Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Best in Show

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Best in Show

Article excerpt

Best in Show 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 reI I "It needs to be spoken out loud. The performance .A. 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 poems 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, "Hou> much, exactly?"

Who are these addressees? They're a congregation of unfortunates-"the botde-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. …

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