Alpha Donut: the Selected Shorter Works by Matvei Yankelevich
United Artists Books, 2012
“In total amusement of what we call / a poem,” writes Matvei Yankelevich, “… the real thing is not visible, just the controlling apparatus.”
So what is the “real thing?” I cannot get the image of a donut hole out of my head. Is it the hole of the doughnut that is real? Is Nothingness the basis of all reality?
It is safe to assume the controlling apparatus is language. It is probably not a lawn mower.
But you never know.
But you never know.
Alpha Donut is a pleasurable read. Yankelevich excels at the deceptively simple, the casual, off-hand sentence that carries a potent charge. The writing is, in fact, quite precise. Its strict attention to economy of statement is masked by a congenial sense of the comic. There is much of the same drollery I find in Ron Padgett, such as the line “Hop hop hop / goes the busy noun / following its chosen subject / around like an angry bee, but more / like a frightened rabbit.”
Yankelevich writes, also, with the same unconstrained candor as Joe Brainard, and it is evident he has been strongly influenced by the New York School of Poets. His poetry is observational, detailing the everyday, and rampant and all-inclusive, taking in experience and walking it around like a Lippizanner stallion at Madison Square Garden. He enjoys constructing sentences. He enjoys assembling words and making them do odd tricks. “You can go backwards and forwards / with wheels made of water.” “Buster Keaton puts on a poker face and leaps / into oncoming traffic.” “I’m amusing myself with / things like paper, and how it can be / used for this or that.”
It is evident that one of Yankelevich’s chief fascinations is writing itself. Writing as process, writing as representation, writing as dull pain and lofty ideas and signage and frozen conversation. Writing as a theater of the absurd. Writing as a monument in the desert, surrounded by silence. Writing as a vibration between presence and absence. A presence which conceals an absence and an absence which is never quite fully present, chiseled out of air via tongue and ink.
This is a theme he shares with Mallarmé, who evinced a crisis at the core of his work having to do with nothingness, a view of reality as a perpetually unstable, constantly changing continuum hovering between being and non-being. “The more [Mallarmé] had studied individual words,” writes Gordan Millan in his biography of Mallarmé, “repeating them out loud again and again to himself, the more they had gradually seemed to lose their form and meaning, until through the very act of endless repetition he had come to see then for what they essentially were, namely rhythmic vibrations in the air totally devoid of any intrinsic meaning.”
“My work is simply the writing on the page,” Yankelevich confesses. “There is no more depth. Where there is depth it gets too dark to see. Some days I feel like seeing no one. My house is empty; before it could ever be filled with happiness, it accrued emptiness. Cavernous desertion. Desert sorrow. Who even cares what the date happens to be.”
The page is the night sky in reverse: instead of brilliant white stars against a cold black void, we have black words radiating meaning and image against the white of the page.
Which brings me back to the donut. The donut is the perfect image of this. Round, with a hole at the center, full of sugar and insinuation.
The donut is a central resonator which is willed into existence to mark the equivalence of things. The fictive role of language is made obvious by the fragility or arbitrariness of the subject. When the mind is disburdened of calculation, its voyage becomes all that much wider. It is little wonder that the seductions of the unknown are greater than those of the known.
“The wilderness is just another world,” reads the first line of the last stanza of “Twilight Series.”
Forests march through my hair at night.
I wake up with pine needles in my teeth.
I’m a nightwatchman, I was hired by the house.
I am going to shoot those squirrels
the ones that ate my rosebuds
before they got a chance.
It’s on automatic!
Loss of control is one of the charms of entering into language, even if only in conversation, much less the creation of a literary broadloom. It is, indeed, on automatic. But it still requires tinkering and fuel. The fusion between will and destiny, assembly and experience, is inherently embryonic. The musician can’t make music without sound or instrument. The poet can’t make donuts or blowholes without nouns and diffraction. The bending of waves. The construction of space.
“A little turn of a mysterious screw modifies the microscope of consciousness,” wrote Paul Valéry, “increases the magnification of our attention by its duration, suffices to show us our inner perplexity.”