Sharpened Sticks

August 24, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: David Yezzi on “Upon News of the Important Fossil” by Brett Foster

What get’s me first about this poem is the tone. The tone is sly. Take the word “important” in the title, for example; it makes me smile, as I wonder how exactly we are to take it. The fossil is surely an important discovery (“the best we have”), but, set up in capitals that way, the phrase “important fossil” strikes me as possibly ironic. (I hear the echo of Auden’s “important failure”—“The ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, / But for him it was not an important failure. . . .”)

The poem sets up an extended comparison between humans and our earliest apelike ancestors. Sometimes the connection is straightforward, sometimes oblique. The fossil displays human features. Like us, our progenitor is a maker of tools; like us, it discovers methods. It may have even traveled “close to upright.” But there are differences as well: this not-yet-human “could not yet tear / itself from trees.” I love “not ready for firmer earth / always,” with its striking and poignant enjambment. There is a delicacy and aptness to the diction throughout. I particularly admire the choice of “breathless” (which, of course, the fossil is, as are we at this groundbreaking discovery).

Foster then suggests that the fossil has something to tell us about “all / remaining ahead,” with the future’s green zones and smart phones. But aren’t these just updated versions of the primitive tools created by ape-men eons ago? As cool as the iPhone seems to us, it will seem like a sharpened stick to future humans. And so here, for me, is the irony: how little distance we have traveled from our apelike beginnings. Your arms are not substantially different from the ones once used to hang from trees. Our real discoveries—the ones ours alone—are our “charred craters of conscience” and our “newer loneliness.”

Does the poem turn primitivism on its head? Are we the more advanced species—with our fluorocarbons and new technologically enhanced solipsism—or were they? The poem makes me long a bit for an “adapted twig” and a quiet perch among the higher boughs.

David Yezzi’s most recent collection of poems is Birds of the Air. His verse play On the Rocks premiered this summer at the Kaaterskill Actors Theatre in Upstate New York, directed by Jim Milton. He teaches at Johns Hopkins.

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