Wednesday, August 28, 2013

`I See Another Human Being Clearly'

In one of those pleasing convergences that arrive unbidden, David Yezzi has given an interview to the Albany Times-Union, the newspaper where I worked as a reporter for more than eight years. I’ve always thought the first-person lyric, the contemporary poet’s default mode, is sadly limiting and provincial. Poets long ago conceded storytelling, and with it vast regions of human experience, to prose fiction and drama. Yezzi and a few others, following the example of the late Anthony Hecht, have reanimated the dramatic monologue, an elastic form that permits poets to deploy other voices in their work. In his most recent collection, Birds of the Air, Yezzi includes four such longer poems, calling them “dramatic monologues spoken by someone (not me, or not exactly me) speaking to a specific listener.” He says: “I'm interested in creating characters and situations. I guess if I had to label it, I'd call it dramatic. Some of the poems seem like little plays to me.” 

One of Yezzi’s monologues (elsewhere, he describes it as a “duologue” for two voices), “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” is spoken, in part, by a young actor in a doomed American production of Macbeth in Germany. Near the end, the speaker dabbles in literary criticism of a distinctly personal sort. Referring to Roman Polanski’s gory 1971 film of Macbeth, the speaker says: 

“It’s got great stuff. But mostly that’s because
Kenneth Tynan told him what was what.
Banquo’s children shall be kings, we know.
We also know that Malcolm’s on the throne.
So, here’s the thing.
Macbeth has got no kids, or none we know of.
But Lady’s given suck, that’s how she puts it,
so what is that? What happened to her kid?
(I know, I’m getting literal.) Behind the credits,
A figure in a cloak  -- who must be Banquo’s son –
Goes to see the witches. It never ends.
One thane betrays another, blood for blood,
Blood against blood. And so on and on.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how it began,
how what they wanted was the thing they wanted.
`What’s to be done?’” 

The poem’s remaining ten lines, delivered without an easeful transition, describe a visit by the actors to an unnamed German concentration camp. As in life, the poem is a weave of such narrative threads, including a failed love affair. In naturalistic language – high and low, stammering, eloquent and filled with holes – Yezzi’s artifice simulates the way we talk and act. He’s interested in his kind; that is, fallible, mysterious human beings. The day I read Yezzi’s interview in my old newspaper, I also read a thoughtful essay by Anthony Esolen in the Intercollegiate Review. Esolen reminds us of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead (2004) and her most recent book, the essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), and of the vulgarization of higher education. He writes: 

“Whenever we meet a human being, then, we meet that extraordinary creature who can think of time past and time to come, and times that never were. We meet one whose next thought rarely has to do with food or the act of sex but with shaking a bough of wet leaves to see the drops spatter and splash, or with a jest to cap the jest of a friend as they sit on a shady porch, or with one who walks down to the quiet graveyard to place a vase of flowers at her mother’s headstone, to stand awhile there, and say a prayer, and think of her while the cardinals whistle their love calls from the trees.” 

In poetry, Yezzi honors these “extraordinary creatures,” walking mysteries, and gives them a voice. In Robinson’s title essay, she writes: “It may be mere historical conditioning, but when I see a man or woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.” 

[See Yezzi’s new poem, “Argument from Design,” in the September issue of Smithsonian.]

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