SEPTEMBER 30, 2020
ONE BROODS ON THE title of A. M. Juster’s 10th collection. As befits a conversational lyricist sporting a sensitive ear and a facility with rhyme and meter, there are isolated moments of “wonder” in these poems — but wherefore wrath? On a human scale, the emotion surfaces rarely in the volume. The first display is in a Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award–winning entry (Juster has scored three, evidently a record). This poem, “No,” is a stout refusal-to-mourn — if to mourn a death means to celebrate a life — but it has none of the metaphorical or lexical range of Dylan Thomas’s famous anti-elegy. And why should it? Here the sentiment is closer to disgust, necessitating a barren register. Think of Millay’s “Dirge Without Music” (“I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”), and you get the idea, though in Juster’s poem the contempt is reserved not for death but for self-annihilation:
[…] Why should we glorify
descent into a solipsistic hell?
Stop. Softly curse the waste. Don’t elevate
his suffering to genius. Never tell
me he will live on. Never call it fate.
Attend the service. Mourn. Pray. Comfort those
he lacerated. Keep him in your heart,
but use that grief to teach. When you compose
a line, it is a message, not just art.
Be furious with me, but I refuse
to praise him. No, we have too much to lose.
“No” is Juster at his most dogmatic. His “message” is more often oblique, with any tendency to “wrath” dissolving in oracular language and vague presentiments. Or not so vague — a few poems hint at a cancer scare, notably “Autoimmune Attack,” with its trope of a war on terror (“I cannot crack the code. What makes them choose / an insurrection pairing suicide / with slaughter?”). In another poem, a curse translated from Middle Welsh, a battered wife invokes a suitably grim fate for her tormentor. A more characteristic mood is set by “Cassandra,” a well-turned sonnet in which the prophetess says, in the final line, “a blade is always being honed for me.” This portent is recast in the poem “Inertia.” In five quatrains, each composed of two or more half-rhymes and lines alternating between dimeter and trimeter, Juster tells of “the gleaming, fatal weight” borne by a frozen tree that threatens to fall into the road:
old maple lost three limbs
to rain that felt
like reprimands from God.
Scraggly, and cut
unevenly for years
to spare town wires,
it angles toward the street.
The plural of “reprimand,” in the first stanza quoted above, raises questions. Are we supposed to conceive of each raindrop as a reprimand, or is Juster associating the fallen limbs with the “reprimands”? Grammar would seem to rule out the latter option. So, concluding that he wants “rain” to equal “reprimands,” one briefly asks if Juster should have swapped the plural abstract noun with “a rebuke,” which would have held the meter while clarifying the sense. Even so, the triteness of his figure — rain as an act of God — is sufficient cause for regret.
As the pages go by, the conjoining of wrath and wonder in Juster’s book title starts to feel earned. “Behold,” a slab of loose iambic pentameter, begins:
Let the state highway cleave cold, stubbled fields
so that both empty lanes extend like grace,
and let prim churches in the ratio
of seven Baptist to each Methodist
appear with rigid regularity
close to the road, their dead even closer
with small, flat rusting markers on most graves […]
The driver exchanges these stern surroundings for a cemetery “where pines aspire / to reach where crows and turkey vultures rule.” Then severity and foreboding yield to opulence, to:
the blush and burgundies of morning clouds
that do not stifle early rays of sun
from blanketing the hillside’s eastern slope
where mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles wait
and gravestones chalice that unearthly light.
The nifty conversion of “chalice” to a verb offsets the dead metaphor appearing two lines earlier. As for those crows and turkey vultures, the very next poem, “Surveillance,” extends the predatory vibe by noting two “[j]ackbooted jays,” who, trying “to eat small eggs / nestled in holly, / return to eye / our sparrows’ young.” The dimeters continue: “They dive and veer, / and rise to rest / on splintered pickets, / then brashly fly / through walls of leaves.” The animal kingdom, and not hellfire or its opposite, supplies Juster with his most convincing models for wonder and wrath alike. The couple makes a cameo at the end of “Three Visitors,” a poem about three coyotes who contemplate raiding the poet’s backyard trash. Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” this is not, as the coyotes suspend their hunger and even partake in the poet’s vision (rendered in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse):
As the highway hums they howl through the calm,
then savor new scents that spice their path
in this world awash in wonder and wrath.
They also partake in the jacket design; three inkblots of coyotes stalk the cover.
Beyond original poems, the book features translations from Latin, Chinese, Oromo, and other languages. Juster already has brought out scholarly editions of Horace, Tibullus, Maximianus, and Milton’s Latin verse, all in English. A standout addition to this oeuvre is Juster’s reading of the love elegy that Housman wrote for Moses Jackson — “the last Latin poem written by a major poet,” he claims in a translator’s note. But arguably, the most rewarding item in this section is a free-verse poem with a confused narrator. The italicized tag arrives as a punchline: “(from the English of Billy Collins).” The humor is welcome, both here and in “Proposed Clichés” (“Ask not what your country can do, / for fear of the answer”). For this reader, it falls short in “Rounding Up the Mimes” and a variation on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Against those belabored efforts set the charming “Visitation,” short enough to quote in full:
We wander at the scene
of first and final love,
and what was there remains:
warm light through window panes,
a call across the courtyard,
the bristling of elms
with offhand majesty.
Juster is the anagrammatic pen name of Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration from 2007 to 2013. Retirement-Age Blues is the invisible subtitle of Henry Sloss’s collection, which, like Juster’s, recruits formal verse technique for the poems and an ampersand for the title — in this case, Here & Then. (Each book also bases a poem on Cassandra of Troy. An omen for the times?) In Sloss’s “A Pensioner’s Lament,” we read:
His appetite for sex loosens its grip —
what was all that about? —
its chokehold! These days breast and butt
entice him less than barley, grape.
The deep dark seeps into dawn’s nondescript
colorlessness, its blotter;
the sky, as empty as his bladder,
will soon be covered in blue carpet.
You wouldn’t think so from the lines just quoted, but Sloss gets some of his most promising effects by musing on Geras and Eros simultaneously. As with “A Pensioner’s Lament,” these lyrics consist of quatrains in pararhymes or straight rhymes. In “Berkeley, 1960,” the speaker reminisces about high school or college:
I knew a girl like that,
The first I ever saw
Naked — as a thought
Too beautiful to say.
I’d never been in love,
Maybe she hadn’t either —
Too happy, scared, alive
Not to betray each other?
Perhaps. What did they know
Of all they had been given
To lose, those children, new
To losses long lives govern?
Slightly better are “Her Picture, His Poem” and “Too Long Song,” each focused on the poet’s ex-wife or lover. The former poem is fairly ingenious, with the man and woman speaking in separate sections, each allotted six quatrains of trimeter in an ABAB rhyme pattern. Scanning an old photo, the man starts to disclose her infidelity:
The camera sees discord
Between your smile and eyes,
Reports you restless, bored;
At least it never lies.
His account is full of spite and epithets; hers is generous and reasonable. While not denying having hurt him, she neatly answers every charge and, putting a spin on his final line, parrots it back to him. The poignancy comes from reflecting on the title: since the poem is his and the photo is hers only in the sense that she is the subject, her forgiveness can be understood as wish-fulfillment on his part.
Sloss’s lines feel lived-in, the product of decades spent circling over memories from youth and middle age. Especially in his longer poems, the results can be stirring. In the sequence “Kaleidoscope: Chapters from a Novella,” Sloss recounts a young family’s idyllic move from southwestern Virginia to a stone farmhouse in Umbria. Looking ahead to the couple’s eventual break-up, he resignedly states:
[…] But they hadn’t moved in
To the house among the lonely olive trees
To live there for as long as they could, but well;
And the joy that was theirs, so unlikely, won,
Outlasts their stay and will live as long as they.
By recreating a moment in time, poetry can salvage joy from personal loss and failure — this is the core wisdom of Sloss’s book. In “The Coming of Age,” the poet shrugs at the imminent sale of a country home he had purchased 20 years ago with an inheritance. Though affecting not to mind, he admits to “eliding hours, seasons of happiness / at simply being able to be there.” In “Dashiell Hammett Lived Here,” Sloss stakes out San Francisco from a rented room and concludes: “How to be happy as you are / remains an unsolved mystery.” The next poem has Sloss adjourning to a London pub, “chastened” by “[u]neasy ambiguities” after touring the neighborhood once inhabited by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. After this brush with human “genius and our works, our cruelty,” he prefers simpler pleasures: “dark pints, fish and chips, / A quiet Be & Be.”
Thinking again of Juster’s prize-winning sonnet “No,” one recalls how he had denounced “Plath’s nightshade lies” as contributing to “a solipsistic hell.” The poems of Sloss and Juster, though plenty introspective, avoid self-indulgence at all costs. One cost or sacrifice, it has to be said, is a more daring vocabulary, which might have relieved a general flatness of diction. All the same, these poets’ consciously plain styles give ample scope for wonder.
Henry Sloss’s Here & Then can only be purchased by directly contacting the publisher, Orchises Press.