|Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews|
The University of Evansville Press (2003) 80 pages
Almost from its first volume, the University of Evansville's Richard Wilbur Award has been the premiere book award of neo-Formalism. The recipients are clearly the presumptive heirs to the likes of X.J. Kennedy, W.D. Snodgrass and Wilbur himself—the better lyric formalists of the second half of the 20th century, that is to say. The new generation tends to cut its teeth in the pages of William and Mona Baer's journal The Formalist—also associated with the University of Evansville—the most attractive of the brood capturing the biannual award. An annual conference held at West Chester University (Pennsylvania) also seems to figure prominently in the recipe.
This cycle's winning volume is A.M. Juster's The Secret Language of Women. The fifth selection in the Wilbur series, it is also the fifth excellent volume. It would not be too much to say that—together with previous winners, Robert Daseler (1994), A.E. Stallings (1996), Len Krisak (1998) and Rhina Espaillat (2000)—Juster's first volume places him at the head of the class.
This is not to imply that it is merely a matter of winning the award. Long before Juster's volume appeared he was known to have a particularly fine touch. His poems have appeared in every number of The Formalist for some years. In addition, he has carefully placed them in a few other more-or-less august corners of the poetry world. They have earned him two Nemerov Sonnet Awards and a dedicated and appreciative audience. The poems in The Secret Language of Women are gem quality.
Juster's poems regularly straddle the line between light verse and serious poetry. His topics are the office and our newer technologies as often as history and mythology. The poems are almost entirely in iambic pentameter or tetrameter and lyrical. They tend to be in recognized short verse forms. He utilizes a limited variety of metrical substitution feet. There are intentional exceptions to these rules: the title poem is 384 lines long and a narrative poem; the poem "Temporary" is in a delightful, ornate custom form; "How We Got to Elmira" employs a floating anapest in each line.
But these are technical considerations, and, although we will return to them, they do not give a sense of the attractiveness of these poems. There is something strewn throughout that was once called "wit." When Echo dashes off a few words to Narcissus, in "Note from Echo," she informs him how she has "uncounted daughters" now:
We are the voicemail's ponderous reply
to the computers making random calls.
We are the Muzak in the empty malls,
the laugh track on the reruns late at night...
In a dutiful feminist ending, she informs the old lover, for whom she once pined away, that she no longer thinks of him much:
I do not miss you, do not need you here—
She manages for herself now. She has gone on.
The poem "Letter to Auden" is emblematic. The poet mock-timidly begins by begging the recipient of the letter to forgive the intrusion. There are reasons that it might not come amiss, he avers, and he briefly lists them, ending with the observation:
Besides, there's time to kill now that the Lord
Has silenced Merrill and his ouija board.
So long as there is neo-Formalism, Juster is comfortable in his times. The reference flows from his pen with a telling ease and an impish grin. The angst throughout the letter is proportionate and about all the "right" things. The poet is a humble man: an "itinerate white collar worker," as he has described himself elsewhere. Uncertain of answers, he engages in nothing questionable.
The Wilbur award competition allows a liberal number of translations to grace the manuscripts that are sent to it. Juster has also been respected for his work in this area for some time. The reader will find translations from Chinese, Latin, French and Italian. Most of the work in iambic tetrameter is from French and Italian originals. The sense of Petrarch is well captured in a number of poems. A single translation from Baudelaire is particularly striking being a dark contrast in a volume almost devoid of shadow.
The poems of The Secret Language of Women are carefully measured in every sense of the term. Those of under twenty lines almost always are exactly rhymed, often involving inventive word choices. Thirty or more and they generally are in blank verse or irregular rhyme. The rhymes are rarely feminine, regardless of the number of lines. The iambics, throughout, are unusually regular. When they are modulated, the range of substitute feet is just as carefully measured. Nevertheless, normal prose word order is rarely subverted. There is the occasional trochee for the first foot. In bolder moments, a line will begin with a double trochee followed by a caesura, effectively dividing it in two: the first part imperiously holding back and the second giving way. The poems, again, are generally short. Although there are poems on religious themes, they are handled with a requisite detachment. Neither the reader's patience nor politics are tried. The reader who comes to this volume expecting no profundities but plenty of neat observations will find it a delightful read.
The title poem is also closely measured throughout it's 384 lines and it is here that A.M. Juster's style approaches its present limitations. While the poem is narrative the poet remains lyrical. The strictly limited number of substitution feet, while slightly more varied than in the shorter pieces, gives the poem a schematic quality. The stanzas are tightly crafted and metrically self-contained and this inhibits any sense of overall flow.
The successful longer narrative poem tends to be more like a symphony. It properly utilizes a series of movements, each of which, while related to the others, explores its own distinct emotional quality at some length. In order to clear the reader's palate, stretches of measured prose are expected, after their own fashion, also to enhance the experience of the poem. "The Secret Language of Women" is devoid of crescendo or diminuendo. The oriental subject matter is not sufficient to free the poet from his obligation to satisfy these natural (or at least "profoundly cultural") patterns of the ear.
Regardless, Juster's considerable talents are clear in nearly every line of The Secret Language of Women. The University of Evansville press has packaged them accordingly in green cloth, sewn binding and a beautifully illustrated dust jacket. This is a book built—on every level—to last as a demure but cherished item on a poetry lover's shelf.