Sailing Against the Current: Andrew Goodspeed on David Yezzi

Reviewed: Azores by David Yezzi. Swallow/Ohio University Press, 2008.


Poets and critics alike must resist being swayed by their own rhetoric. In a critic this results in imprecision, emotion, and incoherence. For poets, such wavering leads too often into portentous vapidity. Both critics and poets enjoy the language, but they are commonly moved to go beyond the point at which artistry should stop them.

All of which serves to make the point that one must not judge David Yezzi’s new collection Azores by its cover. On the back of this book one finds a critic informing us that “the poet’s urban eye is always on the lookout for some watery waver, instants when the workaday world sways to a tidal pull.” I have puzzled over this for some time, and cannot resolve it into any real clarity. Apparently it means to suggest that Yezzi looks for moments of significance in the everyday experience of life. Most poets do; Yezzi certainly does. The importance of this puff, however, lies in its nearly perfect illustration of what Yezzi has, formidably, eliminated from his own work. His verse has a clarity, an exactitude, and a resistance to hyperbole that even his supportive critics fail to match.

Azores is not merely an impressive collection, although it is that. It also serves as a pleasing reminder that there are poets still writing for whom the responsibility of expression outweighs the desire to be regarded as shamanic. Consider these opening lines from “Vigil”—

            Tonight I sit alone
unattended by friends or the sounds
of muted city streets
in August.

Tomorrow our boys will be born,
if science and God’s good grace
and my wife’s fortitude
hold out

for a little, so that they
will grow, have children or not
have children, also find love
or not,

live long or briefly and fuse
someway into generations,
a future they already bequeath
to us.

It is difficult to imagine any other contemporary poet handling these thoughts with such efficient comprehensibility. Yezzi does not here attempt to bully us with the inherent emotional significance of the scene, but instead presents—with calm, colloquial force—the spiritual ramifications of waiting for children to be born. It does not lack effective artifice; I find particularly pleasing the speed with which he moves from the isolation of waiting “alone” to the companionship of his descendents, the “generations” that present him with a familial posterity. Yet it also crucially does not rely upon artificial effects for its power. The clarity of Yezzi’s presentation makes the verse more powerful than it would have been had he attempted to write it in elevated poetical rhetoric.

The danger of such clarity is the allure of the mundane. When one eschews traditionally poetic language, one opens oneself to the charge of commonality and boredom. Yezzi plays with this, beginning many of his poems with statements of fact that seem far removed from the usual concerns of verse. A sampling of such opening lines would include these, all from Azores: “Having seen the rainstorm letting up, I step outside and light a cigarette,” “On moving day, we mopped the scuffed-out floors,” “The visitor comes and crowds in at your table,” “It’s cheap night at the Whitney,” “The call comes and you’re out.” Please pause a moment and observe how easily one can imagine someone making these statements over a telephone, or writing them on a postcard; it is the language of real expression, entirely lacking in pretension of either articulation or subject. Yet he moves from these beginnings into themes of significant value as poetry: love, death, failure, envy, hope. As just one illustration of this transformation, please notice how swiftly the last line quoted above develops directly into serious thematic material:

    The call comes and you’re out. When you retrieve
the message and return the call, you learn
that someone you knew distantly has died.
His bereaved partner takes you through the news.

She wants to tell you personally how
he fought and, then, how suddenly he went.
She’s stunned, and you feel horrible for her,
though somewhat dazed, since he was not a friend,

just someone you saw once or twice a year,
and who, in truth, always produced a shudder:
you confess that you never liked him much,
not to her, of course, but silently to yourself.

This calm honesty (“you confess that you never liked him much”) reminds me—perhaps, only me—of some of the disturbingly powerful rationality of Kafka’s paradoxes and problems. It is a fine example of poetical restraint.

In observing Yezzi’s ability to write with exactitude and transparency, one runs the risk of presenting him as an artist lacking in the imagistic skills one traditionally expects of poets. This would be a disservice. Despite the engaging lack of pomposity in his writing, he is entirely comfortable with symbolism, imagery, and evocation. Please consider, for example, these lines from “Azores ix”:

    A green island draped in volcanic smoke,
imperceptible at first, until the reek
of musk wafts to us seaward over a league,
like the pong of love-sheets a summer night has soaked,
retaining, in the after-dawn, the very smell
that brought the madness on.

Here one sees a deftly handled transition from visual to nasal sensation. The first image is perceived entirely by the eyes (the green island and the drapery of the volcanic smoke) the second set of images by the nose (the musk of the islands and the smell of the sheets). What is important here is the clarity of the verse amidst this transformation. Yezzi begins with a visual image, shifts to a detected smell, associates that with another smell, then moves into the consideration of that experience. Despite this fluctuation of senses and images, it is perfectly easy, in even the first reading, to follow his thought and train of mental associations. Each image is evocative in itself, each is considerably different from the others, but the welter of images is never difficult to pursue. If one notices weak poets by their inability to control their imagery and expression, one may also detect good poets by the coherence with which they deploy multiple images and sensations.

Yezzi is a poet curiously appropriate for this era, despite his notable oddity within it. When well-funded poetry journals are filled to repletion with vague and overblown attempts at poignancy, it is pleasing and useful to have a poet writing with controlled rigor about important themes. His poems have, by their coherence and clarity, a force towards which more “poetical” writers merely gesture.

About Andrew Goodspeed

Andrew Goodspeed was born in New York City. He was educated at the Unversities of Michigan, Oxford, and Trinity College, Dublin. He is currently a professor of English Literature at the South East European University, Tetovo, Macedonia.
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