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Light on Their Feet
(Reviews of books by A.M. Juster, James B. Nicola, Alexandra Oliver, and Gail White)
by Barbara Egel
Alexandra Oliver manages in one book to be all sorts of opposite things, while always being very powerfully herself. She embodies Ontario Gothic in poems like “Achiever’s Cradle Song” and “Entertaining the Locals,” while also writing several urbane poems about Italian cinema. She writes about contemporary womanhood (“Fearing the Stalk”) next to persona poems told convincingly from a male perspective. She is delicate with light-verse forms while also using them to build unease. In short, this is a book that will delight and bother you in the best ways. One of the strongest tools at Oliver’s disposal is the use of childlike poem structures to creep you out. The first poem in the collection, “The Megabus Goes by Sherbet Lake,” builds almost like “This Is the House That Jack Built,” but includes the urgency and tension of passing a place that was long ago left at great cost.
There’s the strip of mansions on the lee;
there’s the strap that ravaged my behind.
There’s the corner which they saved for me;
I made it out, and nobody will mind.
“The Ballad of Lockerbie” contrasts the pathos of children acting like children with the massing threat of death, and uses the rollick of the ballad to build a contemporary version of the dread old ballads often hold. The children happily pick up trinkets cast by “the Maid of the Sea” while “the foxes and hares [catch] the odour of death.” In this poem, Oliver executes another of her particular sleights of hand: she makes us read things that are not on the page, as though by juxtaposition, she has manipulated our thoughts. Later in the poem, before the children actually disappear, she writes,
The hamlet that shimmered, way up on the hill,
knew nothing of what lay ahead,
with infants to feed and ovens to fill
and cordwood to stack in the shed.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the infants get far too close to being what fills the oven.
Similarly, Oliver uses our tendency to fly over words as a means of stopping us short. “The Reunion” is a heart-clenching poem about that one child in a family who never lets his parents sleep an easy night, and the final line of this stanza could easily have been the final line of the poem:
And how can you forget him, when you leave
to run around the block, float in a pool,
get a facial? Soon, you’ll hear that howl;
you’ll never make it out of him alive.
The substitution of “him” for the automatically filled-in “here” that we expect increases the menace in the poem. Through that single substitution, we experience the dangerous inattention the stanza speaks to.
“Vincent’s Maserati,” a male persona poem, combines Oliver’s themes of class and sex to perfectly embody the beta-male’s combination of cluelessness and relentlessness. Vincent cannot understand why the younger, poorer woman he desires won’t simply fall into his arms at the offer of not only the Maserati but also “a kitchen with no dishes in the sink, / a wall-height window and an indoor pool.” That “wall-height window” shows Oliver’s attention to what separates “them” from “us”—what makes the girl on the Megabus blow past Sherbet Lake as fast as she can.
My notes on this book include two columns, one headed “Uneasily Light” and the other “Actually Light.” Upon rereading the initial “Actually Light” poems, I moved most of them to the other column. This is not to say that Oliver isn’t funny. Indeed, her self-examination and weather eye for the details of middle-class existence suggest a most unusual girls’ night with Flannery O’Connor and Phyllis McGinley. A poem with the daunting title “Job Proposal for Gavra, Aged Seven, Who Has Been Given a 452-Page Science Almanac” considers whether it would be worth slipping the second-grader 50 bucks to gross out “a room full of lurching bores” at the next cocktail party with the details of the tapeworm life cycle. In “The Event,” about a town contracting “a case of Fellini,” she considers,
My mother’s been compromised by Casanova,
the man that I love has ascended a tree
and is screaming for women: Anouk or Anita
or anyone more European than me.
This book contains only 44 poems, but the variety of tones and moods will make you want to play it like a mixtape, finding just the right vast, prairie-skied melancholy or sun-soaked Mediterranean mania to suit your moment.
A. M. Juster.
Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse 1995-2015. Measure Press, 2016.
The Billy Collins Experience. Kelsay Books, 2016.
To talk about Juster as a Renaissance man of the poetry world—translator, parodist, composer of both light and serious original verse—would be to repeat what a lot of other people have already said better, so I will instead take an economical view of this book: for a few dollars, you get to feel clever, erudite, amused, and more than a little dirty. There are love poems and hate poems, poems about presidents and poems about goose poop (make of that pairing what you will), and poems that skewer lawyers. All are stamped with Juster’s inimitable wit, and all bear revisiting repeatedly. To use a phrase probably never before seen in Light, this book has fabulous ROI.
Twenty years’ worth of work is a lot to talk about, so let us begin with Juster’s original poems. “A Plea to My Vegan Great-Grandchildren” captures many of his best qualities: wry social commentary, an uncool-dad approach to pop culture, and a surprise dollop of real feeling.This poem spends most of its time teasing some imagined post-millennial generation about the judgments it is sure to visit upon the speaker. However, after rhymes like “regret” with “Chinese debt” and “gangsta rap” with “killer app,” at the very end, it reveals itself to be a love poem to the great-grandmother of the children in question. A section of originals called “Inside Jokes” pokes at poets of the past with both relish and affection. “Prufrock’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Red Wheelbarrow Glazed with Rain beside White Chickens” lives up to the impossible promise of its title, combining all three poems into a deep-fried delight including nuggets such as verse VII:
But though I have wept and ordered, wept and paid,
Though I have seen my hens brought in on a platter,
I have seen the hot coils of the broiler flicker
And I have seen the short-order cook pick his nose and snicker,
And, in short, I felt fileted.
Is it any wonder his great-grandchildren will be vegan? (Also, whatever you do, make sure to translate the Italian epigraph.)
The translations included are perhaps the book’s greatest source of surprise. Juster applies his wit not only to ancient and familiar humorists such as Horace and Martial, but also to less well known (to me, at any rate) poets like Luxorius and Ausonius. Translations of a pair of poems about genitalia (one male, one female) by the Medieval poets Daffydd ap Gwylim and Gwerful Mechain exhaust what I’d like to hope are all available metaphors for said organs. “A hollowed conger eel whose head’s not limber” and “Hard nail that causes pain and litigation!” are particularly piquant. Mechain’s “Poem of the Pussy” (quite the rebellious poem for her day) is less clever than ap Gwylim’s “Poem of the Prick,” but boys always do go overboard on that topic.
The final section of the book, “Shrapnel,” is the Whitman’s Sampler after the orgiastic feast of the translations. Pithy—and pissy, in some cases—couplets and quatrains offer little bites of bile that really satisfy. For example, “Revisionism”:
If you believe our liturgies,
no marriage may be sundered,
But lawyers say six-figure fees
can fix what God has blundered.
These are poems you will share with your friends who don’t like poetry, hoping that the bedbug of Juster’s wit will colonize the pillows of their minds. Or something.
Finally, there are the Billy Collins poems. Sleaze and Slander contains a few, but The Billy Collins Experience is an entire book of Juster’s Collins parodies. First of all, this is an affectionate duel, or at least one in which we root for both sides because the swordplay is far more exciting than the challenger defeating the challenged. Seeing Juster, a strict formalist and classicist, take on Collins’s artfully-chipped-enameled-tin-coffee-cup style and hall-of-mirrors self-reflection is rather like watching David Blaine swallow a pizza cutter: entertaining for us in part because we wonder how it feels for him. Frankly, I would advise amusing yourself with this book. Do you have a friend who is an ardent Collins fan? As in the old Sanka commercials, slip that friend some Juster and see if he can tell the difference.
James B. Nicola. Stage to Page: Poems from the Theater. Word Poetry, 2016
The only thing not to love about James Nicola’s new book is the title, which might suggest a collection of overly serious disquisitions on “craft” and a bunch of not-all-that-“in” in-jokes about the Scots Play and getting on the stage manager’s good side. If you feel that way about the title, for heaven’s sake look past it to the accomplished poems within. Nicola is a person of the theater who sees it clearly and panoramically and expends his considerable craft on both the magic and the malignancies.
Generally, a book with a single theme requires extra patience on the reader’s part, but Nicola’s variety of form, tone, and persona—as well as the range of theater experiences he includes, from high school plays to AIDS to finances—does not feel overly granular or played out even by the last page. Indeed, if there is a metaphor for the book as a whole, it’s the character actor who can fill any role and be as thundering or as subtle as the moment requires without attracting particular attention to himself—in fact, the antithesis of what the title had me fearing. He can also play tragedy and all kinds of comedy from broad to subtle, ludicrous to truly light.
An exemplum of Nicola’s breadth—and of the idea of character over persona—is “The Loud One,” which for me is among the most affecting poems in the book. It begins with a conversation about a high school production of Les Miz in which a girl in the chorus attracts the speaker’s attention by “singing her heart out as if destitute,” but she is not one of “the loud ones” who get leads and shape the play through improvisation to suit their personae (a theme revisited in “A Broadway Show”). Ultimately, the poem ends by considering the originary Loud One in Eden, who overwrote the script “so that he’d be the hero.” Before that, however, the value of the loud ones is called into question:
and I said I think it’s been long enough
that the loud ones have played all the roles, or lead,
which isn’t what the modern drama needs.
And all this develops from the passion of an “unsung sophomore.”
That poem, like many in the book, is not conventionally formal, and Nicola’s work here ranges from the prose poem (“Fate, Four Variations”) to tightly controlled sonnets, ballad stanzas, and villanelles, among other forms. While the literal theme of this book is the theater, there is also a covert theme. We could call it liminality, anticipation, the psychic equivalent of the surface tension of a drop of water about to fall, and Nicola uses form to convey this sense, matching structure with content, not only aurally but visually as well. The first poem in the book, a sonnet called “The Beauty of Actors,” breaks words across lines and rhymes on the fragments. This is a bold move for a first poem, given that the poet has not yet proven himself. However, the poem is about just such anticipatory moments: the potential energy before the lines are spoken or the stage directions enacted. Thus, lines such as
Their silences are sinew and connect
the muscle of their actions with the tis-
sue of their words so that you keep expect-
ing their next rash deed.
neither flow smoothly into the next thought nor end-stop to allow us to rest and review. Rather, they embody just such expect-
-ation visually on the page. The lines are not only written, but elocuted, performed. Similarly, “Beethoven’s Fifth,” one of a pair of tribute poems to Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts,” is a villanelle about repetition. The refrains include the words “repetition,” “variation,” and “composition,” so that the words themselves became part of Beethoven’s—and Bernstein’s—thematizing. The poem is, as it were, fully staged.
Nicola is not only formally but thematically in all corners of the theater. The poem “Touring” is a heartbreaking monologue in which we hear one side of a phone conversation about the impossibility of reconciling theatrical ambition with motherhood. A series of poems in the middle of the book focuses on specific characters from famous plays. I won’t spoil the ending, but “Bachelor Actor” made me catch my breath, and “Simon Stimson,” about the alcoholic choir director in Our Town, develops Gossip as an animating force in Grover’s Corners and grants this secondary character primary rights to upbraid the town.
As the poem “Frostbite #9: A Penny Balanced” explicates, tragedy and comedy are sides of the same coin, and Nicola applies the same quality of wit to polish them both. The core theme of the liminal, anticipatory moment is explored humorously in the sonnet “Complicity”:
But all the well-timed door slams, funny bits,
deportment, flair and thought-out, picked up cues,
plus personal plight with which you infuse
the plot, act only as barbiturates,
save for complicity. Get those who’ve got
no lines to utter to the very verge
of speaking, feeling, doing. Tacit text
can sizzle; share yours with them as their own.
They’ll want to speak and wonder what comes next,
less likely to indulge another urge
like getting up to go, or getting lost
right in their seats, or checking their cell phone.
What’s more: you might deflect the rankling thought
of what the tickets and the sitter cost.
Overall, this is not a book of guffaws (see Juster or White for that). Rather, the humor is sly and slant, as in a poem about learning to speak like Cary Grant, which ends with the stanza
Then I’ll invite you to a private screening,
warn you the story’s been inspired, but not
quite based, on real life, if you get my meaning.
They’ll also need someone like Randolph Scott….
So much depends on a lingering ellipsis….
Do you need to know a lot about the Theah-tah to enjoy this book? Heavens no. Notes both foot- and end- identify characters and plots of plays discussed in the poems—sometimes a bit more thoroughly than needed—and the human element outweighs the terms of art. And what other book in the history of printing will be blurbed by both Rachel Hadas and Rob Corddry, for heaven’s sake?
Gail White. Catechism. White Violet Press, 2016.
Before I read this book, knowing of its existence made me woozy. On the one hand, it is all cat poems, a category I avoid, like convenience store sushi, out of a sense of personal safety. On the other hand, Gail White’s name is on the cover, which generally signals a foolproof vaccine against sentimentality. I am happy to say that the poet makes her subject not only palatable but exquisite. You can be a committed ailurophobe and still appreciate a poem such as
On Louisiana Politics
The politician, like the tabby’s young,
Attempts to clean his backside with his tongue.
If I risk a spicy tuna roll at Walgreens, it will be because Gail White has made me dare to dream.
Other Treats Over the Transom
Barbara Egel cut her light-verse teeth on Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash while still in elementary school, causing her teachers no end of concern. She met Light Founding Editor John Mella and began reading Light almost at its inception, long before she imagined knowing its current august personages. She recently completed her masters degree at Northwestern University, writing a thesis on very heavy verse indeed, and thus is grateful to the editors for allowing her to occupy a more aerated environment within these pages.