Don Yorty’s Spring Sonnets (Indolent Books, 2019)
Review by Lonely Christopher
“To know the truth we need to talk and read,” writes Don Yorty, although he also realizes that faith without works is nothing, thus has been an actionable presence in a variety of different scenes since relocating to town from Philadelphia in 1979, just in time for AIDS. He became involved enough in the Poetry Project community that he was included in its 1966-1991 anthology. Perhaps rebelling against his strict Pennsylvania Dutch background, Yorty established himself as an inimitable performance poet that caused venues to tremble and audiences to polarize. The Philadelphia City Paper reported in 81 that at his gigs, “some are offended, some are outraged, most come back for more.” He was known for his radical piece “Fucking,” more than just an epic queer poem but a corporeal performance. He couldn’t even be sent through the mails, as the Post Office refused to handle promotional material featuring a naughty word. “Fucking” was developed into a larger video work titled Poet Laundromat, starring Don himself, directed by Tom Miller, and edited by Karen Cahoon and Yorty in a post studio for porn movies. After an interminable gestation period, the piece premiered at Anthology Film Archives in 1990. The likes of Rudy Burckhardt and Allen Ginsberg were scathingly dismissive, the latter deeming it “bullshit.” I smell a generational bias because Yorty’s film is in line with such contemporaries as Richard Loranger and Marlon Riggs.
The poet is also a community activist who has been working for decades to protect La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, a local garden on the Lower East Side, from destruction. It has been a regular target for developers since its establishment in the 70s. When Don first moved to the Alphabet City/Loisaida neighborhood it was fairly blighted. He says he personally knew twenty people who were murdered. HUD developed plans to transform the greensward into a housing facility for the elderly. Don was all for affordable housing, but why the hell did the park have to be eradicated in the process? He wrote, “There were so many vacant lots—practically the whole fucking Lower East Side was a vacant lot—so I thought the city would see reason and change the location, but not so, and slowly it became a real fight.” At times he clashed with other organizers and even received a death threat from a politician. He raised money for a lawyer to advocate for the community garden and posted notices encouraging public engagement in the conflict. The HUD project was finally constructed on a different parcel of land nearby that wasn’t already in use. Thanks in part to Yorty’s unrelenting passion for this issue, La Plaza remains to enjoy today. He can still be spotted sometimes, within the park gates, helping a younger generation upkeep the space. His public persona extends into pedagogy as well. When he launched his new collection, Spring Sonnets, several months ago at the Poetry Project, some of his students attended and he spoke to them from the podium. (He gave a powerhouse performance.) Yorty teaches English as a second language and also maintains a literary blog that often highlights the work of local poets that he knows or is interested in. The audience at the Project was ample and consisted of people from the variety of different scenes in which Yorty is involved.
Spring Sonnets is Yorty’s return to verse after a twenty year retirement. He says that the war in Iraq prompted him to start writing poetry again “because I opposed the invasion so much I needed something I could control.” He chose to write sonnets, perhaps, because of the sense of balance and precision inherent to the form. He uses the traditional Shakespearean format of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter, although usually ditching the attendant rhyme scheme (which lends the pieces a contemporary, conversational flow even as they are highly composed) and often enjambing his thoughts across the traditional three quatrains and a terminal couplet. The sonnet form really supports poems that have an evocative “turn” in the final two lines and Yorty does make use of that asset here and there. What the poet gives us is a casual yet deeply felt reconsideration of what the sonnet means and can do. Yorty threads his life through this structure. He writes of animals and weather, but it is a city kind of nature, an encroached upon wildness that coexists with the cement and metal that is overtaking it. His lines are breezy but meaningful, like Frank O’Hara observing and transmorphing a stroll down a Manhattan sidewalk. The book features color illustrations of little creatures, provided throughout by Yorty’s husband Ahm Akram.
The poet appreciates being alive and all the quotidian glory and pain that comes with that. Each hulking city building is a “flower of stone,” Walt Whitman’s face can be teased out of the blank masses, a stranger becomes an intimate confidant, the World Trade Center “whirled around and then was gone” as being framed by the window. “We’re light and go with light no more no less.” Whether he is losing his phone, cooking soup, writing during a thunderstorm, picking a friend up at the hospital, coaxing the sun, sitting on the river’s shore absorbing the view, escaping a wasp, or reveling in the pleasures of cat ownership, Yorty understands that “beauty’s a lot of work” but is worth it. A hawk devours a pigeon in a tree and children frolic in the gently falling feathers. He is, through these handcrafted morsels, deeply in touch with himself and feeling of his place in the universe. Monumental pain sits uneasy in the background of everything, but it is a generative pain. Yorty is taking action in response to injustice, without becoming at all didactic or self-righteous. He doesn’t “explain” the answer to the reader, the answer is merely the answer, and here it is in front of you. “Truth is simple. It’s visible. It’s sight.” The poet even traces over Shakespeare’s sonnets to a beautiful young man, addressing a potential lover in one piece with “Things are often more beautiful at a / distance, but not you,” though the turn is that the poet rejects him, imploring “you must think of the future and begin.” Indolent Books published the volume this year, bolstering their already strong (and queer leaning) catalog with a magnicient talent who definitely deserves a place on your shelf. Spring Sonnets includes 90 poems from a series that is about 200 pieces strong at this point; Yorty states that he hopes to expand the project until he has written a sonnet for every day of the year. There may well be a more comprehensive Collected Sonnets of Don Yorty released in the future, but at least we have this special tome to tide us over. When spring rolls around, it will again be the book of the season.