Review by David Lee Garrison
THE CASANOVA CHRONICLES
by Myrna Stone
84 West South Street
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766
2010, 72 pp., $17.95
This is the third book by Myrna Stone, from Greenville, Ohio, who is emerging as a powerful new voice in contemporary poetry. She reveals a vast, rich vocabulary and, especially in this book, a fluent command of various forms, from the sonnet to the triolet to the sestina. As George Bilgere suggests in a quotation on the cover of the book, this is an “off-the-wall collection” in which “parrots, puppets and the great Casanova take turns force-feeding Viagra to the stuffy old sonnet. But it’s Myrna Stone’s Rabelaisian gift for language that really steals the show.” It is quite a show and, yes, she steals it again and again.
The book has three parts: “The Ballard Sonnets,” “Schlock Therapy,” and “The Casanova Chronicles.” The Ballard Sonnets have to do with a Long Island eccentric, Alba Ballard, who became a minor celebrity by training parrots and other animals to perform in costume. The poet tells this story in a series of sonnet monologues in the voices of Alba, her husband Marvin and son Claudio, and many of the parrots. “Marvin Ruminating,” for example, begins with the lines: “How I yearn to see you one more time, / Alba, teaching a bird to speak in rhyme / or pose at the piano dressed as Liberace.” The husband expresses his admiration and bafflement at the power his wife had over animals and, in the end, over him. He confesses, in the concluding couplet, that “of all the animals you tried to tame, / just one, Marvin Ballard, loved the rein.” The animals themselves are more cynical. Romeo, the oldest of the parrots, speaking to his progeny, recalls
…Alba, who with me
and Fifi Green (yes, your foul-mouthed, bad-
ass mother) turned into fans the bourgeoisie
of Long Island. The morning I first meowed,
Alba, obsessed, sewed me a cat suit of lame
and your mother a rat suit of felt. Cash cows
we were then, at fairs, bar mitzvahs, the VA.
All in all, it’s the story of a group that had a wild time together. That most of the family members are animals suggests the primitive urges that run wild in family life. Lust, power, greed, rivalry—a Long Island housewife harnessed these emotions for audiences, and the poet lets them loose. It is ironic that she lets them loose inside the controlled environment of the sonnet. The birds run around squawking inside a pen of fourteen rhyming lines, and yet Stone releases their wildness with an enjambed fluency that makes the poems sound like free-wheeling conversations.
A major theme of the book is performance. While the first section involves the performance of Alba Ballard’s animals, the next one moves from puppet performances in the Middle Ages staged by priests to explain the mysteries of the faith to a modern day priest who performs forbidden acts while chiding God about human weakness, from the banter between Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen to the macho strutting of a Mexican cowboy and the romantic babbling of a husband satirized by his wife. The title of the second section, “Schlock Therapy,” comes from a priceless poem about the interview by a young journalist of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Cheated out of the royalties due him for his invention, Farnsworth becomes a hermit and dismisses television, saying it’s “pap, it’s a peepshow // in a box, and everybody’s getting it, like a disease.” In his bitterness, he calls out to his wife for another drink and advises the journalist that “If we’re held in the cup // of God’s right hand, it’s because His left’s too busy / wiping our asses.”
In the last section, which provides the title of the book, the poet returns to the monologue sonnet in a tour-de-force sequence that outlines the life of Casanova. With information culled mainly from the lengthy life history written by the famous writer, actor, diplomat, lawyer, priest, and lover, and from other sources about him, the poet creates a kind of play. In fact, to clarify the characters involved, Stone opens this section with a helpful list of the “Dramatis Personae.” In the drama Casanova emerges not just as a libertine but as a multi-faceted human being with a wide range of emotions and talents. The interweaving of plots is too complex to cover in a review, so I will cite just one of the sonnets in full. It is in the form of a letter to a woman who with her sister was one of Casanova’s first conquests:
Letter to Sister Maria Concetta from Casanova
Paris, 2 July, 1750
Dear Marta, your letter cuts me to the quick
each time I read it. What has changed you so?
Can you not see, my love, that bitterness wicks
more than blood from your heart? When you forgo
me, and repudiate the intimacies you and I
and your sister shared, what is left but regret
for the appetites of the flesh? Till the day I die
I will think of you both as my little wives, my debt
to you impossible to repay except by placing
your needs before mine. Thus, I will not see you
again, nor will I speak with Nanetta….The ring
you gave me is herewith enclosed. As evening blues
and my candle gutters, I conjure us up, I crave
us—three virginal shades both happy and grave.
Casanova, having received a letter from the dying Marta who longs to “expunge the wickedness you and I and my sister / committed in our bed,” accedes to her request never to see her again. We hear his voice, we see at the same time his unrelenting belief in the flesh and his sensitivity to his former lover, and we recognize the mix of love and death that haunted the man.
The poetry, translations, and reviews of David Lee Garrison have appeared in Connecticut Review, The Nation, Poem, and Rattle, among other publications. Garrison Keillor read two poems from his book, Sweeping the Cemetery (Browser Books), on The Writer’s Almanac, and U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser featured one on his website, American Life in Poetry. Last year David won the Paul Laurence Dunbar Poetry Award; this year he won an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Montgomery County Arts and Cultural District.