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Light on Their Feet
by Barbara Egel
(Reviews of books written or edited by Edmund Conti, Midge Goldberg, Gabe Henry, Chris O’Carroll, and J.D. Smith)
One of the joys of this job is that nearly always, at least two books in a set of reviews have something to say to each other. This season, there is so much chatter among the entries that I’ve begun to think of it as the most hilarious cocktail party ever. In the window seat, Midge Goldberg and Chris O’Carroll talk about hiding serious points in funny poems and why villanelles make great light verse. Edmund Conti is deep in conversation with Kevin Smith about brevity and baseball when Jerry Seinfeld (yes, that Jerry Seinfeld) walks up to ask Ed about Seinfeld’s appearance in one of his poems. Over by the onion dip, J. D. Smith (who probably has a lot to say about onion dip) and Chloe Radcliffe have a very meta conversation about intellectual snobbery while also dodging puns from Natasha Vaynblat and Colin Mochrie. Everyone leaves with a Potcake Chapbook and promises to do it again next month.
As much fun as it would be to continue imagining this gathering, let’s talk about the books, shall we?
Catalogs for Food Lovers, by J. D. Smith. Kelsay Books, 2021.
Smith’s previous book of poems, The Killing Tree, (reviewed here), was mostly melancholy but showed the same refined skill as the light verse he’s published here many times. I’m happy to say that Catalogs for Food Lovers is entirely light, and an absolute riot. I’m going to assume (based on nothing but anecdotal evidence) that light-verse poets have in common with comedians the fact that they read each other’s work not only for enjoyment but to see how they do it—to dissect the joke for why it works or how it could be better. The comedian’s comedian is the one who’s so funny that technical curiosity is completely overshadowed by belly laughs, and the comic virtuosity comes across as magic. Smith’s new work puts him in the category of light-verse-poet’s poet.
Let’s talk for a minute about what makes good light verse. First, there’s technical ability. Light verse is much less accommodating of metrical substitutions or near rhymes (unless near rhyme is the point) than serious poetry. Light verse also involves some or all of the following: word play, punning, parody, satire, messing with the connection between what the eye sees on the page and what the ear hears, mixing high and low culture and language, extreme lateral thinking, extreme literal thinking, and punchlines that fold into the form like a pear in a Harry and David box (see p. 51). I’m sure I’m missing some elements, but I made this list to say that Smith has quite a facility for all of these and probably whatever other points I’ve left out.
Regarding technical ability, Smith packs this book full of received forms, including the sonnet, ballad stanza, and limerick. His villanelles are particularly noteworthy for their variety. “Eulogy, First Draft” is, I think, the only dimeter villanelle I’ve ever seen, and the short refrains hit like rabbit punches. In general, refrains in villanelles have to do a lot of heavy lifting, so they tend to be rather elevated. “Beginning with a Line from the Zingerman’s Catalog” makes “Why does this can of tuna cost so much?” do its own raging against the buying of the lite with great effect. Speaking of Dylan Thomas, Smith turns his famous villanelle into a parody about a ruckus at a sushi bar.
I’m warning you now that this book will cause you to bother the people you love by reading them the short pieces that made you laugh. Even poems made up entirely of just two or four lines leave a lot to think about. The poem “Array of Efforts” is a collection of short poems about work. Here’s “Moving Day, Abridged” in its entirety:
Till we wept.
Smith’s own invention, the critterhew (clerihews about animals, if you hadn’t guessed), appears here in “busted abecedary” form (there are only fifteen), from armadillo to sheep.
Longer poems of note include “Omaha Steaks,” which is an exploration of an obvious question: if the cattle for its steaks are supposedly raised on the Nebraska plains, where does the company raise the lobsters and shellfish it also sells? A gorgeous bit of silliness, “Rare Species,” details the effects on the ecosystem of “the Magnolia of Mongolia” before conceding that it’s entirely fictional. I won’t spoil the punchline of “Song of Labor,” but oh my goodness.
Frankly, I could keep quoting this book all day, but I’m sure Mr. Smith and his publisher would rather you just get your own and read it in public where people will wonder what on earth you have to laugh at so hard.
To Be Opened After My Death, by Midge Goldberg. Kelsay Books, 2021.
The last Midge Goldberg book critiqued here was Snowman’s Code, a lovely book with some light verse in it and a lot of really fine serious poetry. In To Be Opened After My Death, she has flipped the proportions. But her ability to make the reader think in new ways transcends distinctions between light and serious, which makes this book substantial and a lot of fun.
Goldberg’s distinctive lyric voice shapes the collection. I’m not sure I’ve ever, just from a poet’s work, thought they’d be a good person to have nearby in an emergency, but the “I” in Goldberg’s poems is so competent, cool, and capable of articulating the ineffable that you’d want her around for everything from a sprained ankle to a spiritual crisis. The sonnet “In the Attic,” which opens the book, is in that lyric voice, and in fourteen lines captures the ambivalence that comes of trying to balance practicality with one’s duty to remember. A photo of a childless and long-dead aunt and uncle is moved from its frame to make room for pictures of the next generation. The final poem in the book, a sonnet called “Echoes,” refers to the children whose photos will go in the frame. The poem describes how Swedish Fish candy was used as “gummy currency” when the children were little, traded for chores and privileges. Now as visiting adults, the kids barter with the fish—and with wine this time—as their poet mother contemplates them leaving home again.
Among the delights of this book are the persona poems, which take Goldberg’s lyric voice in interesting directions. These persona poems clearly signal they’ve been Goldbergified: the perspective will be new, the self-evaluation unsparing, and when there is sentiment, it will be complex and surprising. All of this may sound quite serious, but these are funny poems, just ones that hide unexpected questions. The title sonnet is a particular favorite because of how it achieves this. The character Goldberg embodies is Minnie Mouse, who was “born” a fully adult mouse in 1928 and who addresses the poem to “all the women of my generation.” Okay, a cartoon mouse with giant shoes and fawning attitude toward her mister: this is going to be a trifle, right? Nope. Goldberg’s Minnie goes through the indignities of a woman of the Greatest Generation, marrying for reputation and keeping her image squeaky clean (sorry) since she “had to be a symbol for the nation.” But it turns out she used those ears in the war effort, gaining a code name, and she signs the poem, with considerable dignity, “Minerva (“Minnie”) Mouse.” I confess, this poem has me close to tears each time I read it, which on one hand feels ridiculous, and on the other hand is a testament to the power of Goldberg’s storytelling.
Goldberg forgivingly explores our impulse to attach humanity to the inanimate in the poem “Curiosity No Longer Sings Happy Birthday to Itself.” The Mars Rover was programmed to sing “Happy Birthday,” and people responded overwhelmingly to its loneliness and to the complex feelings evoked when it stopped singing. After talking about how weird it is for people to cry over the fate of a machine (and a distant celebrity one at that), Goldberg ends with:
But still I pitied the ordeal
your code was going through—
not to think that you can feel
would mean I feel less too.
Other persona poems continue these fresh looks at known characters and stories. Pharaoh’s daughter is done being an “awkward plot device” and demands to be seen as a whole person and a real mother to Moses. A poem in the voice of musical theater star Bernadette Peters traces the change in expectation between audience and actor when that actor can be lauded just for hauling herself back out on stage at her age:
Sometimes just for fun I’ll wink at you,
so you know that I know you know it’s me
They are all in on it together.
Several poems hint at a longer (book-length, I hope) piece called “The Inn.” In these, characters who inhabit or supply what seems to be a quaint New England inn have their say. “The Fire-Tender” speaks to the satisfaction of doing an unrecognized job well. “The Baker” explicates the unexpected consolations of hard work and different kinds of connection with people. “The Florist” tells of the loving but decidedly unmagical life that makes the inn so magical.
In addition to the persona poems (including many stellar ones I don’t have space to mention), there are many other clever light-verse pieces. “Smart Tales” is a series of limericks about how technology could have changed the fates of various fairy-tale women. Cinderella would have had a much better time with the right apps:
Let’s say that you have a new dress,
and your boyfriend is anyone’s guess:
go enjoy being posh
as long as your squash
has a clock and a good GPS.
If you’ve ever wondered what a hydroponic plant thinks of its tenuous existence, how Edna St. Vincent Millay felt in her first two-piece bathing suit, or how one might milk a personal ad, Goldberg has already thought of it, and you will have a blast discovering what she’s concluded.
Abracadabratude, by Chris O’Carroll. Kelsay Books, 2021.
Rarely do I feel about light verse, “This is not the poem I want, it’s the poem I need,” the way I sometimes do about serious verse. In Chris O’Carroll’s new collection, I found the poems I need, and it turns out I really want them as well. There’s delightfully goofy stuff in here, but there’s also necessary medicine hidden in the bonbons and bons-mots.
Sometimes light verse that looks at contemporary subjects can project a sense of “Oh, you crazy kids with your Blackberrys and Tetris and vaper cigarettes!” However, one of the strengths of this book is that O’Carroll is very much a person of his time, and he rides the line between light verse and serious impact in a way that feels fresh and incisive. “Tattooist’s Tale” is a persona poem in which the artist discusses bad decisions he’s been asked to cover up. “Theology” lays out six perfect light-verse lines on both the wonderment that creates the need for a god and the human impulses that religion tries to control. On a similar theme, “Postcards from the Afterlife” is a sixteen-line monorhyme (O’Carroll is a whiz at these: see “Elementary” with its fifteen rhymes for “Mendeleev”) in which the speaker’s vision of heaven is so blissful and egalitarian that he wonders how he made it in.
His parodies encompass everything from Keats’s tombstone (“writ in H2O”) to the Owl and the Pussycat’s honeymoon to “Toke Me Out to the Ball Game,” in which he imagines how Major League Baseball’s decision to remove marijuana from its list of banned substances will play out on the field. If I tell you this poem might also have been named “Casey at the Bong,” you’ll know how the parody goes.
As readers of Light will know, O’Carroll loves wordplay, and his use of short, light-verse forms like limericks and double dactyls is delightful. The section of the book called “Abracadabratude” is all double dactyls, and mighty sophisticated ones at that. Where else have Titus Andronicus, Anthony Hecht, and Xaviera Hollander been in such close quarters? That last one gets in “pubococcygeus,” which deserves an entry in the Dactyl Hall of Fame. Even in the giggly bits, however, O’Carroll makes us think. “Monticello Updates the Exhibits” includes the line “Also consensual?” which is probably enough to convey to you the gist of the verse. Similarly, “Filmericks” unpacks famous movies. The limericks about The Graduate and Star Wars are especially good. A pair of limericks makes up “Balcony Scene,” in which Shakespeare’s young lovers go full-on high-school-behind-the-bleachers with rhymes like “Verona” and “gives me a bona.” (The third rhyme in that stanza I will leave you to discover. It doesn’t disappoint.)
On the more serious side, O’Carroll includes a complex poem about Arab Spring in 2011 and its reliance on social media to share news. He contrasts the age of the civilization with the technological wizardry of its youth in part by crafting the poem in rubaiyat stanzas such as this:
A Book, a Loaf, a Jug—Youths might desire
These Luxuries, but All that they require
Is Access to the Websites where they seize
And reprogram this Scheme of Things entire.
The poem finds room in its ancient form for Facebook, and for the courage demonstrated by the young, which makes it urgent and timeless. Its ending plays with hope in ways painful and beautiful.
O’Carroll also articulates how poetry does make things happen (sorry, Wystan), even if those responsible for it don’t always acknowledge their responsibility. “On a White Conceptual Poet’s Performance of Michael Brown’s Autopsy Report” is a necessary and devastating couplet criticizing Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2015 coup de théâtre. “To a Defender of Poetic Tradition” calls on the carpet those who dismiss spoken-word and slam poetry out of hand. What’s amazing about this piece is that it looks like tidy, formal rhymed couplets on the page, but read aloud, it has the internal rhymes and rhythms of a spoken-word piece.
It’s generally unwise to generalize
About whole genres when you criticize.
is just one example. The mic drop at the end is epic.
One last note on another kind of poem in this book: O’Carroll’s very good at writing sensuality, and in Abracadabratude, he does it in many different ways. “Credo” is a straight-up love poem, and “Touch Acrostic” takes a light-verse approach, conflating the keyboard and the body in a way all writers will appreciate, asking the beloved to
Have at me with your practice and precision.
Jolt me in high-speed bursts with pinpoint aim.
Key in coordinates for sweet collision.
Finally, “Ditch Lily,” one of my favorites in the book, describes a flower on first reading but then disturbs the imagination until the flower becomes a woman, and the poem still applies.
This is a rewarding book both in terms of craft and subject. Its breadth of funny, feeling, and philosophy constitutes quite a journey.
That Shakespeherian Rag, by Edmund Conti. Kelsay Books, 2021.
I first met John Mella, the founder of Light, in the mid-‘90s, and I became a subscriber to the journal soon after. While preparing to review Edmund Conti’s new book, I went through all of the old print issues I’ve saved (which is not a complete set but collects enough dust to be impressive), and Conti is in all of them. Therefore, I think even the most persnickety logician would agree that to be a Light reader is at minimum to be accepting of the work of Edmund Conti, though rabid fandom is substantially more likely, Q.E.D.
After decades of being the ur-poet at Light, Conti published his first full collection in 2018 and has now blessed us with another. I mean that sincerely. This book is a treasure chest of all the things that made you open up every new issue of Light (okay, “click on,” you unromantic heathen) and search for the Cs. That Shakespeherian Rag takes its title, of course, from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The next lines in that poem are “It’s so elegant / So intelligent”—just like this book. “Elegant” may seem like an odd word for a book of verse, but when a smart person isn’t afraid to be silly, his readers find themselves gleefully diving into poems which, in less capable hands, would be downright undignified.
Let’s start with what I think of as Conti’s CliffsNotes. Beginning with Ulysses, pivoting to Dickens in “Two Cities in Two Minutes,” and moving on to Madame Butterfly, Hamlet, and all of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the last two verses in double dactyls), Conti offers the indifferent English major a way to earn at least a few points on that midterm. Here’s the Tolkien one entire:
Penned the adventures of
Frodo and friends.
Told of their journey in
Book after book after
Book till it ends.
What professor wouldn’t find that sufficient?
Conti’s parodies are for those who actually passed the lit class. He turns Robert Frost’s
“The Gift Outright” into “Frostfree,” a villanelle about what exactly that first line even
means. It begins,
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
It used to be the other way around
But that is something no one understands.
In “Witness,” the Belle of Amherst is regarded by the fly who buzzed when she died, and who is a lot less profound than one would imagine. A certain former laureate comes in for a drubbing in “The Love Song of J. Billy Collins,” which has all the famous poet’s tics on full display in a way that would make Eliot scuttle away faster than a pair of ragged claws.
One of my favorite things about Conti’s work is his awareness of form and his complete confidence in playing with it. Where in his brain “Three Haiku Embedded in a Classic Light Verse Quatrain” came from, I can’t even imagine, but to quote Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.” The poem is exactly what the title says, and it’s hilarious, involving eye rhymes, hearty sauces, triple meters, cherry blossoms, and, if you dig deep enough, Isaiah Berlin. “How to Write a Sestina” tells you not to use “one-function” words, like “braggadocio,” which, of course, sticks the poem with “braggadocio” for another five stanzas.
Some of his poems generate the particular flavor that occurs when a dry wit meets a sweet subject. In “Poetry in Motion,” the speaker and his wife are gazing at the stars and trying to identify the same one. Wife insists he should know which one she’s pointing at:
I try to explain
to her that my star over the telephone pole
is not the same as hers. But parallax
is best consummated in daylight
between consenting adults. I try again.
Do you mean Sirius, I ask, pointing out
the bright star in the constellation Orion.
Get serious, she laughs, and I know this will be
a night to remember. My wife has made a joke.
And now I’m going to stop trying to convince you of something you already know, which is that Conti is one of the deans of contemporary light verse.
Eating Salad Drunk: Haikus for the Burnout Age by Comedy Greats, edited by Gabe Henry; foreword by Aparna Nancherla; illustrations by Emily Flake. Macmillan, 2022.
There is a long, fraught history of celebrities famous for other art forms deciding to try their hand at poetry and, because of their fame, taking precious shelf space and publishing dollars away from seasoned poets such as those who appear in Light. From Leonard Nimoy to Suzanne Sommers to Jewel to James Franco, celebrity versifiers have had a high poetic bar set for them and have nearly always fluffed it spectacularly. Thus, it’s a very good thing that Gabe Henry chose comedians and haiku to organize this anthology, which is both a funny book and a fundraiser for Comedy Gives Back, a nonprofit that provides mental health, medical, and crisis support resources for comedians.
Haiku is almost perfect for standups. Aparna Nancherla, in her Foreword, talks about how both the verse form and standup require brevity: “Nobody ever says about a great joke they’re trying to recall, ‘Hold on, let me just get my pages in order here.’” In his introduction, Gabe Henry goes into a bit more detail about the history of the form, which is built on a comic slant and accommodates fart jokes nicely. This is a book full of funny stuff, some of which hits you right away, and some of which takes time to land. In the poets’ corner of whatever heaven there is, Bashō is LOL-ing.
The list of participants in this wonderful nonsense is impressive. It ranges from mainstream comedians even your grandma has heard of, like Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine Boosler, and Ray Romano, to edgier folk the kids are into, such as Emmy Blotnick, Chloe Radcliffe, Natasha Vaynblat, and Mike Birbiglia. Editor Henry didn’t confine himself to standups, and has included improv performers like Colin Mochrie and even director Kevin Smith. Frequent Light contributor Paul Lander has two very funny pieces in the book, which speaks well for its overall pedigree. Frequent Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! panelist Josh Gondelman supplies the book’s title:
Eating salad drunk
Is both irresponsible
Also on the food-and-drinking theme, Giulia Rozzi offers a new angle on brunch:
Mimosa is French
For “drunk girls crying before
Noon on a Sunday.”
Though Henry claims he relaxed the rules of haiku somewhat, there are examples of all the ways haiku is a complete and resonant form. British comedian Milton Jones, who might be thought of as an optimistic Brother Theodore, offers a poem you have to think about for a sec:
I’m a member of
Not that they know yet.
This anthology is a lot of fun, helps a good cause, and introduces some comedians whose work you might like in other contexts, even if they use more than seventeen syllables at a time.
Also Over the Transom
Extreme Formal Poems, Edited by Beth Houston. Rhizome Press, 2021. (The anthology includes work by many Light poets.)
Luminous Limericks, written and illustrated by Gregory Pastoll. 2021.
More in the Potcake Chapbook series published by Sampson Low Ltd. (also chockablock with Light poets).
Families and Other Fiascoes
Houses and Homes Forever
Robots and Rockets
Travels and Travails