking up one page or in the case of XXIII even less:
There is a world different from any
other that is happening, now, occurring
in order to push this world into the past.
Each poem can be read quickly and with visual and aural pleasure as worlds float before our eyes like new planets across a lens. Yet each also is complexly articulated, demanding, and highly referential, continues to open up as one reads, suggesting many different way to “mean,” and inviting the reader to participate in each ephemeral textual world.
The structure of the book makes the reader aware not only of various “worlds,” but also of transience, time, fragility, and the ways in which “worlds” cohere and fragment, are “imagined in expectation,” offer promises of cohesion and then break apart. Individual poems attend to the passing of time in the crumbling of things as well as the crumbling of meaning: “What’s to hold on to?” In so doing, in XVII the poet also enacts a familiar poetic trope, ending in dramatic apostrophe and raising the question of how to read these lines, seriously, ironically, both and then some. The poet’s skill seems so ingrained as to operate with seeming ease, able to convey an awareness that all’s been said, is being said, can be tonally shifted and stressed, and yet matters. The familiar idea that artifacts can appear life-like here becomes the startling “flesh of statues.”
How time’s hand does to skin, to bark
to flesh of statues shading summer talk,
Aged urns and vases of perception;
sharp furs and tatters of sensation:
O, failure of the five to grasp the depth
in crumbling curb and garden step.
Familiar images throughout the series also draw attention to the passage of time and loss: autumn leaves, cherry blossoms in the rain, dead leaves from last season (although irony also seems to tinge given unexpected juxtapositions, hyperbole, and word play, petit/paté).
A cobble-stoned alley in cherry
blossoms, the consequence of petit desire:
paté in a bar. And a physical memory of that
other spring, its affair, a whole autobiography
in wisdom teeth. (XXVII)
Each poem in the collection is complex for different reasons and takes time to plumb, to attend to all that is going on—references, complex use of language, juxtapositions of scenes and words, self-conscious allusion to genres, desire for and skepticism of any particular “world.” Each, moreover, questions its own procedures, is attentive to the constructedness of meaning and also to the constructedness of the physical text by references to the pen, to printing, to vocabulary, to artifice; yet, it seems to me, this is all done with a light touch, avoiding over-emphasis—indeed things move too quickly for that—and we are left to contemplate/gape at the views we are given.
Throughout there is a dialogue between the self and the material world that is “not me” and is “said to be out there,” although, of course, the separation between them can also be just a hypothetical proposition to be considered, and considered from as many angles as possible, as in XXIX:
Things are said to be out there
different from thing that are
said unto being, or seen as
being there. And objects—
they float in inane rhythm
reversing the hammer and
the nail, undisturbed
by humanism, broken cartons
and folded-up individuals,
bathed in light. Some
thing can go wrong. You’re
considering what it is and all
you have is a smile, a pine
desk, and parched papers
under the wine.
From this single example one can see how meticulously crafted these poems are in the use of sound, the juxtaposition of “hammer,” “undisturbed” and “humanism,” in the play and breaks of the first four lines, the thought-provoking adjective, “inane.” I am particularly impressed and moved by the surprise of the ending where it is not the broken cartons that are folded up to be carted away, but “individuals,” yet not at all in some kind of ruin, but “bathed in light.” That shift is unexpectedly sensual, so at odds with earlier abstractions and appreciative of both “individuals” and “light.” The poem ends by asking what, given the tools at hand, a poet can do about it all, seemingly undercutting (but I would argue not) all that has gone before. Although the lines and vocabulary appear relatively simple, items often change places with named aspects of language and jostle one’s initial take. The text seems fluid, reordering itself in one’s mind and I often want to question my own takes as I read. Each poetic maneuver, each arrangement of lines is deft, seemingly executed without effort. The pleasure for the reader comes in recognizing the need to revise one’s perceptions and ways of reading again and again as in III:
in the revolutionary moments,
in a hammock, a gilded ballroom,
in the hollow of a violin hidden
under the lid of a piano. Do you
need to say black, say shiny
say grand? The image: no more
labor for the mind.
With rapidity the poem moves from a significant historical moment of revolution to questions about how much information a writer must provide to help a reader visualize a piano. Indeed the entire poem, one of my favorites, focuses on worlds becoming nothing, zero, “as a towel dries, as a tire/ degrades; as a coinage dissolves/ first into cliché, then idiom,/ ceasing to be the thing and leaving/ only meaning to swallow it/ as time swallows the rocks.” The poem is mind-bogglingly fast; simultaneously it juxtaposes knotty questions of coming into being with becoming nothing “to speak of,” and concluding in the “elegiac” reference to dust and spiders. The modulation of tone (foolery, mind-play, probing) and angle is what makes this poem and others intellectually engaging, although “intellectually” is perhaps too weighty a word for the ways in which the poems come off as enormously deft. Yet, the process of thinking, the move through shifts in perspective, a new angle of the telescope is what is needful, unavoidable, and the entire book demonstrates this wide-ranging ability to think that also doubles back on its own thinking.
The worlds are often put together by what the poet recognizes as the clichéd world of the poet with his pine desk, parched papers and glass of wine for the poet who, talking to himself (bemused?), is keenly aware of the possibilities of solipsism: “Worse: You take it on your own terms/ even when you say you’re taking it on/ its own terms.” Yet the effort of the series is to take account of and to include larger more communal worlds including those of labor, Communism, history (“the illusion of village life”), pastoral literary traditions, the body politic, as well as the range of the five senses:
The pleasure certainty and the pain
of the same certainty—performing
the grimace in a mirror image.
The beauty of a breast in your hand
and the reflection of table-settings
in bedroom behaviors. Why not hold
the body all day? There is a world—
and ideal one—in the instant of
the holding, or sudden gazing into nothing.
Also a world in the patter of rain, otherwise
known as a defense of poetry, a genitive
shadow in the preposition, the process
by which nail enters wood or needle
entertains fabric. This material
world: tooth pressing on tooth
to grow the vine.
The collaged intersections of interior and exterior worlds runs throughout in so many ways, ways that play upon the quotation from Daniil Kharms: “And I’m the world./ But the world’s not me.” Sometimes I think reviews ought only to be lists of quotations. But I hope that the few quotations provide a glimpse of the complexity of each poem—not however in a gnarled or self-important way, but thoughtful and engaging, serious and not-so-serious, at the level of the careful placement of each word and each phrase as it juxtaposes and bangs into the next.
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