Knives out, ladies and gentlemen!

Going by the statistics that I get from this blog’s dashboard, the “On Formalism” post has been, by any measure, the biggest hit. It is Thin Lizzy’s the “Boys Are Back in Town” to the Cullen review’s “Cowboy Song”–even though I think the Cullen review is more important. Where “formalism” is concerned, I’m just one more asshole without a particularly fundamentalist position throwing few comments into a fairly tedious but perhaps necessary debate presently in its third decade. Catherine Ann Cullen, on the other hand, has a first collection out. Likewise, Gail White’s book, from a longtime stalwart of the “New Formalist” scene, strikes me as rather more interesting, too.

But we sure do like a controversy, don’t we–even when the thing is kicked off by a note saying that this reviewer, at least, is sick to death of the metrical verse/free verse thing being played zero-sum. And the Joe Salemis are as responsible for that as the Diane Wakoskis. And I suspect I’m far from the only one who feels this way.

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Rose Kelleher Reviews Gail White’s Easy Marks

Okay, I don’t have much book-reviewing experience, or any qualifications other than as an occasional reader of poetry for pleasure. But I thought I’d take a crack at Gail White’s new book, Easy Marks, because, uh, I like it, and why not.

First, a disclosure: Gail White included a poem of mine in one of her light verse anthologies, “Kiss and Part,” a few years ago. Needless to say, having been published by the prestigious Doggerel Daze has been a huge boost to my career. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t be the fabulously wealthy, internationally famous poet I am today. Still, I’ll try to set aside my gratitude and be objective.

Anyway. When the book arrived in the mail, I was all excited. I knew Gail White was known for her light verse, and I figured her book would be the perfect thing to read after a hard day’s work, drinking a glass of wine, bare feet on the coffee table. You know, a mental vacation, like a mystery novel or a comic strip collection. If that sounds like faint praise, well, it’s not. Entertainment is a good thing. Necessary, even.

I was surprised to find that only about half the book (the first half) was devoted to light verse. Surprised, not disappointed. Gail’s (I’ve never met her, and I know it’s more professional to refer to her by her last name, but there’s something about her voice that makes that feel wrong somehow) “light” and “serious” verse are not all that easily sorted into separate folders. Her verse — mostly, but not all, rhymed and metrical — is literate (I had to look up “glaucous”) yet accessible, not too dense to enjoy on a crowded subway. Her best “light” verse has a bitter edge, like Dorothy Parker’s (you know, like Resume and Bric-a-Brac). And her “serious” verse never commits the sin of taking itself too seriously. She can be earnest, she can be erudite, but she’s never pompous.

The problem with a lot of light verse is that, despite its modest goal of being mildly entertaining, it fails to achieve even that: instead it’s corny and old-fashioned, like those comedians who cross their eyes and talk in weird voices. Ba-dump-BUMP. That kind of light verse is always rhymed and metered, relying heavily on cutesy-clumsy rhyme pairs like “loaf’ll/offal,” rather than, say, ideas that are actually original and amusing. ( Ogden Nash often made a point of stretching for rhymes, but in his verse that’s a device, not the whole shtick.) In a couple of her ballades, she maybe leans in that direction, but on the whole Gail’s stuff is a cut above.

The weakest pieces, I think, are ones Quincy would call “canon poems”: poems where some classic fictional character speaks in contemporary idiomatic English, and that’s funny, you see, because it’s unexpected (not!). Like “Queen Gertrude’s Soliloquy”:

I wish he wouldn’t sulk. It’s unbecoming,
and first impressions ought to be our best.
Then I do wish he’d stop that beastly humming
and talking to himself. “Give it a rest–
you’re acting out!” I long to say, but no,
a mother can’t, that’s being interfering….

There aren’t many of those, though, obviously, since, as I said, I like the book. Overall my impression is: here’s the voice of a wry, witty female who’s been around the block; is thoughtful and well-read, but not bookish; was raised Catholic, but isn’t religious; likes beer and tacos, and men, too, though they don’t deserve it, damn them; and doesn’t care if Poetry never publishes her.

But don’t take my word for it, read some examples. Here’s the end of “Breaking Down in the South”:

…but still the fame and glamour
of a Nervous Breakdown hung around their necks
like a name-brand diamond. Now, in middle age,
I’m told my dismal state is just depression,
reactive, mild – here, try a little Prozac.
Dammit, I don’t want drugs. I only want
to be eccentric, batty, somewhat daft,
covered by Aunt Leona’s mental mist.
Again, my generation gets the shaft.
I’m due for a breakdown, and they don’t exist.

Here’s a stanza from “The Jump Off Putney Bridge,” about Mary Wollstonecraft’s failed suicide:

Inhaling Thames was cold and painful,
but less humiliating than being fished
up like a turtle, taken to a pub
and queasily revived. Embarrassing
Moments of the Enlightenment–Grand Prize.

Here’s the delightfully goofy first stanza of “Song, In Imitation of Christina Rossetti, and Beginning with a Line by Edmund Wilson”:

My brain is like a piece of cheese
That quivers with a million mites.
My brain is like a fast ballet
Where all the dancers split their tights.
My brain is like a Ferris wheel
Whose rusted gears have ceased to work.
My brain is bleaker than all these
Because my love is such a jerk.

Here’s the end of “The Disappearance of Mary Magdalene”:

Underground, her faith ran like a waterfall. She lived
a hermit’s life. If women sought her out,
their stories thumped like washing on the rocks,
buckets in wells. Theirs was a gospel word
that shunned the daylight – tales Paul never heard.

And here’s a link to a sonnet of hers I find stunning, “Christmas On Rhodes,” published in the December 2007 issue of Lucid Rhythms:

http://www.lucidrhythms.com/December-2007/Gail_White.htm

Then again, I would like a poem like that, being both a fan of the sonnet form, when it’s used well, and a wishy-washy ex-Catholic of the “There is no God, and Mary is His mother” variety. You might dislike it (i.e., you might be Stupid and Soulless and Wrong); if so, you probably won’t like “Easy Marks.” You also won’t like Gail White if you’re one of those men, who seem to be everywhere these days, who have conniption fits whenever an anthology of women poets is published, or a woman makes a humorous generalization about men. These are the same men, ironically, who are always accusing feminists of being whiners. But I digress.

I do have one last petty complaint. There are several typos in the book. One of them is on the title page of the first section: “Dysfuncational Families.” Actually that’s kind of cute, and at first I thought it was deliberate, but it’s not spelled that way in the Table of Contents. Anyway there are several other typos that aren’t cute. Tsk tsk tsk! Editors are supposed to catch those things, and even if they don’t, authors are supposed to proofread the proofs. That’s why they call them proofs. For her punishment, I hereby fine Gail White in the amount of one beer and two tacos, payable to me if and when she’s ever in the Gaithersburg area.