New and Selected Poems
Imagine a world whose enduring features are rust, moldy bread, the chill wind from an industrial-gray sky, crows, leafless trees, littered streets, loneliness, urgency and guilt. Such a world offers little to write about, and yet it offers an arena in which longing, despair, poverty, hope and the hints of transformation are the reader's constant companion.
Leo Yankevich sketches such a world in "The Unfinished Crusade". Whether it's real, stylized or imaginary, its presence pervades the poems in this collection. Perhaps this is the world of Poland in the dying phase and the aftermath of communism, or the shattered cityscapes of post-World War II Eastern Europe, or only the imaginary bleakness of a character whose life has taken a constant downward turn into a squalid stasis. In any case, this book is a journal of squalor and its unrelenting presence. Yet, in this bleak rustscape, there is life—persistent life, that of the constantly cawing rooks, the drunk, the leprous woman whose eventual transformation seems to justify her misery, the rats in the cupboard, and the downcast who pass like wraiths outside the flat or in the anonymous city in which the poems play out.
These poems stylize Yankevich's world, but present it again and again with the repetitiveness of haiku, each with its subtle individuality, offering new insights into the inhabitants of this sad and persistent society.
"The Dog" describes the transformation of a dead dog into a temple through whose bones the wind kneels to pray. "Silesian Landscape" sketches the bleakness of the ruined terrain in January. In it, ravens cough up their blasphemies on a gray day without snow. This image recurs throughout the collection. Yankevich's ubiquitous rooks are as persistent as Poe's raven—and more sinister.
"The Prayer" recognizes the succession of life into oblivion as seen through the boy's resignation to his father's aging and death, prefiguring his own. This parallels Seamus Heaney's similar poem about his father, stooping to dig in the potato fields. The agricultural tradition reappears sporadically through the poems of "The Unfinished Crusade".
"To Touch the April Rain" connects us with the lives of those who created the products and artifacts we touch. Eventually, it all comes to nothing—no one cares. The invocation of the spring rain reminds us of Sara Teasdale's gentle, sad but equally cynical "There Will Come Soft Rains":
"And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly"
"Break of Dawn" reveals the poet's recognition of the certainty of death, the fragility of life, and the felt obligation to make the most of it. It is a rubaiyyat without cheer, an urgent and persistent obligation, without certain reward, to realize the verity of being:
on and on you must go;
this life do what you can;
eternity has no end."
The brevity of life emerges in this poem that contemplates power and guilt at its exercise in "The Moth":
“He holds it fast, as if intent to show
that all depends upon the power’s whim,
that if he dares to squeeze, or lets it go,
no wrathful god will judge or punish him.,
Yet when his hands unfold, his conscience stings:
the powdery, white flakes—were once its wings.”
The villanelle "The Recluse" sketches the loneliness of the poet in the midst of life. "Is it dream or reality he fears?"
In a related and brief excursion into holocaust, "Sarajevo Sonnet" remarks the continuation of life in the stark deprivation after society collapses—the marriage of a young couple next to a skeleton in uniform. The young couple are revealed to be two tiny black beetles.
The collection continues, each poem building on and reinforcing the others in a framework as inexorable and unyielding as the twisted girders of a decaying, once-great medieval city, such as, say, Baltimore or Philadelphia. But now and then a brief and uncertain light illuminates the slag and deformation:
"I'd appeal my sentence, seek solace from seers,
but the child in me knows: beyond destinies
light is everywhere, and redeems us all."
Yankevich's book is a memorable and unsettling sketch of the conditions it explores. This review may not adequately express the force of its poems, and readers should take the book as the best guide. As we face continued uncertainty in the global economy and the unease that the future may not be bright, Leo Yankevich's "The Unfinished Crusade" is a sober description of an alternative and all-too plausible future. Its chronicle of how one person manages the question of the value of life is a reminder and a moral, like the rooks, drunkards and scarecrows that populate his world.
I recommend this book highly. —Jerry H. Jenkins, 2000