Yale University Press, $18
Will Schutt’s first book, “Westerly,” chosen by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets award, is a slender collection of 24 lyrical free verse poems and five translations from Italian poets. All the poems announce the presence of a skilled albeit youthful poet. The poems exhibit fluid movement from the abstract to the concrete and from memory to observation, punctuated by an often startling lexicon that had me rolling syllables in my mouth and reaching for my Webster’s. But the word that comes to mind to best characterize Mr. Schutt’s poetry is one he himself uses in a poem, restraint.
The collection is divided into thirds. The first section contains poems wherein the speakers look back at some aspect of life, often with amazement or dismay or criticism. Many of these poems are set on Long Island’s East End. The middle section contains the translations, and the final third deals with memory, too, but the personas seem to speak from Italy, for which the section of translations paves the way, often far distant from the location of the memory.
A representative poem from the collection’s first section is one I admire a great deal, “In the Middle Distance.” I suspect the title refers not only to the use of perspective on an artist’s canvas but also to the speaker’s impending middle age. In this poem the speaker reads a book about Velazquez, the prose of which takes him back to a youthful time when “I called movies films / back then. My labored hyperbole / put most people to sleep.” This air of self-deprecation appears elsewhere in Mr. Schutt’s poems, as if his personas are just now registering they have grown and matured.
The speaker’s former use of strained hyperbole is contrasted in the very next line with the present: “Now lunch is meager: steamed / asparagus, a glass of lemon water.” Youthful excess has given way to adult monasticism. The poem concludes with an observation upon Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”: “the narrow / face of a rousing mastiff / whose dark narrow eyes betray / knowing, which is to say restraint.”
So for this speaker, and for more than a few others in this book, the acquisition of knowledge and experience results in restraint, dispelling youthful extravagance and poetic hyperbole, which readers will be hard pressed to find in this collection.
In another striking poem, “American Window Dressing,” we see Mr. Schutt use restraint as a means of intensifying his imagery, and some of his images are truly striking. This poem’s speaker announces a love of haiku because it is “spartan, semi-transparent,” a statement that elides seamlessly to a memory of the speaker as a boy lifted by his father to peer into a storefront window where he sees “row after row of ducks, like smokers’ / lungs.” This speaker informs us that “knowledge of them was terrible,” and that the ducks and bok choy and fish laid out on ice were “Terrible / things put delicately, like polite fictions / families invent.” Words like “delicately” and “polite” put me in mind of these poems, which achieve a gracefulness as a result of the poet’s restraint.
For Mr. Schutt, the average and the quotidian are viewed as justifiably poetic (think Wordsworth). In “Rock Maple, White Pine,” the poem’s persona, writing about his German ancestors, repeats an old saying, “ ‘Where there’s manure,’ / they agreed, ‘there’s Christ,’ ” thus elevating even waste to the divine. But this combination of restraint and praise is best expressed in one of Mr. Schutt’s translations, “I taught my sons,” by Edoardo Sanguineti, which is impressive and short enough to quote in its entirety:
I taught my sons to know my father was an extraordinary man: (they can
tell it like that, to someone, hopefully, in time): and then, that all
men are extraordinary:
and that of a man there remain, oh,
about ten phrases, maybe (adding it all up: the tics,
the memorable remarks, the gaffes):
and those are the lucky ones:
The lucky ones! If only a few of our biographers could take this poem to heart as Mr. Schutt apparently has; less, and even less than that, is apparently enough to frame even the “extraordinary.”
The collection’s final third is influenced by the old world of Europe, its art, its poets, and contains a beautiful elegy, “Crenellated Elegy,” and the obligatory poem about poetry (“A Kind of Poetry”). The latter is one of Mr. Schutt’s shortest poems here, itself a commentary on the uses of restraint. The poem offers a trenchant commentary on a key difference between the old world and the new — overseas, trees have branches cut “for birds to fly through,” while here branches are cut to “only make room for wires.” This image speaks of the collision of nature and technology in our country. Elsewhere, as the speaker tells us:
Sometimes you turn to poetry
the way you turn to another country.
Everything is better. More humane.
In Europe trees are pruned to accommodate nature; here, a tree may have “the entire center perforated / like a dart board in a dive bar.” Is there any more scathing indictment in our poetry today than comparing America to a dive bar? But the poem ends on a note of reconcilement. The poem’s criticism turns when the speaker’s homesickness sentimentalizes the ending: “After a while, however, you recall / those wires carry a language you know.”
Mr. Schutt uses very well in “Westerly” a language we know. He gives a shout-out in the title poem to another poet known for great restraint, writing of “scarves of water” that “If one were Elizabeth Bishop / one might hear it turn into a tidy music.”
Will Schutt has created in his first collection of poetry a “tidy music” indeed, and “Westerly” is a book that will reward the mind and the ear upon successive readings.
Dan Giancola’s collections of poems include “Data Error,” from last year, and “Part Mirth, Part Murder.” He teaches English at Suffolk Community College and lives in Mastic.
Will Schutt lives in Wainscott.