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Light on Their Feet
(Reviews of books written or edited by Wendy Cope, Barbara Loots, Juliana Gray, Martin Parker, Brian Allgar, and Daniel Groves and Greg Williamson)
by Barbara Egel
Anecdotal Evidence, by Wendy Cope. Faber & Faber, 2018.
Wendy Cope’s latest book reads in places like a last book, or rather, a book that she fervently hopes will not be last, but will do nicely if it is. This is an unbearably sad idea, but if you must be unbearably sad, doing so with Wendy Cope is the best way because she’s also very funny. Anecdotal Evidence balances between melancholy at lives wrapping up and appreciation for the new perspective age brings, and it does so with significant vinegar and little sentimentality. This is largely a collection about the past, with in memoria to her parents, school friends, poet friends, and poets whose work befriended her, especially Shakespeare. In the Shakespeare poems, Cope imagines the human, man and boy, and expresses gratitude for the life that made the playwright. I’m going to give away the end of “The Marriage” because the entire sonnet is so rewarding I’m sure you won’t mind:
We cannot know
The cost to you, your family, your wife.
We cannot wish you’d lived a different life.
There are several actual elegies in this book, one each for a couple of school friends, for the poet Dennis O’Driscoll, and for her psychoanalyst. This last comes in two parts, and its final stanza captures the tone of much of the book: stalwart and appreciative while still mourning:
I miss you sometimes
but I’m not felled by grief.
It seems that’s how it should be.
It seems you did a good job.
The wit one expects from Cope is entirely present in these poems, but it doesn’t so much lighten the tone as sharpen the observations. “Calculations” does the math of a life: “I have been a non-smoker, now, for longer than I was a smoker”—and feels like an inevitable successor to her earlier list poems, like “My Lover” and “Names.” This poem resolves beautifully with a perspective one should aspire to. The love poems, too, are sad and grateful. “The Tree” continues the theme of objects as keepers of memory, as a couple moves to a house that coalesces as a real home around a straggly, potted Christmas tree that survived the move.
Toward the end of the book, Cope cheers things up, though she doesn’t entirely abandon the theme of aging and loss. “At 70” puts the word “septuagenarian” to good use in a W. S. Gilbert tribute. “Where’s a Pied Piper When You Need One” (first published in Light) describes the irony of contemporary Hamelin with a hat-tip to Auden, for heaven’s sake. “On a Photograph of the Archbishop of Canterbury” muses on a sighting of archiepiscopal knees and the fact that the paparazzi make such an image available.
Like some of the books reviewed below, Cope’s book is an example for the light-verse scholar of how far the form can stretch and how capable its practitioners are. It will also move you to tears and cause you to snort with glee.
Windshift, by Barbara Loots. Kelsay Books, 2018.
As with Anecdotal Evidence, Barbara Loots’s new book is elegiac in places, but the contrast between the shadowy poems and the sunny ones is sharper here, and the feeling is less of summing up than simply slowing down.
The opening section (and poem) “Shoreline” set an autumnal and crepuscular mood, and “Returning to the Island” outlines the diminishing, the loss-through-repetition, that occurs as a beloved place’s age becomes clearer with each return to it. This first section establishes Loots’s impeccable skill with form. She is a former writer for Hallmark, and one cannot help but wonder whether customers knew what a prize they were getting in their envelope. Windshift‘s poems, rather than being stultified by the metrical regularity demanded by the average card buyer, are clear examples of the poet challenging herself to adhere to that discipline while transcending it. Nearly all the poems are ripe with end rhymes and internal rhymes that generate music rather than monotony. (And if you ever teach a course on villanelles—which as a form are usually awful or awesome—this book is a rich source of the latter.) When Loots doesn’t rhyme, she often sets herself new puzzles, as in “Mysteriously Still.” The poem is a spindly, dimeter “sliding five,” a form (attributed to the poet Martha Bosworth) in which the first line moves down a position in each stanza until it becomes the last. Imagine a haiku, a pantoum, and terza rima layered upon one another, and you’ll get a clear picture of Loots’s capabilities.
The second section of Windshift, “Sunday School,” revolves primarily around characters from the Bible. Some poems are monologues, some are third-person observations. At the root of them all lies the characters’ ambivalence at being both people and allegorical emblems. In “Rachel,” for instance, the protagonist imagines her beloved Jacob’s wedding night with her sister Leah, and the resentment pours from her:
His shepherd’s hands, as soft as they are strong,
entangle even now in Leah’s hair.
The eager bridegroom slow to realize
how cold her blood is, and how slack her thighs,
will get the son that would be ours in her,
and murmur Rachel, Rachel in his sleep,
while bartered and beloved rage and weep.
In “When the Water Went Down,” Noah, chosen to save the world, has returned to his earthbound life and finds it dull. In a companion poem, his wife waits for the rain to begin.
This section starts to hint at what Loots has to offer as a light-verse poet. Though its tone is still not humorous, “Caterpillar” is a well-wrapped bundle that could be one of Aldhelm’s riddles:
In perfect proclamation
that piety will do
it shrugged its fur, it shed its house, it fasted
and it flew.
In the third part of the book, “Goose Sense,” Light readers will find poems first printed in these pages and new ones that would fit right in. Some, like “Care to Reconsider?” (on the subject of Descartes and drinking) make you wonder why they weren’t written ages ago, since they seem so delightfully obvious. Thankfully, Loots nails each one. What comes through most clearly in this section is how well Windshift holds together as a book. While the tone changes radically, the twilight feeling persists in poems such as “At Fifty” and the simultaneously endearing and (literally) gut-churning “Colonoscopy: A Love Poem,” which uses Burns’s “A Red, Red, Rose” as its model. I will leave it to you to make the floral-anal connections. And I won’t spoil the cleverness of “‘Donor’ Nobis Pacem,” but O the puns!
Also in this section and the one that follows, “In a Glass Darkly,” Loots doesn’t shy away from serious topics that blend well with the lighter ones—and some that do away with such distinctions entirely. In “Just Make the Coffee,” the tightly-rhymed, triple-meter lines suggest a romp. (See also Wendy Cope’s “Men Talking.”) However, as the speaker informs a younger woman that she will “have to get over” the fact that women are expected to stay silent and admire their menfolk—all the while keeping things running by being “intelligent, practical, mute”—we can see that the poem is doing something similar: laughing accommodatingly while also getting its message across.
Honeymoon Palsy, by Juliana Gray. Measure Press, 2017.
The next two books make an interesting pair in that one is not an obvious choice for a light-verse review—and the other is, but hides an unexpected darkness. Both hold a great deal of interest for the humor aficionado.
A lot of Juliana Gray’s Honeymoon Palsy reads like the evolutionary result of light verse learning to survive in the Mariana Trench. The poems are dark, heavy, and under extreme pressure in both form and content. Still, the wit and wordplay of light verse can be found here, just with strange adaptations to their environment. Sometimes, that shift’s in a title, like “Honey Don’t,” which takes a women’s magazine trope and appends to it a poem about unsated appetite. The contrast between anticipation and fulfillment disorients. “Bewitched” takes this idea even further, setting a contemporary woman’s real life and relationship against those of Elizabeth Montgomery’s character on the ’60s TV show. The idea that a woman so girdled and bound is reduced to “breathing teaspoons as she mixes drinks” feels as though it ought to be in a light-verse poem, but instead of leavening the poem, the humor makes it bleaker.
The title sonnet, too, almost breathes like light verse. Honeymoon palsy is the radial neuropathy that results from a groom’s wedding-night wish to cradle his bride’s head on his arm. When he wakes in the morning, his arm has lost all feeling. First of all, the idea on its own has the potential for comedy, and the end rhymes are either suggestively goofy, as in “pose/nose,” or expected enough that there could be some fun to be had with them, like “heart/part.” What happens instead is that the physical paralysis from too much affection morphs into the emotional paralysis of not enough. One fathom closer to the light and that contrast has the potential to be quite a different poem. That Gray makes us feel this so acutely is dizzying and brilliant.
Even in the second section—heartbreaking poems that use Hamlet to tell the story of a father who never woke up the morning after his late-in-life second wedding—humor makes the poems even more rueful. Study “The Drink” and “The Lady” for ways in which Gray’s speaker is clearly someone who would rather be laughing and, therefore, makes the reader all the sorrier for her.
Nope, this is not a funny book in the way anything else in these reviews is funny or even sort of funny. This book is what happens when someone with a sense of humor dives deep below the surface and uses whatever she has, including humor, to survive there. And as a reader of light verse, you should give it your attention.
I Think I Thought, by Martin Parker. Matador Books, 2017.
If Juliana Gray’s book suggests what the internal organs of a light approach become when they’re confined to the dark, Martin Parker’s
I Think I Thought has a substantial section that shows what happens when a funny poet drags peevishness into the light.
Let me backtrack by saying that what you already love about Martin Parker from his work in Light and Lighten Up Online is all here: the puns, the pranks, the parodies. Many poems, like “Mutants From the Planet Zog,” will have you wondering just what sort of a person goes there (boner puns in Latin?), and “Innhospitality” packs more than one bilingual joke into every couplet. (Baudelaire is choking on “les caulifleurs du mal.”) Parker also trounces John Whitworth in the quantity of British Terminology Your Reviewer Had to Look Up.
It’s in the second section, “About Getting It Wrong, Mostly,” that things get strange. All the light-verse techniques Parker has mastered are present; however, the humor sometimes is not. We expect a taste of rue in reading Dorothy Parker or Gail White, but in this section, the flavor isn’t rue but outright bitterness. This is not a criticism necessarily (although women come in for some rough treatment). Rather, Martin Parker’s contrast between light form and heavy tone is something for the connoisseur to study. Let’s look at “Giving Up”:
For you I gave up beer and pubs,
two-seater cars, exotic clubs,
fluorescent condoms, one night stands,
a credit balance and rock bands,
my flat, Black Book and social life
most of my bed and someone else’s wife.
And you? You gave up sex for both of us
And called me selfish when I made a fuss.
Right up until the last line, this poem has the reader believing it’s real light verse, then bam! — a clobbering of unmediated feeling camouflaged by its tidy couplet. As with Gray’s book, the interplay among humor, wit, and despair churns up a fascinating puzzle to ponder.
After that section, things truly do lighten up, and Parker salves the previous bitterness with some poems exploring late-life love that has the faded softness of many washings. “In the Attic” is about a man looking on as his wife sorts through too-small clothes from her past. Amid the melancholy of memories and the inevitability of once-tight bodies aging, the two come together:
Then love surprised us on your mothballed past
of miniskirts, the Lurex tops that shone,
the Demis Roussos kaftan like a tent,
those hot-pants and the tights for which you’d bent
your hips into contortions putting on.
This is to say that Parker, besides living up to all the verbal stunts Light readers expect of him, can be a tender and canny love poet, observing the affection, patience, and persistence required to sustain.
And the verbal stunts are all there. In a poem partly about tumescence (a word—and idea—that appears more times in this book of poetry than in some physiology texts), Parker rhymes “risky” with a very metaphorical “obelisky.” He also exposes a heretofore unexplored (at least in my experience) range of former-Soviet rhyme possibilities with “Tblisi” and “queasy” and throws in “Tashkent” for good measure.
For the student of light verse, this book raises questions worth examining. For the fan, this is a Parker book full of the fun you’re looking for.
The Ayterzedd, by Brian Allgar. Kelsay Books, 2018.
If, in fifth grade, you were the sort of Quembling (see page 30) who, unasked, recited “Jabberwocky” to your teacher and received a pat on the head that warned you off any more such nonsense until adulthood, you will enjoy The Ayterzedd. In fact, this book will likely lead to the aggressive borrowing, if not outright kidnapping (see page 14), of the nearest intelligent child because the silliness and intelligence required to appreciate The Ayterzedd is assuredly found in those between ages eight and twelve. Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Dr. Seuss, and Ogden Nash are all progenitors of this book, and Allgar has channeled their wordplay and wit in his bestiary of weird, interstellar heroes, monsters, sweethearts, and villains.
Allgar’s conceit is that a creature called the Ayterzedd—a cross between the Lorax and the Ancient Mariner—has captured your attention for the length of the alphabet. The Ayterzedd introduces you to his fellow creatures, one by one, and as you approach The Yuckateer and The Zoff, you start wishing you could swap English for Khmer, which has seventy-seven letters and would ensure a longer book. That said, an epic and abecedarian bonus poem about produce helps make up in quality for the quantity the reader craves.
The genius of this collection is that it avoids the pitfalls of writing whimsy for kids—or adults, for that matter. When it teaches a lesson (mercifully infrequently), it avoids the easily didactic. In “The Gloopum,” the moral is roughly “don’t judge a book by its revolting cover,” but this lesson comes to us slant: the Gloopum is repulsive but has a rich and gentle inner life. That said, the poor Gloopum will still scare the hell out of you if you conjure him at night. Monsters do not turn into princes here, and that’s refreshing. Allgar also avoids the trap of amping up the absurdity at the expense of story. The description of the aforementioned Quembling is as bizarre as that of any other creature in the book, but we care deeply what happens to her, and the reader (whether eight or eighty) sees the edge of melancholy in her happy ending. Similarly, you will be delighted and touched by the Pigglejay—the first creature in the book—when her story finally resolves some twenty pages later. (NOTE TO PIXAR: Option the Pigglejay story now.)
While the taxonomic facts in this book are expertly supported, with thorough footnotes on the Hurkle and the Xenolith, as a lifelong Chicagoan I do have one quibble. When interviewing a Rumpkin or anyone else, Al Capone would not have been nearly so articulate. Nor would he have been better at arithmetic than a Rumpkin. I can, however, confirm that there are several Rumpkins on the Cook County judicial bench at the time of this writing.
Jiggery Pokery Semicentennial, edited by Daniel Groves and Greg Williamson. The Waywiser Press, 2018.
Jiggery Pokery continues the theme of books that are germane to the study, as well as the enjoyment, of light verse. Groves and Williamson pick up where Anthony Hecht and John Hollander’s original collection of double dactyls left off fifty years ago with the original Jiggery Pokery, and prove the resilience of the form. Willard Spiegelman’s excellent introduction reminds us that the world continually invents new six-syllable words (or new roots for neologisms) and elevates dactyl-named humans to the heights of fame (Jennifer Aniston, anyone?), so the form is going strong.
Of course, as a tightly rule-bound form with an individual as its subject, the double dactyl has lots of fun with self-awareness and meta-play. In “My Fifteen Minutes,” Jacqueline Osherow does what any light-verse poet would when blessed with such a name. Eric McHenry’s poem about Marilynne Robinson, and Greg Williamson’s long-overdue verse on the contrasting halves of Barbara Billingsley’s career, suggest that once one learns to identify dactyls in the wild, the need to capture them becomes almost obsessive. Charles Martin’s attempt to help Vladimir Nabokov get his name pronounced correctly plays with Americans’ habit of making it wrongly dactylic by how he places the syllables in the line.
The poems’ subjects run the timeline from Orpheus to Pistorius and beyond, with attention paid to the worlds of sports, politics, music, and general celebrity (Brian Brodeur writes the inevitable Kardashian poem). If you buy all the books on this list, contrast, just for fun, Juliana Gray’s poem about Bob Dylan’s later career with Robert Schreur’s “Late Dylan”:
Robert A. Zimmerman
Merely a menacing
Which sounded only the
Better for that.
A subsequent look at that poem should alert the reader that these are not trifles to be read once and never returned to. Sometimes, the second layer of joke takes time to reveal itself.
The poets herein could not be a more celebrated lot—Annie Finch, Andrew Hudgins, A.M. Juster, X.J. Kennedy, Charles Martin, and J.D. McClatchy, among others—though it is also good to see many names I didn’t recognize whose work stands comfortably with its fellows. Please put what amounts to a late-occurring second volume of Hecht and Hollander on your shelf next to the original.
Barbara Egel is a writer, scholar, and teacher. She lives in Chicago for many reasons, not the least of which is that Light was born there.