Leo Yankevich is an American poet who was born and raised in the somber coal-mining and rust belt environs of Pennsylvania. But he is also of Polish-Lithuanian ancestry, so another part of his genetic and cultural makeup comes from the dark forests of Central Europe — a region still haunted by the feral brutality of nature, and by the blood-drenched horror of its human history. Much of this double-barreled torment is evident in Yankevich’s subject matter and style, where the harsh Appalachian coal fields and the hotly contested Germano-Slavic marches of Silesia and Eastern Prussia come together with an eloquence that can be frightening.
Journey Late at Night is Leo Yankevich’s fourth collection, and his largest to date. It is a substantial gathering of material from over 65 journals, both hard copy and electronic. He has previously brought out several chapbooks and e-books over the years, all of them profoundly solid work. This new book contains a good number of translations from the languages that Yankevich, a resident of Poland, has at his command. Their range is impressive: the poet gives expert English renderings from the Russian of Blok and Yesenin; the Polish of Mickiewicz, Grochowiak, and Rymkiewicz; and the German of Benn, Trakl, Huchel, and Rilke.
Yankevich’s memories of his family’s coal-mining past can be searing, as in the poem “St. Martin’s Cemetery,” which describes the frightful death of his maternal grandfather in a mineshaft accident; or they can be wistful, as in “Rust Belt,” wherein childhood recollections conjure up the poet’s grade school, the blast furnaces of a long-dead American industrial heartland, and the calloused fingers of a hardworking relative. Some poems, like “Moonshine, 1969,” have a touch of the comic (in this case the illicit pleasures of homemade Pennsylvania liquor), while others are powerfully poignant, like “Papa’s Dying,” which recounts a father’s deathbed moments. All have the authenticity of feeling behind them, as well as careful craftsmanship.
But the poems that touch upon Yankevich’s European heritage are additionally animated by a sense of history’s savageries and the wreckage left in history’s wake. Take his poem “Hindenburgstraße 8,” which descants on what was a German-built and German-occupied residence in territory that in 1945 was seized by the Soviets. Yankevich describes the now old and decrepit structure, using it as a vivid metaphor of how
another system falls,
the vanquished having vanished with their name.
He wonders about its long-gone German inhabitants, and one cannot help thinking of the mass ethnic purges of millions of Germans that took place in these regions in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. But Yankevich’s perception of history can go even deeper and farther back — in his poem on Ludwig Wittgenstein, he imagines the philosopher in 1914 visiting the wounded in a field hospital not far from the front lines in this area, and how the sheer agony of what the man sees contrasts with the ideational abstraction of his philosophy:
He’ll put his fingers on a rusty gate,
hear howls, smell wounds, behold a sky that’s red.
And for the first time, he will fathom pain.
This poem is iconic, since it epitomizes a particular aesthetic signature of Yankevich: his refusal to allow abstraction or literary artifice to mask or soften the force of visceral reactions and intense feelings. When Yankevich talks of pain, he is completely unsparing of detail, as in the poem “Out On Your Feet,” about a boxing match. I’ll quote just a part of it:
You have just taken the umpteenth blow
to whatever cheekbones you have left.
Your nose is now an orphaned limb
that hangs from bloody snot and gristle.
Your teeth are shards of broken glass
between the ridges of your gums.
Your mind is pig-shit, scrambled eggs,
and your thoughts are the intervals
in the longest count since Dempsey
stood over Tunney in Soldier Field.
A poem like this is as brutal as its subject matter demands. In the feelgood, child-friendly atmosphere of American poetry today, many readers (and even some critics) would reject it as over the top, or “too dependent on shock value,” as if horror and shock were taboo qualities in a poem. But poems are meant to traumatize and upset readers at times. Only a Hallmark-Card culture like America’s could forget that. Yankevich has not. This refusal of abstraction and distance is even more specific in the poem “Plato Returns to Earth,” which tells of how Plato left off arguing about ideal forms with Socrates
then heard a flock of gulls philosophizing
on what lasts longer than philosophy.
Another prominent element in Yankevich’s book is sex — not the scrubbed and sanitized sex celebrated by our mainstream media and well-funded pundits of erotic liberation, but a real-world sex with its warts as well as its ecstasies. In the poem “Satyr,” Yankevich paints a picture of adolescent lust that is as off-putting as it is genuine; and in “Old Tarts” he describes superannuated whores who are
Arthritic, gnarled, and bent,
their brittle aching bones
creak like old bordellos
a pimping cocksman owns . . .
Other poems talk of former loves, sometimes with a refreshing explicitness, as in “Billie”:
I wanted flesh, her buttocks and the small
of her back against my thrusts, her red
dress open, chestnut hair against the wall,
creamy face pressed deep into the bed
till climax and exhaustion merged with dawn.
More poems of this sort are the excellent Petrarchan sonnet “Ah, Love” and the perfectly rhymed and constructed “For an Old Flame,” both of which reminisce about past sexual relationships in plain language that adverts not only to the mutual pleasure of the encounters, but also to their pain.
Yankevich has a religious sensibility as well, but one that does not always run in orthodox channels. He likes to establish a familiar religious scene (or one with religious overtones), and then undermine it with some kind of secular-sensual twist, as he does in the unusual sonnet “Mary Magdalene,” which describes the Magdalene washing Christ’s feet as He contemplates His imminent passion. As this happens the poet simultaneously infuses an erotic suggestiveness to the act that is clinched in the closing lines:
And I sign my name beneath this sonnet,
a man who lusted and who knew her well.
This occurs even more vividly in “Baroque Nativity Scene,” which dazzlingly conflates a seventeenth-century marketplace with the poet John Donne, merchants selling smoked eels and “sundry wares,” a prostitute dressed in purple who models as the Virgin Mother for Caravaggio, and the timelessness of sexual temptation. The poem is bizarre, comical, and borderline blasphemous, all at the same time. Another poem in this style is “Babcia,” which describes the corpse of a pious old woman who has died alone in her room, with an image of Christ and the Sacred Heart on the wall—but a Christ Who is cold, unmoved, and unconscious of the departed one, and without a single promise of resurrection and redemption. It is a profoundly despairing poem, utterly devoid of pity or hope, and written by someone who knows the radical sundering and emptiness that accompany the passing of too many human lives.
In fact, a strong sense of mortality haunts this collection. The poem “Metaphysics” (about a military burial at sea) is one of the best sonnets I have read in years, and it is as frightening as it is beautiful. But even this poem is eclipsed by the brilliance of “Eschatology,” which creates the stunning conceit of Plato’s Myth of the Cave as parallel to a rotting brain in a skull, and using it to question the very notion of an afterlife and of our alleged capacity to find truth. Right next to it, on the facing page, is “Epistle from the Dark,” a poem in the voice of an early Christian in the catacombs, fasting himself to death in the dark while lamenting the silence of God. It is a shattering piece of work. All three of these poems are stellar, indisputable masterpieces. They are eons beyond the pathetic and mindless pap that mainstream American poetry has become. The sheer command of English that they evince would be enough to set them in a class by themselves.
I could go on about the many other strengths of Yankevich’s book: his profound awareness of the violence of nature, his courageous and outspoken Right-wing politics, his eye for the picturesque and the arresting, his sardonic humor. But I would rather speak of something else.
This is a top-notch collection of poetry. In a sane world it would receive prize after prize, and be reviewed in every important literary journal. Yankevich would be recognized as a major voice in contemporary poetry. But none of these things will happen.
Poetry is a small niche market today, to be sure, and even the best work finds only a limited and ever diminishing audience. Scores of excellent poets go unrecognized in their lifetimes, but in Yankevich’s case this lack of recognition is studied and deliberate. Like many Right-wing poets, he faces the sheer bigotry of an Anglophone poetry world that refuses to acknowledge the existence, much less the talent, of any writer who does not kowtow to the Left-liberal pieties of political correctness. Yankevich’s achievement faces the wall of official silence that surrounds hated pariahs—a silence enforced by the peculiar mix of elitist disdain, in-group cliquishness, workshop bullying, mandatory conformism, and spiteful envy that now mark American po-biz and its various networks for gossip and backbiting. This kind of willful ignorance—comparable to the Amish practice of “shunning”—keeps Yankevich’s work obscure and unpublicized. In the fifteen years that I have known him and followed his progress as a poet, I have seen Yankevich’s poetry become richer, fuller, deeper, and more complex, until now he is a creative voice of the highest order. And during that same time I have watched the assorted dwarfs of the Poetry Establishment become less coherent, less plausible, and less readable even as they connived in the disparagement and neglect of a man whose new work, as represented in this book, puts theirs to shame.
Journey Late at Night is a magnificent achievement, certain to be recognized in years to come, even if not now. Albert Jay Nock once asked how one would be able to tell that one was living in a Dark Age. To me the answer is clear. When a book such as this is published in a vacuum of silence and oblivion, while mindless hoopla at Dodge and West Chester is generated for “poets” who barely deserve the name, the age is not just dark. It is an age of stygian blackness.
Keep writing, Leo Yankevich. Writing well is the best and sweetest revenge.
—Joseph S. Salemi