1. Review by David Ackley of Pointed Sentences. The review appeared in THIS Literary Magazine on April 18, 2012.
In Bill Yarrow’s Pointed Sentences,1. Review by David Ackley of Pointed Sentences. The review appeared in THIS Literary Magazine on April 18, 2012.
In Bill Yarrow’s Pointed Sentences, the poems flow from an exceptional command of language and syntax, combined with a wanderer’s willingness to go where the road takes him. With his classicist’s literacy it might be easy for Yarrow to write poetry just slightly torqued from the familiar, and to do so very successfully, but consistently he refuses the option and in doing so offers up poetry which is fresh, exciting with discovery and the sense that in his hands we’ve not simply revisited that which we already knew. The thrill of the expedition! The branches parting on the never yet seen!
Take a poem like “Here’s Looking at Euclid,” whose title, with its pun that wildly interlocks geometry and a line from a film classic, signals that the ride is likely to be a little vertiginous. Puns can be good vulgar fun and at the same time open terrain at the wilder reaches of metaphor, where connections are not just revealed but detonated into being. In the poem each stanza begins with the same two phrases, succeeded by decoupled illustrations that keep altering the focus:
He’s looking at Euclid, But he can’t concentrate, The noise of the Bakersfield cicadas is invading his ears.
And so through a succession of distractions “Hoboken memories are marching into his mind… The elevated smell of Delphi… A Catalan fishing boat is sailing into his eyes.”
But it takes the last stanza to reveal what else the poem is telling us about that slide show of images: that each of them has moved us and the poet another tick closer to a final reconnaissance with the inevitable.
He’s looking at Euclid Meanwhile, the sandstorm of time Keeps polishing the geometry of space.
Bill Yarrow’s poetry has a rare capacity to deal directly with those outermost abstractions, time and space, making them clear as the tick-tock of mortality, as close as the recollections in a fingered memento. In “ Salt Thought,” this capacity is displayed in the striking first lines with a complex and transfixing image of abstractions from which we’d usually disconnect:
The custard of eternity is scooped into The quantum cone of knowledge and drips Out the bottom one lifetime at a time…
The melting custard bringing us to the ocean’s edge, where:
Sunburned man stands on the boardwalk Of emotion watching the tourists of the future Eye the bruised merchandise of the past.
It’s emotion that gives us our sense of the present, defends it against the distancing of “tourists of the future,” and the encroachments of the past, that “bruised merchandise.” Yoked together, the thinking body, and the feeling mind through time:
Is there no escape from raw thinking (Notice the raw: painful rub of thought.) Is there no respite from rash imagining?
… the lax head [which] lies prey to the cawing, clawing seagulls of salt thought.
What is salt thought, but an abrasive dwelling on the essential?
Pointed Sentences is divided in three parts, each bearing the title of its opening poem: 1. “Florid Psychosis,” from which the poems discussed previously are drawn, 2. “Startle Reflex,” 3. “ Knot Eye,” titles resonant and interesting but not particularly revealing. Since the divisions are so clearly delineated and obviously mean something particular to the poet, it would have been useful to have some other hint as to why the poems were so grouped, which could have come in the form of dates of poems, if the link is simply chronological.
Although there’s no readily apparent difference in theme or approach between the first and second parts, the poems in the third, “ Knot Eye,” do seem a departure both in language and subject matter from the first two. Before addressing “Knot Eye,” however, there’s another poem worth mentioning that reveals some of Yarrow’s distinctive strengths, and shows how striking, original and profound is the best of his work.
“Black Ice on the Bridge,” proceeds by a series of unexpected stanzaic leaps, tying a vaguely rational premise to a surreal illustration, from the opening lines:
Acts have no meaning but they do have trajectory: the string quartet waxes the mustaches of its accusers…
Through a series of similarly constructed stanzas, each positing a kind of skewed deductive first premise – “Innocence has no meaning, but it does have motive… Appetite has no meaning… Marriage has no meaning…” – against the succeeding illustrations, which gradually acquire, kinds of “ meaning,” and the menace of an impending collision, in the final lines:
…fog spreads across the mustard grass with no regard for the black ice on the bridge.
The ending at once as mysterious as the poem’s development and the inevitable, and satisfying aesthetic resolution. One comes to the conclusions of the best of his poems with the startled cognition of a lucky arrival at a forgotten appointment.
In general, this and all the best of his poems indicate Yarrow’s deepest poetic gift, his imaginative access to the images and language which give substance to states of mind and feeling at the edge of – and beyond – the conventionally accessible.
For the most part his poems don’t wear on their sleeves the usual linear hash marks – unconventionally broken lines and spacing – of the “experimental,” (excepting the very fine “ The Sky is Simply White,” which offers a whole catalogue of linear arrangements, all effectively employed). Yarrow’s originality comes in his use of language: sly, pointed puns (“..the groan of an eternal combustion engine…” in “Mr. Harmonica,” ); literary allusions, bent to the occasion( “Two truckers come and go talking of Tupelo…” in “Greyhound”) and uncategorizeable play, as in the title, “Drinking an Orange Julius while Listening to Pink Floyd.”
Farther along, the poems appear more objective in their observations, as on a trip to India in “Agra Road”: “… I stared out the bus window into the face of a ripe monkey…” and more personal in their history.
The final section “Knot Eye,” (Not I?) is consistently plainer in language, and along the lines of “Agra Road,” apparently autobiographical, poems chronicling a life, rather than imagined constructs. These last poems are accessible, with a clear narrative impulse and description that feels observed rather than imagined.
But here, as in all his poems, there is a music that anneals the poem to memory. Though often muted and subtle, the musicality of Yarrow’s poems is indelible. Rarely do his poems have end-rhymes, but aside from that he deploys an array of forming elements: alliteration, internal rhyme, near rhyme, cadence, assonance. Here is a musician who can play all the instruments. Take slant (and internal) rhyme, as in this unstudied sequence from “She Waited for Him,” with the echoes highlighted:
When he held her he thought of Racine And when she held him she thought Of Cheyenne. Of course there was nothing in between.
A uniquely appealing feature is the felicitous couplings in some of his phrases, a kind of melodic stutter as with “the candied land,” in the “Agra Road,” or “when the future falters” in “Not Enough Sin to Go Around.” Over multiple readings it becomes clear that each of his poems has its own sonic pattern, and that the original music of the poem is woven into the content of the poem’s feeling, the tone of its thought.
The poems which stand out in Pointed Sentences, on this reading, include those already mentioned, along with “The Semaphore of Civilization,” “A Piece of Him,” “ Great Moments in Blindness,” “ Mt. Harmonica,” the elegiac “The Bison’s Alimony,” and a half dozen more. However, one can easily see – in another temper on another day – coming back to Pointed Sentences, and appreciating a whole different set with other virtues that had been overlooked.
2. Review by Darryl Price of Pointed Sentences. This review appeared in the Fictionaut Forum on June 16, 2012.
Bill Yarrow is the best poet I know of, and I know of a lot of poets. He delights each and every time. He’s not a cruel teacher, but he holds a sturdy birch. He builds his wonderful monuments out of words to the ancient needs of expression and energy (“we think in eternity/but move slowly through/time”).
His poems appear like hovering bee hives, like the blueprints for ancient Mayan ruins, like fun puzzles, like suddenly there flowers, like deeply whispering trees(we need to crumble/our blossoms and buds/in our hands/who has felt/that powder/and been unhappy?”). In other words, his poems greet us, feed us, heal us, kick us out of the nest, and most importantly connect us together—back to something basic, innate, real, true and lasting (“The first time a poem sharpened you”).
They sing, laugh, make fun, cry (“the rich ricochet of loss”) and dance, but they always invite you to climb up the hill with the poet to look at the stars or just sit and feel the breezes within and without ourselves (“a fireman holding an ice pick/adjusts the volume.”). Can it get any better than that?
He’s a good man without trying too hard to make the beautiful point stick inside your head (“you think diction is a slick fish/I believe in scouring the sea with spears”). No easy trick, but Bill always gives it the smooth finish (“I will photograph the tree in its demise, upended in swart disarray.”).
Please, I beg you, read this book, savor it, give it to your best friends, secretly plant it in the world wherever you go, just for the sake of growing something worthwhile for any others who might hunger and thirst for such magical beans (“The world gives birth to triplets./People drop hot pennies into your hat,”) in their pocket.
Just listen to these few instances with me:
“the pillow like a wave bleeding back into the ocean…"
"the deserted/battlefield he has had tattooed on his future…"
"envy’s initials on his heart…"
"in the iron/sky, the ivory birds are still the birds…"
"Can you taste the jade dragonflies emblazoned on the walls?”
3. User review by V.V. Saichek. This review appeared on Amazon.com on July 11, 2013.
Brilliant, visionary, daring:
It is not often poetry or "Prosetry" (prose/poetry combined) has an edge of the truly experimental, but Bill Yarrow's work does. He explores what lies between psychological and physical perception with a sharpness of vision and wit. He also has an engaging, common-man voice, which lends an emotional center to all of his work, which is never off-putting or over intellectual. His work engages on two levels - that of the child surprised by a new morning and its curiosities and that of an old soul, chagrined by what he finds. Explore Bill Yarrow. He is an important voice of our time.
Review by Michael Gillan Maxwell of Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku. This review appeared in MadHat Drive-By Book Reviews on October 31, 2014Review by Michael Gillan Maxwell of Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku. This review appeared in MadHat Drive-By Book Reviews on October 31, 2014.
Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku is a poetry chap book from widely published Illinois poet Bill Yarrow. Spoiler alert! Having read his other recent chap book, The Lice of Christ ( MadHat Press), and his full length collection, Pointed Sentences (BlazeVox ), I should have known better than to expect a book of actual scholarly translations and haiku poetry written in classical 17 syllable, 3 line, 5-7-5 form. I hope I’m not giving away too much, other than revealing the extent of my own naïveté, but I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a while to realize the joke was on me and that this chap book is no such thing.
Each of the twenty seven poems in this chap book conveys a message with a light hearted sense of ironic humor without being trite or overly jocular. I would not categorize Bill Yarrow as a “satirist” per se. However, he certainly does have a wicked eye for irony and for seeing humor in the absurd, and finds a way to convey that through poetry, as he has done with a wink and a wry smile in this chap book. Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku is a romp through comparative poetics and an exploration of classical theme, form, tone, style and convention. At the same time, Yarrow manages to playfully poke fun at pretension without being mean spirited or overly pedantic. Don’t get me wrong. Bill Yarrow does write serious poetry in this collection and as a poet, he is the real deal. However, one of his gifts is the ability to compose poems with a serious message, but delivered with deadpan humor.
Bill Yarrow’s raucous send up of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” (“Le Bateau ivre”) is worth the price of admission. My understanding of the French language leaves much to be desired, but I know enough to enjoy the comedy he makes of his “incompetent translation” from a revered poet who has been overly romanticized to the degree that Rimbaud himself would be embarrassed by his pop icon status. At the very least, he’d find this translation subversively amusing. Yarrow’s treatment of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” ~“Song of Unself” (“Translations from The English”) is absolutely hilarious.
Other poems are wonderful narrative reflections on childhood, (Playing Pinochle In Your Snout) clutter and decay, (The Basement Of Desire) and his own poetry ( What The Hell Am I Doing?) And then there’s a character named Cranshaw who recurs in several poems. Cranshaw is audacious, flamboyant and outrageous and seems a little dangerous to hang out with, but I want more of him.
All that aside, it’s not all tongue in cheek. Light-hearted does not mean light-weight. This chap book sneaks through the back door to examine and celebrate the importance of language, syntax, interpretation and the gravity of imagery in poetry. This is a chap book of real poetry from a real poet that reminds us that good art doesn’t always need to be somber and serious to successfully convey its message. As erudite as the poems in this chap book are, they are also often rollicking and playful, and at times, just plain fun. I thoroughly enjoyed this chap book, and I think you will too.