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Light on Their Feet
Reviews of books by Boris Dralyuk, Daniel Galef, Robert Schechter, and Wendy Videlock
by Barbara Egel
Happy spring! There’s no grand overriding theme in this issue’s reviews, just a bunch of skillful, mature Light poets writing for sophisticated audiences of all ages.
Wise to the West, by Wendy Videlock. Able Muse Press, 2022.
Reading Wendy Videlock’s work in one sitting is a bit like stumbling on a perfectly worn leather jacket at a thrift store: someone else broke it in for you—did the stressing and destressing—so you can feel warm and look cool and also treasure some certainty that you’ve earned this find. It wouldn’t fit if you weren’t fully grown with your few extra pounds and wonky shoulder. Upon handing over your money, you begin to think about the adventures you and this jacket will have and what unmapped roads you might go down. That’s the feeling of the whole book. Encountering the funny poems is like finding a kazoo or a saucy flipbook deep in a pocket. It’s unexpected, but it makes complete sense.
The question that arises reading Videlock is how poems can be spare and lush at the same time. Skinny little dabbles of ink on the page also fill the senses. Often, this happens because Videlock is incredible at building a density of sound. Rhyme and assonance happen everywhere, and feel effortless, as though you’re watching someone idly pluck a few blades of grass and within a few minutes, they’ve made an intricate tiara without even looking at what they were doing. The other effect of this seemingly casual meandering is that the first line or lines of a poem give little to no indication of where you’ll end up. For example, the first two lines of “Given a Choice” introduce a broad field of important concepts: “Today I was given a choice: / consumption or creation,” but the poem ends up on the floor with cats and some string. Videlock lives in Colorado at the foot of a mountain and tends a bunch of animals. Maybe that’s where this bravery with scale comes from. Nature doesn’t follow rules, but it does create incredible beauty and confounding puzzles. As a poet, Wendy Videlock is a product of her environment, it seems.
In some poems, the wordplay is so dense, one wonders whether the poem started with an idea or with a rhyme too delicious to ignore. “Deconstruction,” a list of birds and what they signify, is a good example of this question of which came first, the rhyme or the reason. Here’s a stanza (and a bit):
The quail is word and culpability.
The crane is the dean of poetry.
The swift is the means to agility,
the waxwing mere civility,
the sparrow a nod to workin’-class
Her sonic qualities—from a kind of generalized assonance you pick up after the fact to perfect rhymes—are so abundant that you stop noticing where in the line they appear, as with “nobility” above. Your ear hears it, so damn convention.
Videlock writes a lot of excellent serious poetry, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously. One moment, she has you meditating on the natural world, dusting off your yoga mat, or trying to learn by heart one of her koan-like poems, so you’ll have something to think about if you’re ever stranded on a desert island, and the next moment, you’re snorting and scaring the dog. The first time I wrote “LOL!” in my notes was after reading “On Becoming a Nowist.” When you read the review of Robert Schechter’s book below, you’ll see lots on his poems about thinking. Whether Schechter is a kids’ Videlock, or Videlock is a Schechter for grownups is not something I’m prepared to take a position on, but while kids are pondering their noses, parents can ponder this:
On Becoming a Nowist
So there I was, pushing a wheelbarrow
up a hill, thinking a little about Sisyphus,
a little about the glazed rain
-water, a little of Monty Python
and the not yet dead, and I wondered
what on earth do others think about
when pushing a wheelbarrow
up a hill?
Suddenly ramming into a rock and nearly
spilling into the wheelbarrow,
I’ve come to believe
most people are likely concentrating
on the fucking wheel.
I like to think that William Carlos Williams would agree that so much depends / on not losing your load.
Remember how I said she plays with your expectations by opening a poem one way and closing it with a surprise? She applies this trick a lot in the funny poems, taking it to Olympic levels when she does it in a three-line poem (if you include the title as a line).
The husband under
an August moon,
A poem called “Western Wiccan” suggests some pretty serious mysticism, but early on, Videlock rhymes “scorpion” with “Kevorkian,” and you’re heading down a gruesome, highly amusing path.
This book is a welcome package of what we’ve come to expect from Wendy Videlock. This is the book for your smart friend who’s “never been able to get into poetry,” and for your highly formal poet friend who needs to re-effing-lax with a poet who breaks rules so well it’s impossible not to respect her. I’ll leave you with the short poem on the strength of which I may include Videlock in my meager will.
I will slam my own
hand in the door
and swear off the world
of women and men
if I hear the word
The Red Ear Blows Its Nose, by Robert Schechter, illustrated by S. Federico. Word Galaxy Press (an imprint of Able Muse Press), 2023.
I’m not sure how Mr. Schechter would feel about being compared with Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers was clear-eyed and straightforward. Mr. Schechter appears to look at the world through a kaleidoscope while hanging upside-down from the jungle gym and blowing soap bubbles. The comparison is apt, though, because both men have an insight into the child mind that is subtle and respectful. In fact, Schechter’s insight is so deep and broad that adult-you will find yourself remembering specific things you wondered about as a kid but somewhere along the line, forgot to keep wondering about. For example, “Colors” appears early in the book, and while reading it, four-year-old me popped right to the front of my brain and demanded answers.
If I could go inside your head
and use your eyes to see,
I wonder if what you call red
would look like red to me.
Inside your head, perhaps I’d think
what looks like red to you
resembles more a shade of pink—
or purple mixed with blue.
I cannot solve this mystery.
Are colors just a name?
If I were you, and you were me,
would we see things the same?
This poem could be a metaphor for all kinds of differences in point of view, and Schechter doesn’t seem to foreclose that possibility. However, as a literal poem about whether you and I have the same perception of things, it scratches the recurring itch of the question quite nicely.
There are lots of poems about thinking and brains in this book, which makes sense because when we are small, our main job in the world is learning, and we want to know how the equipment works. One fascination is with the endless loop of thinking about thinking about thinking, which Schechter turns into “Brain Break,” a sweet poem on thinking about not thinking:
It’s quiet now inside my head.
Not much is brewing there.
My brain is on a break today,
without a thought or care.
It then goes on for three more stanzas about not thinking.
Similarly, “Compared to What” examines kids’ fascination with size and proportion as well as that slightly-older-kid need to examine and reexamine the facts they’re learning in school. I learned from the poem about a Red Giant named Mu Cephi, which is a lot bigger than the sun but nothing compared to a galaxy. Certain small persons of my acquaintance would find a kindred spirit in the voice of this poem. Because I want you to get this book, I won’t speculate on whether it will make your kid more or less eager to tell you everything they know. Forever. Repeatedly.
Speaking of parents, there are no Wormwoods in the book (Schechter is infinitely kinder than Dahl), but they’re not infallible sages either. “May I Go to the Circus?” is from the perspective of a child whose parents taught him to ask to go to the circus when he has to pee. This makes school rather draining (or not, actually) until the teacher seems to get the drift. “The Horse Who Said Moo” is about an equine iconoclast who believes some aspects of species are specious, thereby disappointing his parents, who expect him to conform.
The manifesto of the book, if it has one, would be “Not a Children’s Poem,” which teaches a lesson kids already know. Here’s the whole poem:
This poem is not a children’s poem.
It’s grown-ups who should read it.
It offers tons of great advice,
but kids don’t really need it.
Don’t dump your garbage in the sea.
Do not pollute the air!
Be sure the water that we drink
is clean and always there.
Fomenting war is bad. Make peace!
Don’t let the world get blown up.
You know this. You don’t need this poem.
Unless you are a grown-up.
If adults could just get their acts together, there would be a lot more time for the silliness kids prefer—and have earned by refraining from messing up the world. In fact, one interesting thread running through the book is the amount of patience children must possess to deal with the giant weirdos who buy the snacks and do the tucking in but otherwise have truly lost the plot.
And the silliness? It’s delicious. “What’s Mine,” the poem from which the book’s title comes, is all about saying phrases nobody has said before. Lines like “the fox / has cartwheeled through the slide trombone” are likely to do exactly what children’s poetry should do, which is make the kids participants. Schechter doesn’t even have to ask, “What’s the silliest, most original thing you can say?” because the invitation’s baked into every poem. Just as kids join each other’s games without formal permission or invitation, Schechter just makes the space and provides the joyful prompts to get them going. Rhyme and rhythm (okay, meter, but what’s meter when you want to dance?) as well as wide variation in line lengths and stanza structures make each poem an aural pleasure.
Which brings me to a topic I have never before mentioned in these digital pages. This book is an amazing value for your money. Unlike sneakers or sweaters, it will last through all kinds of growth spurts. Favorites read aloud to a preschooler by grownups suddenly become whole new poems when a seven- or eight-year-old can read them for herself and see the wordplay on the page. Then a year or so later, the jokes start to land (or talk back, as on p. 46), and it’s a brand-new poem all over again.
Regarding the illustrations, S. Federico’s style lies somewhere between Picasso and P.D. Eastman, though there’s an elephant on p. 47 that suggests a genetically impossible descent from one of James Thurber’s dogs. The subtlety and cleverness of the line drawings match the poems beautifully.
The Red Ear Blows Its Nose should become that one children’s book that somehow makes it into the boxes heading for college. It’s good to have someone along for the ride who really gets you.
Imaginary Sonnets, by Daniel Galef. Word Galaxy Press (an imprint of Able Muse Press), 2023.
This book is work! And I mean that in a good way. Light contributor Galef’s debut collection is a whole master’s degree in Western Civilization, from Ancient Greece to recent memory. Each of these beautifully crafted sonnets is in the voice of some character or person to another person, animal, object, or idea. These run from the very familiar—Doris Day or Thayer’s Casey at the Bat—to the truly obscure, like Ignaz Semmelweiss, who promoted hand washing among doctors (I promise, there are handy footnotes for the who? ones), to the straight-up bizarre, as in “One Straight Line to Another,” where the perils of being parallel are thoroughly explored.
Often, the poems are funny, but you do have to find your way into their milieu for the jokes to land. Among the tasks assigned by this book, I had to read Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room;” reread “Antigonish” because in Galef’s sonnet, the man on the stair upbraids the speaker of Mearns’s poem for his lack of curiosity; revisit the Beaufort scale (which is a poem, and I’ll fight you on that); and google “St. Augustine humor” and sort through too many hits on Florida comedy clubs before finding any information on whether the Bishop of Hippo ever cracked a smile. The rewards of this homework are bountiful. Not only did I learn stuff, but Galef manages both sly humor and real pathos with a deft and delicate hand.
That these utterances take the form of sonnets demonstrates the power of the form. All the way back to Petrarch, the sonnet comfortably holds poignancy, philosophy, narrative, blasphemy, and wit, in a relatively small package. The sonnet’s geography—with a turn sometimes wide and gentle and sometimes breathtakingly acute—suits Galef’s project of juxtaposing the unexpected and making a new story from one already told. In “Penelope to the Shuttle of Her Loom,” Odysseus’s wife talks about direction, about the freedom of the shuttle to do its work while she undoes each day: “But what more could I do? / Un-spin the thread, un-shear the wool, un-sheep / the very sheep?” At the end, the shuttle is her oar, backwarding her through time and space until she has at least a little freedom.
In a few of the poems, Galef pairs people who are separated by time and space but who might have had a lot to say to one another. For example, Lucrezia Borgia has little patience with the devoted, deadly fidelity of the Lucretia of Shakespeare and Augustine, though one wishes Lucretia might have had a bit more Borgia in her. On a lighter note, 1920s flagpole sitter Shipwreck Kelly sympathizes with St. Simeon Stylites (who started the tradition of hermits living at the top of poles) because the latter “. . . never wore white spats, a coonskin coat, or / Oxford bags, or donned a dapper boater.” Yeah, I’m a sucker for a mosaic rhyme, and Galef is very good at it.
While at times I wondered at the organization of the book—the serious and the funny are all intermixed—I think I finally figured it out. Part of Galef’s humor is springing the unexpected on you at the turn of the sonnet, or even in the final couplet or line. “Nossis to a Traveler” starts out as one would expect a classical Greek poem to begin: “May all the sea gods watch over your journeys; / bear Locris’ name like a warrior his shield.” But it very soon goes delightfully off the rails and becomes essentially Lesbos’s wickedest diss track from Nossis to Sappho. “Miriam to Adoniah” seems to be among the book’s sincere, straightforward poems until the couplet, where Moses’s sister serves up an absolute groaner of a pun directly into the ear of Elohim.
Galef also goes the other way, starting with the ridiculous and making it somehow sublime. “The Taco Bell Naked Egg Taco® to the Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chalupa®” (which has a very serious footnote explaining what those things are) is a poem I’m not sure I’m smart enough for, what with (I think?) Gnostic whatsits and Orphic thingamabobs floating around in its albumen. “Parmenides to Doris Day” reads like a Gertrude Stein rewrite of “Que Sera Sera” with an aftertaste of Friday night philosophy majors after a couple of bong rips.
It took a minute, but ultimately, I succumbed to Imaginary Sonnets’s surprises and the wild ride it took me on. “Casey to His Bat” is a rousing pep talk from slugger to stick until the final couplet, and “News of the Day” riffs on a New York Times correction to a 900-year dateline error. None of this could have worked if the awe-inspiringly young Galef were not a master of his craft. When both the conceit and the construction work in perfect harmony, this kind of magic happens. And yes, in a few places he includes archaic syntaxes and metrical fillers that aren’t exactly au courant, but given the context, it works. Like the Schechter book, it’s a good value, too, because of the education you get free with purchase of the poems. This is not a quick read, but it’s a worthy one, and Daniel Galef’s future as a poet is one to watch closely.
My Hollywood. by Boris Dralyuk. Paul Dry Books, 2022.
Dralyuk, the Ukrainian-born, Los Angeles-raised poet and translator, has produced a strange marvel of a book. It’s a gross oversimplification to say My Hollywood is about contrast, but that’s where it starts. Los Angeles itself, and especially Hollywood, is all about jarring juxtapositions: the beautiful and the tawdry, the rich and the poor, those who are known-everywhere and those not-known-at-all. When Dralyuk adds in the Eastern European immigrant community, the contrasts conjured become almost comical: dark, woolen clothing on sun-drenched beaches, a people with centuries of history relocating to a city that either gilds its history or forgets it has one, Isaac Babel in Merv Griffin’s world. Some of these immigrants are still blinking in the foreign sunlight, and some already assimilated into new spellings of their names. Still others, the poets, find that love, despair, longing, and truth get through customs just fine and can be unpacked even in a place that favors facsimile.
“Pantoum of Plummer Park” captures this sense of transport, adaptation, and tradition. Fittingly, the pantoum is a form that resists speed but accepts subtle change with each repetition of a line. The poem is about men who were once engaged, powerful, potent— trying, in old age, to pass the time at card games in the park. Each stanza seesaws between what the men are now and the faint call of what, and where, they used to be. You’ve read a similar poem, perhaps, but it took place in New York or Chicago—someplace where the days are occasionally gray enough to enclose memory. But move the story to LA, and the light bleaches it—no gloves to cover “their idle hands,” no obliging atmospheric gloom to hide the “felled patriarchs, deracinated, lame.” Dralyuk’s fascination with this sense of dislocation and dyschronology (is that a word?) continues in “The Minor Masters,” in which professions like rubber-stamp making and bookbinding go on in a city that—at least on its surface— prioritizes the disposable. But lest you think this is all serious, disconcertingly sunshiny gloom, the final couplet gets you:
Long live the masters whose quaint crafts are holy.
They work in solitude. Now by appointment only.
Dralyuk’s poems are light like my grandma’s matzoh balls—not, but that’s what makes them good. Even in the most serious poems, an old-country wryness glints behind the lines, and the emotional irony that light-verse readers also love is embroidered through the book. “Late Style” appeared in Light, and while hardly cheerful, is exemplary of Dralyuk’s humor: sardonic, but fair and gentle with everyone but himself. As I read My Hollywood, X. J. Kennedy kept coming to mind, especially when I turned to Dralyuk poems such as “Uncredited,” about an actress who had a few bit parts in the 60s and 70s until life took her down a different path. But if you manage to catch her in reruns “on local stations high up on the dial,” you’ll see the magic she had. “Ballad of Hank’s Bar” invites clear parallels to another bar in Secaucus, NJ, ending with a stanza the maestro might have written:
Somewhere, somewhere the bars are open
and cheap as dirt, or so I hear . . .
You feeling no pain? Here’s hoping . . .
But sunk are the dives of yesteryear.
Stylistically, the wonder of these poems is the rhymes. Where Videlock’s rhymes feel found and organic, hiding their virtuosity, Dralyuk’s rhymes show the toolmarks of the craftsman but are no less impressive. For example, in “The Bureau of Street Lighting,” the pedestrian “lend us” rhymes with the blossoming “haciendas”: Dralyuk’s LA in miniature. The rhymes also propel a section of translations from other poets displaced from their homes and coming to an uneasy stop in LA. None of these poets were familiar to me previously, but I’m glad I know them now. “Farmer’s Market” by Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky) lists in short, sweet lines the exotic global abundances SoCal has to offer. Among my favorites is “A Mexican Birch” by Vladislav Ellis, about the literal transplantation of a tree into an environment with which it cannot harmonize.
My Hollywood is a beautiful book by an exacting formalist. You will probably not fall over laughing, but you will learn a new point of view that isn’t afraid of displacement, rich language, wry humor, or relentless sunshine.
Also Over the Transom
Black Ballads, by Paul StJohn Mackintosh. Roswell Publishing, 2022.