Penguin, $18.00 (paperback)
Here is the entirety of “A Source of Style,” a poem in Mark Yakich’s superb and disturbing third collection, The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine: “Hart Crane vaulted from a ship’s railing in purple pajamas. / Purple to soften the blow.”
Like many poems in the book, this one leaps at the boundary between art and reality with the deranged authority of Berryman and Blake. We know that “purple” does not soften sensation, but it can alter sensibility; while the poem is darkly ironic, it also asserts Yakich’s faith in art.
This faith is Keatsian—what the imagination seizes as beauty must be true—but Yakich holds his whimsy fiercely accountable, saying “if imagination is stronger than knowledge, it is always more to blame.”
As a result, Yakich reacts with guilt to ideas that could be merely cheeky. “What about a flag of bacon? Oh I would / Not have the courage to fly it. For who would / Apologize to the pigs and hogs and sky?”
The frivolous invention, treated as true, would not only snuff out Yakich’s voice and offend nature but would transform the meat into “pigs and hogs,” the way a death toll turns into many names.
Yakich’s work can be as off-putting as fake vomit flecked with real vomit. (“eczema on my penis,” anyone? how about “a hole / Where her vagina used to be”?) But it is saved from shallow “anti-poetic” shock by the humane fluency it finds in disaster’s aftermath.
“September 12″ is the title of a poem in the final section, after all; these reality-addled poems aren’t nostalgic for lost innocence or seduced by our fall from it, but articulate the hard meanings that follow.
In preferring the thick of things, the book is indulgently baroque (“gracefully urinating”) and short on redemption, yet insists art can do more than bow to chaos. “I say, never be content with / The aphorisms of poetry or Auschwitz,” Yakich concludes in “Adorno.”
Thus, he knows poetry’s limits next to suffering, but he also challenges Adorno’s famous adage, which would paralyze poetry into a moment of silence, or total disintegration, when really art does not just lie, but belies what we deceive ourselves about.
“I will no longer cry / Or pretend a wreck is a neat animal,” Yakich writes in “Green Zone New Orleans.” “I will no longer lie—Most of my thoughts are // Memories and what isn’t is a mirror / I break my nose against.”
In a changed world, thoughts are only memories, and the empirical present is a reflection one butts against—not just with the senses, but with the sense organs.
The lines above recall Bob Dylan (“I look at my watch / I look at my wrist / I punch myself / In the face with my fist”). Throughout the book, Yakich alludes through proper names (Anne Frank, Frank O’Hara) and phrasing that can mix, for example, Whitman and There’s Something About Mary (“We / Come in each other’s hair. / (The rarest of flowers is not as beautiful.”)
While this range is effulgent, some readers might find it closer to glib artifice than honest grief, closer to gimmick than grace. They might have similar complaints about poems in which Yakich highlights his own wit (“Isn’t that clever?”) or coyly declares that in writing this book he “simply had time, and that’s / Probably a greater sin.”
But for Yakich, the critique of aesthetics does not disprove beauty; it produces “collateral beauty.” We would lose that consolation if we trimmed all unseemliness, all irrelevancy and play, those excesses that assert so much matters, if we didn’t know that the day he died Beckett’s “underpants were pink, / having been washed with a new red shirt,” in favor of less messy facades.
That would be a shame, because although art can’t change everything, it does make a difference to what is. Does it matter what color Beckett’s underwear was? Well, no more than Crane’s pajamas. No more than anything.