July 30, 2009

Review by Mary Meriam

EASY MARKS
by Gail White

David Robert Books
PO Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
ISBN 978-1934999066
2008, 80 pp., $17.00
www.davidrobertbooks.com

Encountering a poet and her book of poems for the first time, I find myself fascinated by the slow emergence of the book’s persona. In a book of formalist poems, the persona can be seen in stanzas, like the rooms of a house. Though she may be working with received forms, these are rooms of the poet’s own creation, and she is free to move in and through the rooms as she wishes. Who is this persona? What is she moved by? How does she move through her rooms? For women have always had less space in which to move. Does the enclosure of the form open outward or spiral inward?

The poems in Gail White’s Easy Marks are marked by a central persona known as “woman,” in this case a highly intelligent woman aware of the restrictions around her and the prejudices against her. She’s an outsider, she may have disappeared, she may be a ghost, but she has plenty to do in her rooms, as we can see in this powerful poem:

The Disappearance of Mary Magdalene

At Pentecost, she’s gone. Her tongue of fire
had come already, scorching Peter’s brain
with a subtle whisper, “I have seen the Lord.”
Then, not another sound. As if she knew,
with her next breath, Peter was taking charge:
this movement was for men. There’d be no chair
for her in their tight circle.

Underground, her faith ran like a waterfall. She lived
a hermit’s life. If women sought her out,
their stories thumped like washing on the rocks,
buckets in wells. Theirs was a gospel word
that shunned the daylight—tales Paul never heard.

Like Magdalene, White’s poems work their magic outside the “tight circle” of biblical gospel. They contain their own “gospel word”—the words of women—just as important and valuable as “this movement for men.” For wasn’t Mary Magdalene the very first person to see the risen Christ? A rather pivotal detail conveniently swept away through Christianity’s centuries.

Queen Gertrude, Rosetti’s wife, Beauty, Snow White, Simone de Beauvoir, Red Riding Hood’s sister, Virginia Woolf, and of course, Eve, all make appearances in Easy Marks. Although I appreciate the light-verse tartness of the voices in many of the poems, I find the poignant, longing voice that occasionally appears, deeper and more appealing, perhaps because these poems express pain more directly, without first passing through anger. “Sea-Child” is a girl who isn’t sufficiently attractive, for her mother or the world:

So I mastered keyboards and computers.
Day after day my legs are curled
in the curve of a desk, and I not dreaming
there are silver tails in the world.

But when the wind thrashes the willow branches
on the river’s edge, I hear with pain
those feminine voices, wailing, luring,
singing far off in the rain.

Certainly, a lovely poem. Another poignant moment can be found in “Red Riding Hood’s Sister,” where the younger sister’s chance to explore the world is curtailed by her older sister’s adventures. She is kept at home.

Late at night I get up
and look through the window.
Somewhere deep in the woods
the silvery wolves crouch low
and whine like ghosts,
and I look and look
for the lights in my grandmother’s house.

A discussion of rooms would not be complete without mention of the original room, Eden. Or, in “Eve in the Cave,” lost Eden. Our original couple converse in a cave, with Eve asking several fascinating, philosophical questions, only to be put (ironically) in her place:

Might we be living yet
in our old home, with no
names given to the beasts
and plants? Could we not know
the world in other ways,
through loving sense and touch?
The trouble is, he says,
you women think too much.

But it isn’t only the men silencing women. In “Queen Gertrude’s Soliloquy,” Hamlet’s mother smothers:

I wish he wouldn’t sulk. It’s unbecoming,
and first impressions ought to be our best.
Then I do wish he’d stop that beastly humming
and talking to himself.

And in yet another twist, “Rosetti’s Wife” kvetches:

He wants his poems now, the ones he buried
with me, to be a sacrifice of love
forever.

The upshot is, from the castle to the grave, from Eden to the cave, “we’re all too easily taken in” (especially women). Happily, White’s light verse

“tempers the inhuman darkness of reality with the comedy of human artifice. Light verse precisely lightens; it lessens the gravity of its subject.” (John Updike)

Easy Marks hits the bulls-eye.

____________

Mary Meriam’s chapbook of poems, The Countess of Flatbroke (afterword by Lillian Faderman), was published in 2006 by Modern Metrics. Her poems and essays have been published in Literary Imagination, Gay & Lesbian Review, Windy City Times, A Prairie Home Companion, and Light Quarterly, among others.

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