Every time I return to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, I am struck by how the world of his work appears bleak, emptied, almost entirely unpopulated. Even the perceiver who voices his philosophical lyrics is concealed for the sake of foregrounding perception itself, that the intermingling play of imagination and reality may alone hold our attention.
A similar impression kept creeping up on me when I first read the early work of David Yezzi. In The Hidden Model (2003), the poems mostly fit into two broad categories: austere urban landscapes, especially New York City (e.g., “Aporia”), and desolate seascapes. In the latter, Yezzi’s writing grows most stark, as when he depicts a solitary sailor crossing the Pacific. The emptiness of the sea brings into focus the irreducible necessities of human life, when we throw ourselves into a condition that threatens us on every side.
In Azores (2008), this vacillation between sea- and cityscape develops. Here, Yezzi studies the solitude, the loneliness, of people who seem alien, out of place, as they wander through the crowded streets of their lives.
When he speaks in the first person, his narrator is urbanely interested yet detached from those he sees, confessing to himself about one late acquaintance, for instance, you never liked him much. He sees a young man in the Whitney Museum gazing sidelong at a girl, and concludes, Poor fool . . . you poor romantic fool. Cities may be full of people, but those people are all alone, and the author’s vision alternately reduces them to objects whose gestures expose their pathetic psyches and perpetuates their solitude by dwelling on the narrator’s own suave and aloof perspicuity—one which seems to delight, as in one poem, in the play of erasing names from his address book.
No wonder, then, that Azores begins, There are days I don’t think about the sea, as if this fact surprises its author. For, in contrast to our life among other human beings, life at sea—which Yezzi, an accomplished sailor, knows well—really puts us out of our element. The petrel may be instinct in it, the scope of its flight / fitted to its will, but we are not suited to live long at sea. To set sail is to gain insight into human nature by setting it in relief against its limits; its wide, empty sweep clarifies things for us as life among other persons evidently does not. In the city, Yezzi picks everyone else apart; at sea, he confronts himself in a hostile world, and the drama is absorbing.
Even in these first two books, however, we see another current developing. A poem about his infant daughter concludes that it was not until I held a thing / that, losing, would unsettle me that the author realized another way of being in the world with others. Life in the city had revealed how (often conveniently) alienated we are from each other, and life at sea helps overcome alienation from the self as we face abysses without and within. But fatherhood is altogether different, unveiling not the thrill of emptiness but of promise and plentitude: the natural interpenetration of one’s life in that of others across generations. In Azores, “Vigil” reflects on the imminent birth of twin boys, acknowledging that their lives will fuse / someway into generations, / a future they already bequeath / to us. Such moments at once interrogate and justify Yezzi’s usual pose of urbane detachment.
Since the 1950s, we have heard tales of the modern nightmare of “lonely crowds,” of “bowling alone in America,” and of, as Charles Taylor would have it, secular “buffered selves,” all of which seem to be the dark side of material prosperity, suburban sprawl, and “rugged individualism.” For many of us, only fatherhood or motherhood can jar us out of ourselves; only the experience of loving one’s own daughter before one even knows her can prompt us to see truth, as Yezzi does, in the Sunday school injunction that
the beggar in the park was Jesus Christ,
as was Aunt Faith who hid her cigarettes
and whose butt-ends were ringed with blood-red Os.
As is the case with city life, a conception of most other human beings as mere strangers can live side-by-side with one in which some few emerge as loved, as possessing the imago dei—at least for a time.