June 2006

David Yezzi


David Yezzi David Yezzi was born in Albany, NY, in 1966. His books of poetry are Sad Is Eros (Aralia Press) and The Hidden Model (TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press). His libretto for a chamber opera composed by David Conte, Firebird Motel, received its world premiere in 2003 and will be released on disc later this year. A former director of the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City, he is executive editor of The New Criterion.
In The Morning    Click to hear in real audio

In the morning, he argued with his wife,
that's how the day began, so he decided
to leave the apartment early, take his time
getting to work. He rode an extra stop
heading downtown and walked up through the park,
bought coffee at the pricey coffee bar,
wanting to treat himself, to salve his mood.

He was first to show up to the office.
Packages were leaning on the jamb.
He keyed the lock and wandered though the door.
Inside, the lights were off; he left them off.
They'd come on soon enough when the others came.
At his desk, he scanned his mail, then read an item
on the council member who once shook his hand.

A theater review of a new play
starring a well-known film star caught his eye:
she was stiff and ill-equipped to act on stage,
yet stunningly beautiful, dangerously so,
the critic wrote. He faintly shook his head.
Dangerous, he knew just what that meant.
Out of the dark a voice spilled down the hall.

A rustling, as if somebody were lost.
And then the voice again, deep, almost threatening.
He's not sure why, but for a breath or two
he thought the voice was that of an intruder
and this morning was the last one of his life.
The books on the shelf swam in half-focus.
OK, he thought, but the voice did not return.

He thought then of a book he'd read last week,
in which a character takes his own life
by hammering a pair of scissors though
his sternum with the heel of his own shoe.
He felt the flesh above his heart and tried
to visualize the passage of the blades.
He looked down at his shoes. The toes were scuffed.

Tonight he will not wander on the way,
or be hit by the bus he's heard about
(the one that cuts young men down in their primes).
He's not so young or so naive to think
that his death would be that wry or notable.
He'll take the old streets in reverse, the ones,
traced once more, that describe his daily round.




From "On The Rocks: A Play In Verse"    Click to hear in real audio


You've got talent, Nick, a real gift.


That's not what they told me in New York.
In fact, I got the definite impression
That quite the opposite was true.


                                         That's fashion,
Not painting. That's about what they can sell,
And not about the reasons that you paint.


I guess, but it's about the selling, too.
I mean it's not that cool to be Van Gogh
These days and never sell until your dead.
I don't know. That wasn't even it.
It wasn't that my work didn't appeal—
Not that it did, it definitely did not.
It's that I realized I didn't have the eye,
Well not the eye exactly. I could draw,
And I could get a certain look that teachers liked,
But what I lacked was . . . something. Like Cezanne.
Well, that was it in fact, if you want to know.


               Surely, he did not disparage
Your work. He's heard from very little lately,
In person, I mean. You haven't heard from him?


No. But that's right. Let's say Cezanne, his ghost,
Or lets say I could travel back in time
And I take this picture with me and I show it
To Cezanne. Well, you know, it's not so good.
Seen like that, the painting is absurd.
I mean, Cezanne is why I gave it up.


You gave up painting for Cezanne?


                         Not for him,
Because of him. He drove me nuts. It's crazy.
You know, I saw a show of his in Washington,
when I was still in school. Dad took me down.
It was so incredibly typical
of him. He'd read somewhere about Cezanne,
This major retrospective in D.C.,
And he decided that I had to go.
If I was going to be a painter then
I had to look at art, and he would take me.
It was his way of saying he approved,
Well, not approved, he never really did,
But that he could be big about it all,
He could support his son in his own way,
With the whole thing done of course in the grand style:
dinner in Georgetown, two rooms at his club.
But the show, I don't know how best to describe it.
It terrified me. That's the only word.
I found the paintings absolutely terrifying.
The one that stopped me in my tracks was this
landscape called "The House of the Hanged Man,"
But it wasn't only that one, it was like
One after another of these paintings,
And the thing that I just couldn't figure out
Was how he did it, not just how he made them,
I could see the crazy way he handled paint,
With these diagonal strokes that looked like rainfall,
So that the whole damp countryside had life,
Just breathed with this vitality and life,
But it wasn't that. I could aspire to that,
To have good luck and make a picture dance.
I mean I'd have to have a lot of luck,
But so you take your chances and then maybe.
But it was that he changed the rules for good,
on the force, or madness, or just plain obsession,
of his vision of the world and how to paint it,
he completely changed the course of modern art.
Now I sound like a third-rate lecturer.
It's just that I saw in those pictures how
I would never have the merest hint of that,
Of the ability to put my mark on anything,
To reinvent the terms based on the way
I saw the world regardless of the rules.
I didn't have the passion to destroy,
or if I do it's totally mundane,
just your standard viciousness, you know,
not the kind that you make paintings with at least.
So I quit.  

               Then try again.


                                          Too late.
Besides, you know the feeling that I had
The day I quit? I packed up all the paints,
The stretchers and the easels and the tarps,
And I walked them to a dumpster, dropped them in,
This was down on Tenth Street at the time,
And all these kids came by and pulled them out.
Each and every one of them was a painter,
With a  studio apartment just like mine,
And fresh paint on their tennis shoes and pants.
So I just handed off the rest to them and left.
And the feeling as I walked away was not
That I had failed or of the wasted time
I spent imagining that I could paint.
It was a simple feeling, very quiet,
Very contained, of a profound relief.



David Yezzi: Poetry
Copyright ©2006 The Cortland Review Issue 32The Cortland Review