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    Opposites Refract

    A Review of Wonder and Wrath by A. M. Juster

    Sally Thomas

    October 13, 2020
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    A. M. Juster, poet, translator, and critic, has called his latest book, Wonder and Wrath, his first “serious” poetry collection since 2003. In fact, in the last seventeen years, Juster has produced translations, all from the Latin, of Horace’s Satires, Tibullus’ Elegies, the riddles of the Anglo-Saxon bishop Aldhelm, The Elegies of Maximianus, and those of the young John Milton. He has published as well two volumes of comic poetry: Sleaze & Slander, and an excruciatingly accurate book of parody poems, The Billy Collins Experience. If all this output falls short of the “serious” mark, you might be forgiven for wondering what “serious” actually means.

    Wonder and Wrath is an apt title for a collection that both marvels at and rails against human frailty, against the backdrop of a fallen universe. The book’s seriousness lies in its sustained resistance to the easy way out: either to reject or embrace, without caveat, a cosmos that consists, in equal measures, of miracle and outrage. In “Farewell, Mr. Wizard,” for example, nostalgia for a childhood television science show collides with actual outcomes of twentieth-century technological optimism: “Space shuttles fall; the pumps are running dry. / Jihadists shop for warheads.” The natural world of these poems is a world both destructive and destroyed, by its own forces as well as by humans. “No Man’s Island,” dedicated to John F. Kennedy Jr., describes the remains of a Cold-War-era military installation that have despoiled the landscape, even as the landscape over time has despoiled them, shoreline and sea proving more deadly than the abandoned “tools of combat” have had a chance to be. In “Cuttyhunk,” Juster’s island home off the Massachusetts coast figures as a point of exposure, where the “swarming” and “writhing” of birds and fish reflect the perpetual unsettlement of the physical world. Here, as “November Requiem” attests, humans may guide beached bottlenose dolphins back to the safety of the sea, only to find them, in a pointed reversal of the Christian death-to-resurrection narrative, washed up, three days later, lifeless on the wind-stricken shore.

    If the universe has not quite gotten the memo regarding its own created goodness, then neither has the human body. In “Autoimmune Attack,” this body falls prey to its own army of suicide bombers and “sleeper cells,” figurative and literal. In “Heirloom,” the poem that opens the collection, even something as innocent as a tomato appears gradually, in peep-show human-body imagery – “firm curves bulging, olive skin, / perfectly well-rounded cheeks” – only to be realized ultimately in the language of disease, as afflicted with “a touch of tumor.” What the speaker experiences in eating the tomato, its “soil-sweet yet vaguely bitter flesh,” proves to be his experience of the world in general, but most of all of his own incarnate state, to whose fall, in theological terms, he is himself indeed an heir.

    These tensions resonate at the level of poetic form, an inextricable element in the thought processes of Juster’s work. His mastery of traditional forms showcases itself in Wonder and Wrath, with a range that includes the sonnet, the pantoum, the Anglo-Saxon alliterative tetrameter line, and a blank verse so tightly modulated that any metrical shift or substitution calls attention to itself like a detour sign. Consider, for example, “I Sit Half-Naked,” a poem whose speaker, ever the translator, spends long minutes in a hospital examination room weighing the differences between the English word depression and the Spanish el dolor. In this blank-verse poem, the defining iambic pentameter signals procedure, regulation, and perhaps also the forced unvarying up-beatness that characterizes the medical environment:

    because this teaching hospital believes
    that dignity disrupts efficiency,
    and all there is for anyone to read
    is one brochure in Spanish: EL DOLOR,
    which after thirty-seven minutes gets
    my full attention, then, before long, gains
    my full approval as I dwell upon
    what doctors call “depression”

    For most of its twenty-nine lines, the poem ticks along with iambic regularity. In fact, the title and lines one through twenty-seven comprise a single sentence, which meanders like the highway whose “dip and rise” the word depression evokes. In these lines the “half-naked” speaker, body and emotions alike covered decorously, if inadequately, by a paper gown, makes light of his thoughts about depression. In a barren hospital examination room, after all, that’s what the available pamphlet happens to be about.

    This metrical precision, however, casts any deviations into high relief, signaling a darker emotional complexity. Lines one, eleven, seventeen, and twenty-one all begin on a trochaic foot rather than an iambic, providing a hammer-stroke of emphasis to, for example, the definition of depression, as opposed to el dolor: “not the last lonely exit on a road / to nowhere growing narrower and dark.” That emphasized not, the stressed first syllable of the trochaic foot, manages simultaneously to distinguish the English depression from its Spanish counterpart, and to link the two, making the difference between them, in untranslatable reality, as insubstantial as a paper gown. Likewise, in line seventeen, the trochaic pummel – what “tropical depressions” do to shores, briefly, before the sky turns blue again – hints at a brutality which the chin-up English connotations fail to articulate. When the doctor at last comes breezing into the room, his chirpy “Sorry,” the trochee which opens the final line, makes the same pummeling landfall. It’s the same almost-lie – everything’s fine – in the same shifty, insufficient language, through whose cracks some real meaning has fallen. In these small metrical events, the speaker finds himself, beneath the scanty armor of his paper gown, not “half-naked,” but “half-naked,” stripped and vulnerable to el dolor, even as the English word bemuses him.

    Formal control as an element of drama extends throughout the collection. The three tetrameter couplets which comprise “Threat Levels” feel almost tossed-off in their formal precision, as comic stanzas tend to do – except that the poem’s subject is terrorism, and the final couplet, where a reader might expect a punchline that snaps shut like a trap, instead unravels into a general haze of fear and suspicion, “as light is lost throughout the day.” The joke falls flat, but then it’s meant to be not so funny after all. Similarly, the titular speaker in the Petrarchan sonnet “Cassandra” – cursed to foresee her own doom and that of nations, but not to be believed – rhymes results with false with convulse with faults through the course of her fourteen-line soliloquy’s abbaabba octet. This clever but disturbed rhyme scheme illuminates the troubled pattern of Cassandra’s own unheeded prophecies, set immovably in her vision of the future but powerless to alter the present, which of course is precisely what renders the outcomes inevitable. Like the “stonework” of line three, the octet’s rhyme scheme too “run[s] like water,” fixed yet fluid, fluid yet fixed. Meanwhile, the pairing of false with faults, particularly, comprises a small joke in the midst of grimness, a poet’s whistling in the dark.

    In other poems, irregular rhyme schemes and slant-rhyme patterns operate as deliberate measures of the fragility of control. “Inertia,” for example, about a tree not cut down, proceeds in quatrains, unrhymed interior lines bracketed by slant-rhymed lines – leaves/waves, clad/God, cut/street, cedes/fades – like a series of near misses. The first and last lines of the final quatrain, on the other hand, noting the onset of winter and an anticipated ice storm, end in words which not only rhyme but are homonyms: wait/weight. The aural heft here, the repetition of an identical sound, slams home the tree’s coming doom. In “Vertigo,” whose couplets cohere through a pattern of internal rhymes, end-rhymes like prayer/repair and shards/wizards click into place at unexpected moments as if to suggest the chanciness of proposed treatments for that dizzying condition: “Sometimes it’s magic, sometimes not – / they never know.” Finally, “A Kay Ryan Fanboy Poem,” an exercise in the other poet’s own fractured rhyme schemes, enacts the process of learning to read such a poem through the process of writing one.

    At first
    few of us see
    the wry in her verse
    the zen or the why.

    The poem itself is a shifting landscape, the steppingstones of rhyme placed unexpectedly. The integrity of the poem’s pattern, or the world’s: neither makes itself obvious. The form is always twitching itself just out of reach, so that the eye and the mind have to work “to trust dips and slants / that wring the world / for a chance at truth.” Still, in the end, what is blurred does “come into focus.”

    So it is with the world of Wonder and Wrath. For all its storms and ills, its humiliations, betrayals, perils, and waste, it is a world that, through the poet’s deliberate effort to see and to say, sharpens surprisingly into beauty. A Japanese maple, which a wife insists on planting against a self-deprecating husband-narrator’s advice, “flares with plum and amber lace” when other supposedly hardier trees are stripped bare. When ice destroys those others, “her gift keeps shimmering with fragile grace.” In this world, often enough, grace amounts to the triumph of the improbable. Or perhaps grace is after all a function of will, as the closing lines of “Vertigo” suggest: the will to “reclaim things,” to turn aside from wrath and receive what is given.

    “Three Visitors,” the poem from which the collection’s title is taken, manifests these actions of grace. The alliterative tetrameter lines, borrowed from Old English verse, describe an ordinary winter night – baby in bed, old dog at the kitchen door – whose dreaming peace seems primed for a Grendel to plunder it. Here, the would-be Grendel figures are three coyotes on the prowl. That there are three of them, arriving out of the night in the dead of winter, suggests those other strange “visitors,” the Magi, though the gifts they bring are unintended: their own silent statue-like presence in moonlight, the absence of any victim to invite their natural bloodthirstiness. Even the trash, the speaker notes, “would be trouble,” not worth the effort of knocking the cans over. In a moment when nature might turn out to be, again, red in tooth and claw, it refrains. Why? Who knows? The poem’s speaker, no sentimentalist, does know better than to make more of this glimpse than it really means. “No star distracts their stealthy march,” he remarks, as if to qualify the title’s suggestion of the Magi as possibly a fanciful overreach. Though the family rests snug beneath its roof and the baby sleeps on, the visitors haven’t meant to visit them, for good or ill. No evident design has brought them there. Even now they trot away, howling, breaking the peace, toward the highway, where their own destruction might well await them. Still, their way is rich with smells and the promise of good hunting. In this moment, they are utterly alive, living “things” whose truthful reclamation the poet has willed, making no more of them than they are, and no less. The world, if “awash” with wrath, remains still also “awash in wonder.” Wrath may be the last word, but it’s never the only word.

    Effectively a “new and selected” collection, Wonder and Wrath includes poems from Juster’s previous books and, in its final section, translations and mock translations. “Crowded Skies,” for example, grouped with translations from Rilke, the Chinese poets Li Po and Yu T’ung, Latin works of Christopher Marlowe and A.E. Houseman, is identified as a translation “from the English of Billy Collins.” The following poem, “Bob Dylan’s Homesick Scandinavian Blues,” which ends the collection, is similarly labeled “from the English of Bob Dylan.” The obvious joke illuminates the poet-translator’s serious mandate, to speak with two voices in one language, to be simultaneously self and other. It highlights as well the possible strangeness of writing under an assumed name, as Juster does, as if the voice even of one’s own poems belonged to a quasi-fictional character. As the culminating poems in a work of “serious” poetry, these parodies hold together in themselves the book’s concerns: the uncertainty of the material world, the simultaneous failures and potentialities of language to mediate and order that world, and the strange, divided, sometimes hostile country that is the self. If the mind behind Wonder and Wrath is laughing, often enough it laughs to keep from breaking something.

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    Contributed By Sally Thomas Sally Thomas

    Sally Thomas is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and teacher.

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