EP&M Online Review

The Price of Everything
Gail White

Mellen Poetry Press. 2001. 75pp. $14.95.

review by Robert Darling

Gail White is one of those names that sticks in the back of one's mind-one sees her poems from time to time in magazines and is impressed by them, but without a book to gather individual poems so they may be judged collectively, it is hard to fix an image of the poet. Fortunately, a collection of Gail White's has at long last appeared and offers a good opportunity for a more general appraisal.

(Before I proceed further: while Mellen is to be praised for offering us a selection of White's work, the Mellen editors have done the poet no other favor. There are many typos, problems on the acknowledgments page, even one line with a disappearing word at its end. I mention this now as the reader will observe some quotations which I have had to emend.)

First collections appearing later in life offer a good indication as to what a poet is and is not.  White is known as a witty poet, and wit is on display here in abundance.  Another thing immediately noticeable is that she is strictly a lyric poet-there is only one poem of more than one page in this collection, and that poem barely makes it onto page two.  But within this rather tight stricture White displays an abundance of moods and themes.

One contemporary poet who comes to mind when reading White is Wendy Cope.  A poem such as "Forgetting the Lover Who Dumped You" ("What! Did the man have no more sense than that? / Burn all his things. Eat chocolate. Get a cat.") seems very much in the Cope mode, as does "Updating Housman":

In simpler times with simpler creeds,
malt and Milton served our needs.
Now Proust does less than Prozac can
to justify God's ways to man.
But White has greater bite than Cope; one is reminded more at times of Dorothy Parker, an epigraph of whose introduces a section of The Price of Everything.  There is no room for sentimentality for children here; in "The Cynic & The Baby" a new mother brings her eight-week-old baby to the office:
 It seems a small and noiseless pulp,
 able, for skills, to blink and gulp,
 but in its flannel sheath I see
 the upstart shoot supplanting me.
 The brain inside that fuzzy head
 will read and brood when I am dead,
 add up its checks and order drinks
 and say the Opposition stinks
 and ponder love, and fame, and chance,
 when I am fertilizing plants.
Indeed, the persona in many of these poems casts a very jaundiced eye indeed on children.  The poem "For My Niece As She Enters Her Teens" begins "One thing the Puritans were right about: / Children are savages" before it offers its addressee the scant assurance that "now, thank God, you leave all that behind / and count as almost human."  Likewise, "The Last Illusion" assures us that "Children aren't innocent, just new. / They can manipulate and lie / as handily as I or you."

The poet can be Larkinesque in her ruminations on life's disappointments; in "Breaking Down In The South," the speaker claims "I'm due for a breakdown, and they don't exist" due to the somewhat suspect wonders of pharmacology.  Even the romance of decline is gone: "Again, my generation gets the shaft."  "Sea Child" considers how she did not become the southern belle her mother expected.  "Cursed By The Muse" is an original lament, not the typical my muse has left me and I cannot write but the plaint that the writer can't write best-sellers like Anne Rice.  Fame after death is neither sufficient nor likely:

 Immortal fame would be next best to cash,
 but even that's not easy any more.
 That's why I'd rather write best?selling trash
 than straighten out the twisted strands of love
 in fourteen trenchant lines.
In "White Collar Blues" the speaker talks about her distance from poetic fashion: "if I'm at odds with literary trends- / well, like my betters, I can wink and grin / at my defeats."

White has a keen eye and sharp tongue to deflate other societal pretensions as well.  She writes of a too-typical teacher:

 Every year he unfitted several
 for life in the twenty-first century.
 Smiling, he marched them off to failure,
 which was his love's great victory.
"The Rave" ("aren't you simply in love with New York?") is composed of five limerick-like stanzas, one of which reads
 You wouldn't believe the excitement.
 It was twelve hours straight without sleep,
 and Gustavus and Bunce
 did a series of stunts
 that excessively startled a sheep.
But she can turn an equally critical eye on her own part of the country: "The politician, like the tabby's young, / Attempts to clean his backside with his tongue" ("On Louisiana Politics").  And on herself: in "Confessional Poem" the writer acknowledges she has no confessions to make of being abused by others: "It's all my fault....There's no defense.  There's no one I can sue /for wrongful birth."  So much for both the Plath and the Springer crowds.

Gail White, with Katherine McAlpine, recently edited The Muse Strikes Back: A Poetic Response by Women to Men, an anthology which consists of women's reactions to the male invocation of the muse or the male tendency to use a woman as muse.  There are a few poems in this vein in The Price of Everything, the most bitter of which is "First Death" wherein Eve remarks "That was God's dirty // secret-we would die and now [sic] know when. / I'm out of his conspiracy with men."  "Rossetti's Wife" is, understandably, upset with being dug up again, while Corrina tells off Herrick at his carpe diem best: "Death's night is long, but last night isn't over. / Pack it in, Bob. I'm going back to bed."  More generally related to the literary front is the wonderful parody "Walt Whitman Encounters The Cosmos With The Cats Of New York."

But there is much more to The Price of Everything than wit and satire, delightful as they may be.  The poet can write with real sensitivity of the old. In "Old Woman and 25 Cats," the woman speaks movingly when relatives say she has too many cats:

 When you know [you're] a bore to listen to
 and a blight to look at, feisty at best,
 curmudgeon or shrew at worst,
 and you hope you die before your body
 is simply too much trouble, then, my dears,
 you love what lets you touch it.
She also writes movingly on faith (or loss of faith). God remarks "Anyway, they loved me once" when looking at the cathedrals in France ("The Gothic Cathedrals").  She expresses her preference for the Gothic again in "Bavarian Baroque":
 Faith was a gift that died with Gothic.
 Only the rich medieval heart
 (dazzled by love and drunk with logic)
 could train the wild stone rose of Chartres.
Has ever Chartres be summed up more succinctly, or in a more succinctly beautiful way, than "wild stone rose?"  The book also includes a real masterpiece of a poem of lost faith, "The Engulfed Cathedral," which deserves to be quoted in its entirety.
 With a keener eye for symbols than for sense,
 they built their church on sand. The last great boat
 to bear God's folk-whale-ribbed, shark-jawed, immense,
 a gothic monster, light enough to float
(it seemed) into the sunset. And the faithful flocked
 to mass, packing the sand with steady shoes,
 year after year. When finally they stopped,
 leaving the altar gloomy and unused,
 the unsettled sand would heap and then subside
 restlessly. Seabirds perched on gargoyle heads
 with mocking cries. Eventually the tide
 itself changed pattern, cut a new sea-bed,
 and every morning up the narrow nave
 came worshipers, wave after silent wave.
And White has a view of the worth of her creative calling that goes beyond irony; in "How Metaphors Are Made," she describes how when visiting Turkey she was given a silk cocoon.  Initially thinking the silkworm inside was dead, she returned to the American south and some time later she discovered that a moth had hatched.  She set it free in the southern night:
 But now imagination was at work
 and soon a host of things-poetry, love
 Russia, geometry, the Aztecs, even
 the universe regarded in a single light:
 surprising silkmoths, thrown to an alien night.
In "The Glamour" the poet begins "Set down in prose, the Ancient Mariner / would have a moral: Please don't shoot the birds!"  But when she considers how poetry can restore the magic we have stripped out of words, she remarks
 But when the ice, mast high, comes floating by
 as green as emerald-or the sun's rim dips,
 the stars rush out, at one stride comes the dark-
 we touch the borders of a frosty park
 where there's no sacrament or sorcery
 that was not first a sound on human lips.
Earlier, I made comparisons with Wendy Cope and Dorothy Parker.  These are not inapt, but address only a part of White's work.  In her clear-eyed, slightly-jaded southern-ness she resembles R.S. Gwynn, but lacks his narrative impulse.  But these are only approximations.  Gail White is quite capable of standing as a poet well worth reading in her own right as a highly original writer, a sardonic tongue, a caustic wit, but also with an eye to praise-in "Gravity, Grace," she remarks on the downward pull of gravity on us all, mentally and physically, over the years, but then concludes "Accept it-this is grace. // Have you ever been as happy standing up / as lying down?"

                                                    Robert Darling