Sunday, January 21, 2018

`Letting Them Laugh'

Most of today’s poetry is dreary, in-bred stuff. Don’t read it if you need a lift. Read this instead:

“The coast of Maine is painted brown and gray
So starlings, grackles, gulls and crows
Have safe but somber feathers to display.
A more forgiving land would not foreclose
Some lusher oranges, blues or indigos.

“A cardinal returns to perch alone,
Though it is weeks before a thaw.
His sudden scarlet jars like blood on bone,
And shows that evolution has a flaw
That spares some whimsy from the grip of law.”

That’s “March” from A.M. Juster’s The Secret Language of Women (University of Evansville Press, 2003). Not quite light verse, whatever that may mean, and, thankfully, not self-importantly solemn. If not whimsical, at least respecting whimsy as a subject. And set in E.A. Robinson’s backyard. Nor is it an anti-Darwin screed, but less than reverential when it comes to some Darwinists and their determinist bullying. I knew an ornithologist convinced birds, if not other species, possess an aesthetic sense and sing just for the joyous hell of it. He asked me to keep that to myself for now.

Saturday afternoon I spent an hour on the telephone with the poet and translator A.M. Juster, whose street-legal name is Mike Astrue. This was our first conversation, and we had no trouble coming up with things to talk about, including X.J. Kennedy, Fred Gwynne, Clement Moore and Patty Duke. Nothing stuffy, like Juster himself. If Maine in March isn’t ebullient enough, try “Ballade of Bad Sandwiches,” which comes with an epigraph from Warren Zevon: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Here’s the poem:

“I ask myself throughout my flight delay:
why can’t a Whopper have more sauce and cheese?
Those footlong subs grow shorter by the day.
There’s skimpy bacon in my BLT’s,
and this pastrami is so dry and gray
I cannot drown its dreary taste in beer.
I ask a food-court worker, “Tell me, please,
where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?”

“How long can mayonnaise or chicken stay
on sale before they give us some disease?
Who knows if food inspectors need to spray?
I balk at burgers as uncooked as these,
then panic that my tuna is passé;
egg salad leaves me nearly numb with fear
about E. coli’s harsh realities.
Where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?

“I am not asking that they be gourmet.
Who needs more quinoas and organic Bries?
Who wants croissants that quickly flake away—
or honey dressing sourced from free-range bees?
Bring ham and cheese with chips from Frito Lay!
The PBJ apocalypse is near,
and yet the FDA remains at ease.
Where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?

“We’ve lost our dietary liberties;
such times demand a lunchtime Paul Revere.
Now stand with me! Arise as one and say,

When my brother and I were kids, our father subscribed to such magazines as Guns and Ammo and Field and Stream. We invented a magazine of our own: Guns and Sandwiches, with a special issue devoted to the Reuben. Here’s Mike in a 2015 interview:

“I think the purpose of all work is to try to make the world better for your efforts. With poetry that can mean turning people toward something spiritual, letting them laugh, helping them face their fears, or reminding them about joy.”

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