March 20, 2009

Review by Stephen Fellner

FORTY-NINE GUARANTEED WAYS TO ESCAPE DEATH
by Sandy McIntosh

Marsh Hawk Press
P.O. Box 206
East Rockaway, NY 11518-0206
ISBN 978-0-9792416-1-1
2007, 86 pp., $15.00
www.marshhawkpress.org

Unlike a lot of comic poets who rely on easy punchlines and hermetic in-jokes, Sandy McIntosh balances verbal inventiveness with significant personal inquiries in his third collection of poems Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death.

Playful with form and content, McIntosh’s infectious humorous spirit reveals itself almost immediately in the title poem:

5. Joseph Heller’s character, Yossarian cultivated boredom to prolong his life. The actor, George Saunders’ suicide note read: “I am bored.”

Or look a little further down the list:

7. A lesson from Scientific American, 1980: “We used to believe in the particle theory [of light], but now we believe in the wave theory, because all who believed in the particle theory have died.”

Meticulously organized, McIntosh’s book reveals his joy in having intellectual fun within the Table of Contents alone. Divided into eight cleverly titled sections, such as “From the Catalog of Prohibited Musical Instruments,” “At the Funeral Home Bar,” and “Insignificant Meetings with Remarkable Men,” McIntosh’s wit is precise and all-encompassing. Remarkably each section in and of itself does more than merely set up a joke and provide a solid comic payoff. You get the sense fairly quickly there’s a strong intellect and emotional core. Take for instance the humorous premise of “I Channel Truman Capote”:

…Do you have any peanut butter?
I think I might like to spread some
on a cracker.
My, you seem to have
a large collection of bric-a-brac.
Nick-a-nac.
Is there a theme here?

From there, the poem turns into something tragic, and wholly unexpected:

Yes. I did visit the house in Sagaponack on New Year’s Eve. There were boys I knew living there. I was disappointed when you opened the door. I was in a funk and sat down on the couch…And during that time I absolutely did not do the nasty things you claim in that defamatory – if unhappily unpublished – essay.

As if the poem didn’t do enough thought provoking work to complicate its own meditation on authorship and persona, it ends with the final sentence, elevating the piece beyond pathos and mere ventriloquism:

I recommend you throw away that essay, in which you pretend to be the hero, and print this one instead.

Once in awhile the humor is a bit pat, doesn’t extend beyond the obvious, such as in “A Ten Thousand Dollar Bill.” It begins:

A woman asked if I could change
a ten thousand dollar bill.
I told her, “Nobody can change
a ten thousand dollar bill.”

Is it any surprise the poem ends with pathos? McIntosh writes: “All I could do was stand there/holding her hand.” Fortunately, such moments are rare, as if McIntosh is gearing up for his next wild, surreal conceit that will keep readers not only laughing but thinking in unexpected and vital ways.

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