(New York, NY: Black Square Editions, 2015)
Matvei Yankelevich’s sparse and emotionally restrained new collection, Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt, inspires deep introspection and catharsis. The book consists of a single long, lyric poem divided into forty-five suites and delineated by occasional epigraphs that help codify complex themes. Earlier iterations of several suites were inspired by artist Koo Jeong A’s three part exhibition Constellation Congress. The third installment, titled “Dr. Vogt”, featured Koo Jeong A’s simple line drawings alongside Yankelevich’s poetry. In combination, the exhibit aimed illuminate the complex relationships humans have with their external environment and the abstruse bonds between observer and observed.
Though Yankelevich’s work is compelling without knowing its background, I found myself returning often to Koo Jeong A’s exhibit and the works referenced in each epigraph to further contextualize this complex and revelatory book. Yankelevich artfully synthesizes extensive artistic and philosophical theories to explore the role of art – specifically poetry – in the modern world. Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt creates a lasting record of what it means to be a thinking, feeling person in a landscape that changes so quickly and so relentlessly that it is hardly noticed. “XX” beautifully articulates both the writer’s compulsion to capture and define a moment as well as the ultimate futility of the effort:
A boat. A moving sale.
A party undisturbed
by invitations. A mislaid
vocab. Price tags in the wind.
Surveyor bending to the scope.
Yellow reeds looking to forms
of potential thought. A cool
breeze through a competitive
model. The point of a dagger
missing, cut off by a framing
device made between wood
and linen. You could say
outside, or keep quiet.
“XX” successfully demonstrates the enormous task all artists face, regardless of genre, when converting a moment in the world into a work of art. Yankelevich shares a written representation of the view outside using specific details – the boat sail and price tags moving in the wind – before swiftly turning the poem on its head, suggesting the same moment could just as easily have been represented with the single word “outside” or, better yet, not represented at all.
A large portion of Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt draws from competing notions of the role of writer in the world. Midway through the book, Yankelevich shares a cryptic epigraph from Edmond Jabes’ “Well Water” that reads: “The term. The fore-world./ Gone from care”. Yankelevich deftly pairs this epigraph with the more exegetical “XXIII”:
There is a world different from any
other that is happening, now, occurring
in order to push this world into the past.
In three short lines, “XXIII” lays bare the tangled relationship between past, present, and future – then leaves us dangling with no resolution or comfort. Though “XXIII” says much as a stand-alone piece, providing a blithe description of the existential dilemma, it takes on deeper complexity when paired with the Jabes epigraph. How does one establish a continuous connection with an ever-changing world? What can one make of “now” if its inherent nature is to disappear?
The Jabes epigraph insinuates an answer: Whatever has disappeared is no longer deserving of attention. Yankelevich is less inclined to accept this conclusion outright, and toys with alternative options in “III.” Interestingly, Yankelevich pairs “III” with an epigraph taken from Kasimir Malevich’s essay “From Cubism to Suprematism”. In its entirety, it reads, “Each form is a world.” Malevich’s essay is delightfully manic, and I returned to it many times as I reread Yankelevich’s book. In it, Malevich argues, “Only in absolute creation will he [the artist] acquire his right. And this is possible when we free all art of philistine ideas and subject matter and teach our consciousness to see everything in nature not as real objects and forms, but as material, as masses from which forms must be made that have nothing in common with nature”. His philosophical legacy is that pure artistic feeling – not reproductions of objects – is supreme.
“III” first introduces the idea that, if we were truly present in each passing moment, we would understand how it felt “to be nothing becoming/ something.” It’s a deep thought, delivered with a light touch. It continues:
In the revolutionary moment,
in a hammock, a gilded ballroom,
In the hollow of a violin hidden
Under the lid of a piano. Do you
Need to say black, say shiny
Say grand? The image: no more
Labor for the mind. The piano
You fail to note is broken. Imagine
The dust. If you want
The poem is playful, but not at all lacking depth. “III” examines the artistic and existential conundrum that artists have been tortured with since time immemorial: What must an artist give his audience in order to make the world “real”? If the artist is a decipherer of the world and conduit for both internal and external transmission, must the art be authentic to the observed world? Or, as Malevich argues, must artists transfer the world into something materially unrecognizable? Yankelevich touches briefly on an answer earlier in “III” in a short passage that could easily be glossed over:
As a coinage dissolves
first into cliché, then idiom
ceasing to be the thing and leaving
only meaning to swallow it
as time swallows the rocks, or
These six lines are perhaps Yankelevich’s greatest success in a thoughtful, erudite book. His tone remains unsentimental and graceful even as he concedes that none of the world, none of its many brilliant moments, can be captured or transmitted by even a champion artist. Art is truly reproductive; the written word, Yankelevich confesses, is only ever an approximation of the world as it is observed. Meaning will inevitably devolve – “first into cliché, then idiom” – over time. Nothing will be spared: not the world, not the art, not the artist.
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Lisa Grgas is the Assistant Poetry Editor of The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Fratcal, Web Del Sol, and elsewhere. She also reviews poetry for Tin House Magazine in Portland, Oregon.