EP&M Online Review


Claudia Gary-Annis, Humor Me.
Cincinnati: David Robert Books, 2006, 87 pp.

Review by Jan Schreiber

After reading too many lovers’ complaints in various guises, I mused that poetry should do more than chronicle the ways men and women feel sorry for themselves. At the least, I muttered, it should also chronicle the ways they take pity on each other. And, I ventured, it should not scruple to admit – even revel in – a sense of wonder at the world’s sheer oddity. In this receptive frame of mind I came upon an imperfect but rewarding book by Claudia Gary-Annis called Humor Me.

Gary-Annis is a poet with a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude. She can describe a lovers’ quarrel fraught with high emotion, yet put it in perspective with a reference to old furniture. One section of this book is called “The Conjugal Bookcase”; another is “The Love Seat.” In the latter section her eponymous poem begins, “On morning’s dream-wracked underside / I woke, and there you weren’t.” That’s a locution bordering on a wisecrack, and it sets the tone for what follows. Even as we’re told of “salt crystals left / from last night’s weepy torrent” we sense that the poet is well beyond self-pity. And the third rime, when it comes, clinches that conviction, for it describes the “lumpy and abhor-rent” loveseat on which the male partner has taken refuge in his exile. The poet concludes that they must keep “this broken-down, ripped-covered, / misshapen, wobbly heap” for its evident utility in such exigencies – and now we refer back to the title, where the object (a mere “loveseat” in the poem) is named with two words – “Love Seat” – and we recog-nize that in some sense this humble furnishing is indeed the seat of love.

A composer as well as a writer, Gary-Annis is clearly sensitive to sounds. The congru-ence of like-sounding words in her poems amounts to an obsession – sometimes to a point where its pursuit overwhelms sense. For example, she has a poem called “In Fog” whose first three lines set the pattern:

How dense this dialogue!
    We’re hills aloft in fog
        that the lightning fails to quicken.

There are five stanzas in the same rime scheme. The fourth one reads:

Good storms I’ve clambered through,
    precipitating dew,
        but here in the fog I wither.

A persnickety reader starts to wonder: does one clamber through a storm? Where does dew come in? Do things (even people) wither in fog? One suspects that the form of the poem is forcing the discourse into uncongenial channels.

The poet herself may harbor similar suspicions. In a poem called “Etude” she abandons rime (for the most part) and writes of the making of poems:

These sounds are only fragments of the dark,
not music, never that;

And yet, I seem to coax them into phrases
that start, and end, and echo –

and she tries to make peace between poetry and music …

though music will possess, reject,
possess me and reject me finally
until there is no melody but one.

You might say this is a very private poem, a poet’s confessional. It may be of limited interest to the general public, but to those who struggle to make music with words it speaks poignantly.

There are a few other poems in this vein. On the rare occasions when Gary-Annis re-nounces rime and heeds only the gentler constraints of meter, she certainly does not shun music. Often in such poems she writes with moving eloquence. Her poem “Indecision” is addressed to the children she might have had – in addition to those she did have. They have remained in her mind, “silly angels,” whom she imagined month by month, as their fleeting possibilities came and went, and who haunt her daydreams still:

You dimmer angels are the ones who scare me:
Circling lights abuzz like faulty neon
and winking on and off, you try to draw me
down into a discussion I had thought
not a soul could reopen.

Even an irreligious reader will ponder the meaning of “soul” in that last line. This is a poem about myriad roads not taken, and it is one only a woman could write.

The collection evidently spans a wide swath of years; some poems appear to be the ear-nest strivings of youth, while others are more confident, disillusioned, and ironic. Among the latter is one of the author’s best, a summing up of experience from the vantage of a certain age. The poem, called “What I Have Missed,” employs a curious strategy. Purporting to ask whether she has missed intensity of experience, depth of emotion, or subtlety of thought (all metaphorically expressed), the writer avers that, no, she has not missed those things; they have been part of her life. And yet, she concludes,

                Yet I am kissed
by edges that sear, and melt, and signify
all that the word, the flood, and the flame have missed.

Something elusive, on the edge of perception, intuited but not identified, has faintly touched her. The poem out-Millays Millay. It is a fine achievement.

The more humorous poems in Humor Me often fall somewhere just past meditative and well shy of hilarious. The wit is real, but it operates to ward off sentimentality, to arm the poet, and by extension the reader, against self-pity. One of the most successful poems in this vein is called “Audit.” In it a bureaucratic voice, a proxy for the world in general, announces, “We regret to tell you / your grief is nondeductible.” It goes on, “Yours is a flimsy claim / considering you never had / declared what you now say you’ve lost.” The voice in the poem proceeds to itemize the other’s failures to substantiate perceived short-falls. The attitude is admittedly harsh; it is not the poet’s attitude but an unpitying stance she perceives to be inherent in the world at large:

When next we reconvene
let’s hope for resolution.
Substantiate your sorrow. Bring
things we can say we’ve seen.

This is the countervailing voice conjured by the same poet who mourns the unsubstanti-ated loss of an unconceived child.

Among the lighter poems we find a number that testify to a gift for acerbic observation and wry satire:

It wasn’t quite enough
rejoicing in each other
for qualities that overran the cup –

but having checked the stars,
her broker, and his mother,
they’re satisfied they both have traded up.

And we find some that aspire to that status but don’t, in my estimation, quite come off. One such is called “Wedding Poem.”

You can make a fire with a lens of ice
so clear it tunes the sun and does not melt.

You will have a white dress
in which to be yourself and yet a bride.

Here the lack of rime leaves us wondering where the force of the observation resides. And what exactly is the analogy? Is the bridal dress a lens of ice, focusing the partner’s desire so that something catches fire? Yet what exactly does catch fire? And are we to conclude that the bride herself is not consumed – or even warm?

But the few poems of this kind that misfire are offset by others that go off with a bang. I commend “Angel Encounter,” a poem that appears to be a riposte to Emily Dickinson. The poet has encountered a “visitor” who seems possibly supernatural. But this is after all the twenty-first century, so she muses,

how disappointed I will be
if he was just some traveler from space
and not eternity.

Dickinson herself had her doubts, and these days the solaces of faith are even harder to hold on to.

And then there is Gary-Annis’s send-up of Sigmund Freud, called “Schadenfreud(e).” This poem turns on what might be called Freud’s incompleteness theorem – his insight that consciousness lacks access to certain essential but out-of-reach memories and perceptions that motivate human feeling and behavior. She calls this dearth a “private hell / for all dreamers to share.” And by this means she suggests that Freud lacked a necessary lightness of being: “his name translates to joy, but incompletely.” A Freudian might ob-ject that this critique, besides being obvious and trivial, makes too much of a coincidence. And yet for a believer in the unconscious, or a servant of the symbolic sound, perhaps denomination is destiny.

Finally, for a frank taste of light verse in the traditional mode, come back to “The Conjugal Bookcase,” a poem written in fourteeners. The thesis behind this one is that a bookshelf, over time, comes to reflect in the arrangement of its tomes the idiosyncrasies of its owners. After describing the quirks and compromises that make up this odd furniture, Gary-Annis concludes with a summary that manages to pack an entire life cycle and eschatology into three (admittedly long) lines:

Fair-lettered friends, please understand what makes these choices sound.
Please understand it matters less whose leaves make our hearts pound
than where, some yet unnumbered day, we’re likely to be found.

This survey may appear a little helter-skelter, skipping from the absurd to the sober, the jejune to the masterful, the awkward to the inspired. But that is the nature of the book. Like many poets, Gary-Annis has included more poems than rightly deserve a place; she has perhaps not had the heart to pass by some of her “silly angels.” Self-censorship is the hardest of the arts. As a result, the reader must needs become an editor as well, mentally selecting and discarding. But of course we do the same thing when we winnow through the collected poems of Dickinson or Whitman, Bishop or Lowell. And here too the assiduous reader can look forward to pleased discoveries. I have marked a few spots – but many delights await the canny and the persistent.

                                                          Jan Schreiber