by David Yezzi
2008, Swallow Press
David Yezzi’s Azores is a work of heresy; its Arian narrator sings Gnostic, Manichean poems, splitting life into poets and fathers, the wind and the water, man and monster.
Duality weaves the poems of Azores. The book begins with "Mother Carey's Hen" a poem for the petrel, the bird who flies the middle path between sea and sky, divided always between heaven and the earth. Here we must hear Yezzi echoing Eliot in East Coker:
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
as Yezzi’s petrel
scales each watery hill
that rises up, adapting to the shape
of each impediment, each low escape
instinct in it, the scope of its flight
fitted to its will.
In the next poem "In the Morning" Yezzi stays with Eliot to narrate a Prufrockian character whose life is full of nearly was and almost-rans, a man who “scans his mail, then reads an item / on the council member who once shook his hand." Waiting for work to begin, and avoiding his wife, he dreams about change through a "well known film star" trying her hand at stage acting, pretending he knows “just what dangerous means.” After he imagines a brush with death that turns out to be a co-worker, he fetishizes getting hit by a bus or committing suicide by scissors, while avoiding the true conflict in his life, the fight with his wife.
From these two poems, Yezzi paints the islands of Azores, a collection of poems balanced between what is and is imagined, between the honest and the ideal.
Built upon this juxtaposition of flesh and spirit Azores’ poems explore the nature of perception and change. From the final clouds of “Very Like a Whale” that slip from sex to nothingness, to the eyes in “Azores” that “spoke candidly to me at first and then / admitted nothing when I looked again," the change dances between the observer and the observed. We cannot pin down where the change happens, only that what was seen is no longer there.
"The Call," included in 2006's Best American Poetry, captures this sentiment in a phone call – an acquaintance, whose presence “always produced a shudder,” has died, and we are left to wonder do we miss the dead or do we merely want to? Though the question may have little bearing on our outward behavior, Yezzi’s poetry is concerned with intention – where does mourning come from? Where does loss reside – in or outside?
As if to complicate the question, "A Brief Scene" gives us two men in a museum. One is a wannabe lover of women whose failed courtings and subsequent pinings pique the interest of a man who is there for the art. The art lover feels the nostalgia of the beautiful, painted women. Indeed, he pines for the women “once glimpsed” what “will not leave you alone,” begging the question -- what is the difference between the desire?
In the sonnet sequence “Azores,” like in “A Brief Scene,” the problem is knowing who changes: the observer or what is being observed? Are the eyes that “spoke candidly. . . at first and then / admitted nothing when I looked again" what caused the speaker’s pain or did he imagine the spark of interest, like the young man in the museum, only to see, in truth, that nothing was there?
Or perhaps it is the nature of duality that creates the unknowable locus of change. In storms of section five of “Azores,” we are confronted with “two canceling passions” that give us this glimpse of life “at war”:
the name --
like poison -- on my lips no longer the same
one I conjured with before the weather came.
The prosopopic eyes now have a silent name that is accused again of changing or perhaps the name is changed, as the final section of "Azores" is the most dependent on division “the madness” of weathering the storms is brought on by “a habit we can't unlearn. . . this lust for water, fidelity to land.” By these last lines of “Azores,” it’s clear that the division Yezzi is concerned with is not the self and the other, but the divisions within the self and how they create, and indeed are, perception – the entire conflict of the eyes and the names and the hearts in “Azores” is understood by the pull of lust and fidelity – “Azores” final lines tell us like Bono sings:
Between the horses of love and lust
we are trampled underfoot.
In the first poem of part II, “The Visitor,” employs the notion that division must be self and other, refuting it to reinforce that the important division is not external but internal -- as he paints a picture of a man, a husband and father who is overcome by darkness.
“The Visitor” is followed by “333 East 68th Street,” a poem that is almost about divorce – except, just as Yezzi’s poems have turned division inward, we learn that breaking does not always equal brokenness, and that “forsaking that makes the memory.” Change, for once in Azores is not mutable and slippery but the catalyst for growth and the only producer of knowledge.
The speaker’s father appears in "The Ghost Seer," an excerpt from the verse play On the Rocks. It appears he too suffers from the speaker’s obsession with duality: a fine gesture becomes " his way of saying he approved / well, not approved, he never really did," and we are left wondering if the father is showing approval or the son is imagining its absence.
“The Ghost Seer” also serves as a foil for "The Call" in which we must pretend to miss the dead. Instead of pretending to mourn, the narrator struggles to give himself permission to not mourn his father, to live his life “without feeling that sad he's not around.”
After the neurotic “Ghost Seer,” “A Dog's Life” and “Befana, a Bedtime Story” recall Jesus’ declaration that we are more important than lilies -- that so much of our worrying is for naught. Once the narrator has given himself permission not to care he can open these beautiful little poems.
Azores, of course, is not perfect. There is a "bequeath" in the poems that should not be.
The poems after “The Ghost Seer” are lighter in tone than the rest of the volume. “Lenten Retreat” and “Dead Letters” echo both “Daddy” and Eliot's Sweeney poems (in trimeter and not tetrameter). It’s not that the poems lack in quality, just that they do not fit as well with the volume as a whole (though their inclusion after “The Ghost Seer” is perhaps intended to fix this) until the final poem: “Very Like a Whale,” where change returns in clouds that melt from nymphs to nothing. Eliot returns as well, in Yezzi’s “a force without a form. . . a brooding leviathan / breaching as the rain begins again.”
It is this breeching, this inability to exist in one mode that makes Azores such a valuable collection of work. Not content to merely model our divided humanity, the structure of Yezzi’s poems is amphibious – this is a formal collection that doesn’t read formally. If you hear David Yezzi read, he’ll sound nothing so much like an actor tossing out his latest monologue. These poems read true. That was what I enjoyed most about reading them – I could hear the plain voice in my head; I could hear these poems being read, speaking to me from the page.
Buy this book, read these poems, and let them ask you where change lives. Wrestle with their words for the answer.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009