Review | Exhilarating Magus: Myth and Poetics in Stephen Yenser’s Stone Fruit

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Stone Fruit, Stephen Yenser’s highly anticipated third collection published by Waywiser, dazzles, delights, and enchants with its wordplay, predilection for sound effects, and linguistic brilliance. Profound and beautiful, meticulous, bristling with erudition, it sizzles with versatility and sophistication. Both modern and timeless, it resonates into past centuries, at times elliptical, at times mythic, the work of a maestro at the top of his craft.

Yenser’s debut volume, The Fire in All Things, was selected by Richard Howard to receive the 1992 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Blue Guide, his second, was published in 2006.

The poems in Stone Fruit span wide geographic distances, from the California Joshua Desert to the Cycladic Islands in Greece, from Kansas to Massachusetts, via various locales in Los Angeles, and are to be savored, “Lost as the map, with no directions to follow / Except those of deranged Joshua trees, / And rootless, extravagant as tumbleweed.” We can hear echos of Emily Dickinson’s “Done with the Compass — / Done with the Chart!” Yenser makes for a very unusual travel guide — constantly surprising with unabashed and contagious joie de vivre — whose range is astonishing. Here we encounter personal, lyrical, and meditative, as well as political and ekphrastic poems, along with a couple of exquisite translations from Hölderlin.

The book was written in part in memory to James Merrill, who was a friend. With J. D. McClatchy, Yenser serves as co-literary executor of Merrill’s estate and co-edited Merrill’s Collected Poems, Collected Prose, Collected Novels and Plays, The Changing Light at Sandover, and Selected Poems. He is at work on Merrill’s Selected Letters.

Yenser also pays tribute to Emily Dickinson in the delightful poem “The Relic,” which relates Yenser’s visit to Amherst library, where a lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair has been preserved in box, “a casket / that opens brashly on the lock of hair: a curl of bright auburn / (“bold, like the Chestnut Burr, …”

Yenser is a mesmerizing orator to boot, providing delightful anecdotes. If you have a chance to hear him read, by all means do. He confided impishly that he was dying to touch the hair, and nobody would have known. “An urgent yearning, an awful favor / rises … I’m dying to ask it.” At the reading, he shared that maybe if you touch it, you don’t get the poem. He got the poem instead, lucky for us.

I have to admit that, being half Greek, I am partial to the poems set in the Aegean, on the islands of Sifnos and Santorini. Yenser has an affinity for Greece where he has spent quite some time. The poem “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” is a compendium of reasons why he keeps returning. It starts, tongue in cheek, with an epigraph uttered by his friend William Edinger: “I don’t know why you don’t just go over to Catalina.” The list is vast and lends itself to all sorts of puns and verbal acrobatics, starting with the rhyming opening lines: “I come here for the views. / I come because there is no news.” It keeps building, thanks to Yenser’s particular wit and stylistic precision, and growing in emotional depth to explore history and etymology.

I come to be alone. Because I am alone. Out of season. Like the
______few midges left. Adrift on a stony island no known poet
______hails from. Enisled. Outlandish as that term. (Annihiled
______is different but only by a smidge.)

To remind myself how simple things can be. Simple as the music
______of the marble figures of the harpist—and the unique
______double-reed player.

Not to mention concepts. To remind myself how when it comes
______to things like concepts, Heraclitus and Plato had all we
______would ever need. (Pythagoras I set aside for now.)

“Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” is eleven pages long. The second section — of six — is dedicated to Edward Lear, best known for such works as The Book of Nonsense, including the famous “Owl and the Pussycat”. Lear was also a landscape painter. The Gennadius Library in Athens owns two hundred of his Greek sketches and watercolours.
“…
Because even this delicate, vehicular medium meant fixity, his
______nemesis, so in hopes that glazed and scumbled oils
______could get the shifty shades right, he jotted in light pencil
______across the images descriptions, shot through with nonce
______terms and puns fleeting as pains taken, rubbed and
______faded, sometimes indecipherable, wishful notes written
______on washes disappearing before our eyes, which follow
______them, into sea, cliff, olive stand, distant temple, dovecote,
______asphodel.

‘catch gold grass’ ‘all turquoisy & Byzantine Bluesy’ ‘O
_______poopies!’ ‘very olivish’”

Yenser also pays homage to Walt Whitman: “I come here to sit at length and read some Whitman, who adored / words plain as stones, regardless of those exultant / exaltations of ‘eidolons’.” According to Merriam Webster, an eidolon is a “an unsubstantial image, a phantom.” Wikipedia describes it as “a spirit-image of a living or dead person; a shade or phantom look-alike of the human form.” Yenser’s vocabulary is so rich that I picked up several new words along the way. The book is haunted by the presence of many poets and artists, starting with the cover painting of St. Jerome by Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as by “hard men faceless and various as the stones themselves” who have labored over the years to build stone walls.

Through ingenious repetitions, the poem becomes a celebratory ritual, a prayer, whose lyricism reaches a crescendo in the last stanzas, leaving us breathless:
“…
And I am in over my head again, where it all flows, beginning with
_______the simplest language, where once some tongue-slip led to
            slime then slid along to loam and lime and then oblivion,

While even stone is hardly faster, sea creatures secreting shells
______whose limestone pressed to marble harbors streaming
______linen.

I come back because I cannot stay away. Because I cannot stay.
______Because I must.

I come back to leave. Not to leave a mark, either. To take it,
______rather. Like a vow. A vow of silence, say.

Or just a volta, the evening turn along the littoral that turns
______imaginal beneath my feet. To take it and to leave it, then.
______To leave my take—as pirates and directors have it—and to
______take my leave away.”

To read Stephen Yenser’s audacious poetry is to enter a liminal world, where music and memory mingle, and aesthetic vibrancy pulsates with rhythmic magic. The titular fruits encountered in the book are the date (in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and in “Post Avant Pastoral”), the blackberry and the apricot (in “Preserves”), the cherry (in Hija for Emerson’s Birthday), and the olive (in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and “Psalm in Sifnos”). “Stones” are a leitmotif throughout the book, present 26 times in different forms in seven of the poems (sometimes they also appear as marble as in “Cycladic Idyll: An Apologia” and “Old Man in a Waterfront Taverna”), and are referencing “Whitman, who adored words plain as stones,” as well as walls, the fruit of hard labor, and sculptures in graveyards:

“I come here to address not deconstruction but myself.

To address myself to the oregano (a whiff on the breeze nostalgic
______and heady as skunk) cropping up beside the ubiquitous
______retaining walls and boundary walls,

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 rubble, fitted,
______mortarless, tight as puzzle pieces,

Built with what would now be tortuous lifting, hugging, and
_______lugging, done under the long, low sun over decades,
_______decades of decades, the stones settling in subtly, row on row,

Adamant and indistinct as the years themselves, by hard men
_______faceless and various as the stones themselves.
According to lore, the discontented among them come back at
_______night during autumn to fields pitch dark beneath the vast
broadcast of stars

To monitor their work, to make repairs to those boundaries that
_______are their bonds with this world.

Each has many, many headstones, none with a name.

They did not (O, onanistic onomastician!) make names for
______themselves, those men,

But wallstones, and courses of them, since stone by stone makes
_______a wall, and walls make farming, and farming, homes.

Homes they went back to at dusk and maybe beat their women
______in, in the unbeatable heat, and maybe had hard or fearful
______sex in, as the parching meltémi lashed the night and the
______fishermen’s lashed-up boats apart,

And anyway yelled things they sometimes did not think could be
_______set down in words,

Who set these stones they harvested in place for all but ever.”

It is worthwhile noticing that St Jerome appears petrified on the cover painting, “where Leonardo’s oil turns stone / his painstakingly underpainted / saint, face anguish-lit, his man / in the moon reflecting radiance”.

The definition of a stone fruit, or drupe, is a fruit with a stone or pit inside. Inside the stone is the seed. They are named thus because the seeds keep their covering. In such a way the book reveals itself to be an ode to rebirth. “The poetry of the earth is never dead,” wrote Keats. These stones are alive and speak to us through time. “It is poetry that constitutes our deepest memoir,” confides Thomas McCarthy in Merchant Prince. Indeed, Stone Fruit, astounding and revelatory, radiates with Stephen Yenser’s intense genius. This is a mesmerizing opus by a masterful poet.

“Psalm on Sifnos,” the last poem of the collection, encapsulates the spirit of the book and closes with distilled language, also naming the tamarisk, a favorite of the god Apollo and known for hoarding light, water and nutrients (the goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, bathed in a bath of tamarisk before he began his conquest), and the mastic tree, cultivated for its aromatic resin:

“One wants at last
to cede the field
to tamarisk
and mastic tree,
To olive and stone,
Stones in the fruit,
Seeds in the stone.”

Stephen Yenser’s extraordinary scholarship includes three critical books (Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell; The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill; and A Boundless Field: American Poetry at Large. He is distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was director of Creative Writing. He curates the Hammer Poetry Readings Series at the Hammer Museum.

by Hélène Cardona


Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator, and actor, the recipient of numerous awards including a Hemingway Grant and the International Book Award. She is the author of three collections, most recently Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry); and four translations: Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Editions du Cygne), The Birnam Wood (by José Manuel Cardona), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for the Iowa International Writing Program’s WhitmanWeb. Cardona’s work has been translated into 14 languages.

She has taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University. Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Dublin Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Drunken Boat, Asymptote, The Warwick Review and elsewhere.


Stone Fruit, Stephen Yenser, The Waywiser Press, Oct 2016, 96pp, £9.99 (paperback)