No Kidding: Two Debut Volumes
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Inflation of the value of the New Kid on the Block [NKOTB] applies to poetry careers as much as to pop stardom. During more than thirty years of observation, I’ve seen many talents flare only to fizzle out; and some few continue to hold public attention. The readership tends to place its highest hopes on unfamiliar figures, greeting them with a messianic fervor hard to sustain when a second or third book appears. That the flavor of the month is sometimes inept should surprise no one who knows La Rochefoucauld’s maxim: “Il y a des gens qui ressemblent à ces vaudevilles, que tout le monde chante un certain temps, quelques fades et dégoûtants qu’ils soient.” [“There are people who resemble those popular songs that everyone sings for a while, no matter how insipid and nauseating these might be.”] Most NKOTB’s attract attention as risky innovators, but the supposed originality more often than not is just one more uncorking of the same old 1913 bottle of Dada. Which was an instructive carnival hoax worth perpetrating once, but a timid choice for poets coming so many decades later. Although the arts scene can expect periodic bouts of taboo-smashing calculated to provoke press coverage, the phenomenon belongs to the history of publicity, not to art. There must somewhere be an elephant’s graveyard for those books, where you can survey from a safe distance the rusting hulks of yesteryear’s sophomoric razzing, breathless gibberish, and mechanical invective.
New kids they may be, but I haven’t heard any exclamatory noise about Ben Downing and David Yezzi. That speaks well for the quality of their work, and my guess is that these poets have staying power. But what if, in the general silence, the readership fails to discover them? Except for the fact that both Downing and Yezzi once took a graduate course I taught at Columbia, I might never have heard of their books. But they’ve both been intermittently in touch since that time, a fact I’m reporting in order to comply with the rules of reviewing, but also to account for having known about these quiet debuts. Ethics or common sense also suggests that comments be concerned more with exposition than with evaluation, so I will try to stick to that, though the temptation to exclaim is strong.
“All places are distant from Heaven alike,” Burton tells us in The Anatomy of Melancholy. In The Hidden Model, David Yezzi develops the theme of the deus absconditus in several directions, all of them benefiting from what seems to be an innate tact and subtlety. The book opens with an epigraph from Allen Tate suggesting that the poet responds to divine absence by choosing a reciprocal estrangement from the created world, withdrawing into the second creation that art enables: “There is a place that some men know, / I cannot see the whole of it / Nor how I came there.” Yet the sensation is less of choosing than undergoing an accident that becomes more plausible over time:
…cementing our assumptions in a thought,
In classical rhetoric an aporia is a doubt, and the five sonnets in this sequence play variations on the uncertainty principle in high (even stately) diction and with adroitly martialed imagery. A resolution of sorts declares itself in the final poem of the sequence. A white peony is cut and installed nearby so that the consciousness being rendered may admire “how bright and fated things look when they bloom.” Brightness falls from the air as fate decrees; but there may be more to it. The sequence recalls Stevens’s “The Poems of Our Climate,” a meditation on a bowl of pink and white carnations, in which the speaker finally concedes that not even lovely flowers can satisfy the “never-resting mind.” That reflection leads Stevens to observe that “The imperfect is our paradise,” his paradoxical solution to the problem of a Creation devoid of deity. We notice, too, that Yezzi’s narrator admires the bright peony mainly because an uncharacterized “you” seems to expect him to.
The word “sonnet” above is likely to trigger a red flag, so this is the point to state without apologies that Yezzi has prosodic skills of unusual precision. Over and over I was struck by a metrical savvy some of whose effects won’t register even on those who write or at least know how to scan iambic meter. Not content with the novice’s ta-dum-ta-dum-ta-dum, Yezzi calibrates his lines in order to impart a rhythmic torque to them and to second a poem’s thematic content. He also knows how to coordinate metrical finesse with the play of consonants and vowels, as in this line from the seascape poem “Red Shift”: “…or the dotted line land divides along.” It’s a pentameter, beginning with anacrusis and truncating the third foot, so that the caesura falls between two stressed syllables “line” and “land”—the exact halfway point of the line’s ten syllables. Note that nearly all consonants and vowels in the line occur more than once so that a purely sonic reinforcement of the idea proposed, i.e., the odd adhesion-separation of land and sea. There are many triumphs of craft like this one in the book (including that curiosity, a poem in monometer), but I will let the one just described represent all the others because, however crucial rhythm is, analyzing its effects is bearable only in a treatise, not in a review. Yezzi himself must know that metrical skill at this level escapes nearly every reader; his devotion to craft then has to be regarded as a modern counterpart to the work of medieval stone-carvers who finished the backs of statues before slotting them into the cathedral façade. They did so because what man couldn’t see was still visible to a Deity whom anything slapdash would offend. If it’s not in this case ad maiorem gloriam of the absent god, still it adds to the greater glory of omni-sentient poetry itself. Yet it seems to me that a reader not familiar with prosody would still respond at some level to the rhythmic finesse of a poem like “The Double,” which tells of seeing an old man from some distance in Central Park:
But wind has power to blur the wobbly world:
If I seem to be portraying a finical metrist sequestered in some iambic limbo, let me shift focus to content and cite some of the remarkable verse narratives that add variety and punch to this book. Yezzi has had stage experience and he is able to construct characters not only with his physical person but with his imagination as well— the result, absorbing poems such as “Exit Pursued,” which gives us an aging actress in the middle of a drama both actual and staged. The title recalls “Exit, pursued by a bear,” Shakespeare’s most startling stage direction, applied to the character Antigonus from The Winter’s Tale just after he exposes the infant Perdita to the elements in Bohemia. Yezzi’s poem gives us a few details from the play the woman performs in, blending dialogue and stage business with events and thoughts drawn from life. The dramatic vehicle Yezzi invents is set in the 19th century, some of its plot features reminiscent of Ibsen’s Ghosts. There is a middle-aged mother, a pastor, and a son under some kind of threat. Meanwhile, offstage, the unnamed woman is conducting an affair with the actor who plays her son—just as she misses her actual son, who lives a twelve-hour drive away. Near the end she has the thought, “What is done cannot be undone,” a close paraphrase of Lady Macbeth’s “Things without all remedy / Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” Reality is haunted by the stage and vice versa. The poem concludes when she “enters left just as her child’s going.” If we recall the title “Exit Pursued,” the woman has to be regarded as a sort of predator about to devour her “son,” with a sangfroid worthy of Lady Macbeth and the same disregard as to probable consequences.
A kind of interpretive mist surrounds this poem and other narratives in the book such as “Woman Holding a Fox,” “Foundry Road,” and “The Hidden Model” (subtitled “A Pentimento”). As such they are fitting company for first-person lyrics elsewhere that render the poet’s incapacity to fathom the sea on certain gray, fogbound evenings. Nature itself has taken on the indeterminacy principle Yezzi discovers at the heart of so much human experience. A melancholic vision, offset in part by poems in which the poet’s calm vote in favor of love between equals or between parent and child strikes a note of certitude he usually backs away from. Offset as well by an implicit trust in art—especially in visual art, witness “Morandi’s Bottles” and an ecphrastic meditation on a Rembrandt print titled “Conversation with the Pharisees.” The Morandi poem notes that much of that artist’s power resides in what is beneath the surface; and the Rembrandt poem places the observer squarely among the caviling scholars who miss Jesus’ point. But the solidity of Yezzi’s conviction that he cannot fathom all the hidden power in a work of art or grasp all that the great teacher taught becomes itself a paradoxical faith, free of hypocrisy and of false consolations.
Since we are in the realm of paradox, perhaps it’s apposite to recall Emerson’s “Brahma,” who says, “I am the doubter and the doubt,” a negative catechism suggesting that any god at one with the whole of existence couldn’t fail to be one substance with the free-thinker and his unbelief. Yezzi enacts and rehearses his apophatic theology during the course of several poems (“Red Shift,” “Casco Passage,” “His Boat,” “Invention with Seascape”) where an observer is confronted with maritime equivalents to the Cloud of Unknowing and becomes one of its “cloudy trophies,” to borrow a phrase from Keats’s “Ode to Melancholy.” But then the opacity of a cloud matters less than the fact that rain falls from it as a prelude to the greening of the earth.
Ben Downing is skillful with meter and rhyme, reads widely, and has an agile intelligence. There his resemblance to David Yezzi stops, one more disproof of the assertion that skill with accentual-syllabic meter and a good knowledge of the existing body of literature flattens out individuality. Anarchic impulses in Downing often make themselves felt through wit and humor—which will, unfortunately, work against his being taken seriously by a portion of the readership. Yet even so solemn a genius as Horace had this to say on that topic: “Misce stultitiam consilis brevem: Dulce est desipere in loco.” [“Intersperse your sage teachings with an occasional joke. It’s pleasing to forget dignity at the right moment.” Odes, Book Four, xii.] Downing’s approach to the knots and loggerheads of longing and reality often involves collateral inspection of the language medium itself. His diction is a sophisticated blend of the arcane and colloquial—“a middle lex / of gist and balderdash,” he calls it; and the general impression given is of “natural speech,” though the speaker in this case deploys an Alexandrian verbal ingenuity to put a spring in the step of his ideas. Meanwhile, some of the book’s homage-poems are addressed to prose writers—in particular, Dr. Johnson, whose sharp-edged reason, block-and-tackle syntax, and zero tolerance for cant appeal to poets not attracted to the waftier aspects of Romanticism. But it is also Johnson’s practical ethics that Downing admires:
And then there are your fine solicitudes,
Few American poets have ever (at least in meter and rhyme) praised Augustan figures; comparing Downing’s four-part poem to Allen Tate’s “Mr. Pope,” it’s clear that his portrait is a truer and more appealing likeness of its sitter. Partly because the poem’s consciousness keeps good humor and develops a witty colloquial tone: Downing uses the same approach in a half-comic love poem titled “Little Palinode,” the recantation in this instance youth’s callow disdain for the love of women, which with passing time he has learned to value—and to find words for. The new poems will replace
…those I never wrote but
The Calligraphy Shop,
among other things, is a record, like Wordsworth’s, of the “growth of
a poet’s mind.” Recalling that the etymology of calligraphy
includes Greek kalos
(“beautiful”) and graphein
(“to write”), we can see that the poems here conduct their moral and
esthetic education in the public eye, which takes courage. The volume’s
final two poems are cases in point. “Scruples” is short and even
slight, its point of departure the title word’s etymology (from Latin scrupulus,
“sharp little stone”). The speaker regards them as pebbles to be
dumped from his shoe so he can stride panglessly forward. The paradox is
that the person who really has no scruples would never broadcast the fact.
Willy-nilly, Downing keeps his, so this brief caveat’s main function is
to prepare us for what comes directly after.
The title poem, set in Istanbul, records the poet’s astonishment
at the beauty of Arabic calligraphy being sold in a shop in a market not
so far from the Golden Horn. Of course these dizzying examples of Arabic
script must be read as an allegory for the “beautiful writing” of
poetry as well. He describes them in a complex series of terza rima
stanzas, every rift loaded with ore and heightened with ingenious imagery.
The last elaborate specimen he focuses on is arranged in an ever-narrowing spiral, its function explained by the vender as a ghost-trap designed to lure its quarry on the strength of the ghosts’ “belletristic curiosity” before it cyclones them down into a cunningly placed bowl underneath for convenient disposal. Downing seems to group himself (why?) with the ghosts hooked by calligraphy’s “Byzantine embellishments of quill”]—and says that he has been led to “reproduce / its tyrannies,” “its ruse / of hanging there in ambush, growing old.” Maybe so, but, again, he disables the ruse by announcing it, labeling himself a compleat angler out to hook his trout and bass in the same breath that posts a warning. Keats in one of his letters said we didn’t like poems that had designs on us. But what if the poem makes a clean breast of it, advertising seductive intentions beforehand? If we strike, we do so in full knowledge and freedom, though perhaps not always aware of the consequences. For, once hooked, readers will almost certainly want to do their own calligraphy in turn. Just that it’s not going to be easy. Poems tossed off in an hour and worth skimming only once will no longer suit us; we’ll have outgrown the easy-listening, shredded prose of our youth.
A realist, Downing accepts the unsettling fact that beauty comes at a price. La beauté se fait de sacrifice, as the French put it. But he has been willing to adopt the requisite strong measures and so has made a book of unusual polish and wit, leavened by his own brand of irreverent comedy. It’s a blend that allows us to accept his maturing sense of what’s valuable without dismissing the content as sanctimonious uplift. You can’t read these pages without laughter or at least a mischievous grin, and that comes as a relief when you consider how many books of poetry feel as though they were written out of a mind-numbing sense of duty. Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” Downing’s The Calligraphy Shop is a sincerely funny book, and, if I’ve managed to convey only a fraction of its charm here, that should still be enough to make CPR’s readers want to order it immediately.