Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

R.S. Gwynn
Story Line Press

Department of English
Keuka College

It is a pleasure to at last have a substantial representation of the poetry of R.S. Gwynn available in one volume.  Gwynn has previously had only one full length collection, The Drive In, which won the University of Missouri breakthrough competition in 1986.  Before and since, Gwynn's gathered work has appeared only in chapbook or shared book form, eagerly sought-after by his admirers but not readily available to the general public.  It is to be hoped that No Word of Farewell will give this poet the broader readership he deserves.

The book is arranged with the work of the past decade or so leading off and ending with a selection from The Drive In.  In between are a section of translations and parodies from various stages of Gwynn's career and an excerpt from his parody of the poetry scene The Narcissiad, which actually preceded The Drive In.  Readers unfamiliar with Gwynn will thus be treated to a broad cross section of work that the poet wants to preserve as central to his concerns, but will not as easily be privy to the growth and developments in Gwynn's work over the past three decades.

R.S. Gwynn is probably the major poetic satirist in America today; whenever anyone calls another a satirist in an appreciative sense, that anyone is quick to add that the person is more than just a satirist, as if satire is somehow inferior in its nature to "serious" poetry.  One wonders if Pope and his crowd suffered the same slight.  So, before I get around to saying that Gwynn is more than just a satirist--and he is--let's take a look at some of his satirical pieces.

One of the marks of a good satirist, as of a good artist generally, is a sharp eye turned toward popular culture;  the mass media can suffocate its loudest angry critic, but the person who can laugh at least preserves his or her sanity and some honor.  Anyone who has suffered late night TV can identify with "1-800" with its "six-way drill!  The eight-way folding ladder! / Knives that pierce coins or thin-slice loaves of bread!"  The insomniac is finally taken in and "fights off slumber" and "resolutely punches the first number / Of what may be the area code of God."  One of Gwynn's best known, and best, poems is "Among Philistines," which recreates the Samson-Delilah story but is set in a modern world of advertising and strip malls;  the scene is so mass-marketed that Samson can say "'Good riddance'" to his eyes when blinded in Gaza Mall.  One of his last remembered sights is a billboard plugging Delilah's new movie:

 And this last image, this, mile after mile--
 Delilah, naked, sucking on a pair
 Of golden shears, winking her lewdest smile
 Amid a monumental pile of hair

 And blaring type:  The Babe Who Buzzed the Yid!

This, like all good satire, is also great fun.

Other objects of ridicule are right wing paranoia, as in "Black Helicopters," or gender relations in "Snow White and the Seven Deadly Sins."  Then there are the truly nasty children of what may be Gwynn's best known poem, "Scenes from the Playroom":

 Now Lucy with her family of dolls
 Disfigures Mother with an emery board,
 While Charles, with match and rubbing alcohol,
 Readies the struggling cat, for Chuck is bored.
 The young ones pour more ink into the water
 Through which the latest goldfish gamely swims,
 Laughing, pointed at naked, neutered Father.
 The toy chest is a Buchenwald of limbs.
This is a family worthy of a Flannery O'Connor story.

And, of course, as a college professor Gwynn finds plenty of material ripe for laughter (it's better than tears).  "The Professor's Lot" is written to a Gilbert & Sullivan tune.  "The Classroom at the Mall" shows Gwynn at his best.  Here is the wonderfully ripe contrast of a college course in World Lit being taught at a mall; the "Dean of Something...leased the bankrupt bookstore at the Mall / A few steps from Poquito's Mexican Food / And Chocolate Chips Aweigh."  In this atmosphere the speaker lectures on Dante and Faust, "the Great Thoughts of Man--one thought per week" to a group of older students, one of whom is "a part-time private cop / Who leaves his holstered Glock among the purses" and there is also a Ms. Light who remarks

 "They sure had thoughts, those old guys," she begins,
 Then falters for the rest.  And I agree
 Because, for once, I've nothing left to say
 And couldn't put it better anyway.
In passages like this, Gwynn also evidences a compassion for the average person in a way most satirists don't;  the situation is laughable, not the people, with some exceptions:
 One night near Halloween I filled the board
 With notes on Faust.  A Pentecostal hair-
 Do (with a woman underneath) looked in
 Copying down my scrawl with a tight grin
 That threatened she'd be back with flaming sword
 To corner me and Satan in our lair.
Yet this is not Gaza Mall, so the tone is softer, the humor less angry and tinged with a slight sadness at the fallen world.

Gwynn can even come close to nostalgia, as in another retail poem, "The Ballad of Burton and Bobby and Bill," dealing with memories of a clothing store from the speaker's teen-age years:

 Harris tweeds...Haggar pants...London Fogs...Oxford Gants
   Rep ties...penny loafers from Bass...
 They reeked with, we knew, something more than Canoe--
   I suppose you could label it Class,
 Or at least so it seemed to two youngsters who dreamed
   Of someday impressing les femmes
 As sophisticates wiser than Playboy's advisor--
   Small wonder we looked up to them!
 For to gaze on one's Dad was to see something sad
   As he snored through Bonanza until
 He arose with a cough and his pants falling off
   (Unlike Burton and Bobby and Bill).
Internal rhyme.  A humorous nostalgia.  This is not a poet who is prisoner of the latest critical fashions.  Where are his tales of being sexually abused by cult-enslaved parents?  Obviously he is not ready for Oprah.

I was pleased to see a generous selection from The Narcissiad, Gwynn's updated version of Pope's The Dunciad; with the editing Gwynn has done for this volume, his selections make these excerpts from The Narcissiad read as a complete work.  One hopes the Fates are as kind to Gwynn as they were to Pope, that he is the one remembered and his characters under attack live only as footnotes to the poem.  I do think he may be a little hard on Merrill, though.

A number of poems are simply funny, with little social comment.  "The Bard of ViaVoice" imagines IBM software writing Shakespeare's sonnets and "Versions for the Millennium" is a romp:

 Upon Demi's Breasts

 Display thy breasts, my Demi, like a bough
 Hung with such fruits as only gods enDow,
 Upon which I would lie, my lips implanted
 Against what looks as succulent as granite.

And "Why They Love Us" is an unsentimental look (if a villanelle can be termed a look) at man's best friend:
 They love us uncomplainingly because

 They're idiots, they still won't drop their jaws
 And say, "Duh, you were mean to me.  We're through."
 They don't have sense enough to see our flaws.

As a dog lover, I might be more inclined to say they're divinely forgiving, but we'll let that pass.  And who but Gwynn could face prostrate surgery and write a sonnet that begins
 Farewell, thou joy of my right hand, my toy;
 My sin was too much use of thee, old boy--
 At least the old wives' tales would have it thus,
 And I am too downcast to raise a fuss
 Or much of anything, to put it simply.
    ("Before Prostate Surgery")?
But Gwynn can probe the darkness sans humor as well--"Bone Scan" and "The Dark Place" also deal with illness: "A tunnel beckons where / Shadows surround me" ("Bone Scan") or "In this dark place where we have come to piss, / Where none of us deserves a death like this."

Gwynn is also capable of a gritty realism, often typical of southern poets.  "At Rose's Range" features "Old Gladys, in lime polyester slacks" who "Might rate a laugh" until one finds she is a crack shot practicing at the range and may be rehearsing to shoot her daughter's boyfriend or husband who will be getting out of prison in a month.  "Body Bags" is a superb series of three sonnets remembering three who died and were connected with the military during the Vietnam war.  Gwynn has also written several dramatic monologues in the past decade, two of the finest being "West Palm," spoken by a wealthy doctor remembering his days in residency at an induction center, and "Cléante to Elmire," the reveries of a patient dying of AIDS.  The latter poem is particularly intricate in its construction: a dying patient may be evacuated because of a hurricane.  The hurricane has the same name as a woman, later murdered by her husband, with whom the patient starred in a local production of Tartuffe.  The strands are wound together beautifully.

And there is as wide an array of forms as there is of emotion in No Word of Farewell.  Long recognized as a master of the sonnet, Gwynn gives ample evidence of his dexterity with the form in this collection.  Blank verse is handled smoothly and naturally as are rhyming couplets in The Narcissiad and various French forms, including several villanelles.  In fact, one villanelle included here has to be a first: "Ellenalliv for Lew: On His Retirement" is a backward villanelle: "Retirement into gentle go not do. / Dies he until stops never poet a. / Do to tasks undone many have still you."  (It appears that Lewis Turco, the honoree of the poem, has the ability to recite quotations backward and to ad lib a Dylan Thomas poem.)  In "Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry," the poet does just that, constructing a poem of seven quatrains rhyming ABAB entirely from lines lifted from poems in the anthology.  There is a semi-concrete poem "Chang     Eng" (the space is in the title) dealing with a pair of Siamese twins.  "Train for Ill: A Ballad" is written in the measures of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot" and there's even an anacreontic (you can look that one up).  There are also several translations from French and German.

If I were to express one reservation about No Word of Farewell it would be that I would have included some of the poems from The Drive In that Gwynn did not.  The Drive In was a wonderfully innovative first book, certainly the most versatile collection from any of the group roughly assembled under the banner of the New Formalism.  With a few exceptions, the poems included in the present volume indicate the directions Gwynn took as a poet rather than those paths he just took a gaze down in his first collection.  I would not like to see some of those poems disappear.

That aside, this is a book all people who care about poetry should have.  In addition to being a critic and editor of distinction, R.S. Gwynn is one of the major poets of his generation, and it is about time this fact were recognized on a wider scale.  Here's hoping that No Word of Farewell is actually word of arrival at far greater recognition.

            Robert Darling

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