Birds of the Air by David Yezzi. Carnegie Mellon University Press. 88 pp., $15.95.
The title poem of David Yezzi’s new collection, Birds of the Air, wears its scriptural allusions like the lightest of garments, like a coat of feathers. A woman at water’s edge tosses bread crusts in the air to feed the circling gulls—a sort of sowing and reaping that brings to mind Matthew 6:26. “She casts the crumbs in lamplight, over water” reads like an oblique nod to Ecclesiastes 11:1. In no meaningful sense has Yezzi written a religious poem. He specializes in snapshots of ordinary events seldom over-freighted with significance, unlike the work of so many epiphany-mongers among his contemporaries. In another poet’s hands, the rhyming quatrains of “Birds of the Air” might descend into bathos or nature mysticism, and become a heartwarming tale of a lonely woman and her only friends, the birds. Yezzi concludes his poem with this:
After she goes, the dark birds settle back.
They float south with the floes along the bank,
their fortune pitched in wind, the water black.
It’s a pleasure to watch a poet grow into his gift. Yezzi’s earlier books, The Hidden Model (2003) and Azores (2008), while amusing and better than most of what passes for poetry today, showed more promise than accomplishment. With Birds of the Air, he proves himself a deft formalist with something to say. His touch is ambidextrous. He can be satirical and as tough as any hard-boiled detective writer, and still manage a larky bit of light verse like “Pals” (“A pal can lead you to the trough / or help you take a few pounds off.”) He’s equally adept at old standards, reanimating such forms as the sonnet. Here is “Orts,” a poem that might be a description of a Dutch still life or an unbussed table in last night’s restaurant:
Tough to say from this tableful of scraps
what couples feasted here—gnawed olive stones
among the burnt ends of cold meat, the laps
of cantaloupes splayed open, spindly bones
of game birds, unloaved crusts, a waxy rind.
Did late-harvest wine unloose their wild talk?
Whose restless eyes, at once far-off and kind,
looked skyward on an after-dinner walk?
The clues are hard to tease out: were they fair
or compromised, temperate or gluttonous;
did some not give a fig and others care?
Both, perhaps, and in both just like us,
who, swept up in the whirl of tonight’s laughter,
pay no special mind to what comes after.
Yezzi’s poems often hint at oblique narratives. Like a detective, he asks a lot of questions. He’s like a mathematician working an inverse problem, deducing inner dramas from externals. His spirit, however, is sympathetic, not forensic. A friend used to say when someone started complaining about another’s failing, “Be gentle. He’s just a human.” Yezzi’s poems, even those devoted to life’s schmucks, never forget that.
Yezzi is at his best in a series of blank-verse monologues (“Tomorrow & Tomorrow,” “Dirty Dan,” “Schnauzer”) written in a carefully deployed vernacular—nothing “poetic” here—that artfully apes the way Americans speak in 2013. They read like rambling, rough-hewn short stories, the sort Stephen Dixon might write if he slowed down a little and listened to what people were actually saying and applied a little craft. They also recall Anthony Hecht’s dramatic monologues, though their language is less elegant and elevated. The form is flexible enough to accommodate (in “Tomorrow & Tomorrow) a love story and betrayal, a misbegotten production of Macbeth and a Hechtian reference to the Holocaust. In “Spoils,” a young man recounts the various low-paying jobs he’s held: “Money I’ve made lots of different ways: / back-to-back shifts at the Cumberland Farms, / downing burritos out of the microwave.” Or working clean-up in a nursing home, mopping urine and collecting the possessions of elderly patients who have died:
Their photos would come down, the woolen throw
would disappear, the tchotchkes, crosses, slippers,
packed up by a nurse, or family.
Thrown away, mostly. It’s amazing how
most of the stuff we live with, cherish, hoard
is so utterly worthless when we’re gone,
turned instantly to trash.
This leads the speaker to remember the time he was hired to clean out the cluttered apartment (“like the inside of a trash compactor”) of another old man in a nursing home. He steals two watches from a box of them the pack rat keeps in his closet. In a nice, Chekhovian touch, a neighbor suggests he help himself to one of the watches, and he replies, “I really couldn’t use one.” It’s now fifteen years later, he still has one of the watches, though he’s only worn it once or twice, “To make an impression.” Here the poem achieves the rich narrative density of first-rate fiction: “Whenever something bad happens to me, / I think of that watch. Like when you died / so young that way.” The “you” remains unidentified. Remember, we’re listening in on the guilty musings of an ordinary human being, not a villain. His crimes are ours, misdemeanors, and Yezzi concludes his poem with a mingling of empathy and muted condemnation, the way we might rationalize a petty theft we’ve learned to accommodate in uneasy memory:
So, what’s the secret of the watch?
A man was dying, and I took his watch.
It was his, and then it wasn’t; it was trash.
And now that it is mine, I keep it safe,
until it’s time for someone else to clean out
my closet, and, whoever’s job it is,
he makes off with it or he passes it on
or most likely of all
just drops it into a bag and throws it out.
In a recent essay in The New Criterion, the journal where he serves as executive editor, Yezzi complained that American poetry has grown “so docile, so domesticated, it’s like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun.” We know what he means. He continues: “Perhaps the way forward is, in fact, a way back. Perhaps the route into the wilderness will be charted by someone outside the game, who manages to reinvigorate, as Eliot did, a few little-known or neglected strains in poetry—what Hardy liked to call the old way of being new.” Yezzi might be writing an apologia for Birds of The Air. Most of his poems, without being flamboyantly provocative, come to the reader’s attention unexpectedly. They address the familiar but unnoticed things in our lives. In an interview late in his life, the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky likened art to taking off our gloves, rubbing our eyes and seeing reality for the first time, “the truth of reality.” In Yezzi’s hands, reality is not exalted but homely, soiled, cluttered, deeply compromised, thoroughly human and always reliably delivered.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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