A Review of The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine
By Roger Sedarat
Like Mark Yakich's first book of poetry, Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (National Poetry Series) (2003 winner of the National Poetry Series), The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (Poets, Penguin) thrives upon the post-modern play of language. Such a critical observation no doubt sounds reductive. Ironically, this poet indeed reproduces the act of killing the letter--through the trope of what, for lack of a better term we must call "reality" or "the real world"--as a last ditch effort to revivify the spirit of verse in the twenty-first century. Though so many books published today adopt a version of this project, few do so as effectively as this one.
Yakich's consistent undercutting of his poetic enterprise offers the reader a freedom from pretension:
...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. (3)
Insofar as this poet foregrounds his awareness of artifice in a post-9/11 America--like the first title of section IV, this collection begins, in a sense, on "September 12" (83)--, he takes the reader on vacation from excessively romanticized ideas of poetry. Even so, he continues to risk what emotion he can. If the heart is back in American verse, it remains obviously broken, producing aberrant beats, displaced love, etc. This collection excels at reflecting such disconnection. In "SIDS," for example, the speaker's parents named the child they lost "Sydney / Because they didn't think / God would ever be so ironic" (30).
Ultimately, the poet has named the historical narrative we inhabit "potatoes" for a similar reason, as if hoping his tongue-in-cheek enterprise would insure a world beyond a vegetable state. Because this world fails to materialize, all one can do his peel his or her way down to the essence of what it means to live in the reality of time. In "Proof Text," a prose poem, a Ukrainian Jewish boy who hides from the Nazis in a sack of potatoes survives by a chain of circumstances involving others who barely subsist on the refuse of potatoes. The narrator offers the following conclusion:
All these years later, I cannot think of a more beautiful or true story. But
the trouble is that it is principally a story, and in telling it I have made both
you and me ugly. The actual lives that are lived in atrocious times and
distant places can never be told--out of fear they will be either too
beautiful or too true. (5)
Fortunately, at the expense of truth and beauty comes prodigious laughter at our situation. "A Brief History of Patriotism" surveys the history of human civilization via the potato as temporal agency, with a timeline that includes: "1100-1500 The Incas grow, eat, and worship the potato, and / often bury it with their dead" and "1604 Shakespeare invents mashed potatoes, potato / pancakes, twice-baked / potatoes, thrice-baked potatoes, and very burnt potatoes." (33)
It is especially fruitless to attempt too great an explanation of Yakich's humor. So close to the meaning of a life we have inherited through language, he makes the experience of it essential. Absurdly important and importantly absurd, this book provides both enjoyable and enlightening reading.
Roger Sedarat is the author of the poetry collections Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP's Hollis Summers Prize, and Ghazal Games (forthcoming, Ohio UP). He teaches poetry and literary translation in the MFA Program at Queen College, Cuty University of New York.
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