When extraterrestrials land and begin their destruction--or enslavement, or culinary preparation--of the human race, they will find allies among us. I mean, of course, those writers who cheerfully describe how loathsome human beings are and what a blessing it will be when we disappear.
What a delight, after reading some of that, to read anything at all by Mike Juster, whose name is perfectly apt! But he could also go by the name of "Mike Saner" or "Mike Funnier," or "Mike Truer," because what his work invariably exhibits is the rationality, the balance, the sense of membership in the human species, that produces work, whether serious or humorous, of a very different and more enduring kind.
Juster says he began writing at the age of ten with "bad rhyme and meter" and then went on to "bad free verse as puberty hit." His early models included Eliot, Plath, Creeley and Medieval Latin epics in blank verse translations. The interest in translation has remained, producing prize-winning work, chiefly from Latin and Chinese.
A student of both F. D. Reeve and Robert Shaw, Juster composed his first sonnet as an assignment for Shaw, but soon, dissatisfied with his work, stopped writing. After a decade, sensing a void in his life, he began reading contemporary poets, and discovered Philip Larkin in 1991. Reinvigorated, he began writing, submitting work for publication and attending the West Chester Poetry Conference, where he was encouraged by Dana Gioia and stimulated by talking with others about poetry for the first time since college. His return to writing was sealed when he won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award for "Moscow Zoo," in 1995. He won the Nemerov Award again in 2000, and was a Finalist in 1996.
Juster's poems, seldom autobiographical, tend to begin with ideas rather than moods or emotions. He thinks of poetry not as a way into one's life, but as a way out of it, into external concerns and an examination of what surrounds us. He likes, he says, to "appropriate" external events into his life, "fuse" experiences--whether lived or heard about--into one experience that then becomes his in the poem, for the poem's purposes. He thinks of the poem as an artifact created out of what we think, know and live, but not necessarily a direct expression of it.
"Long Strange Trip," for instance, in which "The flower children gone to seed/Bake brownies for the PTA/And give to liberals in need," goes on to portray the compromises and losses ("nothing tie-dyed ever fits") that aging imposes, even on colorful rebels. The poem concludes with "What a bummer." The pose of detached, quasi-sympathetic "observer from the sidelines" works to poke good-natured fun at the absurdities of an era and those who lived it, but also at our own not-yet-perceived absurdities.
The pleasure of Juster's poems goes beyond their dead-pan humor; it hinges on his language, his use of every device, and his mastery of every form. Here is his "Round Trip," a rondeau that is also almost monorhyme, so that the repetitive form and the obsessive end-rhymes recreate the experience being conveyed:
I wait for luggage at the carousel
And count the ways this trip has not gone well.
The holding pattern did not end until
I started feeling violently ill
From wolfing nuts and swilling zinfandel.
The only thing that makes my nausea quell
Is badgering the airline personnel.
Eleven hours out of Evansville,
I wait for luggage.
Perhaps demons from airplane movie Hell
Have placed me under some hypnotic spell
Which keeps me staring like an imbecile
Until I have no brain cells left to kill.
I dream of sleeping in my cheap hotel,
And wait for luggage.
Juster also runs the gamut of emotional tones. A crisp, grisly sonnet bristling with unresolved fury, "On Remembering Your Funeral Was Today," begins, "When first I swore to tap-dance on your grave/My oath was neither wit nor metaphor." It ends, without a hint of mitigation or regret, "I see you basting in Satanic slime/Before deep-frying in your cockroach shell."
A stunning Stefanile sonnet explores the difficult territory of unacknowledged mixed ancestry:
CONFRONTING THE JEW
My mother never spoke a phrase as true.
Recalling their blind date, she said she thought
My father "was an Arab or a Jew."
Politely vicious aunts and uncles fought
Suggestions of this sort for generations,
But lost. There were no other explanations.
Spanish ancestors crossed the Pyrenees,
And found in France the safety that they sought.
Though they survived, the Torah was not taught
For long; in far and fractured colonies,
>Their baptized children wear their butchered name.
I cannot guess the onslaughts they withstood,
Or things they loved. With nothing to reclaim,
I still would say a kaddish if I could.
Juster incorporates references to tattoos, the Loch Ness Monster, Elvis, Houdini, Roswell, rock stars, cartoon and movie characters, the silliness of supermarket magazines, and his reading of poets past and present. Here, for example, is his graceful tribute to Wendy Cope:
I was unsettled to discover
I am in love. With Wendy Cope
My nightly read, why take a lover?
I was unsettled to discover
How often I was thinking of her.
Knowing her poems discouraged hope,
I was unsettled to discover
I am in love with Wendy Cope.
Nothing rooted in the human seems too incongruous to find its way into a Juster poem: he includes sexual innuendo, murderous scenarios, epitaphs for the living, vignettes that work like mini-dramas, rueful lyrics, imaginary greeting cards for use in embarrassing situations, and snippets from the writing life:
HONEST REJECTION LETTER
Here at The Antiseptic Review
We are afraid we must eschew
The sonnets, odes and jejune haiku
Of such obscurities as you.
We know hope springs eternal,
So go annoy some other journal.
The range of Juster's interests and sympathies is revealed by his two latest works. One, Longing for Laura, is a translation of selections from Petrarch's Canzoniere that misses none of the anguished patience of unfulfilled love and renders it with persuasive freshness. The other, a riveting long narrative titled "The Secret Language of Women," tells the story of a language preserved by Chinese women to record their private lives. The latter, which won an award from the New England Poetry Club, is told from the point of view of the hypothetical woman who devised the language and preserved it at the cost of great difficulty during periods of persecution. What a double gift it is, this capacity to "become," without cant, any person on whom the creative imagination chooses to focus, however alien in every way to one's own background or identity, coupled with poetic skills that persuade the reader to do the same!
The one thing not to be found in Juster's work is what those long-expected extraterrestrials will need before they do us in: justification for the deed. He will be no help to them at all. He is fairly sunny about other people and the world, in fact, not because he is blind to flaws, but because reason and maturity keep his expectations modest. He doesn't use satire to settle scores with "Them," but to attack, with self-deprecating humor, the traits, customs and practices that need attacking in all of us. He doesn't use lyric poetry to bewail lost hopes, wallow in envy, or complain of having been cheated by life. His keenest dissatisfactions are reserved for those systems and forms of thought that fail to put the human first and give it due weight, like those bureaucrats in "Moscow Zoo" who condone the murder of millions because it fulfills an ideological need.
There's no better way to close than with Mike Juster's "Letter to Auden," in which he brings one of poetry's great "dead white males" up to date on how the life of the mind is proceeding these days on our home planet:
LETTER TO AUDEN
Please forgive my arrogance;
You know how most Americans impose.
Your chat with Byron gave me confidence
>That your Platonic ghost would not oppose
Some verse disturbing you from your repose.
Besides, there's time to kill now that the Lord
Has silenced Merrill and his ouija board.
Or do you pine for peace in Paradise,
Besieged by every half-baked psychic hack
Intent on mining gems from your advice?
With me, please don't insist on writing back
Unless you can't resist some biting crack.
I also recognize that I had better
Keep my remarks far shorter than your Letter.
Indeed, I'll need some substantial guile and nerve
To try to emulate your bracing pace.
At twenty-nine, your lines had style and verve;
My work at thirty-nine seems commonplace
And foreordained to sink without a trace.
In any case, I do not hold out hope
Of sharing space with you or spiteful Pope.
A partial consolation on bad days
Is no contemporary can compete
With you at all. Downtrodden MFA's
Denounce the Audenesque as obsolete
Oppression by your dead-white-male elite,
But then they go on to become depressed
Because there's nothing left to be confessed.
Only a few eccentrics still support
Those poets who can scan lines properly.
However, I'm delighted to report
That you became a hot pop property
When Four Weddings exhumed your poetry.
You would have been amused to see its star
Arrested with a hooker in his car
But shocked that we remain so schizophrenic.
Our sordid scandals rarely stay concealed
Although we want things guiltless and hygienic.
Gay Studies has developed as a field
In which great writers' lovers are revealed;
You lose some points for marrying a Mann
And your diversity of goings-on.
As your long-suffering but faithful fan,
I must disclose you missed the NEA,
The disco era, Gump and daily bran.
In short, you would assess the present day
As drearily debased and déclassé.
Well, Wystan, this is all that I can muster.
Give my regards to Byron.