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.
Not least in its title, Black Sea recalls Yezzi’s oceanic forays from prior books, notably his excellent Azores (2008). The eponymous sequence at the core of his new collection is buoyed by the surrounding poems. Fairly or unfairly, it’s difficult to imagine “Black Sea” as discharging its effects without this undertow. The “plot” is elusive, but here’s a stab: the speaker is newly relocated with his loved one to a city by a harbor (Yezzi lives in Baltimore), where he imbibes a cocktail of mirages, nostalgia for old friends, and a sort of general malaise. (Anticipating the latter theme, a translation of Baudelaire’s “Recueillement” shows up a few pages earlier: “Take it easy, my Sadness. Settle down. / You asked for evening. Now it’s come. It’s here.”) That’s quite a brew, but Yezzi’s facility is to tap disappointment for gratitude, for the aesthetic and even spiritual pleasures he is able to bring out by closer scrutiny. For instance, among the minority of free verse poems in this volume is “False Holly,” from the “Black Sea” sequence:
The waxy faker grows everywhere here, whole
bushes of it, gem green trees ranging overhead
with such generosity
& èlan, falsehood flourishing
as if it were the the most natural, God-wanted thing in the
The conceit of casual “falsehood / flourishing” has behind it a knowing artifice: Yezzi’s clipped line-endings and careful arrangement of words into stanzaic units. Speaking of “double-takes,” at first I tagged “it were the / the most natural” as a printer’s error (the repetition of “the” seemed to violate Yezzi’s grammatic norms), but then I welcomed it as a signal of the speaker’s astonishment, a breathlessness that anchors on the final word/syllable/stanza, “world.”
This poem has a counterpart outside the sequence. In “Weeds,” Yezzi writes of his “emerald legions” that “overlord the weakest in the garden” with the poet’s apparent complicity. (“My cool inattention / found good reasons to look the other way.”) En route, he quotes Milton ironically on his own once-lofty ambitions for a garden and he recalls with rue his late grandmother’s warning “not to grow too fast.” Executed in unrhymed couplets of loose iambic pentameter, the poem ends with the speaker reconciling to his “cowering, defeated plots” and to the realization that not only have his original plants become effaced, but so have his intentions and his very memory of “what I meant when I first planted here.”
Has the poet of Black Sea simply lost the will to fight encroaching disillusionment? The question is appropriate when considering the two poems I’ve just paraphrased. But to paraphrase is always to cheat a little. By greater use of direct quotations, I mean to show how Yezzi, while remaining sensitive to the loss of ideal (and idealized) conditions for the poet-speaker, relishes the flux of language and colors that can evoke this diminution.
To revert, then, to the double-placement of “the” in Yezzi’s “False Holly”: one glimpses throughout this volume how a slight syntactical adjustment, or a tweak of a received image, can transform a scene or statement from prosaic to downright magical. Typically this sea change occurs through repetition. My favorite of these instances is when, in a poem called “Humblebrag,” Yezzi segues from Burns to Stein: “Not / red like a red red rose / but rose like a rose is a rose.” Though anticlimactic in effect, the transition makes the reader pause long enough to admire the economy of expression, or, as it were, appropriation, in conveying a vital shift in atmosphere. My second favorite example of this alchemy is when, after conceding that his worst faults are now the private property of his “old friends” (the phrase supplies a title for this poem, one of the best in Black Sea), Yezzi complains that “their own slights they just sweep behind the door,” then transmutes the cliché “what friends are for” into the winking final line of the poem. (“But those tidbits are there for you to know, / holding their sins in trust, what friends are for.”)
In one of the “Black Sea” poems (“Low Ceiling”), the “gem green” from “False Holly” resurfaces as broken glass at a highway accident. Earlier, the speaker had resigned to pessimism about the future: “It’s not that we’re afraid of failure; / we long ago foresaw all this would fail.” If the fear of missing out is a condition that pervades this sequence, then what follows is the very opposite. Drivers-by ogle the wreck: “Some van with tinted windows slows enough / to look and know At least it wasn’t me, / cruising over a shoal of raw green gems.” In another poem (“The Long Coat”), the speaker’s own gaze is met by the back of a receding figure, one with whom he’s intimate. The simple opening clause, “I saw you walking away from me”, has acquired, by poem’s end, a dimension of loss and reproach: “And I thought I saw you walking away.”
Even “Keats in Louisville,” the 11-line blank verse poem praised by Rosanna Warren in her back-cover blurb for Black Sea, benefits from the regenerative power of Yezzi’s diction, whereby long-familiar terms shade into fresh meanings. We already know from their brisk (and, for us, sacred) correspondence that John Keats’ lone surviving brother settled in Kentucky. But here the poet’s very name asserts a new self:
Keats the businessman, Keats of Kentucky, Keats for whom they named Keats Avenue, a quarter mile of trees and clapboard houses. The one Keats brother to outlive his twenties, he kept three slaves and died at forty-four.
Similarly, in “On the Death of a Houseplant” (another blank verse poem), the final line—“I blame myself. I was away too long”—registers a note of despair that transcends the flat diction of the excuse, even as the line inhabits a much more serious, contemplative space than is suggested by the poem’s droll opening:
My Christmas cactus is dead. Dead. O blameful house sitter, who cared more for having sex in my bed with your girlfriend of the hour, sleeping in and watching Netflix, drinking beer.
Being “away too long,” whether physically or emotionally, is a sensation that haunts the “Black Sea” sequence. In “Patapsco,” named for the river that forms Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Yezzi writes of his fellow commuters: “What keeps me up at night is not the fear / that I will never feel that I belong / to them, but that I will. They have a hollow look, / as if the soul’s drained from the body”. This anxiety of absence recurs in other “Black Sea” poems: “I am an echo of the tune I was, / my voice still going on inside, / a ghost crooning to one who’s died” (“Truepenny”) and, when speaking of rain, “it makes the sound of going” by “finding its way / to the stream & then the bay, then out to sea. / It starts from nowhere and leaves rapidly” (“The Drain”).
Poems such as the three just quoted are generally not as successful as Yezzi’s other efforts to depict flaws or vacancies either in himself or in others. It may be that when writing about what I’ll call “disillusionment,” he is better at refracting it through an object or incident than addressing the topic head-on. More satisfactory, in my view, are “Hooked”—a short poem in heroic couplets, in which a cyber romance is described as a “cobble of connections wormed through space, / which might dissolve if we came face-to-face”—and “The Chain.” In this poem, which adopts low-key rhymes and an intricate stanzaic shape, he watches a parent yelling at her child and getting called out by a spectator. Returning home, the poet becomes aware that he sides with the raging mother, though not without atoning for his own occasional outbursts, and what they might have cost him as a father.
As the volume draws to a close, the habit of “cool inattention” to which Yezzi confessed in “Weeds,” quoted earlier, can begin to be appreciated as salutary. In “Sourdough,” the dough tells the yeast:
Infuse me, make me hoist, torn and palmed and folded letter-wise.
You work your spell in moments of inattention until I am grown double,
ready for the fire, breaking open pungently in the dark.
Not only in creating art, but in enjoying easy relations and domesticity, is this casual quality to be valued. The poem “Let” tracks the poet and his daughter at tennis. “I call her name,” he reports,
to snap her back from the place she goes, blur- ring the odds: ace,
game, set. Her stride returns, as I abet her. She learns
no lesson, nor do I hint at helping. After, we sprint
on the road home, our run hung with gold silk spun
by spiders in patchy pines. The threads glint in sidewise lines,
cinches borne by the air, so loosely worn they’re hardly there.
This lovely poem concludes with a paean to invisible grace, an attribute also at work in the seamless use of rhyme in these quatrains. Paradoxically, by resolving not to look too hard or too directly, the poet achieves greater clarity in the moment. He then can handle irony with a lightness of touch.
The book carries two epigraphs; one from Pound—“I have beaten out my exile”—and the other, from Steinbeck, on “black water.” We then may remember that Ovid himself was exiled to Tomis (now in Romania), off the Black Sea coast. (Tomis rates a poem of its own in Yezzi’s collection.) These references are possibly too self-conscious for the unassuming poems that follow. It may be more helpful to think of Black Sea in terms of the Algonquin derivation of Yezzi’s “Patapsco,” which means backwater. In the end—but really in the beginning, since the metaphor appears in the first poem of the book—Yezzi’s speaker cuts a deal with himself not to venture too far into unlit spaces. It’s an unspecified angst, but one that affects this reader almost as does the “silken” evening in Larkin’s “Going.” Here is Yezzi’s poem (“Night Blind”) in entirety:
There’s a spot at the top of the street, where the lamp
is out, that’s the darkest part of the block. I don’t
go that way at night, though it would be all right,
I know. No one’s there, just a chained-up dog in damp air
and branches too dark to see, like black water churning.