The Quality of Mercy: A Review of A.M. Juster, Wonder & Wrath
The Quality of Mercy
A Review of A.M. Juster, Wonder & Wrath
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Paul Dry Books, 2020
ISBN 978-1-58988-149-5, 80 pp., USA $14.95, paperback
Competence, charm, and a handful of memorable poems. When I pick up most poetry collections, these are all I hope to find. Truthfully, it’s a relief to end up with even one or two of the above. The average collection offers none. By contrast, A.M. Juster’s tenth and latest book, Wonder & Wrath, supplies all three. As a bonus, it also avoids the major vices I’ve come to dread from contemporary collections. It’s not too long, it doesn’t speak in riddles, and it hasn’t been deformed by the pursuit of some grand unifying project. Not in the least. Wonder & Wrath is spare, lucidly arranged, and—best of all—unfailingly hospitable.
The book clips cheerfully along almost from start to finish, its official eighty-page count in fact a generous overestimate. Sorted into three broadly defined sections—“Outer,” “Inner,” and “Other”—Wonder & Wrath really amounts to an agreeable miscellany. (As it should: a book of poems is not a team, it is a graduating class.) And while prosody enthusiasts won’t want for filigree to ogle, Juster aims his poems at a general audience. This is true also of his translations—which make up most of “Other”—even the more obscure ones (e.g., from the Welsh of Gwerful Mechain). Despite having become a venerable institution in the sphere of formal poetry, Juster seems still to take a beginner’s pleasure in fitting sound to sense, continually testing the conventions of meter, rhyme, and repetition to new and often pleasing effect.
In “Animal Model,” the first of several morality tales with non-human casts, every line but one of what initially appears to be blank verse contains at least one exact internal rhyme—“tumors bloom,” “ever . . . lever,” “are . . . harder . . . bar.” Juster eventually makes explicit the comparison between lab animals’ lives and ours, and he concludes the poem with a single unrhymed line, its matelessness mimetic of the unanswerable loss it names:
My neurons fray the way theirs do—when boards
politely loot, or parents brutalize,
or friends will never wake to hear farewell.
Wonder & Wrath is rich with such examples of form-flexing panache. Take “Untamed Daughter,” a touching sonnet in which the poet attempts to defend Shakespeare against criticism from his adolescent daughter. The poem ends with the following couplet: “but mark him down a point or two / because he tamed a Kate as fierce as you.” As well as playing on his daughter’s name, Juster has dutifully docked the penultimate line one foot. And in the tender elegy “After Scattering David Berman’s Ashes,” which celebrates a man whose life united contradictory traditions, Juster inverts Housman’s old trick by intermittently sweetening Anglo-Saxon hemistichs with the civilized pleasures of end rhyme and accentual-syllabic meter: “Scavenger of insight in poetry and prose / Heart that would rise when an aria rose.” (My only disappointment with this poem was in learning that it’s not about the front man of the Silver Jews.)
If A.M. Juster were merely a skillful craftsman and a gifted lyricist, then this would be a very short review. But he is something else besides. In her delightful essay, “Introducing Mike Juster,” Rhina Espaillat devotes a paragraph to the argument that Juster’s poems are, above all, philanthropic. Calling back to an earlier riff about aliens intent on wiping out mankind, she quips, “The one thing not 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.” She goes further: “His keenest dissatisfactions are reserved for those systems and forms of thought that fail to put the human first and give it due weight.” With all respect to Espaillat—herself a justly venerated figure among formalists—this is nonsense. As Espaillat plainly knows. Earlier in the same essay, she herself cites a poem that ends, “I see you basting in Satanic slime / Before deep-frying in your cockroach shell.” It would appear that at least some of Juster’s keenest dissatisfactions are reserved for assholes. This is, after all, a man who once devoted an entire book to making fun of Billy Collins. This is a man for whom a litany of self-gratifying daydreams is incomplete without the news that somebody somewhere has finally “fired the incompetents.” This is a man who boldly carries on the proud hip-hop tradition of self-affirming pseudonyms(s.vv. Busta Rhymes, Flo Rida, LL Cool J, and so on), selecting for himself an anagram that doubles as a boast: [I] am juster [than thou]. And so, what? As with many a literary grouch (Baudelaire, Beckett, and Bierce come to mind), the tingle of ressentiment is part of what makes Juster’s poems so delectable. Who hasn’t entertained the odd sadistic fantasy about a health insurance representative? The heart of gall has no less claim on poetry than the honeyed tongue.
I bring up Juster’s spleenish streak only because of how it shows itself in Wonder & Wrath. In fact, my one major criticism of the book is in response to this display. I say major because, of course, no mortal reviewer can resist picking the odd nit, and I’m no exception. In the otherwise faultless “Cassandra,” say, shouldn’t the “crumbles” in “I sense which virgin will be raped today, / which nation crumbles” instead be “crumble”? As for “Vertigo,” surely no native speaker has ever advised a fellow human to “Focus your eyes on horizons” rather than “on the horizon”? (Kudos, though, for the internal feminine rhyme.) And in “No,” the change from the first publication’s “perpetuate” to the book’s “perpetrate” may intensify the central accusation, but it also mars the pentameter. (More on “No” later.) Still, my only real objection to Wonder & Wrath concerns Juster’s habit of belittling his fellow man. Let me be clear. As a connoisseur of maledictions, I would never object to the belittling itself. Instead, I grow uneasy with—to quote another Powow River Poet—Juster’s tendency, on occasion, “to insist that it is good.”
As I read and reread Wonder & Wrath, I find myself reflexively distinguishing the airing of emotion from the airing of belief. Consider “Falling for the Witch,” an unrhymed pantoum that laments a friend’s seduction by a woman of dubious intentions. Though clumsy at times in its handling of sentiment and character, “Falling for the Witch” convincingly relates the helpless experience of watching someone you care for make a bad decision:
Was stripping him of everything divine
what she demanded? Promised ecstasy,
he did not sense her fingers on his throat;
he did not hear our warnings in his world.
Whether or not it’s nice to call a friend’s companion a witch (it’s not), this poem doesn’t so much condemn a specific person as evoke a specific feeling. And although some feelings are more attractive than others, honestly conveying them to strangers is the time-honored task of the lyric.
But something different happens in “Proposed Clichés,” a poem consisting of assorted aphorisms and aphoristic phrases. The second and most alarming stanza offers up the ready-made comparison “More user-friendly than a hooker / hard up for cash.” Where “Falling for the Witch” voices revulsion toward an individual, these lines express contempt for an entire class.Elsewhere in “Proposed Clichés,” the same disdainful note rings out again: “A drowning man may clutch at straws, / but his sipping is pathetic.” A similar metaphor animates “Fruit Flies,” a brilliant, ruthless allegory about alcoholism. Nothing’s wrong, to be sure, with a poem that articulates a misanthropic feeling. But, at least for me, when it begins asserting misanthropic beliefs, the music sours.
This attitude toward others weaker, less respectable, or simply less equipped to drag themselves up from the depths appears in small ways throughout Wonder & Wrath, most memorably in “No,” a poem that’s nagged me like a bad dream since the first time I read it. Winner of the 2007 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, “No” is a kind of anti-elegy, apparently written in the aftermath of a suicide. In it, Juster rejects the dictum De mortuis nil nisi bonum. And, not content to speak ill of the dead himself, he urges others to speak nothing but. “No” is too elegant a poem to suffer further paraphrase, so I’ll let it speak for itself:
No, not this time. I cannot celebrate
a man’s discarded life, and will not try;
these knee-jerk elegies perpetrate
Plath’s nightshade lies. Why should we glorify
descent into a solipsistic hell?
Stop. Softly curse the waste. Don’t elevate
his suffering to genius. Never tell
me he will live on. Never call it fate.
Attend the service. Mourn. Pray. Comfort those
he lacerated. Keep him in your heart,
but use that grief to teach. When you compose
a line, it is a message, not just art.
Be furious with me, but I refuse
to praise him. No, we have too much to lose.
Suicide is at the root an act of selfishness, and those who make this choice deserve contempt. When we fail to disavow them, we risk encouraging others to follow their example. From Dante to the Drive-by Truckers, countless writers across the ages have presented versions of this thesis, not a few of them in dazzling style. Still, it’s always seemed to me a curious line of thought. Should we denounce all those who suffer from agoraphobia, or OCD, or Tourette’s syndrome, for fear that otherwise impressionable bystanders will find these disorders too tempting to resist? Are we meant to believe that suicide is somehow comparable to theft or infidelity, an obviously self-serving vice from which responsible citizens abstain chiefly out of respect for others? Though Juster is right to note that the hoary claim reprised in “No” may be at first infuriating, a little reflection reveals its incoherence. But happily for readers, the poem has more than argument to offer.
In lines of which Juster would surely disapprove, Anne Sexton once wrote, “suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.” I’ve long considered this to be a fundamental split, like that between mountain and beach people or between those with and those without a sense of humor. When you hear someone has killed himself, do you ask How? or merely Why? (The crucial difference Sexton doesn’t bother to explain is that those who ask How? don’t need to ask Why? because for them the answer is self-evident.) The first few times I read “No,” I received it as the versified PSA it purports to be, and so I had Juster pegged as a foursquare Why? But around the dozenth time I read the poem, my understanding changed, and I began to think “No” might actually be art, not just a message.
I tried re-reading it as a dramatic monologue. What if the poet is not wagging a finger but channeling a ghost? How much more wrenching is the plea “Never call it fate” if it is made not by a sanguine Eratospherean attorney but by some poor soul who fears that fate might have a similar plan for him? How much truer does the poem ring if it comes from the mouth not of a Why? but of a How? And what about that concluding line, with its admonitory tone straight out of a vintage driver’s ed film? How much more poignant is the warning “we have too much too lose” if we believe “too much” may well include the speaker himself? As a rhyming sermon, “No” gets off a couple of decent zingers. But as a work of the imagination—rendering in the first person the protestations of a desperate man—it suddenly becomes a poem. The more I think about it, the more I think the same might well be true of other poems by Juster.
Because Wonder & Wrath is just too rich with nuance to brook the alternative. Because, showing a vulnerability alien to any worldview that could mistake grit for grace, Juster concludes the harrowing sonnet “Autoimmune Attack” not with a Kiplingesque cry of defiance but with a grim confession of learned helplessness: “Reports pile higher. I ignore the news.” Because the same poet who wrote of a humble student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream lines as gentle and astute as,
Demetrius considers Helena
in jeans, and mopes as he recalls her strands
of spotlit hair. Fair Hermia still beams—
and reaches for Lysander in her dreams
could surely never liken addicts to insects or sex workers to consumer goods—and truly mean it. Not the same poet who took the trouble to complete a fragment from Rilke in the following manner:
The Gods: recalcitrants who live
in contradictions, frauds who lie
about which sins they must forgive,
which joys they must deny.
The italic type gives Rilke’s French, the roman Juster’s ventriloquy. If our suffering is, at least in part, the work of spiteful gods, then how can one confidently blame the miserable for their own misery? When Juster speaks in Rilke’s voice, his vision of the universe becomes, though bleak, immeasurably more merciful toward other human beings. And maybe “becomes” is not the word. Maybe I should have said “is revealed to be.” Maybe Espaillat was right.
Toward the end of Don Quixote, the hero’s faithful companion, Sancho, is finally granted his long-time wish to become the governor of a small island. On the question of how to govern, Quixote gives his squire some characteristically long and uncharacteristically sage advice. The sorrowful knight has by this time spent over 700 pages confronting evildoers with many manful words and much imaginary violence. But when he advises Sancho, his tone grows gentler. Reading Wonder & Wrath, I get the feeling that, in his best moments, Juster might well echo Quixote’s counsel. “Although all of God’s attributes are equal,” says the good knight to his friend, “in our eyes it is the merciful who shine brighter and stand taller than the just.”