About this poet

In 1941, Stephen Yenser was born in Wichita, Kansas.

He is the author of Blue Guide (University of Chicago Press, 2006); The Fire in All Things (1993), which was selected by Richard Howard to receive the 1992 Walt Whitman Award.

He has also published a collection of essays, A Boundless Field: American Poetry at Large (University of Michigan Press, 2002), as well as The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (1987) and Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell (1975). With J. D. McClatchy, he edited James Merrill's Collected Poems (2002), Collected Novels and Plays of James Merrill (2003), and The Changing Light at Sandover (Knopf, 2006).

About Yenser's work, the poet Alan Williamson has said, "Stephen Yenser combines two qualities rarely found together: an extraordinary gift for verbal play and a bedrock seriousness about the emotional aims of poetry. Consequently he can do things almost no one else can: a poem reproducing the modulations of music; a poem in a dead poet's style that becomes uniquely his own, through its meditation on intersubjectivity and immortality."

His honors include a "Discovery"/The Nation Award, two Fulbright teaching fellowships, and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, and the B. F. Connors Prize for Poetry from the Paris Review.

He is a professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Vertumnal [excerpt]

Stephen Yenser
Close call, close call, close call: this early in the morning
The raucous crows' raw caws are ricochets off rock.

Afloat on wire from a dead tree's branch a piece of charred limb
Repeats a finch that perched on it in its last life.

Here under the pergola, loaded with green wistaria,
Misty air wistful with a few late lavender clusters,

Light falling in petal-sized spots across the notebook page
(Falling just now for instance on the phrase Light falling),

And under the feeder where the thumb-sized Calliope hummer
Hovers like a promising word on wings thrumming

To slip her bill-straw past the busy sugar ants
Through the red flower's grill into the sweetened red water,

And over there in your "office" under the lean-to under the crabapple,
Its fruit (like tiny ottomans) rotting sweetly on the branch

(Bouquet of Calvados and fresh tobacco),
Where in the midst of spades and pruners, hatchets, hoes, and shears,

Trowels, dibbles, rakes, and sickles you ground your axes,
Sharpened your wits, filed your notes and journals,

Moving through the garden, through all you made of where you lived--
You catch your ex-son-in-law, taking photos, figs, and notes on notes.
 
2
All round the garden are ghosts of what we called your "sculptures":
Pruned limbs, and broken, dried out to dove-gray, steel-gray,

Balanced, cantilevered, interlocked like skeletons
Of lovers, wrestlers, lovers; dried vines dangling

From a high branch and snaking up a makeshift bench;
A lonely felloe with its Vs of spokes against a wall;

A lithe gnarl of live oak, grain rainwashed,
Sundrawn into shape, head cocked, curious,

Wedged in its hanging basket--as though in some square nest?
Whimsical, estranged, you left it all up in the air.

The ancient plum tree, its chief remaining limb become its trunk,
Leans on a forked crutch stuck in the earth.

Disfigured, splendid in its beads of resin,
It has been dying twenty years. Go slow, you'd say,

On any occasion of stress or lift: Go slow--
Unhurried as the date palm, your family around you nervous as finches.

Weeding, staking, mulching, always with some startled kerchief
Or boxers remnant or paisley necktie binding your brow.

Things ripened. Rounded out. Entered new lives by smidgins.
By pulses. You went slow. And suddenly were gone.
 
4
You cut the thorny lemon, and it cut back. Your fingers,
Cross-hatched, were thick as roots, with eyes of their own,

In queer places, like potatoes' eyes, and noses of their own,
Used as moles to breaking earth--

Densely wrinkled, blunt, penile. Well, Raymond V. Bomba,
The V for Valentine, whose day you were born on, we miss you,

Old Vertumnus. The V for verto and all its furcations.
And for the Virgin in the birdbath's center in the garden's

Who sees you still, the blanket hung to screen a rift in greenery,
Taking your sunbath--hunkered naked, or standing naked, a little bent.

V for the forked wand and "the poor bare forked animal."
Sorting your "effects," your wife and daughter found a clutch

Of photos clipped and cropped and pasted into thoughtful paginal
Compositions or left loose to be shuffled. A fingered muff

Matches a bearded mouth, a pinkish cock and a stiff tongue rhyme.
The edges have been tenderly rounded. (For once you cut some corners).

Hankering, reverent, you left them there to tell the family--what?
There in the old goat shed across from guava and kumquat . . .

Kumquat. Who would not succumb to such a word, its verjuice
And blown kiss? V also for all that's venial, vernacular.
 
5
In the new Romance Philology, a title you'd have savored:
"Vegetal-Genital Onomastics in the Libro de Buen Amor."

Wonderful mouthful, its palatals, its labials!
V for its g's as soft as August's livid purple figs,

So swollen in the fondling sun they have a frosty glaze.
Under the fig tree, an old pot's full of drying cardone,

Pappus coarse as pubic hair, with a fresh, fierce pungency,
Burst buds gone oily brown, starseeds forming in death.

Ray, you could have told us that the same root shoots
Its milky sap through work and orgy too.

You dug pits for your rakings, grounds, rinds,
Wormy peppers, tomatoes simmered on the summer vines,

And apricots galore--windfallen, slug-gnawed, earwig-bored,
Daintily painted with snailglister and bird droppings,

Or chucked by squirrels who'd take a cheeky bite
From just-ripe fruit and drop the ruin at your feet.

Fruit ripe and rife, fire-dipped, as the poet put it,
And proved upon the earth. And it is still a law

That all goes in, serpentine, vatic, dreaming on the hills--
Lavender, vespid, vibrant--this evening's hills of heaven.
 
7
A pair of wild parrots startle
Up overhead and squabble off together wholeheartedly.

Here where your family had their gin and tonic talks,
And I took issue and drinks with twists on mazy walks,

African lindens flourish--exactly where I wed your daughter.
Coaxing them from cuttings, I didn't see that she lacked sun and water.

The year turned round each year with cantaloupe and plum,
Eggplant and olive, and the vowel-dark grapes of autumn

Tied to the arbor. And as it happens, the ball of twine
Has just run out you gave us with our first vine . . .

So where am I? Twine . . . Mona's word, who gave us tarragon--
And gave us too, too late, a poem . . . Its purple aura gone

To ground around it, a pointilliste's shadow, mystical,
The jacaranda dangles pods like desiccated testicles.

The grackle, the early bird--"the oily one"--will get the worm
Even as it turns. The marriage went full term,

Went unpicked, then fell like you. Marriage, from mari,
Young woman, bride . . . tried . . . tied . . . as though to mara,

Bitter. The olive's argentine, then argentine. Twine, twine . . .
Terms mean, demean . . . Ray, you'd cure the bitter fruit in brine.
 
11
A squeaking cupboard--no, the hummingbird, eking out a song,
Looking it might be for material for his nest, a matrix

Woven of hair, saliva threads, plant down, spider web, and lichen,
Lichen itself already complex, alga, fungus . . .

You tried to weave it all together too--in verse, in prose--
And get it straight as well. But how could you compose

In stanzas, who wrote among the ferns, and feverfew in flower,
Where fennel alone could hold elaborate candelabra up?

And what could you have had to do with argument,
Who hardly threw a thing away and even made blue plastic

Bottle caps, immortal rubbish, seem to grow on trees?
"Beyond Words" you entitled the last draft

Of your ever denser, ever more desperate manuscript.
Beyond palaver, you meant, and academic poppycock.

Folderol and flourish, terms that squelch and fix--
Like chokecherry corymbs and spikes of heather.

And chickweed cyme, jack-in-the-pulpit's spadix,
and the calla lily's, milkweed umbel,

Panicle of wild oat grass, thyrse of lilac . . .
All that malarkey, flashy as the Texas meadowlark's.
 
12
The house you built will go, wall by wall, to Encinada's sand.
Your garden will give way to filters, pumps, floodlights.

Where will the squirrels go to stir up their old quarrels?
Where will the gopher go, who loves a life among fig roots?

This early morning's mockingbird's a rusty screw
Coming out a half turn at a time.

With such an effort you'd twist your thoughts free.
Or on your Adler bang them deeper into mystery.

Trying to write your hard time down,
You found time writing you down first, with your own pencils,

Always growing stubbier, shavings fragrant as cumin,
Fragrant as made love, erasing their own erasers.

How you loathed "realities sustained too long--
As with the saint, who can't do anything but pray . . .

Are we not always part of something else
That also needs to live, to die, to change?"

--That from your journals with their words of orchards,
Orchards of words, their round redundance, while the breeze

Sweeps the albizzia, its easy dance redone of light and shade,
Beside the wild firetop that's suddenly abuzz with bees.

From The Fire in All Things, published by Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Stephen Yenser. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Stephen Yenser

Stephen Yenser

The receipient of the 1992 Walt Whitman Award, Stephen Yenser is the author of books of poetry and a collection of essays