When I was a child, I went with my best friend and her family to the state fair in Nashville, an hour’s drive away. I am sure that I partook in tilt-o-whirls and funnel cakes, but all I remember is going to see the world’s smallest woman. I didn’t want to go because I was scared with no ability to articulate why. Now I believe it was the secrecy of the sideshows. Everything else at a fair is visible beforehand. If you want to ride the roller coaster, well then you expect being spun upside-down and plummeted to earth because you can see it. The sideshows offer grotesque paintings with closed doors, and the only proof that you won’t be harmed is the trickle of people emerging from the exit. Yes, I admit it, I was afraid of the world’s smallest woman (and there was no possible way even my BFF was going to convince me to see the Serpent Lady). The conclusion of this story is probably obvious. The woman was a young dwarf, and the only thing frightening about her was that she showed me how disrespectfully people can treat other people.
Mark Yakich’s poems are a bit like this state fair, which is to say, they offer amusement but also moments that will stop you cold. Another way to look at them would be to say that they are the whole twenty-four hours. Not only the evening neon, but also the morning mud. The evening smell of caramel apples and the morning of port-o-potties. It’s play, but it’s also business. In a poem composed entirely of imagined jeopardy questions, Yakich writes,
What can I tell you about drowning—
That I tried it once? Went down like a hand
Smoothing out a felt skirt, again
And again, never breaking the wrinkle.
Afterwards, everyone I met was oddly
Qualified to drown. [ ]
The poem is “I’ll Take ‘Notable Artists of the 20th Century in Couplets,’ Please, Alex.” (The answer to the $1000 question quoted above is Jeff Buckley, in case you’re wondering.) This is just one clever poem from Yakich’s latest collection The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine . I was reading the book before a recent trip and forgot to take it with me. While I wasn’t left in suspense as if forced to abandon a good murder mystery, I was prickled. At least half a dozen times, I wished I had it with me. Specifically, I couldn’t stop thinking about the title poem, which traces the fictional lives of four holocaust survivors. It is almost whimsical in its creation of possible ways to survive (a skill for peeling potatoes or for acting like a potato). In the end, however, the poet acknowledges the impossibility of writing about such barbarity: “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.” This confession acknowledges the artifice, that poetry is sometimes style not substance, but that it is necessary to try to combine the two poles. Ukraine accomplishes just that.
Bio: Erica Wright is the poetry editor at Guernica. Her “interview with John Ashbery”:https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/507/houses_at_night_1/, “Houses at Night,” appeared in Guernica’s February 2008 issue. Read her last recommendation “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1512/rec_room_erica_wright_the_unin/.