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

2 Responses to High Altitude: David Yezzi’s ‘Flatirons’

  1. johnfield1 says:

    Hi Rob,
    Many thanks for this wonderful post. I very much enjoyed reading you, pottering around the bathroom, cutting yourself, listening to the Poetry Foundation’s podcast (which I shall have to track down and sample for myself – thank you for the recommendation).
    Thank you also for your excellent introduction to the work of David Yezzi. I have not read him before, but shall look forward to checking him out.
    All the best,

    • Rob Packer says:

      Hi John,
      I hadn’t (actively?) heard of David Yezzi before either, but just like you, I’m looking forward to reading more. There is a fair amount of his work (and of everyone else’s) on the Poetry Foundation website.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the blog!

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