by Robert Fillman

John Yamrus has built a reputation around his unpretentious affect and stylistic restraint, which he has honed for over five decades and across 29 volumes of poetry, including this one published in December 2022.

Despite the author’s leaning toward minimalism, Yamrus’s latest offering, Twenty Four Poems, lands like a punch in the gut. (And there’s no shortage of striking moments in this collection.)

Yamrus opens with a poignant moment from his childhood: “i remember the last time / my mother / combed my hair.” In characteristic fashion, the poet explores an ordinary act, a parent grooming a child. Suddenly, we find ourselves transported to his mother’s kitchen, alongside a pal (“Stephen, never Steve”). Throughout the poem, Yamrus presents us with the fragmented, but sensory, recollections of a septuagenarian: how he felt “sweaty and dirty,” how he washed his face and quenched his thirst, how he planned to return outside and resume playing, presumably rough-and-tumble style.

That’s the setup.

As readers, we are caught off guard by what comes next. The speaker confides: “i asked / my mother / to comb my hair.” It is this plain phrasing that almost conceals the emotional intensity of Yamrus’s work. As the mother wets the comb and runs it through the speaker’s hair, he catches his friend’s gaze, which causes him to “look at the floor,” feeling “stupid” and “young and ashamed.” The speaker recalls, “the /sink was / cold against my skin,” a tactile sensation that detaches him from his mother’s intimate act. And yet, within the poem, her maternal presence surrounds us: her dinner “cooking on the stove” (undisclosed what it is). And then comes the final, heart-wrenching revelation:

was also
the last time

knelt down

tied my shoes.

Certainly, this poem captures a profound sense of nostalgia, a yearning to reclaim the innocence of childhood. It is an acknowledgment of the speaker’s bittersweet journey towards independence, which highlights the inevitable loss of a parent’s touch and solace. Yet, amidst the melancholy, what a wonderful memory to cherish—a pivotal exchange of nurture and dependence that characterizes universal human experience. It is the poem’s conclusion that invites readers to consider simple moments like this and hold them in their minds. As I write this review, it occurs to me: I can’t remember the final time my mother or father tied my shoelaces as a boy. Sadly, I can’t remember the last time I tied the laces of my own children, despite them being only pre-teens. The fact that this poem swept me into a multiverse of shared experience (that I will likely revisit, over and over, as I try to fall asleep tonight) underscores the value of Yamrus’s larger project, which is to see the beauty that surrounds us before it is too late.

There are many other poems in Twenty Four Poems that surprise like this. After a few years have passed since the speaker’s vulnerable moment in his mother’s kitchen, he finds himself approaching adulthood, and keenly aware of the societal expectations regarding masculinity. Here, though, it is not a childhood buddy, but a more intimidating schoolmate named TJ that serves as a mirror to Yamrus. And instead of tenderness we are witness to aggression: TJ who, “thought / he was tough” and had “already been scouted by the Mets,” gets caught “off guard” by the speaker, who “lunge[s] at him / on the / bus stop after school.” Yamrus vividly describes the physical confrontation, in which he “smothered” his classmate with punches, “pushed him” against the side of the bus, and “kept punching.” Here, the omission of punctuation and the repetitive phrasing conveys the rage that overcame the young assailant.

However, as we had seen in the first poem of the volume, we experience almost an immediate shift from action to the corporeal. The speaker describes “sweat and tears and dirt / and snot running down my face.” Rather than dwelling on the triumph, he draws attention to bodily fluids and the need for cleansing, again highlighting common aspects of human existence. And despite feeling larger than life after this altercation, Yamrus leaves us contemplating not himself but the bully he left “on the ground / with his blond hair covered in dirt.” We also discover that TJ “never made it to the Mets,” implying that, at seventeen, he had likely already achieved any greatness he was going to achieve, which contributes to the speaker’s sense of loss and shame.

As these examples suggest, Yamrus is a poet who won’t let things be. In “i was 13,” Yamrus muses about some teenage Halloween hijinks, the smashing of neighborhood pumpkins. He describes how he and his posse of mischief-makers got away with it, all the while “laughing” in the face of danger. (Again, we see a need for the poet to exert agency, even if misguided.) However, late in life he recalls how the teens were only ever chased by “one old man” who portends: “one day, you’re gonna regret this!” This admonition proves correct, as the speaker’s fleeting sense of victory gives way to remorse. The old man who delivered the cautionary message, we can infer, has likely long passed away, while the poet himself is alive and still contemplating the impact of his foolish actions almost six decades later.

Despite projecting an outward bravado and matter-of-fact demeanor, Yamrus is equally absorbed in quiet meditation. He reflects on an obscure play by Beat Poet Gregory Corso that the speaker attended in the late 60s. In another instance, he mourns the loss of a beloved pet, “the first dog / he ever had to put down,” implying, sorrowfully, that there would be more occasions of heartbreak in the future.

Yamrus is as humble as they come. He omits capitalization except for proper names: friends, authors, and literary works. (That should tell us something about what he values.) Although there is a consistent “i” running throughout every poem, that “i” is secondary, always serving as the vessel, becoming a conduit for channeling emotions, experiences, and stories—not the subject itself. Again and again, the poet explores poignant episodes from his life. He portrays moments of vulnerability, regret, and longing. He contemplates mortality. But these weighty subjects are never dealt in a heavy-handed style. Yamrus’s poetry emerges from within, mirroring his unwavering urge to explore a “hole” in a cushion, as he does in the final poem of the volume. With each delve, he goes deeper, and by the end has accumulated a noticeable “pile” of stuffing.” His words, too, are akin to a soft, fibrous mesh-like down, offering both comfort and support.