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Light on Their Feet
(Reviews of books by Midge Goldberg, Anthony Harrington, Alfred Nicol, and J.D. Smith)
by Barbara Egel
Midge Goldberg. Snowman’s Code. The University of Evansville Press, 2016
Midge Goldberg’s Snowman’s Code is one of those delicious poetry collections that keep reminding you of themselves. That is, a poem almost at the end of the book has you flipping back to the beginning pages to find that one image or line that seems now to have prefigured what you just read. For example, “Too Late”—a poem on page 68 about how the image of geese flying south in autumn represents a played-out metaphor—sent me flipping back to page 9, where the search for a right-sized and -shaped pan for chickenfeed becomes a brand new metaphor for longing. Somehow, this quality of corresponding themes—along with the clean, dry unsentimentality of both her witty and darker poems—makes the book feel unusually useful. Goldberg’s poems seem perfectly designed to support some larger argument. There is a powerful sense of the lyric running through them (her cred with form is indisputable) while at the same time, they invite the reader to borrow her lines to prove a rhetorical point down the road.
Perhaps the reason for this is that so many of Goldberg’s metaphors seem inevitable, as though they should be as clichéd as the damn geese, but nobody thought to make them so. In the sonnet “On Getting a Record Player for Christmas,” the sound of the spaces between songs on an LP exactly circumscribes the obsessiveness of adolescence:
And then what I remember most of all:
Between songs, quiet filled with so much sound—
The hum of the machine, the rhythmic scrawl
Or the wavy record slowly turning round.
I memorized not only every word,
But all the scratchy silences I heard.
Among the many things Goldberg achieves in this book, two in particular stand out: the wonder of the natural world is described in absolutely practical terms while still losing none of the wonder, and sex and death are both written about unsentimentally while losing none of their power. I’m going to do my best to discuss the first without talking about that other New Hampshire poet except to say that Goldberg’s take is quite 21st century and self-aware. “Passage” describes a late winter rowing trip in which the romance of paddling through the softening ice like “bold explorers / carving a northwest passage” becomes subsumed in the scale of the natural world, “removing / all signs that we were there.” “Planetarium” is a gentle tease based on the idea of being “rapt” watching a projection of that which is visible for free outside.
As to sex and death, there isn’t much of the first, but what’s there is kinda hot for being based in real life. “The Language of Love” encapsulates this nicely:
I found no flowers or poetry
This morning when I woke up,
But coffee brewed and poured into
My Wonder Woman cup.
There are several poems about the death of a father, and in ordering the poems in the book, Goldberg puts the most startling, “End of March,” first, almost as an inoculation against sentimentality as we read the rest:
The sap drips
in the bucket,
like the vein in my father’s neck
that I’d watched
pulsing, slow, slower,
until there was no next beat, sap
done for the season.
Midge Goldberg is also often really funny, and the funny poems fit with that sense of rhetorical purpose as strongly as the more serious ones. The section of the book called “Cadillacked” is all light, and the title poem of the section is tremendous fun, using nouns as verbs to communicate things there really aren’t good verbs for. “He cigaretted by the door” says all you need to know about what a bad boy he is, no?
I would also like to suggest to all you light verse readers and writers that there is a new form waiting to be explored: The Goldberg Invitation. I will leave you with one of them from “Two Invitations,”
Make sure to come to the ambulance driver’s dance.
Your mother says to wear clean underpants.
Got it? Now have at it.
Based on its book cover and title, Snowman’s Code might seem wintry and bleak, but if you must think that way, don’t think Ingmar Bergman, think Coen Brothers. Mdge Goldberg’s book is one to turn to when you know what you mean, but you can’t find the words. Whatever the situation, somewhere in Snowman’s Code, she must have said something wise, precise, and apt.
Alfred Nicol. Animal Psalms. Able Muse Press, 2016.
Animal Psalms, the new work from Alfred Nicol, is lyrical, witty, and lots of fun. One gets the sense, from these poems, that Nicol is the sort of person who, in conversation, delivers funny lines so earnestly that you’re not sure whether you are meant to laugh. Then somewhere in the poem (as in the imagined conversation), the corner of his mouth twitches just enough to let you know that it was a joke, you got it, and you should be a little proud of yourself for having done so.
This book needs to be read at least twice through. As are many that come over the transom here at Light, it is a combination of light and heavy poems. The quality particular to Nicol’s work is that light verse technique is used to add poignancy to serious poems. For example, any time you read a character poem in this book, don’t let the character’s name pass you by. “Mason Gardner Sold His Place” starts off almost sing-songy, begging for an ee-i-ee-i-oh at the end of the title, and the first stanza or so supports this impulse. But as the details build, this late-in-life mason and gardener’s connection to his home becomes more definite and more desperate until we see his name not as a clever trick but as a kind of predestination. Similarly, Nicol achieves the serious pun in several pieces, making the play on words seem, if not holy, then at least inevitable, as in “The Guitar Maker”:
Tonewoods from earth’s four corners sent
he stacked here, stored
beneath an image of Our Lord,
who made of him the instrument
of their accord.
Nicol’s book has a category of poems that are not thigh-slappers exactly. They are funny because either the idea explored is so absurd, as in “Planning a Rescue,” in which we are given instructions on how to save people who either don’t need or don’t want saving, or because the voice in the work is so good at making fun of itself. Several poems look back to childhood and parse the serious work of it, as in “Black Spinet” (in which the first rhyme is with the title; something I find weirdly thrilling) and “Eel.” The voice in these poems has a great deal of respect for its younger self while also acknowledging the reciprocal clueless cruelties between world and child. The adult self comes in for the most ribbing. Poems such as “Dr. B___,” and “Genius” show us what goes on beneath the incredible formal control and precise observation: namely, a man with all kinds of wonderful insecurities. Indeed, as I was reading, I struggled with a description of the overarching voice in this book. Then Nicol supplied it for me in “Genius,” which may be my favorite piece in the collection and which is among its more formally and thematically relaxed poems:
“so there’s no boredom possible
unlike me, with my umbrella-
like forbearance . . .”
I have never thought of an umbrella as possessing particular forbearance, but I now have a clear picture of the man in Nicol’s work, and it fits precisely with the voice in the poems.
There are also absolutely funny poems in the book, including “Applicant Evaluation: Thomas, Dylan,” which captures the rarely dry (in many senses of the word) poet in the most arid of lists: “Communication skills: Opaque but fluid; / authoritative larynx, good with vowels.” “Bad Head Day” places a pinball game of words and images under, of all things, an epigraph from Montaigne, and “Adversary’s Ages” muddles up the words of old saws until their blades are sharp and threatening.
Animal Psalms goes to some dark places, yes, but the steadiness of Nicol’s hand on the tiller both formally and thematically makes you eager for the trip. When he does come into the light (imagining Ichabod Crane at his high school reunion, for example) you will delight in the words and images while also seeing even these poems as part of his larger itinerary.
Anthony Harrington. From the Attic: Selected Verse, 1965-2015. Kudzu Editions, 2015.
Anthony Harrington’s work has graced Light‘s pages for years, and he has been profiled here by no less than A. E. Stallings. To have now From the Attic: Selected Verse 1965-2015, the best of Harrington chosen by the poet himself, is to revel in what light verse can do.
First of all, I don’t imagine there is a form he hasn’t tried. From the couplet, as in “The Old Formalist Balances His Checkbook,”
When it comes to mathematics
I am Lee at Appomattox
to the comic ballad (such as one about a madame with a curious accessory), neither length nor subject is out of Harrington’s range.
There is, frankly, far too much in this book and far too little space in this review to do Harrington justice. Given my druthers, I would just quote endlessly all the times I thought I knew where a poem was going and then it didn’t. In one of Harrington’s many poems on well-known poets, “A Pause in the Hunt,” James Dickey scatalogically skewers his own critic, Harold Bloom, while “Lines for the Single-Minded” makes a sonnet rollick like a Gilbert and Sullivan song.
The pleasures of Harrington’s light verse are not fleeting—especially if you’re a little thick. I was initially a bit let down by “Law Enforcer,” his quatrain on X. J. Kennedy, until the punch line finally, well, punched me:
X.J. Kennedy is a poet
To whom I’m totally partial.
He should be issued a silver badge
Naming him a U.S. Martial.
If I must choose a favorite among all these goodies—or at least one that I will be emailing to several people once I finish this review—it’s “Serenity Prayer,” in which the speaker finds it hard to accept the things he cannot change:
When I am troubled by the mill of life’s daily grind—
The irritations of its low, annoying hum—
I bring the words of St. Francis softly to mind:
“Dear Lord, where is all this bird shit coming from?”
I think I may have it stitched into a sampler.
One further note on this book: Harrington has also included a number of not-light poems. Remember that a poet’s job is to tell the truth and explode the pat and pandering. Harrington’s darker poems pursue this mission even as they break your heart. Do not skip over these poems.
J. D. Smith. The Killing Tree. Finishing Line Press, 2016.
The herb rue, while bitter on the tongue, has medicinal qualities, and in some cuisines adds flavor to dishes. Rue, meaning regret or sorrow, is—Merriam-Webster tells us—etymologically unrelated to the herb. J.D. Smith’s The Killing Tree is flavored with the sorrowful, second sort of rue, but like the first kind, it has soothing properties and a flavor one easily begins to savor. How does this book belong in a review of light verse? For one thing, the noun that most easily comes to mind accompanying the adjective “rueful” is “smile,” which is the expression I surely wore while reading his book. For another, Smith’s excellent formal control is used in service of illuminating the absurd, pricking the pompous, and pouring sugar in the engine of the daily grind. Smith offers in his latest work a perspective that fearlessly explicates the world’s sorrows and shames while also loving it—and making us love it—for its imperfections.
First of all, read this book simply for the lovely, if often sad, poems in it. I won’t go into great detail on these except to say that in the general sense of lightness, Smith’s touch is just that, even when the topics are heavy. “Upkeep,” which compares a couple’s financial precariousness with the beehive that’s attached itself to their window, showing its productive insides, is a rare poem that captures the chronic wear of hardship but without bathos or pity, just with facts. Smith just might be the laureate of the dashed-dreamed cubicle-dweller who is still surprised by ordinary beauty.
There are some truly—though still ruefully—funny poems in The Killing Tree. “Spinoza at Lenscrafters,” for instance, disorients the philosopher (who was himself a lens grinder, and, according to the internet, likely killed by a related lung condition) in a shopping mall. The idea of a painstaking life’s work being reduced to a mechanical hour’s wait among the Sbarros is almost as light as this book gets. But Smith is also, quietly, a fantastic parodist. His “Envy the Dutiful” considers the kids who were likely picked on by those in Dana Gioia’s “Pity the Beautiful,” and Smith decides (rightly, I think) who wins in the end. “The Cool of ‘94” establishes the unlikely but probably-would-have-liked-each-other pairing of Villon and Cobain and shows the shallowness of our current world’s nostalgia for a time so recent I still have T-shirts from it.
A Washington D.C resident, Smith does not fail to skewer his city’s main industry. For example, “Citizen Vain” is a poem about a yuuuuuge personality very much in the news whom Smith drops neatly into Charles Foster Kane’s psyche. Smith has all sorts of subtle fun with the sexual psychopathologies both tycoons share, including giving feminine end rhymes to lines about virility: “His name writ large on thrusting towers,” and “Fresh wives imported like cut flowers.”
The Killing Tree offers a unique voice, one in which the poety ego is almost completely blocked from coming through. Instead, that random business traveler in the airport bar has his moment, as when contemplating “Monday in Las Vegas”:
Housekeeping finds stray bits of
What happens and stays here:
Pawn tickets and a red chip,
Three shoes and one brassiere.
Other Treats Over the Transom
The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology. Edited by Jerry Bradley and Ulf Kirchdorfer. Literary Press, Lamar University. 2016
This big collection—and I mean big as in the dimensions of a math workbook but lots more fun—includes many Light regulars (Claudia Gary, Michael Cantor, Catherine Chandler), some rather exalted literary names whose forays into light verse were unknown to me (Joe R. Lansdale writes poems, and Andrew Hudgins writes double dactyls—who knew?), and many wonderful new discoveries. Of course, like any bag of mixed sweets that someone else chose for you, there’s the occasional black jellybean, but you might be one of those people who enjoy black jellybeans. In any case, this book is a lovely thing to dip into if you like light verse, and it’s a most excellent Trojan horse for someone you’re trying to coax into reading poetry. With a title like this one, they’ll definitely let it past the gate.
Bugs Us All. Poems by Scot Slaby, drawings by Walter Gurbo. Entasis Press, 2016.
This volume should not look as much like a card store gift book as it does (from fonts like Papyrus, Lord preserve us), because it is a very good book of light verse. Poems about insects usually either go Disney or Kafka, but Slaby manages to make them interesting and, well, human. These short poems, most of them limericks, often turn on perfect groaner puns while the illustrations offer sly additional commentary. While some of the themes are adult-ish (if you’re a very protective parent, preread it) this is a book in which the bright child very well may get the joke before the adult, so sharing it would be lots of fun.
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 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.