More Things in Heaven: New and Selected Poems
by David Yezzi
(Measure Press, September 2021, $)
As any writer knows, titles are a portal to a book’s prevailing concerns, the lens that primes the reader for entering into its defining themes and aesthetic preoccupations. It also hopefully provides a window, however obliquely, to that elusive thing one calls a writer’s sensibility. In the case of a well-published poet’s first book of “selected poems,” the title at least in part carries the potentially load-bearing weight of an oeuvre in progress—the edifice of a lifetime’s efforts that ideally one day will be complete and, one hopes, fulsome in achievement. If such musings retain any value in a time of flamboyantly ephemeral careers and often too-easily disposable poems, a time in which the message (political, personal, cultural, or otherwise) counts more than the work’s artistry, then the title of David Yezzi’s recently published “new and selected” announces this poet’s laudable ambition, as well as his equally laudable mindfulness of the art’s deep resources for our own crucial and combustible historical moment.
The title More Things in Heaven echoes, of course, Hamlet’s famous rejoinder after he has spoken with the ghost of his father: “There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The first folio’s version reads “our” instead of “your,” but the import for the book at hand is the same. Yezzi’s foregrounding of Shakespeare’s apothegm, strategically abridged, has the effect of underscoring certain themes in the poems that follow. These themes include family and other closely held personal relationships, the joys, pleasures, and intrigues of daily life, as well as intensively observed encounters with the natural world, and a keenly wry sense of history. The poems also gain in urgency through the vitalizing influence of literature, tradition and the theater. There may be “more things in heaven,” but these poems are greatly and variously informed by the multitude of things on earth; and, in all, the book offers an exemplary selection of new as well as representative work from this accomplished poet’s first four collections.
David Yezzi has structured More Things in Heaven by leading with the new work. This has the dual effect of at once emphasizing its prominence, and casting work from the first four books in relief of his most recent accomplishments. For all the seeming otherworldliness implied by the book’s title, Yezzi is very much a poet of immanence, of the things of this world, to allude to Richard Wilbur, one of Yezzi’s obvious aesthetic forebears. If the “more” that resides in heaven is to be encountered it must be encountered, first, through the world we know. The book’s first section opens with two poems, “Sugar on Snow,” and “Ex Machina,” the first for his daughter and the second for his son. If one were overly pressed to follow an implied conceit in Yezzi’s title, then one might envision the poet as the fatherly ghost in the “new and selected” machine, though the tone of both poems, as well as their winning descriptive immediacy, elide at first any ominous notes. Still, the implications of the whiteness of sugar on the whiteness of snow juxtaposed to the machine of the second, with its “deus” absented into the white of the page, implies the existential tensions in the way the space around a vase outlines the vase. What Yezzi’s poems happily avoid is the slightest hint of portentousness. Here is the opening of “Ex Machina”:
I’ve seen a god.
…………………………Seated on the patio,
a little drunk, I’m listening to Dylan, classic era,
on vinyl (mono), ‘Highway 61.”
…………………………………………………Geezer: I’m tired…
Yezzi’s tone here is characteristically off-hand, but nonetheless artful in the way his lines introduce the scene and characterize the poet’s wry combination of self-satisfaction and self-deprecation. The machine of the title, as the poem will reveal in its supple blank verse, is a bicycle, and the god neither deus absconditus, nor Bob Dylan, but the poet’s son in the figure of a latter-day Hermes. As the poem concludes, it is the son’s “teenage sweep and pride” that armors him “against contingency and pain,” a revelation that prompts the father to prayer: “thank god… may it be so.” Yezzi’s winning strategy here, as in many of his poems, is carefully to shape a scene descriptively and with understated formalism until its emotional urgency emerges incrementally through the accrual of detail. What comes to mind is the performance of an actor making the most of smaller gestures to arrive at larger resonances. The reader can gain a greater appreciation for that sensibility simply by tracking the openings of a few sample poems:
No one was much surprised when Marsyas
failed to outplay his rival on the aulos:
loud, upstart drunkard, fun until he’s not.
“The Flaying of Marsyas”
Pure cheese, I thought
when I was a kid. Dad loved
their stuff, life’s blood—the lousy,
beery, stupid Irish Rovers.
“The True Vine”
In quarantine, he took it on himself
to catch up with the odd jobs he’d been meaning
to get to if he only had the time…
“Prepping the House”
The opening lines of “The Osprey” offer a different tack (“High water sucked the beach clear of debris. / High winds downed boughs and the high osprey’s nest”), but in a sense they prove the rule by demonstrating the poet’s tonal range. In view of Yezzi’s two opening poems, it is important to note that the poet’s own father “ghosts” the moving “What’s Changed” and well as “The True Vine,” and it is welcoming to find a pandemic poem—“Prepping the House”—that contends with the momentous impact of Covid through patient attention to the everyday rather than solemn declamations. The range of Yezzi’s formal imagination is noteworthy as well in these new poems, from blank verse, sestets, and quatrains, to the long-lined couplets of “Tyger, Tyger” and the interstitial caesuras of “The Spring.” In each case, the structural choice feels necessary to the formal realization of the poem’s subject. The same is true of Yezzi’s several translations from the Italian of Giosuè Carducci, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1906, a poet obscured by the imposing shadows of the 20th Century triumvirate of Montale, Ungaretti, and Quasimodo.
Two of the most ambitious poems in the book’s first section are the title poem, “More Things in Heaven,” and the sectional “French Suites.” Both poems display Yezzi’s mastery of extended narrative storytelling in a finely tuned idiomatic blank verse. Both poems, notably, should be read as dramatic monologues, a sub-genre, to judge by several poems from his first four books, of which this poet is quite fond and remarkably adept. “More Things in Heaven” unfolds a story within a story that touches as much on late 20th century politics as it does on the happenstances and oddball relationships one encounters, the lives of acquaintances that ripple out from the immediate moment in however many degrees of separation. Yezzi’s rendering of the story owes something in tone and effect to the late Michael Donaghy of “Black Ice and Rain,” though the poem’s deployment of scene and emotional significance is all this poet’s own:
Sometime I get a current in my fingers,
Like an electric charge that’s running through me.
It comes on me at night. I sit awake,
Hunched in the darkness as it’s pressing down.
When something dies, the part that slips away
Is that cathodic charge beneath the skin.
Yezzi’s two “French Suites” are arguably even more ambitious. Together they evoke alluringly the compelling narratives of parallel lives. The first, “One Hundred Umbrellas,” conjures a speaker who feels part Browning-esque, part an “untitled subject” of Richard Howard, and, again, part a Donaghy chance encounter. This, the present encounter, rings more contractual than chance:
The rain has made a lake of dirty water.
There is black, and then there is blacker than black.
There’s nothing mystical about what vexes me…
I’m boring you. Please, will you have a drink?
I think I will, if you don’t mind. Absinthe
is just anise plus poison. Light through fog
calls home the small boats from the storm-tossed sea.
What Yezzi does so evocatively here is shift tonal gears between dialogue and lyric uplift as a way of revealing the more than obsessive consciousness of his subject. “Marina in Nervi” is slightly more lyrical in its narrative deployment, though Yezzi’s knack for rapid tonal shifts remains effective:
…………..These days we rarely see the sun,
your sister and I. And the cleansing light,
which made me feel the world had been redeemed,
here serves merely to shine a light on Hell,
its recesses and obscure depths, which delve
more deeply than I ever knew was possible.
We ate the horses.
Here, Yezzi’s departure from his assured blank verse line underscores the abrupt tonal shift that furthers the less-floridly-reflective through-line of Marina’s tale. In the case of both “French Suites,” the dramatically rendered voices of Yezzi’s characters force the reader to negotiate additionally shifting vantages of self-knowledge and self-delusion.
With the book’s second section, More Things in Heaven juxtaposes his new work with work from Yezzi’s first collection, Hidden Model. If this juxtaposition announces anything, it is this poet’s early and varied accomplishments in the formal deployment of narrative. It also offers a harbinger of the poems to come. The quintains of “Woman Holding a Fox,” for example, propel the reader fluidly through the story of a hospitalized woman who has taken a serious fall after encountering a rabid fox. The narration is nothing if not deft, and enriches the telling with a wry suspense:
Age seventy-nine, the paper said; she hadn’t toppled far,
………………………..merely down her few front steps,
but late enough that no one finds her till the following day.
…………..And here’s the eerie part. Just when she thinks
To drag herself down the curb, the twisted fox comes back.
In hours her arms are bitten blue, waving her one defense….
There is an easefulness in the tone here, as well as a nimble management of the poem’s pentameter, heptameter, and tetrameter lines that feels at once symmetrical and propulsive. “Hand to Mouth,” by contrast, tells its tale of New York life in finely built-out twelve-line stanza. There are ekphrastic poems among these early poems as well, such as “Conversation of the Pharisees,” after Rembrandt, also written similarly in a differently paced and lineated nonce quintain to “Woman Holding a Fox.” In addition to Yezzi’s propensity to write in nonce stanza forms, the poems of his first book show off his skillful descriptive capacities. Here is the fourth stanza of the elegiac “Casco Passage”:
Now shoals of mackerel lash
…………………………in running shallows,
each silver leap skyward through glass survived.
Down on the point, a few last headlights glare,
……………then swing wide, then go.
……………I have come to the water
…………………………to clean a pail,
while you close out the damp in half-lit rooms.
A year ago, we married near this spot,
……………where three white pine trees stare
…………………………over the bay.
A poem like “Oracle of the Great Oak,” in turn, exhibits Yezzi’s meditative qualities, all the while keeping true to his penchant for formally tuned idiomatic speech. The overall impression of Hidden Model is that of a poet already expert at his craft.
Azores, his second book of poems, underscores Yezzi’s ambitions and facility in the art of poetry. “Mother Carey’s Hen,” again by way of example, reveals this poet’s dexterous ability to weave syntax across and through the tautest of rhyme schemes. Here is the poem’s opening sentence:
There are days I don’t think about the sea;
……………weeks wash by in fact,
then a shearwater—or some such—flutters by
on the salt flats fanning out in my mind’s-eye,
reflected there, a shimmering reverie,
…………………………recalling the pact
I once made (and renew today) to hold
……………to a higher altitude….
The strictness of the sestet’s abccab structure appears effortlessly met, as does the syntactical enjambment across the space to the sestet that follows. Such is the apparent ease of hard-won artistry. The reader discovers such skill again in poems like “Acceptance Speech,” which alternates a pattern of quintains and quatrains that unfold in envelope rhymes for the length of the poem’s nine stanzas. The same inventiveness and formal proficiency inform “333 East 68th Street,” with its dizain stanzas rhyming ababccdede. As if to press home the poem’s nimble formalism, Yezzi makes the medial rhyme of each stanza a self-rhyming couplet:
…………………….Stranded by the doorjamb lay
a tousled broom, a scrap of our old lives.
How had we shoehorned so much of our lives
into four flaking cubes?
Here, again, it is the simultaneous orchestration of fluid syntax and formal stringency that inevitably strikes the reader. Azores also sports a finely turned tritina, though the centerpiece of Azores is the sonnet sequence that gives the collection its title. Beginning with an epigraph from Horace, “Azores” adds itself to the long tradition of poems that envision sailing as a conceit for the journey of life, updated of course for our time. In tone these sonnets are generally more urgent than Yezzi’s often rather amiable demeanor, as the opening of this third sonnet in the sequence demonstrates:
The vision of a sunset on the ocean:
countless tongues of flame, as if a wood
had roared up just as evening set in motion
its day’s-end rituals of neighborhood.
And the opening of the fifth sonnet carries intimations of the early Robert Lowell:
Hove to: the tiller lashed and set against
a backing foresail trimmed to contradict
a strong impulse to fall off from the wind:
two canceling passions, each one meant to end
the other’s outsized wish to turn away
and toward: each countermands the other’s sway…
The chief accomplishment of this sequence, beyond incorporating attributes and iterations of Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and various other formal strategies, is to reveal this poet’s desire to extend his art outside the more diurnal comfort zone, to risk an almost mythic intensity.
Yezzi’s third book, Birds of the Air, likewise features a sonnet sequence, entitled “Flatirons,” which, similarly to “Azores,” orchestrates a conceit to explore the experience of trial and passage. In this case the conceit is mountain climbing, and perhaps even more emphatically than “Azores” the passage is toward vision:
It’s when we’re most engaged with other things
that the angel enters, a twist in temperature,
a lightness in the chest that we call wings.
Giddy with sacrament and the impure
gluttony of blood and air and skin,
we look with panoramic eyes to where
the earth curls under and the sky begins.
Tonally “Flatirons” strikes something more of a middle ground between Yezzi’s more off-hand tonalities and the more solemn “Azores.” This tonal range is likewise on display in “Dirty Dan,” which follows “Flatirons” in More Things in Heaven:
I can’t remember what the night was like.
It was, phssh, twenty- . . . seven? years ago,
before I even knew you. I was home,
from college maybe, hanging out with friends?
“Dirty Dan” goes on to recollect a college era evening out and the speaker’s homage to a short order cook, the eponymous “Dan” who is described in the poem as “a freaking genius.” The narrator of “Dirty Dan” owes something to Yezzi’s abilities to assume an actor’s proclivity to mind-meld into the role he is playing, which is something readily demonstrable as we saw in the new work, like “One Hundred Umbrellas.” In “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” a multi-sectional tour-de-force, Yezzi employs the conceit of the theater, of acting, self-reflexively to explore the painful subject of personal and interpersonal loss, as well as emotional and moral culpability. The allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth plays itself out inexorably in Yezzi’s unflinching exploration of tragic youthful caprice.
If the poems of Bird of the Air evince yet again Yezzi’s tonal and narrative range, the poems of Black Sea, his most recent collection to More Things in Heaven, reveal Yezzi’s more expressively lyric side. “Night Blind,” employs a monometer and progressively dimeter line, internally rhymed, to enact the speaker’s trepidation with a kind of taut vibrancy:
There’s a spot
at the top
of the street,
where the lamp
The first four anapestic lines establish the rhythmical ground of the poem, which Yezzi then wisely begins to vary at the start of the second stanza. Such metrical theme-and-variation performs the scene in the best sense—on the page if not the stage. A similar kind of delicacy of movement and pacing shapes the abab quatrains of “Let.” “The Chain,” in turn, once again exhibits Yezzi’s penchant for elaborate nonce stanzaic structures, here, again, a syntactically intricate dizain. Black Sea, likewise, shows Yezzi venturing the expertly turned canzone, “The Consolations,” as well as the finely tuned ghazal, “Stalker.” Yezzi’s more delicately lyrical attributes display themselves elegantly in his selections from his fourth book’s title sequence.
Taken as a compendium of his finest work to date, David Yezzi’s new and selected likewise portends more achievements to come. By the end of More Things in Heaven, any discerning reader should feel gratitude for having been in the good company of a poet whose work offers a combination of utmost ambition, artfulness, affability and urgency of thought and emotion—a poet akin to the rock balancing artist—the collection’s final figure—who can make a poem, like a cairn of stones, appear to free itself “from gravity by keeping faithful to it.” Then again, as the very word implies, everything in heaven has to be heaved there.