by A.E. Stallings
It is said that gentlemen prefer blondes (“it is possible that blondes also prefer gentlemen,” as Mamie Van Doren would have it), but Julie Kane knows there is a breed of “Men Who Love Redheads.” Her poem of this title could be read as a retort to Yeats’ “Poem for Anne Gregory” in which the poet assures Anne that no young man can love her for herself and not her yellow hair. Even should she “get a hair-dye,/ And set such color there,/ Black or brown or carrot,” only God, Yeats assures us, can love the girl for herself and not her gold locks. Evidently Yeats (perhaps inured to “carrot” because surrounded by fiery Irish beauties?) was not the type of man whom, according to Kane, you can pick out in a crowd:
by the way he jerks his head
when an Irish setter passes,
drawn to that shade of red
or the pickup lines he utters
even to Raggedy Ann:
“If all your freckles merged,
do you know you’d have a tan?”
(Kane’s Anne is rather Raggedy Ann.) She consoles herself for these obsessive “men hung up on redheads” with:
Compared to men as a whole,
their numbers are very small,
yet without their kind in the world
you might never get laid at all.
Those who have seen Kane perform her poems (this one is a hit with audiences) will have enjoyed her girlish, mischievous, and charmingly self-deprecating presence onstage. But to be alone in a room with the poems is a rather different experience—you realize the voice has more of the sass and wisecracks of a film noir dame—smart, unsentimental, funny, sexually frank, alternately vulnerable and dangerous.
Kane has always had some darkly humorous poems in the mix of her collections. Paper Bullets, though, is a collection exclusively of “lighter poems” (admittedly divided into conflict zones, such as “Gender Wars,” or “The War on Ignorance”). The title is taken from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick professes: “Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?” (It occurs to me that in the 1993 film, Emma Thompson’s Beatrice is appropriately a redhead, as, for that matter, is Kenneth Branaugh’s Benedick.) Paper Bullets is meant to be a breeze to read, with wry quatrains and off-the-cuff couplets given entire pages to themselves—the elbow-room itself become a kind of comic timing. The short slight pieces in this book amuse, but Kane is not, I think, at heart an epigrammatist. It is the longer pieces that give full rein to Kane’s jaunty irreverence. Take “The Rivals”:
There were only three contenders
For the great big poetry prize—
Two of the feminine gender,
My frenemy and I.
So we went to lunch, extenders
Of the peace pipe, civilized.
Each demurs, saying the other deserves the prize, and decides it is only a matter of time for each; but then the competition shifts to mortality:
“But you know—I’m ten years older,”
She let slip over dessert.
“I’ve had melanoma!” I told her.
“My death is sure to come first!”
Then the room grew suddenly colder
And the versifiers, terse.
Only Kane could get a laugh with “melanoma.” The last line, with its closed-mouthed “ers,” ends in a standoff and a low growl. (Why is it that I assume the male poet carried off the prize?)
As one can see/hear, Kane wears rhyme at a rakish angle. It’s a truism that the comic muse is stricter about technique than her moodier sisters, for instance rhyme pushed to its ridiculously illogical conclusions by Byron, say, and Ogden Nash, but Kane seems to be the exception to prove the rule. Her assonances and off-rhymes do different things in different poems, sometimes giving a texture of the vernacular, an affected casualness, other times a sobering chiaroscuro to lighter/slighter efforts, or serving as a musical accidental, a blue note.
Out-and-out un-rhyme is sometimes used for emphasis. In the densely-rhymed “Alan Doll” rap, about receiving an off-brand plastic consort for the oh-so-Trademarked Barbie, the poem gives up on rhyme at the end, as Barbie herself throws up her pencil arms in despair at her cheap (literally and metaphorically) loser boyfriend:
No job, no car
Drinkin up her home bar
Stinkin up her boudoir with his cigar
Shrinkin up the cash advance
on her MasterCard
and tryin on her pink peignoir
Till she’d be saying:
“Where’s that giant hand
used to make him stand,
used to make him walk?”
A curmudgeonly series of triolets entitled “Five Things I Hate that Other People Seem to Love” includes such topics as “Melted Orange Cheeses” (note to self: do not order nachos around Kane), and the “Smell of Gasoline,” but takes a serious (indeed, confessional) turn with “Alcohol.” (“The problem is I loved it too damn much/ And now I can’t have any more at all.”) The fifth and final triolet is wryly wistful:
(A Year Ago I would have Listed Dogs)
A year ago I would have listed dogs.
I liked my up-to-that-point dogless life.
Bad breath, crotch sniffing, muddy little paws:
A year ago I would have listed dogs,
But since that time I’ve softened up because
One shelter photo stabbed me like a knife.
I can’t help thinking, being wrong on dogs,
About my husbandless and childless life.
(The “Kane triolet” often opts for a slant rhyme or assonance on line three, which itself becomes a third rhyme, giving them a more open sound and free-wheeling feel; this one appropriately almost breaks down, even as it doggedly sidesteps doggerel.) “Husbandless” suggests the phantom rhyme present in its absence: “wife.”
Kane’s takes on animals are particularly delightful. (One hopes for a bestiary in her future.) In “Dead Armadillo Song,” from an earlier collection, Body and Soul, she makes the observation:
They seem to have weights
like living-room drapes
in their bottoms, for they lie
with their feet to the sky.
By God, there’s a lot of ‘em,
fat as stuffed ottomans,
World War I tanks snared
in terrorist warfare,
or small coats of armor
whose knights became farmers.
This, perhaps, bears a family resemblance to Ogden Nash. But Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop also hover as angels of precision over Kane’s animal poems. One of Kane’s masterpieces is her syllabic “Egrets” from Rhythm and Booze. In unrhymed haiku-length stanzas, she conveys their ungainliness:
You have to love them
for the way they make takeoff
jogging a few steps,
then heaving themselves like sacks
of nickels into
the air. Make them wear
mikes and they’d be grunting
like McEnroe lobbing
a Wimbledon serve.
Then there’s the matter of their
feet, which don’t retract
like landing gear nor
tuck up neatly as drumsticks
on a dinner bird,
but instead hang down
like a deb’s size tens from
the hem of her gown.
Once launched, they don’t so
much actively fly as blow
like paper napkins,
so that, seeing white
flare in a roadside ditch, you
think, Trash or egret?—
and chances are it’s
not the great or snowy type,
nearly wiped out by
hat plume hunters in
the nineteenth century, but
a common cattle
egret, down from its
usual perch on a cow’s
rump, where it stabs bugs.
Whoever named them
got it right, coming just one
r short of regret.
Whenever I teach syllabics, I include this poem, not only for its amusement value, but its keen sense of how syllabics work, the heft of syllables weighed (take the stubby monosyllabic homespun of “rump, where it stabs bugs”) against the length of words, syntax threading through the stanzas. You know syllabics are working by the tension of the line breaks: the gravity tugging at those “sacks/ of nickels,” the improbable breath-held lift-off of the intra-stanza enjambment “into/ / the air.” (My only quibble with the brilliance of the whole performance is Kane’s slight fudging on the syllable accounting on the McEnroe line, though perhaps the delay of the syllable “like” to the next line is itself a grunt of exertion.)
Kane shows herself even in her humor to be something of a metaphysical poet, if one would define the term by similes that “yoke disparate things together by sheer violence”: in the space of eight stanzas of 17 syllables apiece, the egret is compared to a sack of coins, McEnroe serving at Wimbledon, a debutante’s size 10 shoes, a roasted turkey, a paper napkin, and trash. These are just the explicit similes—there are implied comparisons to airplanes and rockets. This is of course what makes the poem funny, but somehow the exact rightness of each unlikely comparison tickles that area of delight stimulated by the shock of recognition. I never now see a flash of white by the side of the road when driving along the coast of Georgia or South Carolina, without positing, aloud, “trash, or egret?” The last sleight of hand is the most literary—the word is seen to be an “r short” of regret, and suddenly the bird is, miraculously, both freighted and aloft.
I have also taught Kane’s sonnet “Particle Physics” when talking about metaphysical poetry. The original comparison is elegant enough:
They say two photons fired through a slit
stay paired together to the end of time;
if one is polarized to change its spin,
the other does a U-turn on a dime.
Just because she is talking physics, though, doesn’t mean Kane isn’t still grounded in the vernacular.The volta in this sonnet is a U-turn. Just when you think you know where it’s headed, we are talking about baseball:
Tonight a Red Sox batter homered twice
to beat the Yankees in their playoff match,
and, sure as I was born in Boston, when
that second ball deflected off the bat,
I knew your thoughts were flying back to me,
though your location was a mystery.
Kane has an engaging personal directness; the confessional school forms a strand of her poetic DNA. Kane was, as it happens, a student of Anne Sexton at the time of Sexton’s suicide. Kane’s poem “The Mermaid Story” is, as I read it, both a response to Sexton as a writer (who rewrote a host of fairy tales, including Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”), and a bewildered confrontation with a mentor’s self-annihilation. Sexton rewrote the tale in a loose, even slack, free verse, atypically glossing over the more sexually troubling aspects of the story—the cutting of the tail into a pair of legs, for instance. Kane embraces this in slant-rhymed quatrains:
She married the prince. His body hair
tickled like beach grass parched in sun.
An eel grew where his legs forked.
(She couldn’t speak this to anyone.)
Kane gives the fairy tale itself a happy ending, while underscoring the dark shadow of suicide in the original fairy tale (for, pace Disney, the real ending, where the mermaid chooses death for herself over killing the prince, is as tragic as they come):
Back in the anti-universe,
a woman writer with two tongues
rooted to the floor of her mouth
like anemones has just swum
so deep with her freak tail,
the sea spins and her brain goes black.
We’ll see if the tongue she bargained for
can send a message back.
The mermaid as singer, in danger of being silenced in the bargain for an ordinary life, becomes a powerful symbol of the female artist.
Sexton perhaps modeled a candor in her writing about sexuality that is evident in Kane’s own work. Kane’s poems on sex make room for the awkward and awkwardly humorous. Take the opening of “Finale” from her book of sonnets, Jazz Funeral:
How you’d begin would never be the same;
at times you’d even face me for a while.
But always, in that drive before you came,
you’d flip me over, finish doggy-style.
I’ll let you discover how this poem, er, finishes, for yourself.
As you might expect, Paper Bullets contains plenty of gleeful bawdiness. Kane is a poet who will blithely rhyme “watch” with “crotch.” She is also happy to hymn pubic hair, as part of a general ubi sunt lament for the depilation of our times, “The Ballade of Hirsuteness of Yore.” Her irreverence extends to paraprosdokian riffs on Emily Dickinson, where, in the farcical “Lost Fascicle,” she starts with a genuine ED line, and invents her own punch lines, as (1555) “I groped for him before I knew/ That he had but one Ball, not two.”
It is the poems of wry observations that attract me even more than those that crackle (or cackle) with wit. My favorite of this new collection is the part-rhymed (and those rhymes often off-kilter) “Wrong Things They Told Me,” in five sections and a coda. Take “Nuns”:
That girls not named for saints would go to hell
That newborn infants had already sinned
To never enter church without a hat
(Though squares of Kleenex could be bobby-pinned)
To fast all night before one took the host
To stick one’s tongue out for it, not the hands
That patent leather shoes reflected all
And boys would peek to see one’s underpants
That schizophrenics had their moms to blame
That stomach ulcers were brought on by stress
That female animals would always fall
For males whose plumage was the showiest
To make a carbon copy when one types
That women climax from the womb, not clit
That authors’ bios were irrelevant
To understanding works of western lit
It is somehow essential Kane to matter-of-factly use “clit” as the set-up rhyme for “western lit” instead of the other way around. These little list poems manage to convey a particular past and its restrictive world view, as well as the hard-won wisdom of the speaker, without editorializing (until, perhaps, the coda). The confessional here converges in its dual senses, literary and literal.
One of the occupational hazards of the maker of light and occasional verse is “unplanned obsolescence.” The quotidian irritations of today (dial-up modems!) are the absurd anachronisms of tomorrow. Kane charmingly fashions a poem precisely of these accidental time-capsules, which preserves and celebrates while consigning to the dustbin:
I wish I hadn’t mentioned pay phone dimes
or female hurricanes, or pink foam rollers.
My poems slowly slip behind the times.
I wish I hadn’t mentioned pay phone dimes.
Soon, editors will footnote all my lines
as coffin thieves pry silver from my molars.
I wish I hadn’t mentioned pay phone dimes
or female hurricanes, or pink foam rollers.
Of course, some hurricanes are still female, Katrina certainly; (Sandy I suppose is androgynous.) Readers whose funny bones are tickled by Paper Bullets will want to explore some of Kane’s other “serious” works; Kane is comfortable in the awkward places between comedy and tragedy in which so much of life unfolds. In “First Re-Entry, Post-Katrina,” Kane starts by comparing her beloved New Orleans to a cancer-stricken friend:
As if a friend you used to see a lot
but haven’t, lately, stops you on the street,
and right away you note the baseball cap,
the skeleton that has begun to peek . . .
The City Care Forgot (and then recalled)
comes into focus from your moving car,
whole blocks of houses with their doors kicked in
and rooflines covered with blue FEMA tarps,
and though the specialists must have their say
you see yourself it could go either way.
Kane’s poems themselves have this ambiguous quality (the ending here reminds me a bit of the unresolved conclusion of Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush”)—will they end with a guffaw of relief or a tragic turn? We trust in the resilience of the poet, and enter her quirky sensibility again and again. We turn our heads without thinking to watch the red hair go swaying down the street.