Julian Stannard reviews
The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine
by Mark Yakich
The poetry of Yakich is full of gags, dildos and literary muggings and I applaud it for that. Poems often sell themselves by their titles and Yakich has a natural gift for publicity. The title of the volume is instantly intriguing and it’s difficult not to be sympathetic to poems which introduce themselves so brazenly: "After the Flood All the Condoms Fall Off", "Pretzels Come to America", "The Supercomputer Finally Answers Charles Manson", "Spell to Bring Me Osama bin Laden" or, right at the end of the collection, "An Untenable Nostalgia for Chernobyl".
If you’re thinking this sounds like a poet strutting his stuff, a charismatic mago showering us with glib conceits, you would be wrong. Yakich’s poems are disturbingly serious. Take, as an opening example, "A Truth Is Subject to Its Title". We’re now in Rwanda at the museum "that is the African equivalent/of Auschwitz" where the hallways "are not lined with//Small mountains of hair of Jewish girls or/Strewn with suitcases stamped Horowitz, Goldstein, et al" but rather with "piles of macheted skulls’" of Tutsi boys. This tour of hell, which might also be seen as a tour of the twentieth century, allows you to hold hands with one of the survivors and have your photo taken beside his mother’s bones:
“This,” he says, “is my mother.”
And then after looking at her
Imploded chest, he says: “Oh no, that’s not her.
That would be my cousin. There --”
And he gestures with a rock-throw, “That’s my mother.”
The boy is so calm and polite, and you wonder
Who taught him to speak the King’s English.
Both of you walk over to inspect the skeleton.
The reference to Auschwitz is significant in that Nazi acts of genocide inform the philosophical consciousness of this collection. The boy survivor in Rwanda is a brother-in-tragedy to the boy who hides in a sack of potatoes in Nazi controlled Ukraine, where the Jews are being shunted off in trains. The Ukrainian boy survives the war on fresh "handfuls of potato peelings." Yet "Proof Text", almost the title- poem and rather tellingly written in prose, ends up by interrogating the moral validity of bearing witness in these fable-like terms: "The actual lives that are lived in atrocious times and distant places can never be told – out of fear that they will be either too beautiful or too true." In their introduction to The Penguin Book Of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), Morrison and Motion champion the imagination as a force for renewal and healing. Yakich, however, throws a spanner in the works by saying "If imagination is stronger than knowledge, it is always more to blame."
The force of metaphor in Gunter Grass’ Peeling The Onion (2006) is immediately apparent. The German novelist un-wraps and reveals his own collusion with his country’s tormented history and examines how the past and the present are contiguous. In The Importance of Peeling Potatoes In Ukraine, Yakich is, inter alia, making uncomfortable connections between Europe’s concentration camps and America’s post-9/11 hijacking of democracy. Three separate poems go under the title "Patriot Acts". In the third of these, zealous for the elimination of the enemy within, the authorities place their suspicions on a kitten because "who wouldn’t/Send in an animal to do a mortal’s job?" The unlucky cat ‘"Swayed back and forth at the entrance to the hotel./And then - worthy of a copyeditor’s pun -/Catastrophe! A bullet hit the kitten killing her/Instantly, saving many people. But what’s left us now -/Dried blood and shifting eyebrows, limp cocks/And lopsided divinity?"
Limp cocks and lopsided divinity, the state of a nation? If Europe’s ideological hinterlands are a phantom in the American machine, see for example his excellent poem on Leni Riefenstahl, it’s the machine itself that exercises Yakich. The collection is prefaced by a line from the great protestor Allen Ginsberg - America this is quite serious. And central to this collection, and another reason the work is so compelling, is an exploration as to how, and in what ways, a modern American poet can fashion a poetry of protest. The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine reveals its political animus in the choice of subject matter, sometimes the titles themselves, yet the collection also becomes a conversation with poetic and philosophical traditions. The references to Whitman and Ginsberg are significant and Yakich make us conscious of an established declamatory tradition right from the beginning. Whitmanesque sonority and the high rhetoric of Ginsberg et al are acknowledged and somewhat teased in "Tourists Beware’:
In our free speech they say
There is protest. They say this.
They are wrong. Poetry in America is a hobby
Horse or an earnest earache. Unless it breaks
The rules of syntax and grammar;
Then it simply breaks the rules
Of syntax and grammar. I say this.
I, too, am wrong.
Humorous poetry is published exclusively
One month of the year when everybody is
On summer vacation. More than poetry,
Vacation is protest.
Likewise Ginsbergian swagger is knowingly collapsed, and yet not un-echoed, in Yachich’s "For a Young Male Poet" where "I, too, suckled from//A browbeaten nipple/Under a wimple and came//Up short. Fight for the penile/Implants and lactation consultants."
Two poems on from "Leni Riefenstahl" and we’re reading "Adorno" and this takes us straight back to Nazi horror. Adorno’s famous dictum on the role of poetry post-Auschwitz, namely its moral illegitimacy, is, by implication, taken up by Yakich and feeds into that that earlier statement regarding the culpability of the imagination. Yakich’s response to Adorno is to take grace notes from the American epic and to beat them into a dissonant and unforgiving demotic. Yakich creates an anti-lyric that sometimes recalls Charles Simic. (Buried near the centre of the book he mischievously asks "Who was Frank O’Hara"?) Humour becomes a wince across the face and the poem a brilliant act of sabotage. From "For A Suicide Bomber":
Have seen people exaggerate the flower
Of poetry. For example, it can give you
Longer, more distinguished orgasms; it can
Make you fall in love with your mother;
It can placate crotch odor. I have known men
And women who deliberately crap their own
Pockets and leotards trying to suffer the same
Misery of Buddha, Dante, Dickinson, and Li Po.
It’s time to put the big myth about these
Pilots to bed.
Julian Stannard’s most recent collection – The Red Zone – is published by Peterloo Poets. He teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Winchester.
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