chap nook 8: Yankelevich, Sager, Karl & Wong

Bending at the Elbow, Matvei Yankelevich (Minute Books, 2011)

Matvei Yankelevich would like to tell you about his obsessions. Except: “Most of the / words I’ve wanted to say // I’ve already said. To say / them again would seem / redundant. But the / simple words can be said / more than once.” And that’s how the first poem in Bending at the Elbow ends.

The poems in this book are obsessed with minutiae and repetition. Their subjects are small, inconsequential, and absurd, but by refusing to let them go, Yankelevich renders them large. For example, a poem called “Buttons” is a wonderful two-and-a-half page description of a necklace of buttons collected from the clothing of war victims in Serbia that is sewn together so tightly, words that are apparently written on the sides of the buttons are hidden by the adjoining buttons. The fact of this is terrifying to the speaker, who looks at the buttons from every angle, as though looking harder could solve the problem of both the war and the buttons: “The buttons are so close / together. You can’t even un- / button them, you can’t even / imagine them. These / are real buttons.”

Yankelevich’s obsessions extend to the act of writing, too. He wonders, for example, about the image as a meaning-making tool. He is wary: “The museum is empty. / What exactly is the point of poetry? // In the rain, colors are so much more colorful. / So you take pictures?” That this rain reappears at the end of the book (“so beautiful and sad / rain on the window of an auto”) points to a real desire to make the trite, overused image mean something, to be able to divorce it from its trope and write it.

The poems in Bending at the Elbow are interested in discovering big meaning in small things. Sometimes, they succeed and graveyards, fish, and orange juice containers become stand-ins for historical, political, and existential questions. Other times, they fail beautifully. “Epistolary Poem,” for example, moves between ideas about letters, paper, and communication with graceful, circular lines, but only touches on the larger implications of these. On the whole, Yankelevich lets the writing determine what the writing is doing. It is, after all, nothing more than “a last resort to see if something / singular is going on[.]”

– Amanda Calderon


Dear Failures, Trey Sager (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011)

DW: A quarter of the way into Dear Failures I started to feel like Sager was writing letters to his past experiences/selves.

EJM: In the opening poem, Sager writes about suicide notes–which immediately signify destruction–then goes on to discuss destruction of the self as well as that which has been destroyed by the self, while at the same time, conjuring the idea behind self-analysis via therapy. 

DWIf you look at “Dear Me,” Sager jumps from his mom, to his wife, then to de Kooning, Tennessee Williams and Salman Rushdie; these moves almost seem manic, coming from a brain that has a lot going on or a lot of selves trying to communicate an idea.

EJM: The same kind of thing happens in “Dear Orphans,” “Dear Nostalgia,” and “Dear Charles”–the reader is given definitions to words, ideas (jokes as well) are explained, and even plants are held up against animal parts (cattails vs. cats’ tails).

DW: Right, and, again with “Dear Nostalgia,” he even says “I remember a time when everything I wrote was clear/ and totally profound,/ and I always knew what I was talking about,” which tells us he no longer gets what he is saying, or at least what he’s saying to himself isn’t clear.

EJM: There’s a lot of schizophrenia in this book.  Here’s the root of it from the poem “Dear Rocket Sea:”  “For the first time, I became conscious of my own inner dialogue— / I must be schizophrenic, too, I logically concluded. / After a week of desolation, my mom made me see a therapist, / who said I was having trouble negotiating the conflicting spaces between childhood and adulthood.”

DW: What is Sager building with the schizophrenia?  “Dear Rocket Sea” begins by linking schizophrenia with god, which makes me think of Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class; when he is asked how he knows he is God, he responds, “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself,” so I get the feeling Sager is looking for a kind of answer within himself in these poems.

EJM: How is language a reflection of the self?  How is Sager using it as such?  Is he?  In “Dear Apollo,” the speaker addresses Apollo (the god or the spaceship or maybe someone more literally paternal?).  The line, “You’re more of the former” seems to be an echo of addressing past selves, as in Apollo is but a former self, a remnant that is both oracular [Delphian] and elusive.

DW: Sager is Apollo, the god and the spaceship and the boxer from Rocky’s I-IV, he’s the lumberjack and the nostalgia—in these poems Sager seems to inhabit everything while (maybe?) looking for his true self.

–  Erin J. Mullikin & David Wojciechowski


Don’t Try This On Your Piano or am i still standing here with my hair downSteven Karl and Angela Veronica Wong  (Lame House Press, 2012)

Don’t Try This On Your Piano or am i still standing here with my hair down is a collaboration between Steven Karl and Angela Veronica Wong that retains authorial individuality. The start of the work feels like reading letters over the shoulders of newly old lovers: “It’s a new month, but I still leave mugs of tea on counters.” Some replies are reflexive enough to be imagined as emailed, but in the beginning, a romantic, however hopeless, presence suggests snail mail.

In attempts to map out the other side’s spatial landscapes, the verbal mind can bring unknowns into awareness. This exercise creates a temporality inhabited by the unrealized. Karl and Wong’s speakers talk around the never done like sonar, trying to locate and name their relationship’s remainders. Then, maybe, something could be done with them. For now, their words meet away from their bodies until presumably one or both are called to occupy something, somewhere, or someone new. Physical and psychological spaces are paramount to Karl and Wong’s collection. As the speaker notes, “acknowledging distance between your body and the earth seems like a bad idea.”

Karl and Wong create a purgatory of correspondence, a sort of waiting room filled with the speakers’ histories. The correspondence proves exciting, dark and a bit sexy: “Every fantasy may end in denial but they all begin with your bare legs.”

Halfway through the collection, the pace increases like breath work. The text breaks from prose, and the voices become harder to distinguish until single lines are separated and distinguished by asterisks:


What is given from one lover to another?


& it was then that theft entered as crumbs on a crown day

The asterisks serve any number of functions: pause, reflex, slap, or twist. If the asterisks are twisting points, visually the text becomes a double helix with one readable dimension. Like other unknowns, the inaccessible is assumed, displaced, denied, projected, intellectualized, sublimated, or [insert choice mechanism here].

Karl and Wong’s chapbook both structurally and conceptually reminds “There is no point to beginning if there is no breaking.”

— Stephanie Ann Whited