JANUARY 28, 2017
LUDIC AND LUCID, sure-footed but light on their feet, the poems of Stephen Yenser defy the taxonomy of contemporary American poetry, with its professional and amateur compartments — narrowly formal versus strictly free, paleo-avant-garde versus Academic mainstream. And you get the idea that Yenser likes it that way just fine.
His debut volume, The Fire in All Things, appeared in 1992. His second, Blue Guide, came out in 2006. And Stone Fruit, his third collection, was published by the excellent US/British Waywiser Press late last year. To Horace, who famously suggested waiting nine years before publication, Yenser seems to say, “Whoa, hold your horses. What’s the rush?”
Of course, Yenser juggles many other things besides his own poems. Professor Emeritus at UCLA, he was, until recently, its English department’s director of Creative Writing, and he still directs the poetry reading series at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. He is an authority on 20th-century American poetry, especially the work of Robert Lowell and James Merrill. He is also Merrill’s co-literary executor, and has edited many volumes of his work. Merrill was a friend and mentor, and something of his linguistic legerdemain is evident in Yenser’s verse. Both poets share an unabashed appreciation for the virtuosic gesture. And yet Yenser’s poetry remains very much his own: it is less stanzaic, shaped rather according to the variation, the fractal, entries in a reference volume — at once ordered and arbitrary, like the alphabet or the Dewey Decimal System.
Yenser often favors a radial symmetry rather than the linear argument of, say, a Western sonnet (though he can toss those off with the best of them). He explores, for instance, how the couplets of a ghazal could be spokes of equal importance around some focus, their organization less at issue than their multifarious expression of a central sorrow or joy. After all, as Yenser states in his ghazal “The Names” (in Blue Guide), the etymology of “ghazal” is “web.” In another poem in Blue Guide, syllabic variations on a line from Ovid about the crow (Metamorphoses, Book II) collide with Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” to provide delicious morsels such as, “Because C was K / ‘crow’ is ‘work’ backward. Black word, / black word: be caws, claws.” I’ve never looked at the word “crow,” or maybe even an actual crow, in quite the same way after reading that haiku. The title (and title poem) Blue Guide is typical Yenser, doing double and triple duty, evoking an exhaustive travel guide and an elaborate enumeration of the network of etymology from proto-Indo-European surrounding that most evasive (and arguably even invisible) of colors, “blue.” Yenser is the sort of poet who will point out that the etymology of “argue” is to “shine forth.”
Likewise, the title of Yenser’s latest, Stone Fruit, has its double and triple valence. At first, it strikes us as pure paradox — fruit made of stone, like the still-life ornaments in a graveyard. But then we recall that there is a whole class of fruit thus designated — peaches and cherries, apricots, plums, even the savory olive — soft-fleshed, easily bruised fruit that has a stone or pit at its heart. A potentially dark image — and as the cover (featuring Da Vinci’s severe St. Jerome, the subject of an ekphrastic poem in the book) suggests, this is indeed a darker, less sky-lit book than his previous two.
No, I take that back. After all, the central long poem of “Stone Fruit” is the Aegean-dazzled “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia,” which could in fact be a sort of afterwards (after-words) to the concerns of Blue Guide. Set on a Greek island (Sifnos?), the whole poem is set up as an answer to the cheeky challenge in the epigraph — “I don’t know why you don’t just go over to Catalina.” It begins conversationally, and playfully, with its rhymed jingle: “I come here for the views. / I come here because there is no news.” But it quickly builds into longer and longer verses (echoes of “Jubilate Agno” and Whitman), which grow to encompass more and more thoughts, images, and words. As ever, Yenser embraces every etymology and pun, sound and sense, and doesn’t shy from bringing in the modern Greek he is learning, along with every strata of English. While these are strophes of an internal monologue, they invite reading aloud. That’s no surprise, considering their “setting”; one can well imagine a solitary walker on a Byzantine path mumbling unawares, making his own music and companionship. The following is one of the less showy verses, but utter it, and hear how the courses of sound are all fitted together — ingeniously, naturally, blending into the landscape but bearing the traces of painstaking work — like the dry stone wall the verse describes:
Built of the ubiquitous stone, culled from the fields, or axed and levered out of outcrops, sometimes faced or split, sometimes filled with scrabbled up flinders, fitted, mortarless, tight as puzzle pieces […]
I am enchanted by section two of this poem, which concerns the pencil and watercolor sketches of Edward Lear (now better known for his nonsense verse, such as “The Owl and the Pussycat”) executed in Greece and the Levant, drafted quickly on site for oils he would finish at home. Of course, I may be predisposed to this section because I have seen some of these sketches myself. (And perhaps, as a long-time resident of Greece, I am generally predisposed to all of Yenser’s Greek poems, which are astutely observed while avoiding the claptrap of travel verse.) In his sketches, Lear often simply jots what the colors ought to be, memoranda for when he gets around to realizing them. I’m not sure what to call what Yenser does here at the end of the section, since it is and isn’t pure quotation. He paints a picture that does not exist, and does so in the sketchy notes of the painter — a few words worth a thousand brush strokes:
“catch gold light grass” “all turquoisy & Byzantine bluesy” “O poppies!” “very olivish”
That “catch gold light grass” almost sounds like a newly discovered fragment of Sappho.
I will say this: If puns make you cringe and you aren’t fond of the figura etymologica, you’re not going to like Yenser’s style. Go in search of another, with my blessing — and, I imagine, his. He isn’t afraid of reveling in language, rhyming “censored” for instance, with — wait for it — “Yensered.” Over the top? But it was worth it, he seems to say, wasn’t it? Oh, come on. You’re smiling, aren’t you? And if you want your allusions and difficult references served up on a platter of endnotes, boy, are you out of luck. Yet one must appreciate that the work’s occasional difficulty (I looked up plenty of words myself, including “siled”) is offered as a kind of inviting challenge, like a crossword puzzle, one whose payoff is pleasure rather than answers.
Indeed, Yenser plays his game for “mortal stakes.” He has spent time not only in Greece, but has taught at the University of Baghdad, and Stone Fruit features a long politically engaged poem, “Hija for Emerson’s Birthday,” whose epigraph is a quotation from George W. Bush: “I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.” “Hija” are satiric verses on one’s enemy, and Yenser’s poem — by turns wry, discursive, serious, didactic, learned, and occasionally professorial — has an unevenness of tone (the wordplay gets a bit silly, with Kurds and whey) that may well be part and parcel of the original Arabic form, but sometimes doesn’t quite work for me. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it addresses a “current” event that more recent events in the same region have seemed to overshadow, but which has yet to settle into something more like history; we are as yet at an awkward distance. It may well be that, at an even further remove from its point of origin, the poem will snap into sharper focus.
Yenser is so good at a certain kind of fizzy lexical and intellectual sprezzatura that, when he’s at his most melismatic (and there is a dazzling, nearly anagrammatic poem by that name here, in the sequence “Musing”), you almost forget that he can also distill his inspiration and drink it neat. The book opens with a tight poem called “Prospect,” set in a spare California desert, and closes soberly in the austere Greek landscape, where flavors become intensified by sun and shadow, water and salt. The last stanza of “Psalm on Sifnos” embodies that hard-won clarity and sweetness:
One wants at last
to cede the field
and mastic tree,
To olive and stone,
Stones in the fruit,
Seeds in the stone.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings is an American poet and translator, who studied classics in Athens, Georgia and now lives in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her verse translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things, appeared from Penguin Classics in 2007.