High Altitude: David Yezzi’s ‘Flatirons’

The view from Kinabalu

The view from Kinabalu

On balance, the bathroom is a bad place to listen to poetry. The sound of water on tiles overpowers the softly spoken; the mental note to buy more shampoo distracts; a surprising turn of phrase can mean a nick on the chin. This is good advice and I don’t listen to it, often finding myself tuning into the oblivions of toothpaste or shaving foam, and out of the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day podcast (recommended), until I remember—once again—not to listen to in the bathroom. This is, of course, except when the speakers crackle to a first line like:

From the false summit, coxcomb-cum-arête

The sheer unfamiliarity of a “coxcomb-cum-arête”, alliterations of F and C, consonance of the M’s draw you into the poem. If you’ve studied glacial geography (a treasure trove of chewy words), you might remember what an arête is; you might be able to see the shape of a coxcomb; everyone knows that a summit, even a false one, sets you at altitude. You may not understand them all, but if you’re like me, you’re in already and any gaps are filled by the sounds alone.

This line is the first of five sonnets called ‘Flatirons’ by the American poet David Yezzi (read the whole thing here at the Poetry Foundation website). The high-altitude landscapes he creates exist in a thin-air, formal clarity that seems to echo poets like Wordsworth in the Snowdon sequence of The Prelude (one of the pieces of poetry that has made me gasp, audibly). And it feels there’s a nod to Petrarch, one of Europe’s earliest mountain climbers—and in a sonnet, it’s almost impossible not to—in the second line (don’t worry, dear reader, I’m not going through this line by line):

cool thermals underscore our frailties

The most famous of Petrarch’s oxymorons is “freezing fires” and “cool thermals” takes the same device. Not only is it more subtle (you might just think of a biting mountain wind), but also goes further with it: these warm currents take gliders and birds into another world, are air at its most tangible. On the mountain where “frailties” quickly become obvious, this is the liminal world that the “false summit” implied and the next few lines are full of “edges”, the Classical echo of “wingless feet”, diluted evergreens down the valley.

As the lowlands far below, the mountains become “the world of ghosts” past the slippery unfirm “scree below” and past the sandstone, a rock that will be repeated in the sequence’s enigmatic last line “and marked by sandstone long after we’re gone”. How we will be marked? Who knows? By broken bones? Marked out by sandstone in fossils?

It’s puzzles and double meanings like this that made me enjoy ‘Flatirons’ so much. It’s never clear whether the whispering air is the path through life, the speaker’s afterlife, dead climbers, or lost or current lovers. This is more than philosophies and metaphysics though: it’s also the language. There are phrases like “gravity’s unlikely slant”, that open up a world of slippage and fear, or a word like “abyss” (over-the-top words are rarely good in poems) that feels refreshing used geographically. This use of language is most effective for me, when Yezzi uses mountaineering and climbing terms, filling them with emotional range:

Free solo: dearest, I am losing you

A free solo is a climb with hands, no ropes. In this extreme world, Yezzi can keep the fearless climber on the mountain face, but he leaves it metaphorically for the slow pace of the years to midlife and old age, or love, or separation. As a sequence, it manages to be both concretely descriptive and deeply metaphysical, creating a realistic and dreamlike mountainscape, often at the same time, like so many of the best poems.

  • I haven’t read it, but if you want to read more of David Yezzi, his Birds of the Air was published in the US in 2013 by Carnegie Mellon University Press (Amazon)
  • For beautiful mountain photos, you could do no better than to check out this fantastic blog, hikingphoto.com

Pink-Blossom Tree


Botany, along with countless other disciplines, is not my strong point, so for the purposes of this blog, I’ll be calling this unidentified tree Pink-Blossom Tree. Although I have half an idea it’s something called an ipê, it could equally be something as beautiful as it is mundane, like a cherry that springs into life as the Tropic of Capricorn slouches out of “winter” and turns the heat up to scorchio.

I use those inverted commas around winter, not because there isn’t a reason, but because there is. In the popular imagination, Brazil has the perfect climate, but over the couple of years I’ve been here, I’ve come to realize the climate is pretty much like it is in most places: either too hot or too cold—but mostly more of the latter. Except, that is, when it gets cold.

Hardier Europeans might scoff from their heated apartments, but when the temperature dips below 15ºC, I slip underneath the eiderdown that one Brazilian airline was happy enough for me to pop into my suitcase for twice the price of the suitcase. But then again, twice the price of the suitcase is just a fraction of the price you’d pay for it here. So when the temperature’s below 15ºC, as they did at the end of July, there you’ll find me, shivering, and looking at photos of cities in the south of Brazil and wondering if snow ploughs were part of the World Cup budget.

But now that’s all behind us, we can concentrate on the zenith-bound sun that is schedule to arrive something overhead right around Christmas. But in the meantime we can concentrate on the beauty of a blossom fest that I would like to say covers the Marvellous City. Only that it doesn’t.

Pink-Blossom Tree is only planted in places where one might be going at speed. One of these places is somewhere I run past, so I freely admit that particular speed is relative—to the temptation to stop. But the other place where I pass by these trees, the velocity feels close to terminal.

Seen from a speeding bus—and Rio’s buses have just two speeds: speeding and stopped, which covers a variety of circumstances including at bus stop, waiting for driver to come from pee break, in traffic jam, fallen off a viaduct, etc.[*]—Pink-Blossom Tree is just a flash of magenta somewhere over my left shoulder and a mental note to come back sometime soon, in sunlight, to take photos. The sunlight part is important, as when you leave work after sunset and are far too lazy to leave the apartment with camera and the dawn, the speeding bus is the only place you’re likely to see Pink-Blossom Tree—and it helps if you’re waiting for it.

So indeed, there I was this morning in a speeding bus, phone in hand and ready to go. And then Lady Luck smiled. Not a full-tooth smile, perhaps more of a sarky grin, but there it was: the traffic jam.

[*] Speeding also covers a number of sins, but more on that some other time.

Largo do Boticário

You cross water to get there. In a city that’s buried its rivers, like the Fleet or the Bièvre or some many others, there’s magic in a bridge over open water, the brook powering away down its valley and into a tunnel somewhere out of sight, where it will call the course of the roads downhill and down to the bay where it meets the sea.

The Largo do Boticário was the place of Rio’s first apothecary—the clue’s in the way that the syllables line up. There must be a good reason why it was here, far from the centre and shadowed by mountains—Christ-topped Corcovado on one side, another thread of the serra behind. To me it’s a mystery.


Set back from the road and the tunnel, it’s a forgotten-looking corner of the city, where even the police car light flash apathetically, as the mountain peels away the pastel paint and claws back its territory. Read more of this post

Monologue: Reading Material

Yes, I know it’s been a while. I’ve been moving continents, getting into a new rhythm, spending time writing other things for work and play. To my previous readers, I hope you’re still out there. To anyone new, I hope to be out there too.

—  Robin: You’ve just moved to Brazil, isn’t that right? So why aren’t you reading Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado or Carlos Drummond de Andrade, but Walter Benjamin instead?
—  Rob: Curiosity and opportunity.
—  R: Would you care to elaborate?
—  R: Curiosity from the walks across the square and under the flyover, in the early dusks of the Pope’s visit, umbrella in front of me, searching for films or for books in the rain. There was a chill outside, like dark evenings in Central European autumn—it must have put me in mind of Europe.
—  R: And Benjamin?
—  R: Well, the films didn’t have much to do with him. It was more classics of European cinema, you know, Theorem, Solaris, La grande illusion, Z… The type of films you’ve always wanted to see and never got around to.
—  R: I’m afraid I can’t see…
—  R: It wasn’t the films. It was the book by the counter in the videotheque. Essays—in Portuguese, of course—on Elective Affinities, I think Kafka and Hölderlin were in there too.
—  R: So you bought it?
—  R: No, I’m not sure I could read German in Portuguese. The tensions would be all wrong, or differently valent at least. But I think I’d also want to dissect it, the words I mean, get behind them and find out what they really were. In the original.
—  R: And Portuguese can’t do that?
—  R: Of course it can, but I’d be concentrating on the spaces between and behind the words. Not on them themselves.
—  R: And the opportunity?
—  R: Economy.
—  R: I’m not sure I follow.
—  R: Economizing. There are only so many books you can have in a foreign country.
—  R: I’m sure you’re right there.
—  R: Not ones you can carry on your back. But foreign books are expensive and rare, and e-books are missing the “aura” of paper that can sit on your sofa or bed, and look at you. Then I found there was a German library in Rio, so I went to look.
—  R: And what did you see and what did you feel?
—  R: Strangeness. Nostalgia. The monotone sobriety of books from Germany. All those Werkausgaben. I don’t think I’ve seen so many since I was twenty and at university. Those thick books, those Wälzer, weighing in the shelves—Thomas Mann, Goethe, Kafka, Max Frisch, Kleist. At university they all seemed such stern figures in the stacks, all so voluminous and I could barely get out four pages for an essay. And then I read them. Those ones especially moved me intensely. And Frisch moved me physically, put me on the crossriver road from Mexico to Guatemala.
—  R: And Benjamin?
—  R: Not so much. I was always scared of him, like I was of all the philosophers. Or maybe it was the same fear of what they might know about me…
—  R: Pardon?
—  R: There’s essay of Benjamin where he writes that people who are scared of animals are because they’re scared the animals will recognise something in them by touching them. Perhaps the same thing happened with the philosophers. Or maybe I knew that their language was difficult.
—  R: And is it?
—  R: Ten years ago. It’s hard to say. I still find it difficult in places. My German isn’t what it was. There are other languages in here, on their own individual wavelengths. Sometimes it feels like one of those tanks in a physics class where the different waves multiply or cancel each other out.
—  R: Please stay on topic.
—  R: I found it parts of it beautiful though. Hard, perhaps like a difficult maze for a child. There are some vivid images of walking in an Italian village, pockets and hands stuffed with fresh figs, bathing and filling him with juice. Or a section on memory and archaeology, how they exist in layers and what’s around an artefact is as important as the artefact itself.
—  R: Doesn’t it strike you all as a bit perverse?
—  R: Pardon?
—  R: I mean, shouldn’t be spending more time on the beach?
—  R: Perhaps, I have been trying.
—  R: Thank you, Mr Packer. You’re free to go.

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