Minds of winter
A review of 'Dead Winter' by Matvei Yankelevich
Dead Winter (along with Matvei Yankelevich’s chapbook From A Winter Notebook) has been culled from a long project whose intention Yankelevich writes, is “to reassemble winter’s / memory.” This description is both tantalizing and ambiguous. Are these wide-ranging, paratactic stanzas about memories of winters past or do they describe something a little odder — winter’s own memories? Another way of posing this question: is this book about its insistent first-person voice or about the trope of the season itself?
The answer is probably “yes.”
There’s nothing Proustian about Yankelevich’s poetry. Though these collections often allude nostalgically to a past that never quite gets described, most of their poetry remains in the present tense. The stanzas talk about remembering, but do not give us a tour of memories. Like so many poems of loss — and what is a poem of winter if not a poem of loss? — many of the entries from these winter notebooks include a second-person address to an absent other. That said, it is never clear who or what this you might be. Those you’s perform their dialectical (or grammatical) trick. They conjure an I.
Not surprisingly, this poetry can often sound quite intimate:
First off, I am the worst there is on earth. Back there, the light
shone on the vernacular as in the middle of my life
I came upon myself in wood one dark, protracted evening
of rubbing some ideas together. (33)
Perhaps nothing seems more subjective than self-loathing. And yet there’s that quotation from Dante that is not quite a quotation from Dante. After all, at the beginning of The Inferno, Dante, writing in the vernacular, is not yet aware of his state of sin. Yankelevich’s sin seems to be poetic rather than ethical. He has fallen into the slough of cliché — “rubbing some ideas together” — and not anything that would really class him as “the worst there is on earth.” It could be that those rhymes (“worst/earth”; “light/life”) serve as a sign of his abjection.
I am strongly tempted to score this moment to parody as much as to lyrical sincerity. After all, what room is there in more-or-less experimental poetry for lyrical sincerity these days? No sooner do I read it as parodic, though, than I realize that the parodic selves and “real” selves are not mutually exclusive. After decades of poetic and theoretical attacks on “the subject” (be it bourgeois, metaphysical, or lyrical), we have wrestled the critique of expressive interiority to a tie. By now, selves have become suspect, for sure, but they are also inescapable. While there might not be an authentic, unmediated language of an authentically unmediated self, we have to concede that mediated and heteronomous selves do wend their way through the world. They — we — eat, drink, love, remember, and suffer. Although we might be spoken by clichés, our affects are no less pointed (or poignant) for all that.
It would be most accurate to say that for Yankelevich, winter is as much a disposition as a trope. It’s as much an established figure as a mood. Without its tokens, winter-as-mood would be empty. Without the disposition, winter-as-trope wouldn’t have an emotional valence. Yankelevich’s lyricism and the speaker who serves as that lyricism’s focus are constructed in no small part from allusions to and borrowings from a number of other poets of winter. A quick survey shows that he mentions Frank O’Hara, Bernadette Mayer, Gertrude Stein, David Schubert, Joan Murray, Edwin Denby, and the greatest of winter mourners, John Donne. I believe that I have caught quotations from others as well — Ovid, Mandelstam, and Basho, to name just three. Yankelevich tells us that he has also appropriated lines from Mel Elberg, Alan Gilbert, Thom Jurek, Stephen Rodefer, and Keith Waldrop. All of this is to say that these notebooks present an anatomy of what we could call, misappropriating Stevens, “the mind of winter.”
That mind, in Yankelevich’s case at least, dwells on its failures in love and poetry. Take, for instance, the end of a short meditation on Bernadette Mayer and the rented house in Great Barrington in which she wrote Midwinter Day:
my house, I’ve lived in it, made love, looked out
these windows, baked in the kitchen, misshaped love
by feeding one lover’s cake to another. (30)
The speaker is speaking in propria persona — or so it would seem — but the words sound like Mayer’s (especially that last line). As a result, you have to ask if this house made of words can possibly belong to anyone but Mayer. On the other hand, if the style is Mayer’s, but the words are not — and I have reason to suppose that these words are Yankelevich’s rather inspired mimicry — then I guess we can say that they are his, but only just. And even if they were originally written by Mayer, the odd phenomenology of reading makes the question of ownership hard to navigate. Our internalization of and identification with the language and the personae of the poets we read make the reader’s boundaries rather fluid. The poem as an object can be owned by its author (hence the copyright page). But poetry is also a multivalent transaction with odd effects. (Some of the creepiest and most brilliant moments in Whitman’s poetry derive from his keen understanding of this fluidity.)
In the end, Yankelevich’s two chapbooks do not exhibit any of the cynical knowingness that accompanied those Language and neoconceptual texts that tried to demonstrate over and over again that subjectivity was an illusion. Yes, winter may be a poetic trope and, yes, poetic “voice” might be an effect of textuality. That is old news and is not the story that Yankelevich is telling. His poems — or rather, these parts of this longer work — are capacious and always linguistically interesting. They include multitudes of interests, pains, and problems. They are sometimes funny and sometimes quite moving. While they bristle with moments that made me stop in my readerly tracks (“Here I build my bridge to traverse / the world with a shark’s milky eye” ), their strengths are cumulative. They build as they grow and they grow as they build. It is for that reason — and not only that reason — that we should definitely look forward to seeing the larger edifice, his book of winter, once it appears fully fledged in print.