Thursday, April 26, 2012

From the bookshelf: Azores by David Yezzi

This is a review of a book of poetry -- but first a digression.

A friend once explained conservative dominance of talk radio and the contrasting liberal dominance of the blogosphere as follows: you can listen to the radio while engaged in other activities, but when you are on the web, that is the only thing you are doing at that moment.

Hence, talk radio is the province of guys driving trucks, farmers operating tractors, stay-at-home moms doing the laundry, salesmen driving from one client to another, gunsmiths working in their shops, and builders on the construction site -- to name the occupations of just a few individuals known to me who listen to conservative talk radio while working.

Put that way, the contrast isn't hard to imagine: members of public service unions at their desks, clicking over to the Huffington Post instead of engaging in whatever public service they are supposed to be providing, and perhaps trial lawyers sitting at their desks surfing the Daily Kos while a small army of underlings do the office’s work.

As with all theories of human behavior, this is but one proposed explanation for observed phenomena. Since it reinforces the image of virtuous conservative folks hard at work, I thought it definitely worth considering. Of course, it was also possible that this friend, knowing of my involvement with this website and having plumbed the depths of my ignorance of talk radio, was trying to tell me that I am a closet liberal.

Which brings the subject to poetry. Not, as some might think, because serious poetry is an intrinsically liberal occupation. T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Wendell Berry spring immediately to mind as first-rate poets of profoundly conservative temperament and outlook.

No, these introductory musings arose inexorably and specifically from the moving experience of reading David Yezzi's fine volume of poetry, Azores.
I found myself asking, "why don't I read poetry more often?" That there is too little good poetry being written is probably true, but that datum does nothing to explain why poetry of proven greatness on the "active reading" shelf above the main desk in my literary atelier has been there at least a year, even while books of fiction and non-fiction alike are quickly read, then moved with alacrity to their proper locations in the MH permanent collection. (For the curious -- the unfinished books in question are a turn-of-the century edition of Tennyson's collected works, and a recent trade paperback copy of Harold Bloom's Best Poems of the English Language.)

Perhaps the best analogy to explain the relative infrequency of my consuming poetry is opera. Bear with me... A couple of years ago, I discovered the Metropolitan Opera's on-line smorgasbord of filmed operas, ranging from gorgeous Franco Zefirelli productions that are sadly being phased out at the Met to au courant productions (some of which I must grumpily declare to be quite good) recorded in HD.

So I subscribed, thinking that I would be plowing deeply into the catalogue post-haste. Slight problem, though -- the beloved does not share my taste for opera, so it wasn't going to make it onto the MH household entertainment schedule. Most importantly, because of the visual components, one can't absorb an opera while working on something else, which I invariably am. Eventually, the underused subscription was dropped, and the money freed up to be spent elsewhere.

The point being made is that there are certain art forms that require not only one's undivided attention, but a certain type of attention that is not, in most of us, unlimited. I don't exactly have to "be in the mood for opera" to enjoy it, but I must be somewhat at leisure, ready to attend and engage. Such, likewise, is poetry.

Only half the story has been told, however. While I have listened to perhaps hundreds of hours of orchestral music for each opera I have seen, I am hard-pressed to think of a symphony that had the same aesthetic impact on me as did my first experience of Tosca. And while I have devoured thousands of prose essays (perhaps my favorite literary form) -- cultural, literary, political, biographical, critical -- none have approached the aesthetic impact of first reading Eliot's "Ash Wednesday,” still vivid in the memory some 25 years later. In other words, there are art forms that require much but that are capable, when the stars of artist and audience align, of extraordinary heights.

A complicating twist is that there is a certain double-edged quality to poetry -- the heights are Olympian, the lows Stygian. Mediocre poetry is, in short, more painfully unreadable than is the cheapest romance novel, making the poetic art a most dangerous occupation for the would-be practitioner.

Happily, we are celebrating excellence in this essay -- the poems in David Yezzi's Azores have a lingering, haunting effect on the senses. This slender volume is home to the kind of poem that moves the reader deeply, even while leaving an unmistakable impression that much that is worthwhile has yet to be mined. So one re-reads the poem, this time primed and prepared, and is rewarded as the extended metaphors and complex layering that niggled suggestively at the back of the mind the first time through now cautiously reveal themselves. Then perhaps a third time -- sometimes an even closer reading, but usually just a satisfying and agile experience of the poem. In a fine poem, such close reading reveals the transcendent, if it is there to be found.

Two things spurred me to buy this book -- one random and one relevant. The first was the title of the book and the cover photo. Having been to the Azores -- transcendent dots of brilliant emerald in the midst of an endless blue that on a bright day almost injure the eye with their contrasting beauty as one approaches -- these islands have a special place in my memory. The real inspiration, though, is the consistently high quality of poetry and poetry criticism published in The New Criterion, of which Mr. Yezzi is executive editor. Only 3 or 4 poems are published each month, but one struggles to find 3 or 4 poems in an entire issue of a flagship journal such as Poetry that measure up to them. I was, needless to say, curious about what kind of poet Yezzi himself might be.

It is significant that not a single poem in this collection was published in The New Criterion itself and that nearly every item was previously published in prestigious outlets ranging from Parnassus to The Atlantic Monthly. Not every fine critic is himself an artist of distinction who can muster the respect of his peers in the world of poetry publishing, but in this case, the two talents coexist with felicity.

Yezzi’s poems are of a comfortable length -- long enough not to seem whimsical or gimmicky, yet short enough to allow for close readings while experiencing the sweep of the whole. Most good poems take a lifting turn at some point, such as a shift in focus, as it were, from a close-up to a panorama. In “Mother Carey’s Hen,” one has nearly forgotten the title during the musings of the opening verse, but then a reminding hint is given by mentioning a pact

I once made (and renew today) to hold,
to a higher altitude.

The narrating seaside hen (yes!) shifts to observe a bird of contrasting skills and confidence:

...the petrel, mindless of such height,
scales each watery hill
that rises up, adapting to the shape
of each impediment, each low escape
instinct in it, the scope of its flight
fitted to its will.

The emotional impact of the metaphorical whole speaks to the human experience of amazement (admiring or envious, depending on what one brings) at talents we do not share. (If, by the way, I ever figure out why the word “instinct” has such an effective poetic impact in that line, I will have truly learned something about language.)

Elsewhere, Yezzi takes us on a turn from warm intimacy to cold detachment in “The Good News,” which begins with a casual and friendly meeting of equals who haven’t perhaps achieved what they wanted of life:

A friend calls, so I ask him to stop by.
We sip old Scotch, the good stuff, order in,
some Indian -- no frills too fine for him
or me...

It’s great to see him, good to have a friend
who feels the same as you about his lot --

Then the turn:

As if remembering then, he spills his news.
Though I was pretty lit, I swear it’s true,
it was as if a gold glow filled the room
and shone on him, a sun-shaft piercing through
dense clouds, behind which swept long views.

In that rich light, he looked, not like my friend,
but some acquaintance brushed by on the train.

One is thus swept deeply into an emotion similar to that evoked by “Mother Carey’s Hen,” this time stripped of galline metaphorical distance and placed in a highly personal glare that while not quite covetous, is yet infused with an uncomfortable nakedness. Suddenly another small part of one’s world has changed -- a peer has become, through sudden success, an existential other who is as disembodied as any tabloid celebrity. The reader ends alone and hollow:

...the click of the latch, the quiet hall.

Taking us with him -- the birth of children, adrift at sea, a fleeting and wordless encounter observed between strangers in a museum, an Italian folk-legend, a home just emptied of a family but haunted by its memories -- Yezzi and his poetical eye probe the surface of the ordinary and reveal what teems beneath.

”Azores,” the titular sonnet cycle at the center of the book, requires even more patience as we remain, poem after poem, at sea alone, at times seasick and in danger:

What in the weather changes, such that wind,
which needled us to make our way across,
now wants us gone,
with no trace remaining
of the hull that held us...

The long journey has its reward, though, as surely metaphorically as it was literally in my own experience of encountering the Azores. Just when the reader has perhaps come to assume that the islands, like so many other objects of desire, are to be experienced only in their looming absence, Yezzi suddenly reveals

A green island, draped in volcanic smoke,
imperceptible at first....


Leavened and kneaded throughout the works is melancholy, in the best sense. Another better than average poet of a much different sort, the pop star Sting (no political cat-calls, please) has said that it is hard to imagine good art that doesn’t evoke at least some element of melancholy, and I, at least to my own taste, largely have to agree.

A line in Yezzi’s “333 East 68th Street,” a poem deeply concerned with the meaning of memory, observes that it is “...our forsaking that makes the memory,” then asks, “Who bothers to look for what’s not lost?”

Yezzi’s clear-eyed formality allows us to notice things that we, in our humanity, seem destined to lose yet remain too distracted to notice. With leaps of imagination he then helps us, time and again, to find ways to re-engage with what we have lost.

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