Quick, what’s harder than publishing your first book of poetry? A: Publishing your second. Jessica Greenbaum’s work hit the poetry shelves in 2000 with Inventing Difficulty and her second effort was a finalist for the Hecht Prize last year and for all of us who entered that competition this year, let’s hope Greenbaum already found a publisher for manuscript, which appears to have the working title of “Cover Songs for the Alphabet.”

The poem that appears in the February 9, 2009, issue of the New Yorker is the first piece of Greenbaum’s I’ve laid eyes on and I’ve since scoured the Internet looking for others and from what I can tell, this piece, “The Two Yvonnes” is markedly different from the other work out there. Namely, it seems looser, rangier: the lines are longer the voice is more distinct, more at the forefront of the poem. It has an Ashberian quality though it’s far from a knockoff. (All of these prognostications are going off a rather small sample size so I could be way off.)

This poem is also something like a wall of smoke: it looks substantial, but when you try to wrap your arms around it it disperses only to gather again when you move away.  The obfuscation is purposeful and the journey to the conclusion is circuitous.

In summary: An unnamed man told Jess to read Gogol’s Two Ivans and that will help (with what we don’t know) but Jess wrote Two Yvonnes on her notepad and now has two Two Yvonnes/Ivans (one male one female) and unwittingly ushered in the existance of two Yvonnes to this world where the facts switch with notions like actors and standins like arriving at the wrong time for book party whereJess is and currently talking to her friend’s husband, a painter named Paul, who confused her with someone else, a sandy-haired painter, who Jess now recognizes as the second of the two Yvonnes but she thought she was the first Yvonne, the star of the story, and now she’s confused.

Taken as a whole, the poem seems to have at its core the attempt to reconcile the perception of ourselves with how we are perceived by others and the isolating disoreintation such an attempt causes. The poem contains quarry of misunderstandings: the title of the Gogol story, the time of the party, the shape of the painting, the occupation of Jess, the memory concerning Jess’s hair color, all built upon the purposefully, shaky foundation of a suggestion by an unnamed man to read a new translation of the Gogol story for help. It’s all very slippery and unnerving.

Postscript bullets of observation:

The “Gogol story” is titled, in one translation, “How the Two Ivans Quarrelled” and is actually considered to be a novella. It’s a tale of friendship gone bad.

Ezekiel actually records four dreams or visions: the first Ezekiel see God in a chariot in the sky; the second he finds god abandoning the temple in Jerusalem; the third is the valley of dry bones; the fourth is the restoration of God’s temple in Jerusalem.

I have a feeling that “day” in the eighth line is a typo and should be read as “way.”

Further Reading

Two poems that will decrease our chances at winning contests.

“Below the Fold” from Nextbook.