By Gail White
With a forward by Rhina P. Espillat
Reading Gail White’s new book, Asperity Street, aside from its infectious tone that had me by the end thinking in rhyming quatrains, led me to the conclusion that poetry books such as this need an entirely different form of recognition: the patent. In this case, for total mood-altering. More effective than St. John’s wort (trust me on this), White’s poems get into you, usually “cat-quick and scalpel-sharp,” like the “Brother and Sister” of the poem by that title, with a certain “love that wields a hunting knife.” Getting out of an emotional slump, it seems, is best done with a sharp eye for truth in all its irony, mitigated only by that “thing” called poetry, and of course, a sense of humor.
The usual reader will generally respond to and recall those poems that they can relate to in some way. I was surprised to find so much in this book that resonated, my life having taken quite different turns. This, of course, is my ad hoc litmus test for universality, which is the natural result of straight-up honesty. For example, my life has been as far from “well-planned” as one could imagine. Yet this poem resonated, and brought me to appreciate what I actually do have.
Sudden Euphoria of a Middle-Aged Southerner
Youth gone and beauty never having come
nor money either, where’s it springing from,
this sudden joy? Fine weather and the slope
of green lawn on the bayou, snow-white shape
of heron fishing on the bank, is part
of it. The rest is books and art,
good health, two cats, a marriage going strong
for twenty years, a friendship just as long,
plus writing, and the love of what I write.
Summing up joys, I savor my delight:
this is as close as I will ever get
to the mystic’s peak of holy self forget-
fulness, the warrior in his savage bliss,
the lover’s ecstasy. I’ll stop at this—
a sense of living in a world well-planned.
Is this contentment? Yes. Well, I’ll be damned.
Well, who hasn’t experienced “sudden euphoria,” unexplainable in conventional terms? We look around us and occasionally are reminded of the good things: if not the same ones listed here, then other ones. But certainly “the slope/ of green lawn on the bayou, snow-white shape/ of heron fishing on the bank” are simple pleasures with universal access. But the clincher here, and in many of her poems, is that last line. A very typical Southern response, but here with a subtle twist of both “what people think be damned” and the surprise of sudden realization, in a word whose meaning is the opposite of its appearance.
Among those listed pleasures are two cats. Which figure in White’s poetry almost as archetype for the poet’s attitude: strongly independent, unpretentious, sharply observant yet soft at the same time, taking the time to luxuriate. In “Passion Spent,” a villanelle in tetrameter, she puts it in a different way:
My heart, an old and tired cat,
surveying age’s box of toys,
will not uncurl itself for that.
A hundred arks on Ararat,
the horses of a thousand Troys—
my heart, an old and tired cat
spurns hero’s crown and cardinal’s hat,
and whether love’s for girls or boys,
will not uncurl itself for that…”
Like a cat, the poet here is supremely unimpressed. She says “old and tired,” but one suspects it’s more a matter of having other priorities. Of which, gardening is not one. Now here’s something I can really identify with from “I Come to the Garden”:
I can name so few flowers. This is why/ I’m not a better poet…
Now finally, someone who’ll actually own up to this possible poetic deficit I also have, which comes down to this:
Mine is a gravel garden, where the rake
is all the cultivation I can take.
Those who tire of the conventional deification of infancy and its caretakers will find relief here in “Looking Through the Nursery Window:”
The babies seem alike as geese.
I hardly know which one’s my niece
until a nurselet points her out.
White manages to cut through the niceties with enough humor to get away with it. I mean, “nurselet!” Let’s hear it for Gail.
In “Postcard to Miss Dickinson,” she takes another icon to task:
I’m somebody? Well, no,
Perhaps a half one, though,
While you’ve been somebody for years—
Perhaps you didn’t know?
How dreary to be Nobody!
How fetid, like the Bog
Where chortling frogs exult above
The stifled Pollywog!
Did I say I needed that? Now for the biggest takedown we humans will have to face, White’s poems do not disappoint. As Rhina Espillat said in her lovely forward to the book (which I’ve scrupulously avoided copying), the book’s sections and their progression are based on Shakespeare’s stages of life (or anyone else’s for that matter), and we all know where that leads. Here’s an observation that puts an element of disarray into even that seemingly inevitable progression, from “The Way It Ended,” a sort of synopsis of life’s stages:
A golden anniversary came around
where toasts were made and laughing stories told.
The lovers found the laugh, but not themselves, was growing old…
She started losing and forgetting things…
Daily he visited the nursing home
to make her smile and keep her in the game.
Death came at last. But old age never came.
I’ve heard much wisdom in my life, but that nugget has never come my way. Downright astute! And beautiful. (Bear in mind I’m giving you only snippets of poems much better enjoyed whole.) And it changes entirely what death means. What else but poetry could do that? And do it honestly?
Finally she faces her own diagnosis: “a single cell has gone berserk./ And now my death begins its work.” Yet our work has its triumph, and it is neither in fame nor fortune, nor any lasting legacy. (Thus also undercutting the supposed takedown of scientific fact.)
The work of all our lifetime lets
us look on death with no regrets:
we vanish as the snow forgets.
Here is a book whose calling card is its style (deftly done formal), but whose prize is content. It’s always good when the reader identifies with the author in some way, and here White has succeeded. There is a certain practical and unpretentious transcendence to be found here. It’s right there in the very first poem quoted above.
With so much more than I can include—poems about everything from not being asked to the prom, a speech for Juliet’s nurse, fish mating, women who become trees, Pompeii, the mysterious tragedy of Mesa Verde, different “old maids,” and money, to family relations, religion and the larger Questions…and more. One outstanding feature of the poems in this book is the last line, most frequently taking the reader off-guard. Sometimes humorous, sometimes quite serious, but the surprise is one of the joys in reading this. The overall effect has entirely taken me out of my self-absorption and bad moods into a much better outlook. I will keep this book handy when times get rough. My advice to you: unless you are a cyborg, you probably need this book. My advice to Gail White: patent it. (And without ever using the word “wry,” I rest my case.)