Review by Al Filreis
Matvei Yankelevich, poet, translator, teacher, editor, and co-founder of Ugly Duckling Presse, has been composing an ongoing series of winter poems. I was about to identify them as poems about winter, but that’s not quite right. Winter is sometimes the topic or main concern, but more often it serves as a seasonal prompt or makes merely a cameo appearance or is a pretext for non-wintry memory, or a background setting in which chilly despondency can meanderingly play out.
Fonograf Editions has put out a compelling selection of 40 pages of poems in this series, Dead Winter, and in these the gloomy, down (“downwritten”!), and at times self-pitying speaker isn’t even able to remember the one poetic thing tying his project together. “Winter,” he wonders at one point, “have I lost your thread?” Perhaps it’s just not working out so well. He “laughs at [his own] poems” and “scare[s] his friends” with them.
We worry about his state of mind. There are invitations to winter parties and he “plans[s] to attend” but then “think[s] better” of it, because: “I’m not pro anything. I’m just speaking” and, making the best of this abashed role, this limited personage—being not a poet of ideation or of ideology but a poet just of writing—he forces himself to attempt further seasonal compositions, somehow hearing his “poems’ pliant snow.”
Yankelevich comes to realize, as we do, that “My task, my cross – [is] to reassemble winter’s/ memory.” He’s got plentiful “notebook prose” ready at hand, and the job, and the problem, is to make verse of it. Yet the prose journals defy poeticizing. One blue notebook he finds just “boring” (“meanest of my small possessions”). And the writing itself, “word for word for word,” thwarts development; the prose has a mind of its own, its apparent gratification derives from untranslatability, a resistance to modal transference except as lesser facile sentiment:
delights in its own decay —
downgraded to scribble, a
bathos sutured to my hand.
So the “I” of these poems has, first, a seasonal affect problem and, secondly, a problem of compositional process. In a book full of poems longing for relatively direct emotional expression (“I tried writing it down, putting it down, setting it down”), its obsessive metapoetic focus is remarkably persistent. Much of Dead Winter is thus about the writing of it. Now we add the third problem: an absent beloved, often addressed in the second person (“I have no information left of you,/ … you who once joyed at this touch”). There has been a falling out, a break-up, a shutting of the door, an ongoing misunderstanding, finally a lack of basic “information” (even “your status update”); “upbeat postcards” have been mailed (along with old-fashioned letters, not email—remarkable “in a disjunctive age”), apparently without response.
The ex is left with words trying to make a presence out of an absence. And if that’s really the poetic method remaining open to him, it will fail to produce a book of poems anything nearly as compelling as Dead Winter indeed is. We have a few poems-about-these-poems that demonstrate such failure, where traditional word-person/poem-lover correlation is the love poem’s strategy. “Compared to what/ Compared to winter’s day?” The echo of Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 is a witty rejoinder to tradition—summer’s fecundity and imaginative abundance traded in for winter’s destitute circumspection. Good trade, we contemporaries would say, but it’s a bad poetic moment and we know the speaker knows it, as he turns away from the subgenre of Shakespearean seduction poem only to find whatever meager warmth is available on the very keyboard the lonely ex has used to type out his questions: “The heat of these laughable plastic keys?”
Precisely there is the comparing that will suffice: the making of the poems themselves. References to the compositional process abound and all of it makes for the most fascinating presentation of winter’s daily actuality (Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day is an explicit model and influence). One can’t write through midwinter’s limitations without foregrounding the writing of such obstructions and deterrents. Because “winter doesn’t know/ when to go,” he “Wonder[s] around/ leaving more out. Or most of it.” He’s again referring to the language of the notebooks, his source material. And now that he’s left that in the poem emerging from it—the wondering about omissions and excisions—he feels self-conscious about that cool generic self-referentiality, for after all “avant-garde’s a style —/ they’ve got horror/sitcom poems at a bargain.”
He tries on a confessional mode; an entire poem is devoted not to the content of the confession he wants to make but to the protested-too-much definition of the agonized, heartfelt method:
I tried writing it down, putting it down and expressing
what was inside and getting it out, setting it down, and
drawing it out of me, adding to it, sculpting from it
like a slab, stabbing, chiseling away, hammering blows,
making a hole in myself from which it could flow like paint,
making an opening…
it as best I could, in the language that calls me…
—and it goes on in this absurdly emphatic way. And ends with no doubt as to whether this means of coping with his desolate feelings is to be the means of Dead Winter. It’s not, for, in truth, “… how to get to it is to let the coffee/ go cold, at least they say that is the way; I tried that way.” Ominously there is a literary-political “they” of the poetry world out there who might have taught him once how to make poetry of his situation, and he does long for sincerity, for an alternative to self-referential irony, and even for a direct language. But Dead Winter is a revelation because it is finally about the local, daily, demotic, real constraints that arise to deter us when poems such as these are self-consciously constructed out of notebook prose in a bad season, in fits and starts and forms. “So if I write the self is wispy — sure, but strike that line. They say you can’t edit poetry but I say fuck it.” Fuck “writing it down, putting it down, setting it down.” And fuck “drawing it out of me.” One of the poems representing the alternative to what “They say” is, yes, a sonnet, and here the involuted poet as a chilly, lonely, urban, forlorn lover discovers, crucially, “That shackles make a self.”
The brilliance of Dead Winter is that in the dead of this writer’s wintry nothingness (Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” is at one point vaguely yet discernibly referenced), the three problems I have described—first, hibernal lethargy and depression; second, the sad end of love; and third, the utter centrality of meta-poesis—have converged to create a triumph of the imagination of non-finality. Our speaker-lover is the kind of person who wants to believe that “closure” in the relationship would be a consolation, but Yankelevich’s winter poet eventually knows better. The latter poetic figure is the survivor of coldness. Closure—and by that we mean the rejection of closure (in Lyn Hejinian’s complicated sense)—is of course so much more memorable than memory fully or certainly rendered. In an early poem we encounter the following lines, and they seem to be about the speaker’s efforts to create a warming “winter’s/ memory” constructed of snapshots of the former relationship, but by the last pages we are thinking of the poems we read as they have been written. Here are those early lines:
Doors shut at my enquire,
forgetting of when was it we first met.
Why ask for closure, when there’s nothing final?
In the end, it “Turns out love/ doesn’t read you” (such a shame but probably true) and the question can only be directed at the poet’s actual making, at the book we are reading—whether we love its maker or not—its very composition (typing emerging from illegible penmanship) dependent on the survival even of vaguely hopeful phrases regretted and then deleted (“Silence/ but for plastic keys struck softly”):
What have I learned from you, poem?
With steady hand, I “move to trash.”
What hope of whispers when evening
is broadcast. Reduced to traces….
Those traces are legible when metapoetry works in the service of more rather than less honest expression. That’s the point. Life can return after winter, along with poems’ openness. The final Dead Winter poem, a true coda which teaches us how to read what came before, begins with further metapoetic doldrums (“To have a book to read and not/ to read it”) but ends in a Yankelevichian version of Walt Whitman’s ecstatic ubiquity in the final canto of “Song of Myself”:
Who will continue here once roads
are open after winter’s close?
AL FILREIS (https://web.sas.upenn.edu/afilreis/) is Kelly Professor of English, faculty director of the Kelly Writers House, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, co-director of PennSound, and publisher of Jacket2 magazine—all at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been a member of the faculty and administrator since 1985. He has published many essays on modern and contemporary American poetry, on the literary history of the 1930s and 1950s, on the literary politics of the Cold War, on the end of the lecture, and on digital humanities pedagogy. His newest books are 1960: When Art and Literature Confronted the Memory of World War II and Remade the Modern (Columbia University Press) and The Difference Is Spreading: Fifty Contemporary Poets on Fifty Poems, edited with Anna Strong Safford (University of Pennsylvania Press). Among his previous books are Modernism from Right to Left, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World, and Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60. He produces and hosts a monthly podcast/radio program, “PoemTalk,” co-sponsored by The Poetry Foundation.
MATVEI YANKELEVICH is a founding editor of Ugly Duckling Presse, and teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. His books include the long poem Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt, the poetry collection Alpha Donut, and the novella in fragments Boris by the Sea. He is the translator of Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms and co-translator (with Eugene Ostashevsky) of the National Translation Award-winning An Invitation for Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky.