Reviews

David Yezzi's Work in Fluency, Grace and Agility

The poet David Yezzi is considered by many critics to be one of the leading voices of his generation. His new book of poems is an impressive, beautifully laid-out collection, with something for everyone.


Birds of the Air

Publisher: Carnegie Mellon University Press
Length: 88 pages
Price: $15.95
Formate: Paperback
Author: David Yezzi
Publication date: 2013-02
Amazon

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

can diminish

what we hold.

But by your hand’s

careful work,

I understand

how this unleaving

makes of what’s before

something finer

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.

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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