I first became familiar with David Yezzi when I stumbled across a poem of his in The Atlantic. That remarkable poem, “Orts”, is included in his newest collection, Birds of the Air:
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.
“Orts” exemplifies the best of Yezzi’s work in fluency, grace and agility. This seemingly straightforward English sonnet gorgeously captures this small universe of a life previously lived. More than anything else though, it does something that many poems strive for but don’t quite get at, and that’s conveying with clarity the otherness of our world—the strange beauty of what we experience and the mystery of what we can’t always understand.
Reading Yezzi’s work, I’m reminded of something the literary critic Lionel Trilling once said about poetry: “What underlies all success in poetry, what is even more important than the shape of the poem or its wit of metaphor, is the poet’s voice. It either gives us confidence in what is being said or it tells us that we do not need to listen; and it carries both the modulation and the living form of what is being said.”
Yezzi’s voice reflects something of his rather varied and eclectic career as a poet, editor, actor, and teacher, though I think the actor’s voice comes out with more strength and vigor in this collection. His previous work, Azores (2008), was more moody and atmospheric, while many of the poems in Birds have a sharper vitality and force. The poet Brad Leithauser described Yezzi as having an “urban eye” for detail, while Glyn Maxwell said, “David Yezzi’s finely-tuned meters make the sound of New York now.”
They’re apt descriptions, though at times they might make Yezzi seem a bit one-sided. At once I’m reminded of the character Greg Kinnear played in You’ve Got Mail, Frank Navasky—erudite, very New York, very earnest and pretentious enough to believe that civilization erodes away below West 66th St. But the sheer variety and breadth of Yezzi’s work enables him to defy certain categories, and the poems in this collection are a testament to his versatility.
Yezzi worked as an actor and director in San Francisco for a time, and the actor’s voice is clear in poems like the sweeping, tender and tragic “Tomorrow & Tomorrow”, “Dirty Dan” and “Spoils”. In “Spoils”, a young man is hired to clean out the apartment of a someone who’s recently died, and he marvels at the endless piles of clutter and junk in the small apartment—again, like “Orts”, Yezzi masterfully creates a world out of what remains behind. Broke and a bit resentful, he steals a watch from the man’s possessions only to be offered one by the neighbor for his hard work in the end. It’s poem with a touch of O. Henry’s wry moralism. Yet, it’s not about the watch itself, but what the watch comes to mean:
It doesn’t keep good time, and I can’t afford
to have it cleaned. I’ve worn it only once
or twice. To make an impression. So I keep it
in a box inside my closet…
It kind of haunts me though
a little, if you want to know. You know?
Whenever something bad happens to me,
I think of that watch.
“Tomorrow & Tomorrow” is a kind of sprawling novel of a poem. The story of young actor who joins a touring production company that’s performing Macbeth in Germany, the poem is a flowing monologue with shades self-deprecating vulnerability and regret. The narrator finally gets the job he’s wanted, but he loses his girlfriend in the process. The physical distance between them shifts his perspective, and he begins to distrust his feelings.
So when her voice came to me over the line
in a phone booth in Cologne, near the cathedral,
the gist of it was like the crack of ice
constricting on a mountainside, and I
realized if I hung up the phone
that would be it.
The poem is in blank verse which lends itself well to the narrator’s candor and confessions. “Tomorrow & Tomorrow” and “Dirty Dan” are great performances pieces, and reading them you can almost the actor on stage reciting those lines of loneliness and rueful self-realization.
The book’s title poem, “Birds of the Air”, and “Crane” convey again something of our experience of the otherness of our world, the mystery of nature, our increasingly tenuous connection to our environment in a modern world. In “Birds of the Air” the speaker is watching a woman on a park bench feeding a flock of seagulls. The simplicity of it all seems like a strange, immutable force of nature itself:
She’s the trunk and they’re the blowing branches:
the seagulls mass around her as she scatters
bread crusts grabbed from a plastic grocery bag.
They dip to her, since bread is all that matters…
She casts the crumbs in lamplight, over water,
to gulls who catch her manna on the wing—
snatching their staple needs straight from the air,
the sky replete with every wanted thing.
In “Crane”, the wonder of a child’s building a papier mâché bird absorbs the speaker. The rhythmic back-and-forth of the physical act of folding is something otherworldly and beautiful, like the ebb and flow of tides, or the swaying of leaves in the wind.
Paper creased is
with a touch
made less by half,
reduced as much
again by a second
fold—so the wish
to press our designs
what we hold.
But by your hand’s
how this unleaving
makes of what’s before
and finally more.
Yezzi is the editor of The New Criterion and was formerly the director of the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y. He’s an agile writer who’s varied roles as actor, editor and teacher informs his vision as a poet. Throughout many of the poems, the voice is at once contemporary and accessible. Yezzi is a skilled formalist, yet amid sonnets and poems with carefully structured rhyme schemes his voice is unfettered by any of the pretension that clouds and distances us from poetry today. Birds of the Air is a sweeping, inclusive book of poetry, and there’s something in there for everyone.