Easy Marks by Gail Whit
Reviewed in PoetsQuarterly.com by Martin Abramson
David Robert Books
Chapbook, 75 pages
I must say these poems are a delight. What a treat to be able to laugh at poems with conventional dark, even tragic subjects, handled with such unconventional lightness and irony. And while I sometimes frown on rhyme, I cheerfully stipulate that, in Ms. White’s hands, it serves to wonderfully emphasize the fun:
My brain is on a shopping spree,
The birthday of my life has come!
Because my love is such a jerk
And finally I’ve dumped the bum.
After pillorying road hogs and iPod wielding diners, she writes:
Friends, I’m no longer saying this for fun.
Road rage has made me rampage through the town.
I’m out of Prozac, and I have a gun.
So would you kindly put your cell phone down?
But (semi) seriously folks, there’s plenty of heavy heartbreak and remorse in these poems; some with a wistful touch, some in straight pain. The last of the four sections, “Elegies,” includes epitaphs for dead wives, husbands and friends. The poet even writes a script for her own cremation in “My Funeral”. Often Ms. White speaks with the voice of the dead as in the villanelle, “Her Ghost”:
I’m here beside you, but it’s not the same.
I’m out of time, although I’m still in space.
If only you would call me by my name,
I’d step out like a portrait from its frame
And we could look each other in the face.
Often the dead speakers are real people: Christina Rossetti, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, of course, Dorothy Parker. Sometimes they’re fictional or Biblical: Queen Gertrude, Eve, Jonah, Mary Magdalene. There’s commentary on mythology and religion, especially Christianity from which the author seems more than partially lapsed. Little of which is politic while some is scathingly sarcastic as in “Cloakroom Talk at the Council of Chalcedon,” where the church fathers cynically vote to elevate Mary to the Trinity in order to court Egyptians and Ephesians who demand a substitute for the Great Mother figures of Isis and Demeter. In “Pentecost”, the spread of Christianity replaces a host of pagan gods with “The ultimate loathing: one / monotheist for another”. In “Lapsed Catholic Watches the Super Bowl”, the nebulous purity of the saved is contrasted with the joys of apostates who “crawl / from tree to tree … longing for fruits out of reach” until they realize “that Christ wasn’t counting the tacos / and Budweiser was good for the soul”. Reflecting on her life in “A Chapter of Proverbs”, Ms. White lists various lessons starting with the quotidian “Never clean a freezer with an ice pick,” but gets increasingly grim, going on to “Sooner or later/ the stock market always comes down” and ending with: “Whatever you’re going to die of is already in you, / And science does not have a cure”.
A recurring theme treats of the poet’s mother’s disappointment at her daughter’s plainness paired with the preference of not-too-bright men for big bosoms. Both complaints are included in “My Personal Recollections of Not Being Asked to the Prom”; a neat little sonnet with the sestet:
And my poor mom who never bought a fluffy
ball gown or showed me how to dress my hair—
she must have wondered where she got this stuffy
daughter. She didn’t say it, but her stare
asked whether genes or nurture were to blame.
(But I got married, Mother, all the same.)
Sweet revenge, indeed! Most of the poems in this collection either sympathize with wronged women or skewer the immorality of men. De Beauvoir complains about Sartre’s annual affairs; Rossetti’s wife grumbles that he only sees his ideal image and not her; Gertrude gripes that Claudius ignores her requests; Eve laments that Adam is “thicker than a coconut”; and husbands take the rap for the suicidal urges of Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf. Mary Magdalene, who was denied a place at the table after Jesus’ death is revenged by the widow in “Post Diagnosis” who, when her husband succumbs to cancer, gets to decide who receives each of their shared possessions as she cheerfully annexes his closet space.
Ms.White often makes her highly personalized points through fairy tales. Because she loves animals, Beauty likes the Beast, who is “kindly natured though his face is grim” and “won’t risk children who might look like him.” “Snow White at Fifty” realizes that ‘ever after’ goes by sooner than we think. And as revolt simmers behind the palace walls, she wonders: “Whatever made me think / that ‘childless’ was the same as ‘young’”? These and many other dark streaks of pigment tinge the procession of portraits presented by Ms. White, so I would not leave the impression that Easy Marks is sheer comedy. But the overall tone of the book is upbeat as is Fra Angelica who turns from scenes of horror in Last Judgment, “to paint the angel whose bare, shapely foot / begins the dance that keeps eternal time.”
And in a defining note from “Christmas on Rhodes”:
But tides recede: I know this moment’s worth.
If love of beauty were the same as faith,
I’d walk in heaven with my feet on earth.
Martin Abramson, a Jones Fellowship recipient at Stanford, studied poetry with Yvor Winters. He has taught in New York and California. Publications include several chapbooks, all out of print but collected on his website at: