Editors’ note: We’re delighted to be bringing book reviews back to Light. If you have a book you’d like considered—one that includes a large helping of light verse and was published within the previous 12 months or will be published in the next six—please send a copy to:
PO Box 408250
Chicago, IL 60640
(Pre-print-run electronic copies may be sent to email@example.com)
Light on Their Feet
(Reviews of books by Gail White, Richard Meyer, A.M. Juster, and Phillip T. Egelston)
by Barbara Egel
Gail White. Asperity Street. Able Muse Press, 2015.
Asperity Street is light verse in the way a Bengal tiger is cuddly. The fur is so inviting, you don’t notice the teeth until your arm is clenched between them—several yards away from the rest of you. Asperity Street is an inoculation against sentimentality, especially about the very young or the getting-old. Asperity Street is spiking the punch at the cotillion. Asperity Street is poems with final lines so forceful they leave a red mark on your cheek from where they slapped you without warning. That is to say, Asperity Street is the sort of book that instantly makes you wish you had read it earlier in life because you might have turned out better.
White makes you wonder whether to start with the gator or the egg. Do you let your brain appreciate the deft hand with form, which manages to avoid both clichés and excessive pyrotechnics, or do you give your soul free rein to wish for a conversation with this clear-eyed, dryly funny, and ruthlessly observant persona? Asperity Street allows plenty of room for both. The book is divided in four sections, each of which covers a life stage: “Growing,” “Working, ” “Holding,” and “Leaving.” “Growing,” a most unsentimental look at childhood and early adulthood, should be made into a pamphlet and handed to those middle-school girls who get told they will grow into their features and be “striking” eventually. It asserts with the first poem, “The Prison,” that adulthood is better, and “at any price, grow tall.” “Nostalgia for an Old Religion” begins a theme that recurs throughout the book: that one can uneasily enjoy life’s common rituals while remaining suspicious of their mechanisms. This section ends with “Haunted,” a devastating poem that explodes pat expectations of how mourning works and is a fine representation of one of White’s killer final lines:
We burned her body’s corruption
in a pure white seamless flame.
We didn’t bury my mother
but she’s walking just the same.
The middle two sections, “Working ” and “Holding,” further show White’s virtuosity within her chosen forms. Several sonnets demonstrate the versatility of the form, with voltas coming in unexpected places, as in the Ovid update, “Woman into Tree.” As the Mistress of Last Lines, White also supercharges her couplets, often turning within them to deliver a final coup de foudre in line 14. Look at “Astrolabe,” for example:
Her love, your life, remained a world apart.
It took the pair of you to break my heart.
When White is funny, which is any time she tries to be, Dorothy Parker hovers in the background, quite likely wishing she had written “The Ballade of Madame Bovary” or “I Come to the Garden.” Usually, White’s speaker is the butt of her own jokes, parsing the compromises life demands between our high ideals and our corporeal comforts and finding that the ideals can go hang for a while: “Is this contentment? Yes. Well, I’ll be damned.”
The use of forms such as sonnets and villanelles for funny poems finds a disquieting mirror image in the use of light forms for serious pieces. Dr. Seuss and Shirley Jackson each makes a slantways appearance in the title poem, (for free, Ms. White, I give you the brainstorm of an entire picture book, To Think That I Saw It On Asperity Street): the rhythm is of the nursery, but the “we” telling the story holds collective menace. Poems such as this prepare us for the final section of the book, which is its own animal. It still includes the wit and virtuosity of the previous pages, but its theme is dying: the death of loved ones and oneself. “Memory Aids” and “How I Spend My Time Since You Died” also use nursery forms for serious business. But White doesn’t let the humor languish, dark though it may be. The last line of “Post Diagnosis” made me laugh out loud (and I’ll probably go to hell for that).
I strongly advise you to come and pet this tiger. You didn’t need that extra arm, did you?
Richard Meyer. Orbital Paths. Science Thrillers Media, 2015.
Richard Meyer’s Orbital Paths plays with disorientation in a way that is absolutely addictive. Almost from poem to poem, our expectations of scale, form, theme, mood, and diction are scrambled, resulting in a book that is often lyrically moving without lulling the reader in the least. This is not to say that the ordering of the poems is haphazard or unpleasantly jarring, though at moments I yearned to be privy to the thought process that put a particular string of poems together (for example, the trio of “The Golden Age,” “Not Yet,” and “Maya Blue” exercised my eyebrows some). Instead, it is clear that Meyer is in complete control of the effect he is creating. If this long (148 pages), multi-sectioned collection has an overarching theme, it is that, to quote MacNeice, “World is suddener than we fancy it”: the cosmic and the car keys exist simultaneously, and Meyer insists that they occupy the same moment in a poem. Big C Creation begins the book, and death and its aftermath end it, resulting in a sort of epic span in small steps.
A delight typical of this book (or of some sections of it—it does go a lot of places) can be found in “Make Ready,” a lullaby that begins with fresh spring fruit, raises suspicions by rhyming “orchard” and “untortured,” and ends with an image of an entirely final sleep. This expectation that the poems will turn on a dime lends a particular sweetness to more traditionally lyrical poems, such as “Riding the Red Jacket Trail,” in which the speaker considers the drifting that takes place over the course of long relationships with the metaphor of a bike ride. Having been schooled by the previous sections to understand the cosmic accident from which we spring, the notion of just a little too much space between lovers becomes even more poignant than if the poem stood alone. That said, within poems, Meyer’s control is remarkable. When you read this collection, at moments, Frost, Dickinson, and Murphy will come to mind in the tightness of the line and the bathos-free ability to find joy in autumnal themes. Further, the range of forms both received and new continues the overall sense of happily scuttled expectation. “The Other Side of Us,” one of two long poems in the book, begins with overt echoes of Prufrock and then does something partly Eliotic and mostly entirely original with the lines on the page. Some sections are formally regular and densely single spaced where the ideas and images are certain, while others have a line or pair of lines surrounded by space as the questions posed by the poem reach ever further for answers. It is as though Meyer leaves room on the page for wisdom he may find later and invites readers to join in. Meyer also does the impossible, putting real feeling into a poem constructed entirely of punctuation (“A Life”).
If I’ve given the impression that Orbital Paths is good but not fun, please allow me to fix that. In it, you will also find a limerick about a castrated spaniel, an entire section of parodies of famous poems (Andrew Marvell comes in for a waxing), and light verses that fit the theme of the section they appear in. For example, among the cosmic speculations, we find “The Pilfered Apple”:
The two felt pleased,
the snake appeased,
the god confused.
If you find yourself faced with the Elon Muskish dilemma of having only one book of poems to take with you into space, the breadth of Orbital Paths will satisfy.
A. M. Juster. Saint Aldhelm’s ‘Riddles.’ University of Toronto Press, 2015
As this is most certainly not a journal of academic aridity, let us focus our consideration of A. M. Juster’s Saint Aldhelm’s ‘Riddles’ on whether they satisfy as light verses and leave captious questions of scholarship for drier publications.
First, you will need two bookmarks.
One is for the answers (which you will not be able to help peeking at no matter how much medieval clerical discipline you attempt) and the other for the notes, to which you will turn—after being confounded by the answers—in order to figure out things like the significance of the salamander being fireproof (Riddle 15). Next, unexpectedly, you may make a connection to something mundane in our own time, for example, that the high-intensity broilers in professional kitchens are called salamanders (your correspondent watches a lot of Top Chef), and the past and the present come neatly together. Then, through Juster’s translation, you experience a startling and very human thread of connection to a seventh-century abbot. In this work, Juster parallels what he tells us in his useful introduction was Aldhelm’s task: ” . . . he lured readers closer to an unfamiliar God with literature infused with warmth, wit, and wonder.” Juster lures us with equal warmth, wit, and wonder into the world of Aldhelm’s scholarship, humor, and devotion.
The book consists of a hundred mostly very short riddles and a Preface in the form of an acrostic. The marvel of Aldhelm’s riddles is that 13 centuries after they were written, many of them are quite solvable without the notes, and the rest make fascinating sense under Juster’s scholarly guidance. Do not read this book in a public place; people will become concerned that you are repeatedly saying “Oh!” and smacking yourself in the forehead. Even when the answer is not obscured by time and science from our contemporary view, the riddles are not easy, and new clues present themselves with each rereading. For example, Riddle 20:
Spawned without seed, produced in ways of wonder,
I load my sweetened breast with floral plunder;
Kings’ honeyed fare grows gilded through my flair.
Sharp spears of fearsome war are what I bear,
And I beat—handless!—craftsmen’s metalware.
(No, I do not plan to give you the answer; this one’s a comparative cinch.)
As the example above illustrates, most of the riddles follow the convention of first person from the point of view of the thing to be identified. This lends an unexpected poignancy to objects both lofty and commonplace. In the interest of providing a case, I will, mea culpa, spoil one of the hundred for you:
From two materials, palms molded me.
My insides glow; these guts—for sure a looting
Of flax or some thin reed—shine brilliantly,
Though flesh produced from flowers yellows now.
They’re belching fire as flames and sparks are shooting,
And maudlin tears keep dripping down my brow,
So I still clear night’s shadows that I feared;
They leave ash smudges where my guts were seared.
Indeed, that some objects were treated to Aldhelm’s pen at all and then placed among considerably loftier things makes the riddles both harder to solve and more affecting: lodged between Arcturus and the Chrismal, The Double Boiler gets a very dramatic description.
A key aspect of the riddles’ accessibility is Juster’s decision to use iambic pentameter, which makes the poems feel familiar in spite of their strange content. In his notes, Juster explains that he sought to maintain the spirit, rather than the absolute letter, of Aldhelm’s riddles as well as the sonic fun in the form of alliteration, internal rhyme, and end rhyme. In this he succeeds, and even the occasional too contemporary-seeming word choice—”steaks” for the Latin carne, for example—fit with Aldhelm’s overall tone. The decision to mirror, for the most part, Aldhelm’s end-stopped lines serves the riddle form well in that it sorts and orders the clues for us. But there is also clear evidence of A. M. Juster in these riddles. A lovely pair of lines in Riddle 76 seems to go beyond literal translation and is one of many moments in which it sounds a lot like Juster harmonizing with Aldhelm rather than trying for unison: “I caused the ancient fall from innocence; / I gave sweet apples to fresh immigrants.”
In his introduction, Juster notes, “contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre. ” Let us hope that the appearance of Aldhelm lends some dignity (but not enough to squash the fun) to this form and resurrects it for poets of today.
Phillip T. Egelston. A Liberal Education And Other Poems. 2015.
Phillip T. Egelston’s A Liberal Education is a slim volume of bad jokes, good puns, and a lot of fun. While this book does not aspire to Dantesque polysemy, the cleverness of some lines takes a while to develop, as in “Chromatography,” which ends with, “The spectrum holds and ends inviolate.” Egelston gets you at both ends, as it were. That is, the kick is either in the last line or the title, and sometimes both, as in “Gastronomy”:
Etiquette, when wise,
of course replies,
that peas supply
best repast, if he
cannot fast, for beans
—refried or otherwise—
though ingested with ease
must soon reprise.
These are easily memorized desserts (including an existential profiterole on page 16) to be shared with those who appreciate a well-crafted groaner.
Over the Transom and Over the Hill
Light received several books for consideration that unfortunately did not meet the requirement of publication within the previous 12 months. In spite of their advanced age (some from as early as 2012!), their contributions to the canon (what’s a lighter version of a cannon?) are worthy of note:
Wesli Court. Epitaphs for the Poets. Brick House Books. 2012.
Ian Graham (with illustrations by Emilie Vecruysse). Mimes, Chimes, and Rhymes. 2013.
R. S. Gwynn. Dogwatch. Measure Press, Inc., 2014.
Julie Kane. Paper Bullets. White Violet Press. 2013.
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.