The Poet Behind the Personas in Gail White’s ASPERITY STREET: An Essay on the Poet’s Work, Following Our Interview

The Poet Behind the Personas in Gail White’s ASPERITY STREET: An Essay on the Poet’s Work, Following Our Interview

Feb. 2016; blog post: Feb. 2017.

It might seem surprising to many of her readers that Gail White does not consider herself to be a confessional poet. As she announces at the start of her poetry readings, and as she told me in an interview, the personal “I” and the people she writes about, including all those in Asperity Street, are fictional products of her imagination. She has no children or siblings, made up “my aunt” in “Anecdotal Evidence,” has never had cancer, and despite being cat owned and operated, is not the old woman whose children think she has too many cats. “Without imagination,” Gail told me, “there is no possibility of empathy and the whole world goes all to hell, as we see happening today. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that if there were more readers of poetry, there would be fewer haters of people who are ‘different’.”

Though the people and events in her poems and the speaking voices that describe them are fictional, at least some of the images in her poems are derived from her own environment and experiences, and we certainly do hear something specific to the poet herself speaking through her poetic choices.

It’s easy to admire Gail’s deceptively simple, wonderfully clever formalism, like her juxtaposition of classic forms and themes with seemingly off-the-cuff contemporary language and subject matter. Once I understood that Gail’s poems are never strictly confessional, I realized that her signature wit, which, contained in strict forms, is what for many readers makes her style distinctive, embodies a form of irony: an ambiguity of stance. When she couches in a polished-gem form (usually a sonnet) a “different” and even at times shocking perspective, are we seeing a cynical, even mocking Cheshire Cat grin behind the persona, or is the poem intended to signal a direct and sincere observation? I get the feeling that in most of her poems it’s both, simultaneously. Or at least could be. Furthermore, at the risk of over-generalizing, I find that her skill at creating tension by playing both sides of the fence at once via her unique brand of humor is most evident in poems that best display her mastery of formal technique. We can’t know if her poetry’s ambiguity reveals some inner tension in Gail the person (and, as one of her poems’ personas might say, it’s not our business); but the consistent quality of internal tension in her poetry does tell us something important about Gail the poet.

When I asked her if she has a poetic aesthetic, I was surprised that it is “Only that of preferring rhyme to free verse.” Although she didn’t mention meter, nearly all of her recent poems—and certainly those in Asperity Street—are written in iambic pentameter or tetrameter. Many of those poems are sonnets, a few broken into stanzas. Even so, because Gail typically sacrifices language compression for the sake of realistic voice, even her strictly formal poems have the easy-to-read flow most often found in free verse. Her poetry is layered, but the surface layer is accessible to even the most casual reader—which is no easy feat and is a testament to her poetic talent.

Gail White is a name often included in lists of New Formalists, and many of her publishing credits reflect her formalist tendencies, which were already evident early, as in her half of the 1988 chapbook Sibyl and Sphinx, penned with her good friend Barbara Loots. Some of the poems are free verse, but meter does appear, though not strict, and her preference for slant rhyme suggests an interest in formalism pushing against a resistance to outright traditional convention. But that resistance soon gives way to the bold formalism that distinguishes her more recent poetry.

In 1993 Gail appeared in The Muse Strikes Back, an anthology of “reply poems” by women to men. Next came Landscapes With Women: Four American Poets featuring Gail from the South, Rhina P. Espaillat from the East Coast, Barbara Loots from the Midwest, and Martha Bosworth (now deceased) from the West Coast.

“There’s a story with this one,” Gail told me.

It was much harder to get poetry books published in the ‘90s than it is now. But eventually this one got on the list at Singular Speech Press. There were several books ahead of it. I waited for years. Then it was the next book up but one. I waited for months. Finally it was at the head of the list! I said, “The only thing that can stop this from being printed now is if the publisher dies.” The next day he ran his car into a tree and died. True story. I thought we were doomed. However, the publisher’s widow decided to print one more book and dedicate it to her husband, and it came out in 1999.

Many of the personas in Gail’s poems speak with this same kind of deadpan narrative voice.

Following Landscapes, Gail’s poetry appeared in another anthology, Kiss and Part, in 2005. Her poetry book The Price of Everything appeared in 2001, followed by Easy Marks in 2008, and in 2009, The Accidental Cynic, which won one of three prizes given by Alfred Dorn in memory of his wife. Asperity Street, her latest book, consisting almost entirely of formal poems, was published by Able Muse Press in 2015. Also of note, Gail won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award in 2012 and 2013, and she is the judge of its 2015 competition.

Gail’s body of work is carefully crafted rather than voluminous. She typically works on a poem for just a few days, though she sometimes goes back and tinkers after weeks or months. Like most of us these days, she writes on her computer, “which is located on a big beat-up desk at a window overlooking Bayou Teche. I write when the notion takes me,” she admits, “and not on a schedule. I can’t just sit down and say, ‘I will not rise until I’ve written a sonnet.’ This may explain why I’m not very prolific.” But she does write with some consistency. She says she tries to write at least one poem a week, and one good poem per month. Assembling Asperity Street, she said, took about six years.

Her typical day is “pretty boring, since I still have a day job. For about six hours a day I’m on the computer doing medical transcription. The rest of the time, I’m up to my eyebrows in books,” by which she means “real books with pages, not dinky little screens.” Her favorite books are Victorian novels, and she seldom reads a novel written later than 1930. When I asked her if she could tell me her ten favorite poets, she could only get as far as seven: of the dead poets, Tennyson, Yeats, Housman, and in recent years her favorite has been George Herbert, “whose mastery of form and spiritual impact are second to none.” Her favorite living poets are Rhina P. Espaillat, X. J. Kennedy, and A. E. Stallings, all prominent New Formalists. Her ten favorite poems, eight of which use rhyme, are two by George Herbert, “The Forerunners” and “Prayer (I)”; “O Have You Caught the Tiger?” by William Blake; an excerpt from “The Princess: Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” (the title being its beginning line); “If No One Ever Marries Me” by Laurence Alma-Tedema; “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” by William Butler Yeats; “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman; “The Heaven of Animals” by James Dickey; Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” and “Song” by Rhina P. Espaillat.

Gail’s tastes definitely lean toward accessible formalism. “People often assume that I’ve been a teacher,” Gail mentioned, “but they’re wrong. I didn’t have the leadership traits for that.” She teaches and delights through her poems.

Since Gail was born and raised in Florida and got her BA in English at Stetson, and has since spent most of her adult life in Louisiana, I thought she might consider herself to be a regional writer. “I suppose I count as a Southern poet,” she agrees. “But except for the title poem of Asperity Street and some poems derived from my years in New Orleans, I don’t really have much of a Southern identity—unless the South is being vilified.” I must say that I was delighted to learn that this droll reluctant Southerner was born on April Fool’s Day. “Yes, April 1, 1945. Now you know my age. I’ve reached my allotted Biblical span, and my death could no longer be regarded as shockingly premature.” The South that runs through her veins can’t help but seep into her syntax. Gail’s style has the easy conversational flow of forerunners like Robert Frost spiced with her own Southern kick, rather than the musicality and compression of, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins. You won’t hear jazz here, but some poems suggest lyrics sung in country or blues bars on Bourbon Street.

And what are they singing about? Often some radical departure from accepted norms, especially those regarding family. Romantic love is often mocked. In “She Compares Her Lover to Her Cat,” the speaker laments that her lover isn’t more cat-like: “If only you had fur and she had brains.” And in the clever poem “Passion Spent,” now “My heart, an old and tired cat, / surveying age’s box of toys, will not uncurl itself for that.” In fact, “Although the mice are slow and fat / and weakened by avoirdupois, / my heart, an old and tired cat, no longer dreams of mouse or rat, / and if assailed by sudden noise / will not uncurl itself for that.” It doesn’t take a cat lover to appreciate this perfect analogy.

Gail told me that she has been happily married since 1967 to husband Arthur, a now retired private school history teacher. “I highly recommend that a poet marry someone who knows little about poetry and cares less,” Gail advised. “You will get a spouse who regards you as the greatest poet living, which is very consoling in times of discouragement.”

A happy marriage doesn’t stop the poet from scorning marriage and even men in general in order to represent a feminist stance on the independence of women. According to the “Ballade of Madame Bovary,” marriage will leave a woman unfulfilled, even financially; in fact, “marriage makes the world a sty.” A husband is not entirely missed when he dies; in “Post Diagnosis,” even before he’s dead the wife “plans new uses for his closet space.” And in “How I Spend My Time Since You Died,” the widow goes out to dinner on Saturdays, “learning to be unafraid of a table for one. / I’m not a recluse, after all.” Some women, like the great-aunt in “Death of My Old Maid Aunt,” fear “Peeping Toms or worse” more than being alone, but the narrator “laughed a bit,” at her aunt’s warnings, “not knowing then / there are worse things to fear than men.” Ironically, it was the aunt who found that “tall dark stranger in her bed”: death.

A negative posture towards men is not new, of course. “Greek myth records the known (but hated) fact / that women do not always want men’s love,” begins the poem “Woman into Tree.” True enough, but here “love” is equated with rape—Apollo’s rape at that. What choice do women really have, other than to call “on heaven to destroy their shape,” a plea usually unanswered, if not betrayed? Well, “lucky Daphne” changed into a tree. To escape men, it seems, a woman must cease being a woman and even human. Of course, escape is a myth as impossible as “walking trees.”

Unless you’re Miz Hillman of “The Solitary Woman,” who lived alone and had no family or visitors but was nonetheless no recluse. She attended church, collected mail for out-of-town neighbors, adopted cats, wrote (“a novel, memoirs, poetry, and more,” the neighbors guessed), and lived to the age of eighty-four, presumably happily, since the last line admits, “we pitied her. We were such fools as that.”

Some girls are just born inclined to be independent. In (the again not-confessional) “My Personal Recollections of Not Being Asked to the Prom,” the narrator didn’t mind being unpopular, despite her mother’s unspoken disapproval, being instead a well-read brainy girl with a saucy wit whose friends were books and lovers dead poets. The parenthetical last line, “(But I got married, Mother, all the same) (parenthesis hers), could be read several ways: It could suggest that the narrator reluctantly gave in to the cultural norm, or that her married status was incidental to her life as a whole. It could be simply the (older) girl’s snide rebuttal to her mother’s expectations of failure. The poet suggests a resolution of the marriage vs. independence quandary in “Old Lovers,” who “wake in double beds, / narrow, but still with room for two.”

Gail takes aim at all aspects of the traditional family, even going straight to the top. One of her wryest poems, “When Jesus Was Grown,” is spoken in the voice of the mother of Jesus, who hopes her son will, after “twenty-five years and nothing strange / had happened,” turn out to be normal after all, settling down with a nice Jewish girl and having “a few polite grandchildren.” This poem’s comment on maternal expectations does double duty in also exposing a subtle hypocrisy of religious faith that shuns too much faith, like believing the outrageous message of a prophet (John the Baptist), or loving the poor to excess. Characteristic in using accessible, conversational language that might seem a bit too prosy when not framed in a formal container, this poem is atypical in that it has no rhyme scheme and the rhythmic pattern is quite loose. In fact, the poem reads like a very short-short story or prose poem broken into lines and stanzas. Written as a block (my apologies to the poet; I do this to highlight her proclivity toward story-telling), it would read like this:

His mother breathed a deep sigh of relief when he turned twenty-five and nothing strange had happened. (Maybe it was all a dream, that business with the angel.) She might yet manage to arrange a match with some nice Jewish girl—it was high time and then she could relax, look forward to a few polite grandchildren. But though he was the finest carpenter for miles around, had really learned the trade, and knew and loved the Torah, nonetheless, she had concerns about him. He seemed too fond of prophecies about the world turned upside down, and although she was charitable to a fault, she felt he loved the poor to excess. And there were rumors of a prophet now who lived on locusts in the wilderness. His message was outrageous, and she hoped her son would never hear it.

Perhaps the deep message, that “His message was outrageous, and she hoped her son would never hear it,” becomes more subversive due to the easy, almost breezy voice of the narrator, who is, remember, the Mother Mary, mother of Jesus and, if not of Christianity, certainly of the Catholic Church. Isn’t there yet another layer of wit here, when we readers smile when we should frown? I think Gail would say, “Hell, yes!”

Gail’s playful serious deconstruction of family doesn’t stop with marriage and men. “Brother and Sister” shows us siblings honing their prowess, “Cat-quick and scalpel-sharp,” for their future mates, who “will find their bodies ready flayed / by love that wields a hunting knife.” In “Astrolabe,” the famous lovers, Abelard and Heloise, produced a child in wedlock, the speaker of the poem, who remains, he reminds his father, “a bastard in your hearts,” a mere footnote to their affair that ended because “My mother loved you so / she threw off beauty and became a nun / only because you said, ‘It’s over. Go, / you bride of Christ, we’re only siblings now.’” The victims here are both the mother and the accusing broken-hearted son, Astrolabe, a bizarre almost code name for a child. His parents’ impact on ecclesiastical history is far more complex than the poem suggests, but the point here is that the fallout of their marriage to Christ is irresponsibility toward their human child. Abstractly, their higher calling has been deemed noble by themselves, the Church, and the world; concretely, it’s child neglect.

More often in Gail’s poetry, children are viewed much less sympathetically. “You won’t read far in my work,” Gail told me point blank, “without noticing an aversion to the young of our species.” She explained that she and her husband followed the fashion among intellectuals of the 70’s to remain childless, in their case preferring to have cats. Over the years they’ve had Ambrose, Hobbs, Belial, Pandora, Cyno, Fat Cat, Pushkin, Daisy, and Tuxie. “Cats figure prominently in my poetry. They are obviously preferable to babies because they wash themselves and bury their own poop.”

In her introduction to Asperity Street, Rhina P. Espaillat calls the cat the poet’s tutelary spirit. More than just pets, cats and their feline cousins find respected positions in families, cultures, and civilizations. But our DNA heirs are little more than pests—unless they serve as potent images in Gail White’s poetry. “The babies seem alike as geese,” the narrator observes in “Looking through the Nursery Window,” at an added distance provided by the pane of glass; they are “one of a thousand—just a space / and comma…thrashing, wet / and howling,” a mere “small cloaca,” not much different, really, from the female fish’s fertilized eggs in “Mating,” brought about by something, “it can’t be love,” or even “instinct, quite. Respect, perhaps, as they glide on.” Childhood is viewed as “wretched,” needy, disrespected, “even if you’re not / abused and have no scars to show in court.” Escape, the poet advises in “The Prison.” “Jump from a cliff, swim through a river, scale the prison wall…At any price, grow tall,” grow up, escape childhood and children, and by extension, humanity’s childish ways.

Speaking of which. When I asked her if she had any bête noires (besides children), Gail said, “The only things that really make me want to smack somebody are the Republican Congress and people who run their leaf blowers whether there are any leaves or not.” Basically liberal, her stance on political correctness is that she loathes it. “The only thing I loathe more than political correctness is the current Republican Party and all its works. If the Republicans would give me a rest from their insanity, I could devote more time to hating political correctness.”

Given her great sense of humor, quirky insight, and commitment to poetic formalism, I was curious to know if she had any regular conversation buddies, other than Arthur and the cats, of course. She told me, “For decades I’ve corresponded with Barbara Loots, a Kansas City poet, about everything from poetry to the Presbyterian Church. When we meet, which happens every few years, we catch up on whatever has fallen through the cracks of correspondence.”

I asked Gail some questions about process and her day-to-day relationship to language. She said her inspiration for poems often comes from reading other people’s poetry. “Also from suddenly realizing that I’ve never written anything about something I’ve thought or believed for years.”

“How do you get started on a poem?”

“Generally a line or two will just come to me—often the closing line or couplet—and I build on that. Or I will think of a concept such as ‘St. Francis preaching to cats,’ and go from there.”

“Do you journal?”

“No. I also do not blog, twitter, or tweet.”

(Ahem.) “Talk out loud to yourself, perhaps?”

“Yes, and I always have. I was an only child and I need a lot of solitude. When I can’t get it, on a group cruise, for example, the desire to talk to myself is intensified. I’ve also noticed that I’ve begun to sing in the aisles while grocery shopping. I hope I’m keeping this muted. Especially since I can’t carry a tune.”

“Do you cuss? Please say yes.”

“Yes, and I’m more uninhibited as I get older. For instance, when the sliding doors to the living room get stuck again, it relieves the stress to exclaim, ‘I hate these bloody effing doors!’”

Even knowing she’s not an autobiographical poet, reading her poetry I thought perhaps she had done a lot of traveling. “ Travel is my passion,” she told me. “I’ve never had enough of it.” She has spent time in Belgium, England, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, the Czech Republic, India, and Russia. If she won the lotto, she told me, she would sell everything and move to England. “If I could live in Europe, I’d give up my American citizenship in a heartbeat.” Not surprisingly, the majority of the most pleasant experiences in her life occurred while traveling abroad. She described some of her standout memories: “My first sight of Notre Dame de Paris, so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes; sitting on the veranda of a rajah’s palace in Jodhpur, looking out over the city, when a peacock jumped off the garden wall and spread its tail; catching bell ringing practice at the village church in Finchingfield in Essex; discovering that Venice really does look like a city built on water; visiting the Memling museum, located in a medieval hospital in Bruges.”

Given her Southern roots and love for travel, I had to ask: When at home, what does she typically eat? European? Middle or Far Eastern? Louisiana Cajun gator, perhaps? “I typically eat popcorn for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, and whatever comes to hand for dinner. I eat very few vegetables and no fruit at all. By rights I should be dead.”

One of my favorite of Gail’s poems (granted, I have many), a 5-star love sonnet “On the Death by Drowning of My Favorite New Orleans Restaurant,” pays its respects to the region—her home!—devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The corner of Canal and Carrollton
sheltered Mandina’s, where for seventeen
years every Saturday they poured me one
black Russian followed by trout amandine

or the best shrimp loaf on the whole Gulf coast.
But now the watermark is at my eyes,
the floors have rotted, and the stolid ghost
of a decayed refrigerator lies

prone on the sidewalk. And I’m shedding tears
over a stack of dishes, one of which
I’ll steal in memory of those seventeen years
that made their gumbo and my life so rich.

Come back, my love! Serve me on shining dishes
my weekly miracle of loaves and fishes.

Religious concerns and imagery are an important element of Gail’s poetry, though again, the reader is never quite sure if the poet’s take on the situation presented is sincere or sardonic (or both). Many of her poems have titles like “Nostalgia for an Old Religion,” “Thérèse of Lisieux,” “Astrolabe” (name of that illegitimate child of Abelard and Heloise), “When Jesus Was Grown,” “Dear Juan de la Cruz” (St. John of the Cross), “A Spin of the Prayer Wheel,” “Prayer for Good Fortune,” “A Visit on All Saints Day,” and “At the Burial of an Abbess,” to name but a few from Asperity Street. Earlier poems include “Sacre Coeur,” “The Engulfed Cathedral,” “Advice to Apprentice Ascetics,” “At Katherine’s Christening,” “The Leopard in Eden,” “Jephtha’s Daughter,” “The Gothic Cathedrals,” “Nativity Scene,” “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” “The Failed Messiah,” and “Saint Helena, Back in Rome.”

Gail agrees that “there’s a strong, if nonspecific, religious element in my poetry. It springs largely from my personal version of original sin: a conviction that people are basically selfish, emotionally stupid, and not fully up to the job of being human. Overcoming this primal condition requires either tremendous moral effort, a clout in the head from God, or both.” She admits that her views on soul and/or spirit are “in a constant state of flux. Most ideas about a possible afterlife won’t stand much examination. However, I’m very impressed by the Tibetan Book of the Dead—not so much the part about reincarnation, but the idea of reliving your past in symbolic terms before you can move on. That makes sense to me.” She is a lifelong Episcopalian, “which means I’m free to believe practically anything. My husband surprised me ten years ago by becoming Eastern Orthodox, but that’s another story.”

I find that the spiritual questioning that permeates much of Gail’s poetry overtly challenges God in the tradition of midrash. For example, she begins “The Sacrifice of Isaac” with the explanatory epigraph, “According to rabbinic tradition, Sarah followed Abraham to the place of sacrifice and released the ram that saved Isaac’s life.” Gail’s spin on this scene—the biblical event, as interpreted by Paul, most central to the Christian notion of faith—is that “God lacks a mother’s heart, / or sometimes he’d leave well enough alone.” Sarah is seen following Abraham “discreetly over scrub and stone, / waiting the moment to outwit her man.” It is Sarah who plants the “struggling ram—a substituted life.” Of course, “Sarah crept home, and to her dying day / gave God the credit.” And then the clincher: “That All-Seeing One / would be less provident for Mary’s son.” Rather than shake her fists and rant at God, Gail follows Sarah’s lead and simply tells it like it is; her stance is not-quite simply matter-of-fact, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, but more like Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof querying God and complaining as an opportunity to offer helpful suggestions.

The poet maintains personal distance and subjectivity through irony and wit that at times borders on sarcasm, but there’s an authenticity to the poet’s struggle with God and religion that seeps through imagery like that of the sonnet “Nativity Scene,” quoted here in full.

She has no privacy, but doesn’t mind,
since everything is upside down today.
Even the cow is unsurprised to find
a useless infant in the useful hay.
For shepherds on the hills, a filigree
quartet of angels dances in the sky.
Painters will love this story. They can see
unbodied beings with an artist’s eye.
For most of us our death will cancel birth.
Who cares how popes and presidents are born?
But now three kings adore on Middle Earth
a wonder that exceeds the unicorn.
Nothing is changed, yet everything is new:
some stories look so strange they might be true.

Interestingly, that last line is the argument that persuaded the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis to abandon his atheism for faith in the truth of what many were by then calling “the Christian myth.” As always, the poem could be taken as an ironic criticism of religious myth and the simpleminded magical thinking of humans. But we’re left to doubt that, since the poet, too, is an artist that can “see / unbodied beings with an artist’s eye,” and writers, as well as anyone, know that truth is often stranger than fiction.

Even Gail’s not-specifically-religious poetry is steep with the imagery of nuns and resurrection,  “Taller gods” and immortality, and numerous religious allusions. Her stance is an educated skepticism that teeters on the sharp edge between sincere faith of some sort and cynicism, if not outright mockery. “Nostalgia for an Old Religion” inventories the Easter Rabbit, the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus, each stanza ending, “I never knew how he [or she] got in.” Good question. It seems we’re just built for naïve blind faith in fairy tales. The last stanza critiques the newer old religion:

When I grew up, the books I read
killed all the old enchantment dead.
I studied new theologies
with older, sterner deities
who had no cash or candy eggs
and never came on reindeer legs.
Their talk was all of Death and Sin.
I never knew how those got in.

The poet often entwines a critique of humanity’s emotional stupidity with a serious desire for higher spiritual or metaphysical understanding, which generates much of the tension in those poems. In “Dear Juan de la Cruz,” a letter in the voice of a teacher whose students misinterpret Saint John of the Cross’s famous “dark night of the soul” as an adulterous intrigue, possibly with a vampire lover, ends: “And when I told / them who you were, it didn’t change their minds. / Please help me tell them what the starlight finds.” I can’t help but hear the poet Gail asking the poet Juan de la Cruz to please help her understand experientially (spiritually) what she understands intellectually. At the very least, she shows us the tension between faith and doubt in an intelligent mind.

Perhaps “what the starlight finds” for some is best summarized in Gail’s poem “Sudden Euphoria of a Middle-Aged Southerner,” which subverts the dark-night confessional genre by reveling in joy and contentment.

Youth gone and beauty never having come
nor money either, where’s it springing from,
this sudden joy? Fine weather and the slope
of green lawn to the bayou, snow-white shape
of heron fishing on the bank, is part
of it. The rest is books and art,
good health, two cats, a marriage going strong
for twenty years, a friendship just as long,
plus writing, and the love of what I write.

Summing up joys, I savor my delight:
this is as close as I will ever get
to the mystic’s peak of holy self-forget-
fulness, the warrior in his savage bliss,
the lover’s ecstasy. I’ll stop with this—
a sense of living in a world well-planned.
Is this contentment? Yes. Well, I’ll be damned.

This hymn to nature and beauty, expressing appreciation and gratitude for all the extraordinary ordinary things in life, from weather to home, to health and cats and love, begins with a profound metaphysical question: “where’s it springing from, / this sudden joy?” Here the stance of carpe diem pivots from seize the day to a delighted realization that one has seized the day, is perpetually seizing the day, and the fruit of that day is not holy self-forgetfulness, not savage bliss, not ecstasy, but, unexpectedly, contentment with the “sense of living in a world well-planned,” which is “as close as I will ever get / to the mystic’s peak” and that’s just fine.

On the other hand, there are those days when something just seems to be missing. I find the poem “Prayer for Good Fortune” amusing in that the speaker exposes her authentic doubt in prosy language that is actually a nearly perfect sonnet. Since the poet is Gail White, naturally I wonder if this “prayer” is tongue-in-cheek. The title and the argument leading up to the final two lines could be a manipulating voice of, oh, any jilted lover, or anyone who just bought a lotto ticket. It’s possible that this is a double-duty poem that ironically exposes a sincere confession delivered through a mocking slap that smacks of Dorothy Parker.

How do I know, when silent emptiness
is all I meet, that I’m not talking to
myself, just trying vainly to impress
the void? In short, how do I know there’s You?
Lovers when kept apart send cards and gifts,
spend costly hours on the telephone,
will run together through all risks, all shifts—
will You? Or can You? Or am I alone
like Earth among the planets, sending out
my frantic signal, seeking a reply
from wiser, older worlds? How quench the doubt
that You may not be You but only I?
How can I know You love unless You pour
out miracles? How can I not crave more?

We smile, but it’s a nervous smile. For this poem could be dead serious as easily as mocking.

In the poem “At Katherine’s Christening,” the speaker admits, “Unused to church, I recognize the altar, / stark and unreal, / but have forgotten what human flaw the water / is supposed to heal.” Her conclusion is that “Symbols are part of the baggage of being human, / They are the jewels / Eve packed at the last minute, leaving Eden, / They are the tools / that bring the rocks and gods to the same level.” It is odd that a poet would relegate symbols, even religious ones, to the role of mere baggage. Or is it “mere?” This is Eden, after all, site of the Fall, a pretty big pack of baggage, a lot of which is poetry.

In “How I Spend My Time Since You Died,” the narrator spends the week writing letters that on Sunday will be placed “among the twisted roots of an oak tree” below which the beloved is buried. But is she really writing these to herself? “Tuesdays I brood about / the existence of God and the soul. / If I didn’t limit this to one day, / it could take over the entire week.” And “Thursdays, I visualize heaven. / It’s partly the gold mosaics of Saint Mark’s Cathedral / and a dash of Mardi Gras.” Again, the speaker is sincere, but is the poet?

In her early, less formal poem, “At Sacre Coeur,” included in her chapbook Sibyl and Sphinx, the poet uses the image of sound to contrast ways people relate to a sacred space. East invades West, and the “mad”—crazy, angry—rock concert “pierces” the air formerly reserved for the pierced Jesus. The Church retaliates with chants “broadcast” like propaganda, since most people no longer get the message by attending Church. Even the Church interior is noisy with shuffling feet, probably of tourists like those mentioned from the Orient (so unlike those mythic Wise Men). God seems like he could be lovable in being as absent and unfelt as silence in this central space reserved for prayer, noisy with the echo of shuffling feet of tourists and the infrequent faithful. A free verse poem, which is rare for Gail, it’s concision, irony, and loaded imagery make it an excellent poem.

Tour buses have unloaded half the Orient here,
province by province.
On a lower tier
of steps, a mad rock concert
pierces the air, forcing the Church
to broadcast chants in self-defense
or in despair.

Noise, noise is
everywhere! The long dark aisles
echo with shuffling feet
around the central space
reserved for prayer.
How lovable God seems—
remote, unheard,
unseen—as undisturbed
and as unfelt as air.

When Gail told me that there is really nothing confessional in her poetry, she noted one exception: The ending of “Anecdotal Evidence,” beginning “Yet when my mother died.” Since she specifically said just the ending, I assume the rest of the poem is fictional. But even if the speaker is a persona, I can’t help but hear the poet speaking though that voice. Given that the speaker calls the voice of science “our local quack,” she, if not the poet herself, places more credence in the evidence of her own father’s truthful witness.

My aunt who brought her kidney function back
by eating grapefruit seeds for fifty days
makes no impression on our local quack.
It’s anecdotal evidence, he says.
There are no reproducible results.
Another person might eat grapefruit seeds
for fifty days and cease to have a pulse.
Cause and effect’s the evidence he needs.

The evidence is all in favor of
the proposition that the dead are dead,
despite our bitter hope and wistful love.
Yet when my mother died, my father said
that just before the chill that would not thaw,
her face lit up with joy at what she saw.

So does the poet side with science by mocking the gullible, or with anecdotal evidence presented by someone whose veracity can be trusted? Given her predilection for irony, I would say both. In the realm of science, a fact is always a hypothesis subject to revision based on new information. Have we gone too far in trusting science that completely erases the possibility of something beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny? Hope, say, and love? I think that the form of this poem, a sonnet with a stanza break, suggests that the poet—and not just the speaker—believes that we need to allow for the possibility of experience that doesn’t bear the stamp of scientific pre-approval. The rhyme scheme is Elizabethan, but the stanza breaks where the Italian sonnet turn would occur, and the poem ends with an Elizabethan couplet. It’s possible that the poet is recommending that we take both worldviews into consideration before drawing any conclusions. That the scientist, presumably the aunt’s doctor, is called a quack is fair, though, if he’s refusing to even consider perfectly valid evidence.

“The world / we live in thinks our grief should be discreet, / … Our culture favors neat / solutions,” we are told in “An Absence.” And in “Chemo Day,” the persona adds, “My doctors are the Borgia popes / whose poison rattles in my veins. / I’ve laid aside a layman’s hopes, / but faith in magic still remains.” Is the speaker misguided by blind faith, or is faith in magic a valid response to the circumstances? Certainly we see the correlation between the ways science and religion invade the body, ostensibly for its own good. In the group of poems spotlighting patients, the suffering self is relegated, finally, almost to a position of abstraction. The self, though, knows concretely, as in “Diagnosis Day,” the horror that “a single cell has gone berserk. And now my death begins its work.”

The finale to Asperity Street, “At the Burial of an Abbess,” is quite lovely in its elegant simplicity, and its sincerity and lack of any apparent cynicism, tricks, or humor lead me to think it expresses the poet’s own religious stance with some accuracy. But what, really, is that stance? Stance, of course, can be intellectual, and it can be emotional, or religious. The feeling I get from this poem is like the formal feeling that follows great pain—in this case, psychic, spiritual—described by Dickinson. The poem is written in six tercets, each line of each stanza ending with its own rhyme: aaa, bbb, ccc, and so on. The feel is that of a chanted eulogy. The context is specifically Christian, but the content affirms, with almost Buddhist resignation, not only one’s personal demise, but also the imminent extinction of the nuns’ entire Order, and by extension, of religion itself, or at least of authentic religious dedication.

Under the pine trees and the snow,
black on white, and row on row,
we leave our sisters when they go.

We age and die, we fill our space
and no one younger takes our place.
What a mysterious thing is grace

that makes us willing to be gone,
forgotten in our soundless lawn,
even the Order passing on.

Whatever good we might have done
is like the prints where foxes run,
lost when the snow melts in the sun.

But what we’ve learned above the ground
is to love silence more than sound,
white more than any color found.

The work of all our lifetime lets
us look on death with no regrets:
we vanish as the snow forgets.

With her own strain of negative capability, Gail White once again allows us to judge a scenario from opposite perspectives, one that sees the believer humbly accepting passage into the afterlife, the other that sees her nihilistically relinquishing this life to nothingness. “Emptiness, emptiness, all is emptiness,” the nuns seem to recite. Regardless of interpretation, the poem quietly struggles with the mystery and meaning of life itself, a struggle we all share. To the end of the last page of her latest book, the poet blends faith and doubt, the ultimate dichotomy, into a vision that strives to transcend both.

 

https://www.amazon.com/Asperity-Street-Gail-White/dp/1927409543

http://www.gail-white.com/about

 

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