Joseph Harrison’s poems are studded with literary quotations. I don’t mean epigraphs, but lines, phrases, and anecdotes he has assimilated and adapted, extending them to the knowing reader in an impulse of solidarity. This gesture, often delivered in conspicuous rhymes, intricately patterned stanzas and strophes, traditional verse forms, and regular meters, would mark a lesser poet as merely schematic. Bookish references and an ability to ventriloquize dead authors in idioms they would understand too well—such assets can be liabilities at any time, but never more so than in today’s literary climate. Many poets now writing (not to speak of their readers) are insufficiently steeped in his source material to assess his fidelity to it.
Everyone’s come to the beach for repose.
A slack interval
between bouts of immersion
in matters far away from here, and dear
only to others, to those
who can’t or won’t marvel
at skylines, at castles undone
or sculpted without fear
of cloud or ocean;
to those who must control
the view, applying the right pressure
much as a dark confessor
imprints the soul
it cleanses. Even like these,
scattered flecks of shale
not merely additive but
alchemical. The heat is gone
straight through, wilting a snail
“The Parable of Perfect Silence,” which appeared in the December 2018 issue of Poetry magazine, dramatizes a conflict that might be reduced to a quotation from Dostoyevsky, one that Christian Wiman gives as the epigraph to an earlier essay, “The Limit.” Ivan Karamazov is speaking:
I don’t understand anything…and I no longer want to understand anything. I want to stick to the fact… If I wanted to understand something, I would immediately have to betray the fact, but I’ve made up my mind to stick to the fact.
by David Yezzi
(Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018. 72 pp., $15.95)
A current list of David Yezzi’s poetry volumes, running adjacent to the title-page of his fourth full collection, invites a double-take. It’s not as if one doubts Yezzi’s prolificacy as a poet, critic, and editor (in which last function, I’ll disclose, he has taken stuff of mine for The New Criterion and The Hopkins Review). Rather, Yezzi’s poems display him always testing, always learning, whether something about himself or about the shifty relations kept by patterned verse forms and fluid intent. There’s a youthful character to these investigations, as if each lyrical moment presented him an opportunity not only for personal growth or reflection, but also for exploring how the more chaotic elements of everyday life can be stabilized by his earnestly playful idiom.