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Light on Their Feet
(Reviews of books by Ned Balbo, Terese Coe, Susan de Sola, Daniel Klawitter, Chris O’Carroll, and E.M. Schorb)
by Barbara Egel
The Joke’s On Me, by Chris O’Carroll. Kelsay Books, 2019
As you know if you’ve read pretty much any recent issue of Light, Chris O’Carroll is a funny and prolific contributor; his name in the table of contents always prompts me to skip ahead. In The Joke’s on Me, having a lot of O’Carroll poems in one place—many of which will be new to Light readers—produces an unexpected impact. The funny ones tickle afresh, and the loveliest surprises happen with the discovery of how broad a spectrum of form and feeling O’Carroll masters. This is a hilarious book, an erudite one, and truly moving.
The first section, “Entertained by Dust,” explores the natural world from the cosmos to the catalpa tree. The poems here manage to be both reverent and utterly unsentimental. “Flight Path” contrasts the survival instinct of nature with the complicated response of humans to the death of a bird that’s flown into a window. In just nine lines, O’Carroll captures the guilt of humans and the indifference of other birds. “Hummingbird” upends expectations by making the spider, conventionally imagined as predatory, the prey of the hummingbird (here called “the iridescent kleptoparasite”), which is usually coddled for its fragility and size. The surprising drama of scale—and the last few lines—leave me with more “zero at the bone” than Dickinson’s snake.
The second section also delineates a phenomenon that’s pretty common but isn’t necessarily perceived as such: the sexy, funny poem (not middle-school dirty-sexy, but grown-up hot-sexy). O’Carroll is clearly a devotee of early modern poets and the metaphysicals in particular, so his approach comes from that direction: real longing couched in wit. “To Her Garments” modernizes Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes” with a bit of Vogue thrown in, and both “Spouses Who Fight Live Longer” and “For the Moment” are unabashedly Shakespearean and unabashedly sensual, confirming that laughter is the best aphrodisiac. The centerpiece of this section is “Quark Sestina,” which uses the sometimes-bizarre naming conventions of physics to talk about the physics of two bodies together:
Yet oh how real we feel when you’re on top
(Or I am, either way). And going down
Makes every pulsing particle from bottom
To top again and again ante up
For matter’s realest deal. Eventful, strange,
Almost not here at all. Flesh works a charm
That voids the void . . .
The final two sections consist of the light verse that makes you laugh—in contrast to the previous kind that makes you think about what might happen later tonight. “Brothers Wright” is a monorhyme poem that generates speculation about what would have happened if instead of rhyming with “flight,” the talented siblings had been named Sprash. A limerick about the famous desert painter reminds us that sometimes a flower is just a cigar (or something like that):
In New Mexico, Georgia O’Keefe
Found dry bones, stark sun, and relief
From the Freudian gang
With their thing for her thang
And their eyes on her floral motif.
The pleasure in O’Carroll’s light verse is that you are laughing long before you get to the punchline, while at the same time thinking, “He really does have a point.” “Roadrunner and Coyote” captures the existential imbalance of that duo in a way that conjures Samuel Beckett by way of Mel Blanc, and “Three Bears” rights the wrongs of overzealous anthropomorphism. In a few cases, the poem’s all punchline, as in #ProverbsReconsidered:
Is brevity the soul of wit, or
Have we learned otherwise from Twitter?
Do sit down with this book and enjoy all that Chris O’Carroll has to offer in a single sitting. Then you’ll remember later to return to the ones that fit a moment—reflective, seductive, or just plain funny.
Why You Can’t Go Home Again, by Terese Coe. Kelsay Books, 2018.
From Aesop to Sybil Fawlty, the connotation of “clever” has always been double-edged. We envy the clever, but we fear that they’ll aim their wit in our direction—or perhaps that they already have and we didn’t notice. Terese Coe’s new book embodies that kind of cleverness, and you will be relieved if you find yourself on her side of a given argument. All the poems in it qualify as light verse in form and tone, but be warned, it is not a gentle ride. Coe’s first section is called “Sociopolitics,” and it turns a searing lamp on our present moment.
Some of the poems, like “Terminal Manhattanite,” caricature individuals, in this case, the less self-aware sister of Sondheim’s Carlotta Campion from Follies. When Coe turns to overtly political subjects, like “White House Positions, 2017,” she proves to have been prophetic. Indeed, if there’s a problem with this book, it’s one that’s becoming ever more common in all our media: a writer thinks she’s reaching for absurdity and ends up outstripped by reality. This has the effect of turning light verses into peppy little dirges like this one:
Some get water
Some get bread
Some get a bullet
In the head.
A lot of this book—especially the early sections—works that way. It offers the same satisfaction as hanging out with that friend your mother doesn’t like. It’s in the danger—the almost too-bleak worldview—that we find catharsis. And when we see ourselves in some of Coe’s targets, we smile weakly and take the hit. “The Borogroves” is one such verse:
The gravitas of human whimsy
is that we are the sum of all that’s flimsy.
Coe’s book gets gentler as it proceeds. The “Parody and Satire” section filters her perspective through Emily Dickinson, among others, and it works in surprising ways, using Dickinson’s diction to tell stories never spoken of in Amherst, such as “Emily Visits a Birth Control Clinic.” And you will definitely want to have drinks with the poet who uses Samuel Beckett as the subject matter for a parody of Edward Lear. The “Creatures” section visits (and in some cases, vivisects) rhinoceri, urchins, and Eliot, and it includes the indisputable truism that “rabbits are dumb” (“Pet Resume”).
Of course, when I say “gentler,” please do not expect fuzzy-brained lullabies or jokes about that gosh-darned DMV. Coe is never without a hatpin hidden somewhere on her persona, and the conceits surrounding the barbs show enormous skill. A particular favorite is “Mendel’s Catastrophe,” which describes how the friar’s little experiment with beans has exploded into the hybridized monstrosities currently populating our grocery shelves. The light-verse hoarders among you will be pleased to note there is a section of limericks and double dactyls, but don’t read “Flight 253” while you’re eating.
The diligent reader of Light will know that often these reviews involve finding the light elements in books of very serious poetry. In this case, Terese Coe has gifted us with a book of light verse that exposes and articulates our serious times with cleverness and grace.
3 Nights of the Perseids, by Ned Balbo. University of Evansville Press, 2019.
It doesn’t take blazing insight to see a strong literary connection between wit and a melancholic kind of memory. Certainly Philip Larkin, Derek Mahon, and all stereotypical Irish storytellers embody this combination. In a way, it makes a lot of sense: who better to temper the treacly pudding of nostalgia than a writer who can flavor it with a bit of sharpness—even acid?
Ned Balbo is one such poet, but in the detail-saturated 3 Nights of the Perseids, the wit is rarely acidic and even offers real nutritional value. The volume begins with “Rare Book and Reader,” a poem that precedes his official Part I and serves as a Baudelairean introduction to the voice of the work. But Balbo’s “Au Lecteur” doesn’t indict the reader. Instead, it preserves that sublime and mortifying moment, early in college, when—ignoring any fears of pretension (because what were we as college freshmen if not models of pretension?)—we headed feverishly to the library to seek the ancient source from which a favorite rock record’s lyrics were cribbed. Balbo’s persona manages both to honor the moment of discovery and to wryly mock it with the observation that the dust of history doesn’t much care about the connections we make between it and whatever shiny new thing we are becoming. That dust—bibliophilic, funerary, or cosmic—determines the themes of this collection. The mote and the meteorite have equal impact.
The book has four sections, each with a theme (space and geography, music, the academic life, and the life of poetry), and the voice established in the first poem carries us through all of them. It’s an unusual persona in that it is serious and witty all at once. It manages to be earnest without being in any way soppy or humorless, which is a high bar to clear, and Balbo certainly does.
This is one of those poetry books that must be read with a computer nearby—or at least access to your Spotify account. For the first section about natural phenomena, facts often can be inferred from the poems (and there are some notes at the back as well). However, for the second section, which is about music and specific songs and musicians, you will want to take the time to listen. Some, like Prince’s 1999, are familiar and easily conjured in your mind’s ear. Others, like Beirut’s “A Sunday Smile,” are worth listening to in advance to enhance the mood of the poem. (And to add to your own playlist since Balbo has excellent taste.)
In “The Ghosts of Thunder Road,” the eternal adolescence of Bruce Springsteen’s first few albums gets sharply interrogated by the persona, who notes the passage of time and the what-ifs that linger in the songs’ backstories. In this piece, all the beat-up motorcycle boots are on the other foot. It’s an interesting kind of fandom that demands that songs answer the questions they raise. Balbo captures the detail-laden, blue-collar vocabulary of Springsteen’s songs, but without either the hope of the early work or the resignation of later albums. The persona here is an unsettled ghost, and it insists on being heard:
Step down, the screen door swinging as you rush
from porch to car into whatever future
endless highways, bars, and beach roads hold
for this New Jersey Romeo, leather-clad
in his Camaro, where a beat-up Fender
waits, responding to his touch, or not—
as you will till the day that he’s betrayed
you yet again with Wendy, Rosey, Janey . . .
Even as it exposes your treasured/shameful box of cassettes taped off the radio and all that it represents, this book has bite, especially in the third section, which examines politics both national and academic. As mentioned with Terese Coe’s book, there is really no such thing today as political verse that’s entirely light. “Crybully” is as good a commentary as any on current right-wing psychology, and the poems about academic adjunct life make tiny, ironic tragedies of the underpaid and woefully under-respected.
There are poems in which a self-aware and contrarian aspect of Balbo’s persona takes over, reminding one of some of Alfred Nicol’s work. “Choose Your Adventure” takes a tourist quiz and turns it into a deeply weird self-evaluation:
Are you a very adventurous person?
Not very. Risk is something I avoid.
I watch the traffic on its slow advance
toward crosswalks empty of pedestrians . . . .
The flashing countdown makes me paranoid.
This poem also contains a sublime description of a cat.
Similarly, “Glory-of-the-Seas” quotes descriptions of that eponymous mollusk from two editions of Sea Shells of the World published twenty-three years apart, and turns its devaluation from “the most valuable shell” to “once thought to be the most valuable shell” into a musing on what might have been. I think it’s probably safe to say that the Shells editor and Ned Balbo are the two people on the planet who noticed the demotion.
My fear for many of these poems is that while their quality is lasting, their subjects are ephemeral. For example, with “Text and Flame,” I’m prompted to ask who will remember Michelle Carter in five years without a footnote. (Does the name ring a bell even now?) And concentrated Googling didn’t lead me to the second story in the poem at all. Or maybe that’s the point: to fold the ephemera, the motes, into the story of the meteors, to memorialize the moments for their individual impact rather than their historical import, since they all shape us as individuals and as a culture. In any case, this is a thoughtful, well-crafted book with an agile and unsparing voice.
Frozen Charlotte, by Susan de Sola. Able Muse Press, 2019.
A Frozen Charlotte is not a dessert, and while that discovery dashed my gourmandish hopes, this book turns out to be a very tasty sampler indeed. By turns sweet, bitter, and the literary equivalent of umami, the poems within it range from straightforward, heartbreaking evocations of feeling and mood to extremely out-there wordplay to character studies to light verse. Not only the subject matter but the poetic technique changes from page to page, yet there is never a sense of difficulty for its own sake, nor does the book feel like a random jumble.
Let’s get out of the way the fact that Susan de Sola is a masterful poet. She handles a range of forms seemingly without breaking a sweat. (You know what I mean; sometimes you can feel the poet straining. Not here.) She also clearly loves to play, as in poems like “Box,” a monometer with a limited word list snaking down the page, or “What the Woods Know,” which tumbles homophones and near rhymes in Dutch and English (de Sola is an American living in Holland):
I call up my lover in the woods—
would he were here—and I tell
him about leaf-gold and everything bare
bearing him, borne away . . .
She plays with the shape of words on the page as well. “The Cornell Boxes” protrudes into the right margin, an arrow whose point is made of a line ending in “dangerous thing,” and evokes Pandora, Eliot’s pinned and wriggling subject under glass, and the collector’s need for containment.
As much as de Sola loves experiment, a substantial part of this book is tied to the past. Sometimes it’s the echo of other poets, as in “Rose Gold,” where Frost is so present. Most often, it’s de Sola’s Jewish heritage, connection to the Holocaust, and life in a country directly affected by it. Poems such as “Wertheim Park” establish her personal ties to this past while also evoking our collective connection. There are no dry, white statues in these poems, but a living genealogy and the warm blood of a culture where a thousand years ago is as real as the last ten minutes.
Many of the poems that fit the bill as light verse also reach into the past. A lingerie seller shows up in two poems (at least, I think it’s the same woman—I hope it is) to offer disquisitions on the paradoxes of underthings. Two poems featuring Cary Grant explore the shock that occurs between the celluloid and the corporeal. To give away the ending of “The Light Gray Suit, North by Northwest“ would be criminal on my part, so click on the link and read it yourself.
“Punctuation Gallant” is the kind of fun you might have with Ed Shacklee or John Whitworth, but bring a dictionary. In poems such as “Closely Observed Postman” and the every-parent-should-write-one “Shrine for 16,” while there is a lot to chuckle at, the denouement delivers a lightly swung gut-punch:
For he considers the top of his bureau.
For he has been given a damp rag, and urged to create order.
For he has bottles of Armani and Axe, and centers each on a Heineken beer mat.
. . . . . . . . . . .
For he waxes manly and grows boyish.
For he grows.
This book will change with the light each time you read it. There is humor in the monumentally sad poems and pointed meaning in the funny ones. This rich, kaleidoscopic collection is better than any dessert.
Fiat Lux! Light Verse, by E. M. Schorb. Kelsay Books, 2019
Fiat Lux! is what a light-verse collection should be: it entertains a variety of forms, it does not eschew silliness, but it also doesn’t give in to chaos or predictable jokes. It’s an erudite book even as there are poems about autodidacts, and—the best and most Seinfeldian part—it tells you things you feel you should have known but have never taken the time to think about—for example, that ghosts require training:
“Yes, haunting is an art,” my teacher said.
“You mustn’t be too obvious, too crude.
They’ll think it’s all a trick, or caused
by natural tremors, earthquakes and the like,
and what you want above all other things
is to be certain that they know it’s you.”
Schorb uses the familiar as both subject and model. “Late Night Rap of Soul and Body” is a modern answer to Yeats, who took himself far too seriously anyway, and “A Tumble for Skelton” gives poor old John a tunning of his own. “News of 45” (the age, not the president) evokes ee cummings in its punctuationless juxtaposition of images.
Most surprisingly, there are prose poems in here that are quite funny. (How many prose poems have you seen in Light lately?) “An Experiment in Governance,” like several poems of Terese Coe’s, pushes absurdity to the point that it’s completely believable in our present bizarre moment. “Last Exit to East Hampton” reads like a concentrated drop of Dorothy Parker’s “Lady With a Lamp,” with a dash of West Egg thrown in for flavor.
The diadem in this book can be found in a series of seven sonnets collectively titled “Symbols.” Each poem addresses a Christian symbol, from the cross to the lamb. While this may sound very serious, the application of a light-verse touch actually enhances the explanations. Among these poems, “The Fish” tests the capacity of the form and finds it roomy enough for two entirely separate stories. The octet gives the history of the symbol, tying it, eventually, to the Spanish Inquisition. The sestet compacts the story of St. Peter into six lines, finishing the etymological loftiness of the first stanza with the homeliness to which all Christian symbols should remain tethered. That this homeliness is wrapped in a pun is kind of perfect:
St. Peter was a fisherman, they say,
and one day caught a sole and then another
and soon his bobbing boat was full of fish.
All soles, he said, are one another’s brother
(most women were excluded in his day),
And, rinsing it with wine, he cleaned his dish.
The rest of this book engages the literary, the bawdy, and the surreally urinary (trust me on that one). Beyond its obvious skill, the feeling that comes through most clearly is a respect for the versatility of light verse—the forms it can be found in and the subjects it will accommodate.
The Trickster: Poems for Very Clever Children and Silly Adults, by Daniel Klawitter, illustrated by Robyn Crowell. White Bird Publications, 2019.
Daniel Klawitter is one part Shel Silverstein, one part Dr. Seuss, and several parts I can’t begin to define, but all of them come together here in a great deal of fun. Enhanced by full-page, full-color drawings that leap off the page and into your face (the pickle in a bathtub is not to be missed), this book is what Klawitter does best: it’s a bucket of silliness that hides occasional well-taught lessons that go down easily.
Klawitter is right to offer it to children and adults. Who doesn’t need to hear “Haters” right about now?
Some folks are good at hating.
It’s all they’ve ever known.
They learned it from their parents
And practiced it at home.
I’m not sure why they do it,
But those who feel compelled
To hate those who are different
May really hate themselves.