"…I rule Myself no longer; I am not my own." —Kochanowski, trans. by Ruth Earl Merrill
"The sister's shadow hovers through the silent grove To greet the spirits of the heroes, the bleeding heads…" —from Trakl's "Grodek", trans. by Lindenberger
"Poets know how difficult that is: to write, as Boris Leonidovich (Pasternak) says, 'free from poetic mud'…" —Anna Akhmatova, from "Chukovskaya's Journals"
What Anna Akhmatova referred to in the last quote above was a certain poet's practice of writing without a definite rhythm, which her friend, Lydia Chukovskaya, took exception to. What they did not conceive of at the time was a poetry whose practitioners never went to school with the poets of old, who knew their paces well. Too many today leave behind what they have never been through. Mister Yankevich has the indefinite rhythm of the story-teller's voice, and I believe he has achieved it through genuinely leaving behind a lot of "poetic mud".
"The river's waters are grey, sometimes blue.
They flow into a mermaid's dream of the sea—
under clouds either Romanesque or Baroque,
but always indifferent."
The languid strength of the lines draws the interest with ease. The balance of the polar terms, "a mermaid's dream of the sea" and "a druid's dream of the beginning", pleases and intrigues; positing an image of completion as apt and full as "clouds either Romanesque or Baroque". Glowing aspects of our culture are touched on and left as
"…too heavy and hard to grasp" because in some way
"…we've forgotten why and for whom."
The poem concludes with a memorably keen conceit which kind of encapsulates the drift of polar terms the poem as a whole shows forth.
"…the sun's merciful but meat-eating honey."
The intensely compressed image brings to the fore this poet's metaphysical quality. It is like Herbert's "a ragged noise and mirth", which Eliot harps well on in his "Turnbull Lectures". Shakespeare's "Honey Summer" is clearly a merciful dispensation, but that this same honey should be as though "meat-eating" is a great extreme brought into conjunction with its opposite. In the desert the sun eats meat, you could say. And of course the sun's demesne is associateable with the realm of the gods, fate, deity; and that its honey should seem predatory is telling as respects the whole thrust of the collection. How well, how deeply, how often does the poetry of Mister Yankevich reward the inquiring peer. The "indifferent clouds" hang over all that follows. "Visiting My Dead Grandmother's Cottage", the second poem, is as concretely denotative as the first poem is lyrically connotative. One turns one's eye back and forth between the two poems just as one did between the Romanesque and Baroque clouds, the merciful and meat-eating honey of the sun. Yet the Cottage poem, for all its concrete catalogue of the detailed real, also manages a true lyrical beauty.
"Visiting her cottage I remember ripe ears of corn…"
"A bucket of stagnant water mirrors the cloudy lard
she must have fried eggs and coffee grinds in every morning."
"…while my father speaks to an old peasant in a strange tongue
about pagan deities carved on trees when he was young."
One thinks perhaps of the bowls of milk Czeslaw Milosz recalls having been set out for the water snakes; whose bodies when they died, should they remain unburied, would make the sun cry. It is a powerfully limpid, a quietly structured flow, neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean nor Miltonic but rather modern, a sort of cinematic collage—whose tone is not cumulatively but dispersedly impactful, yet of a piece. Its is exquisite to the ear of the apprentice of form, that line with its two emphatic indefinite articles,
"…while my father speaks to an old peasant in a strange tongue…"
It is a beautiful sprung-rhythm, six-beat-line sonnet, rhymed placidly to perfection for the reminiscent mode of the story-teller's voice. "The tangerine talk/of blackbirds" in the third poem, "Poem in October", is once more a metaphysical touch, pungent and thought-provoking, and very probably pertinent: I confess my ignorance here, having not listened to blackbirds. Starlings talk in a distinctly screwy manner, like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. The poet does not over-do such touches, a temptation to the merely clever, and this restraint lets them be as prominent as set jewels. In the same poem, the "cloud-cursing rooks" is a conception as classically apposite as Homer's old "wine-dark sea". Here, moreover, the trouble is broached more piercingly, the ill all the collection tends and moves toward like a drama from the underground unfolding, as if the gentle idiot of Dostoevski were to doubt God cared at all. As if he—versified in his doubt, or began to feel the cold of Ivan Karamazov, say
"And I smell the scent of something burning,
of something smouldering deep within,
fouler than all the hills of Polish dung.
Thirty-five years have transformed my life's leaves
into an outcast's smoke upon the breeze."
The trouble is in the poet himself. Ferried on a pile of combusted Autumn leaves, one wonders admiringly at the development of the showing of this trouble as in the author himself. Georg Trakl composed a tapestry of "a world apart". He readily without trying surpassed Rimbaud in this, the flamboyant adolescent. In Trakl there is a seriousness that sustains the interest, even a gravity towards the "bread and wine" on the table when over the threshold comes the stranger to partake with one. For Trakl lived the world he wove and died of the cold, its impingement upon that world’s heart, the Sister's shadow, by "the bleeding heads". Rimbaud played at it, and then he left it in a facile disgust. Mister Yankevich's poetry is also a tapestry lived, is also impinged on by the cold. He integrates the frore stuff into his poetry with a gathering furor of anguish and distance. His complaint seeks comfort and finds it not, yet then as in "Eschatology", he distances himself from the entire business to play like Donne with the very idea of the anguish. The name of his world may be called the miraculous Czeslaw Milosz has said poets can voice the longing for; and it is a world that was surely discovered when young, as in a Lithuanian forest, or as on the Chesapeake Bay by the demolished Chamberlain Hotel where Poe wrote "Annabel Lee"—but wherever, it is a world assaulted, and peculiarly so it would seem today. It is still the world of Dante, where God answers calls on Him, or is silent. There, the Grodek, where the crisis happens, can be a scarecrow's domain, the field where cars pass a straw-gutted golem whose
"…hollow eyes would hate the stars…"
Mister Yankevich writes like the almost miraculous anomaly of a despairing Hans Christian Andersen. His faerie tales are of more and more hells on earth, hells succinct and tersely put, hells heavened very strangely and finely here and there, as if
"till the ghost of the man I’d be—crawled out."
"digging amid my ribs for a soul."
The ghost, the wraith, the golem, the scarecrow, the gentle idiot, the name writ in water so well absorbed as to seem his own, are all one: the hope of life infused into lifelessness. It is not easy to leave behind the terms of his trouble. They follow me through my days. I remember them. The scarecrow in the field. The golem. The little man in us all that yearns for—the finest thing of all. —Michael Axtell, 1998