March 2009

Sean Patrick Hill

poetry

The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine by Mark Yakich

Hayden Carruth, writing about his time as editor for Poetry magazine during Vietnam, deplored the fact that over the course of a single measurable year he saw no poetry devoted to the zeitgeist. In the post-9/11 age of war, dirty politics, and genocide, has anything changed?

Among the young poets of today, especially those of the post-avant, publishing in the online or independent print journals, the distinction between eras is hazy, even non-existent. Mark Yakich, in The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine, declares a lack in the opening poem, “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.”

Following on his first two books, both of an imaginative if not peculiar humor, the poems in his latest come as a shock. Or do they? I suspect that the whimsical style he developed has been utilized firmly in his poems-of-protest. When poets talk about urgency in a poem, they need look no further than “J.J. Audubon,” a poem in the voice of the ornithologist: “I discovered why…/ A bird will die of asphyxia if it does not sing.”

The book’s requisite blurb amply points out that the poems in this book deal with the heavies of war and genocide (as well as failed soufflés), but there is far more to it that that. This is a book that accuses not only the failed morality of our times, but poets for not amply addressing it. A poem shaped on the game show Jeopardy, “I’ll Take ‘Notable Artists of the 20th Century in Couplets,’ Please, Alex” gives the $600 answer as:

In a world marked by artillery,
Money, and fashion

Many a fertilizer
Passes for perfume.

Whether or not you like
My work, I got one thing right:

The best paintings are done
On your hands and knees.

The answer, incidentally, is “Who is Jackson Pollock”; but more to the point, the indictment is clear. The answer lies between the lines: where Graham Foust asks, “What is the poem,” Yakich answers it with both imagination and precision.

In fact, poetry in this book is not only wildly imaginative but formal. It took a few pages to note simple things like the fact that all line beginnings are capitalized -- thus, like James Galvin, who chose Yakich’s first book, Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross, for the National Poetry Series, the poems call attention to themselves as poems. If that’s not an ample amount of attention paid to tradition, there’s always “Holy Sonnet” which, despite its poetic marriage of the blood of Christ to wine-tasting -- pure Yakich -- is exactly in the form it says.

The second half of the book consists of “Green Zone New Orleans,” an ambitious long poem, and a final section of poems dealing directly with the aftermath of September 11, including a startling reinvention of Homer’s theme of war in an “Unknown Soldier” caught by torturing terrorists: “…their hard // Hands giving new meaning to / The rosy fingers of dawn.” If this isn’t traditional poetry, what is?

Yakich’s Importance is nothing short of creating this “new meaning” and lives up to the book’s epigraph of Ginsberg: America, this is quite serious. Only he remains, as a whole, the poet we’ve come to admire in Yakich, who in the guise of “Adorno” can state, unequivocally, “I say, never be content with / The aphorisms of poetry or Auschwitz.”

The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine by Mark Yakich
Penguin
ISBN: 014311333X
128 Pages