Book Review

Easy Marks, by Gail White, David Robert Books, 2008. $17

Reviewed by Judith Swann

Easy Marks (2008) is Gail White's third book, after The Price of Everything (2001) and Ignoble Truths (2006). Well, and her Scorpion Tales (from her "blog roll") should get enumerated somehow too: She has also edited a number of anthologies, Kiss and Part, The Muse Strikes Back,and Landscapes with Women: Four American Poets. She has her own website.

From its opening quote by John Donne, "Letters mingle souls," to its final poem, "Epilogue: To My Lover After Our Discussion of Poetry," Easy Marks is unflaggingly insightful, capable, ingenious, and winning. Oh, and female. A non-maternal, married, straight, academically credentialed kind of female. So it is with a groan that we read on the jacket that White writes "light verse." An unmerited groan, but a groan nevertheless because the term "light-verse" is a technical term that is not a synonym for the greeting-card mentality with which it is so often confused. It is a genre that male luminaries such as Horace, Pope, and the twelfth-century misogynist Alan of Lille employed in what is also termed "classical" or "satirical" verse. The unfortunate collision of the term "light," however, with the resonant symbology of male hegemony ratholes work like White's into an undeserved ghetto of inconsequence.

Julie Kane, one of the Maple Leaf Bar poets, makes the following observation about White's verse:

In the course of examining the conventions of light-verse writing by women, it should be noted that light verse, in general, is structured on the “male” principle of closure, rather than on the “female” quality of open-endedness identified by feminist literary critics. 'A feminine textual body,' Hélène Cixous has explained, 'is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending: there’s no closure, it doesn’t stop. . .' But humor always has a punchline, and the poetic forms that serve as the best vehicles of humor—particularly the rhymed couplet and the Shakespearean sonnet ending in a rhymed couplet, two forms at which White excels. (“Tragedy is easy. Humor is difficult.”)

Easy Marks is divided into four subsections, "Dysfunctional Families," "Human Comedy," "Other Voices," and "Elegies."  In "Dysfunctional Families," White takes on all the stuff of our upbringing, we literary women in our fifties: housecleaning, the reproduction of mothering, the prom, nervous breakdowns, marriage, and children: "...whatever made me think / That ‘childless' was the same as ‘young’?" she asks, in "Snow White at Fifty." Of the mother who seemed never to accept the bookish, non-coquette her daughter was, White invokes "... a past I've shed / From the dust my mother was" and she rejects the dull dreams that mother inspired: "a desk job, clerical work." White's is not the Great Mother of the Wiccans, she is June Cleaver in a bad mood. White doesn’t give in to the reader's desire to make girlishness sublime by patheticizing the prom ("I never minded my unpopularity"), and she de-romanticizes the nervous breakdown ("Damn it, I don't want drugs") despite Mick Jagger's spoon-feeding it to us. It seems that nothing is sacred, even Woman's sainted role as Muse (in "Rosetti's Wife"):

…Even when I was dying he could feel
That I'd be perfect for his Beatrix.

And then? They're all alike, poet or hack:
He digs you up and grabs his verses back.

In the "Human Comedy" section, White debunks Love ("My brain is like a piece of cheese....Because my love is such a jerk") and Marriage ("Routine, not Romance, binds their hearts together"). She is flatly unsentimental—relieved, not sorry to make these observations. She is rational, but not cruel. She forgives crackpots, fat women and the "Harmlessly Obsessed." She rails against the modern workhouse ("staring at fluorescent screens") and those who talk on their cellphones while driving.  And then with straight approbation she names two of her mentors Dorothy Parker and Edna Millay ("The Librarian Who Wishes She Had Lived in the 1920's"). The jewel in this section, though,  is a double-barreled assault on both wisdom and the Bible, "A Chapter of Proverbs":

"...It was a mistake
to let every fool that wants to read the Bible.
A cat that climbs a tree will come down by itself.
Everything passes but guilt...
Don't eat anything that quivers. Sooner or later
the stock market always comes down..."

She has brought us to the verge. Throughout the third section, "Other Voices," we wait for her to work toward a place devoid of satire, a place where she can lay down the sybil's mask. And in the final poem of the final section, "Elegies," she almost gets there. She shows us that what she holds sacred is the writing itself. Wry and disappointed, maybe, but strong and unblinking, she writes:

Epilogue: To My Lover After Our Discussion of Poetry

When you came in last night and said, “What’s that
you’re writing?” and I answered, “Poetry”,
you told me that I couldn’t feed the cat,
much less indulge in truffles and Chablis,
on what I’d earn by that. So now I know:
you need a higher income in your bed,
a lawyer or a lady CEO
who shops at Russ & Daughters for her bread.
While you’re at work tomorrow I’ll clean house,
pack luggage, do the laundry and my hair.
When you come home you’ll find that I’ve moved out,
taking my unproductive life elsewhere.
We’re through, my love. But since you knew no better,
I’ve left this poem and not a Dear John letter.

Judy Swann lives in gorgeous Ithaca, NY in a small house painted in Frida Kahlo colors. Her poetry has appeared in Lilliput Review, Verse Wisconsin, Soundzine and other places both in print and online. She is an Iowan who often visited Wisconsin in her youth.