Best in Show

by Abigail Deutsch

David Yezzi. Birds of the Air. Carnegie Mellon University Press 2013. 88 pp. $15.95 (paper)

✥✥✥

“The poem isn’t complete on the page,” David Yezzi has remarked. “It needs to be spoken out loud. The performance is just as important as the poem itself.”

Yezzi’s third book of poems, Birds of the Air, offers a suite of diverse and distinguished performances: His speakers toggle between warm and wicked, appealing and repulsive. Meanwhile, the poet tries on different stylistic personalities. While his first two books showed off his exquisite formalism, his third presents a balance of formal marvels and looser-lined, looser-lipped dramatic monologues—works different in sound from his lyric poems but similar in sensibility. No matter his mode, Yezzi’s sad, often funny poems pick at complex knots of emotion, focusing on the entanglement of love and ugliness, sweetness and bitterness, promise and loss.

The monologues reflect the author’s longtime interest in how theater relates to poetry. Yezzi, who is the poetry editor of The New Criterion and a professor at Johns Hopkins, is also a librettist and former actor. Even his brief lyrics seem works of theater, showcases for odd and striking personalities. It is in his tightest, spikiest poems that his voice achieves a sustained strangeness, and his performance mesmerizes.

In the best of these nasty poems, Birds of the Air reads like a paean to unpleasantness, a celebration of curmudgeons. “Sapping and demeaning—it takes a lot / to get from bed to work and back to bed,” gripes the narrator of “Lazy.” “Cough,” which might be described as a self-love poem, begins by listing an assortment of pathetic characters and then addresses them collectively:

Once you become a cliché I can hate you—
or, treat me tenderly and let me date you.

But that only retards the writing-off
that comes with boredom, amour propre, or (cough)

irreconcilable differences, i.e.,
those things about you that are least like me,

yet just slightly different, my foible’s homophone,
so in hating yours I really hate my own.

This keeps the focus where it ought to be—
On whom, you ask? Invariably on . . . . See?

I didn’t even have to say it, did I?
I love you so much. No need to reply.

The poem’s precise jabs of iambic pentameter match its cutting emotions. The exact, nearly “homophonous” rhymes underscore the selfishness of the speaker, who sees other people as mere echoes of himself—even “those things about you that are least like me” are “just slightly different, my foible’s homophone, / so in hating yours I really hate my own.” It’s fitting, then, that he feels about others the way he feels about himself: His mix of “amour propre” and self-loathing reflects his willingness to “date” or “hate” his addressee. “I love you so much,” he concludes—crafty wording that makes one wonder, “How much, exactly?”

Who are these addressees? They’re a congregation of unfortunates—“the bottle-headed trophy mom,” “a two-day-stubble squatter”—who also include us readers, those who never “need to reply.” And so the speaker places us on the receiving end of his nastiness even as he implicates us in it, for if he is a reflection of the addressee, then surely the addressee is a reflection of him. (And in thinking so, we prove it; we refocus this self-centered speech on ourselves.)

This poem has its own homophone, several pages away—a reflection in form and spirit. “Pals” is among the best poems in the volume, a match for “Cough”’s creepy coldness and biting exactitude:

They don’t shy from the give-and-take:
the more you deke, the more they’re jake.

The more you fume, the tougher they back you,
denouncing non-pals who attack you.

They are your mirror’s best reflection.
They’ll knock on doors for your election.

And pals pay back. No pal’s too pure
to find his pal a sinecure.

If you have doubts, pals will ease them;
if guilty thoughts, let pals appease them.

A pal can lead you to the trough
or help you take a few pounds off

with just a word—it’s common fact—
and, failing that, they manage tact.

It’s for the best. That’s all pals wish you.
They take your side on every issue.

Pals find means to fit your ends,
but how long they stay pals depends

on the ways you are sympatico.
How do they know? Pals know. They know.

Like “Cough,” “Pals” uses formal precision to pointed ends: Each pair of rhyming lines suggests a well-matched pair of people, friends so similar that one might be the “best reflection” of the other. The abundance of feminine rhymes (“ease them” / “appease them,” “wish you” / “issue,” “back you” / “attack you”) is at once technically impressive and slightly cloying. And why not? Such friendships sound cloying as well, too good to be true. What pal takes your side on every issue? What pal wishes you only the best? What pal—most tantalizingly of all—can help you shed pounds with a mere word?

With friends like these, ends come fast. Just as the tweak of a letter can change “date” into “hate,” a flash of insight can turn a pal turn into a non-pal. “Pals know,” Yezzi writes, “they know.” They know, that is, how  “sympatico” we are and aren’t: They know where we fail them, and they’re ready to fail us, too. And we do fail, don’t we? Like “Cough,” “Pals” sneakily indicts its readers: We deke (an ice hockey term meaning “fake out”), we fume, we get attacked, we accept sinecures. What’s wrong with us?

And what’s wrong with us—or at least with me—for relishing these bursts of antagonism, these bouts of verbal swordplay? Why is it so much fun to dislike a poem’s speaker, and to dislike the version of oneself the speaker constructs only to attack? “What poetry today sorely wants,” Yezzi has written, “is more bile,” something to tarten up the anodyne and predictable musings of, say, Mary Oliver—something to interrupt all the collegial backslapping with a gesture closer to a slap in the face.

Yezzi’s tartness is so delicious because he is evidently aware of the contemporary tradition from which he diverges. He mimics the sweetness endemic to contemporary poetry only to mock it. “I love you so much,” he writes in “Cough.” As for “Pals,” it so closely resembles an affectionate declaration of friendship that I initially misread it as just that, and when I shared it with two of my own best pals, who are both astute readers of poetry, one of them found it so sweet that she wrote an ode to our friendship, in the style of Yezzi’s poem. “Aw,” I thought. Then I reread “Pals” and thought, “Aaah!”

In another fine and subtly acerbic poem, “The Residency,” Yezzi describes a writer’s colony, that hotbed of backslapping:

I love my cabin and my writing table,
my bright lunch pail, the mudded path. Then drinks
begin, say, five-ish—Stoli or Black Label—
and keep on till we’ve worked out all the kinks

in our disheveled psyches. Back at home,
it’s hard how people don’t know I’m an artist.
I feel as pointless as a garden gnome.
They think I’m ordinary: that’s the hardest!

Here, they understand the mess that’s me,
and everything about this place confirms
what I’ve known deep down since the age of three:
I operate on slightly different terms

than businessmen and lawyers and the crowd
that trades and dickers, hires and fires, and when
I tell the world my tale I tell it loud!
I must get down to breakfast before ten.

The cook, with every egg he scrambles, knows
that he is giving me fresh fuel to fashion
new Himalayas, draped in dazzling snows,
of imagination backed by skies of passion.

This parade of clichéd notions (what a gorgeous mess we writers are!) and childish phrases (“that’s the hardest!”), peppered with earnest exclamation marks, doesn’t bode well for whatever writing this author may produce. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem too preoccupied with writing: He tells us about his cabin, his table, his environs, the top-shelf liquor, the breakfast delicacies— but very little about the work that’s brought him to the colony, beyond that painful final image, so purple it lies on the page like a bruise.

Ironies of various kinds thread through this poem. The speaker seems unaware of how telling his statements are—“it’s hard how people don’t know I’m an artist,” he notes, having convinced us he isn’t one. “They think I’m ordinary,” he complains, between hackneyed self-assessments. Throughout, Yezzi’s fine sense of rhythm, timing, humor, and diction operates in counterpoint to his speaker’s artlessness. The “bright lunch pail” is the perfect indicator of childishness, the casual “say, five-ish” an aptly annoying one of privilege. And in the last line of the penultimate stanza, the speaker follows his dramatic declaration (“loud!”) with an anticlimactic remark about the urgency of breakfast. That line feels as rushed as he is, tucked in above the final stanza, just before he vanishes into the serious work of eating.

Despite the many distinctions between author and speaker, it’s hard not to sense a connection between them, to see the speaker as a “worst reflection” of his talented creator—the embodiment of the blithe, overconfident fantasist who might hide within even the most sensitive and self-deprecating artist.

One of the more alarming strangers to appear in Birds of the Air is the speaker of “Spoils”—a long dramatic monologue that, like the book’s other monologues, obeys the subtle logic of chatter. The narrator describes one of his jobs, and then another, which reminds him of a third. That last gig required him to sift through the possessions of a dying man, and an extended reflection on the task prompts him to mention, finally, a dead friend. Like all of Yezzi’s monologues, this one arrives at its most shattering revelations casually, as if by accident. Throughout, the language is jittery and roundabout, skittering from one subject to the next, delaying the point:

Ethel, I think her name was. Can’t remember.
At any rate, so I’ll just call her Ethel
for the purpose of the story, or this part
of it, the point of which I want to come to
now, and that is this: Ethel, right?

The indirection matches the evasive personality of the speaker. Just as easily as he invents this woman’s name, he will lie to the neighbor of the man whose belongings he is sorting. He steals two watches (his “spoils”) from the man and then denies it—one indication that he himself is “spoiled” at the core. Additionally, he avoids the dying friend until it’s too late, a delay echoed by his failure to mention this friend till the end of the poem.

The speaker compares the dying man’s apartment to “the inside of a trash compactor”; his job, he says, was “to sort out all of the trash.” His repetitive rambling functions as a kind of verbal avalanche, a deluge of junk that we ourselves must sort through. In Yezzi’s monologues, such rambling always serves as an exposition of personality: It’s an intentionally messy linguistic maneuver that mirrors an equally messy psychological one. Yet for all their naturalism, the monologues sometimes strain toward casualness:

Did he need the money to keep him in that place?
I doubt it, you know. Medicaid, Medicare, whatever the fuck.

It kind of haunts me though,

a little, if you want to know. You know?

We know—but shouldn’t Y
ezzi help us know it better? On stage, delivered with a shrug, these lines might come across as ideally artless, but on the page we yearn for more; we expect each word to pull its weight. Perhaps that expectation helps make the lines, to paraphrase Yezzi’s earlier comment, seem incomplete; perhaps that’s why we want to hear them “spoken out loud.”

“Spoils” begins by describing a row of magazines that boast “honey-colored flesh air-brushed to perfection,” and then, in the very next sentence, moves to “gleaming dayrooms of the nursing home / where I would mop up urine underneath / the wheelchairs of the jittering demented.” So swiftly, Yezzi hints, do we change from young to old.

The consciousness of mortality hangs over Birds of the Air, whose epigraph is from Macbeth : “And what will you do now? How will you live? / As birds do, mother.” The question comes from Lady Macduff and the answer from her son, who soon clarifies: “By what I get, I mean.” But the son is killed right after his optimistic pronouncement. Accordingly, death haunts even the liveliest of Yezzi’s poems, which often ponder how to survive—financially, emotionally, and in the most basic sense—off “what one gets.”

The snatch of Shakespearean dialogue recalls the Gospel of Matthew, from which Yezzi draws his title: “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” But if we’re worth so much, the book seems to ask, why does our feed come from such strange places? The jobs described in “Spoils” are odd in both senses of the word. And the book’s centerpiece, “Tomorrow & Tomorrow,” is narrated by “an actor. Sort of. / Or, technically, more like a waiter,” who swings through various “revolving-door jobs in the service industry / broken up by brief forays on stage.”

Poems like these meditate on the bizarreness as well as the brevity of life, which itself seems like a stint in a revolving door—a place to pass through, all too briefly, before we’re unceremoniously booted out. “We are as useless as an open lock,” Yezzi writes in “Flatirons,” “more insubstantial than a drinking song, / and marked by sandstone long after we’re gone.”

In “Tomorrow & Tomorrow,” the speaker lands in a hilariously inept production of Macbeth—Lady Macbeth breaks her arm, Banquo forgets his lines. “Not even knowing German, we could tell / the papers thought we were a total joke.” Undercutting the humor is a grave engagement with the choices that mark our lives and deaths. The poem begins:

“What’s done cannot be undone.”

Am I right?

So . . . obvious. So irrefutable.
Of course, if it is done it can’t be undone.
Any idiot knows that. Or else:
“If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
it were done quickly.”

“When the hurly-burly’s done.”

Is execution done on Cawdor?”
“Yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”
You see? Stuff happens, you can’t take it back.
Just one of those things you don’t have to say,
but sometimes we still need reminding of:
“What’s done is done.”

“Sometimes we still need reminding”: Accordingly, Yezzi reminds us multiple times, and even then he isn’t “done.” Others besides Lady Macbeth spoke these words, he goes on to explain, and every night, during the show, he himself hears them again. The poem, a meditation on years-old memories, suggests that what’s done is not done—and certainly not done quickly. Accordingly, the poem’s characters do things over and over (poor Lady Macbeth, her arm in a cast, would “start rubbing the plaster / night after night, sleepwalking, in a trance”). Even the poem’s title, “Tomorrow & Tomorrow,” nods to repetition.

And yet, in a sense, what’s done is done in “Tomorrow & Tomorrow”: When bad things happen, one cannot undo them, no matter how hard one tries. Yezzi refers to the superstition that those involved in a production of Macbeth must, to avoid jinxing themselves, refer to the play as “the Scottish tragedy.” And if one breaks the rule,

Actors have this thing, they have this code
(or not a code, it’s more of a behavior):
I’m supposed to go outside and close the door,
I turn around three times, say shit or fuck!,
and then I knock and ask to come back in.
It’s kind of cool, ’cause then it’s like a safety,
like canceling something bad: you take it back.

Even Yezzi’s language is a model of undoing: He modifies “thing” to “code,” which he swiftly ditches in favor of “behavior.” “Safety” is specified to “canceling something bad.” Each subsequent expression cancels what came before, just as the speaker cancels his accidental curse. Or does he? He slowly grows convinced that a curse does hang over the company, one that explains the broken arm and the missing props.

It’s just as likely to explain his doomed relationship with his girlfriend, Sasha, who breaks up with him while he’s in Germany. More losses follow: We learn from a section narrated by Sasha that she was pregnant with his child and had an abortion; we learn from him, at the very end, that she recently committed suicide. “Some things you don’t recover from,” he notes: He’ll never be done with this one.

Yezzi’s dramatic monologues are just as interesting for their psychology as for their language. The speakers circle around their true subjects like twigs caught in a whirlpool, gradually getting sucked toward the center. Only after sixteen pages of poetry do we hear about Sasha’s death: “It was suicide,” the speaker says. “I should have told you that.”

Another striking monologue in Birds of the Air, “Dirty Dan,” revolves subtly around a death—it mourns the author Tom Disch. Even more than “Tomorrow & Tomorrow,” it is an attempt at undoing, at resurrecting a lost loved one. “Let’s pretend,” the speaker suggests, “that we’re both sitting around / in your living room, just telling stories.”

The poem traffics in substitution: One person or conversational topic stands in for another, as though to save the speaker the pain of facing his sadness directly. And so the tale he wants to tell Tom relates not to Tom himself, but to a wild night with friends Tom didn’t know, Julie and Mitch:

One minute, Mitch is spouting Joyce—about
how all he actually wanted was to write
a really good read crammed with lots of jokes
for all his friends to savor, to make them laugh.

The speaker is quoting a friend quoting Joyce on a literary goal—and yet that goal, so many layers removed from the speaker, is shared by the poem, which wants to be “a really good read. . . for all his friends.” But it can’t be that kind of poem, not when one crucial friend is missing. In the past, the speaker notes, “we’d people / the vastness with our stories and we’d laugh.” It’s an elegant summary of what the poem is doing, filling the emptiness with people who are gone—but filling it, alas, only metaphorically.

In another act of substitution, the poem, a requiem for Tom, pretends to be a requiem for Julie and Mitch. It ends: “I laugh / a lot less with them gone. Does that surprise you?” It would be far more logical for the speaker to tell his friend that he laughs a lot less now that Tom is gone, but such directness wouldn’t be true to the zigzagging logic of Yezzi’s monologues, nor of our grieving.

Some of Yezzi’s most memorable poems articulate the wishes to undo, relive, and reincarnate. “333 East 68th Street,” one of the best poems in Azores, his stunning second book, eulogizes an apartment that the speaker is about to move out of. Here, he presents himself—not a friend—as a ghost, as departed in multiple senses. Much as the protagonist of “Spoils” sifts through a dying stranger’s belongings, this poem finds the speaker and his wife cleaning out rooms they will soon leave:

Out the bedroom window, through the green of the garden, a bell
announces the consecration of the scene
from which we’re now outcasts. You say, “Ah, well,
it wouldn’t be Eden if we could stay.”
But more than anything we wish to stay,
and like Masaccio’s Adam, I cast a glance
that syncs with yours, until we look away,
then down, and realize it’s not just chance
but our forsaking that makes the memory.

But who bothers to look for what’s not lost?
Some morning, on the bus,
we’ll pass this very street marbled in frost
and spin around to catch a glimpse of us
crossing with the children to the park.
But it’s early, no one’s at the park,
the trees are bare, no couple’s walking there.
Craning back we’ll see the building fade
like gray exhaust resolving into air
and recognize the error that we’ve made.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What will last longer than
this stately pile, ivy-wreathed and immense?
The memories of a life-befuddled man
or woman who, in recalling her past,
feels her mother’s bathrobe swirling past
or her father’s kisses, which she’ll soon grow out of.
The architecture of intersecting lives
will find a way to stay, like acts of love,
which not in place but perhaps in time survive.

According to this self-elegy, it is leaving that makes Edens, forsaking that makes memories. And memories, the poem suggests, are the only thing worth seeking—“who bothers to look for what’s not lost?”—as well as the only thing that lasts. Twice in the stanzas quoted above, the speaker and his wife spin around. Once, they glance back at the Edenic garden they’re about to leave, and later, after they’ve left, they crane back in hopes of seeing their former selves enter the park, another green space.

In these moments, they aren’t looking back just in space, but also in time, where they seek former selves they won’t find. Their building—which “fade[s] / like gray exhaust resolving into air”—is just as ghostly as those phantoms. They will survive, Yezzi suggests, not as wraiths walking streets but as their children’s memories of them—and, before that, as their own memories of themselves. The poem presents a dizzying temporal ouroboros, as the present speaker imagines his future self looking fruitlessly for his past self.

As usual, Yezzi’s form provides an apt and quiet comment on the poem. The middle lines of each stanza repeat end words, evoking the wish for sameness and standstill. One word serves as the ghost of the next, and it lingers a moment longer than one expects—which is particularly satisfying when Yezzi repeats words like “park” and “stay.” Broken into two sets of five lines each, the stanzas replicate the two spaces between which the characters find themselves, and boast an “intersecting architecture” of their own.

Ghosts of various kinds populate Birds of the Air : Sasha, Tom, and in “This Is My Proof,” a nameless ex-lover. The speaker discovers her photograph “Inside a book / I’ve been meaning to / read forever,” complete with “words you wrote / to calm me when // we were together”:

The scribble across
the back, your name—
if more was meant,
it never came.

There were others
(there’s someone now),
same as you.
And yet, somehow

among dust motes,
none of it matters:
a rush of breath
comes in then scatters.

This poem, too, is an elegy. It hints at how easily we come and go from one another’s lives; like the speaker’s breath, we enter and then scatter. The poem might be treacly if not for the sourness lacing its lines. “If more was meant, / it never came,” the speaker notes, indicating disappointment with his ex. And: “There were others / (there’s someone now), / same as you.” Suddenly his partners all seem interchangeable, a string of forgettable someones.

Yet there’s also a warmth to Yezzi’s tone, and that warmth becomes more meaningful for the poem’s slight chilliness. So what if we have unremarkable partners? So what if we are unremarkable partners? “None of it matters”: We love each other anyway, dekers, liars, sinecure-snatchers, and two-day-stubble squatters that we are.

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