Raven Raves, Rants, Reviews and Listings
Who're You Calling Funny?
Reviewed by Joe Safdie
Twilight of the Male Ego
Tsunami Inc., 2002, 96 pp.
More to the point, poetry is generally not funny. I mean, you can probably count the really funny poets you know on two hands. The recently departed Kenneth Koch was funny -- I was impressed with NPR for broadcasting his fabulous parodies of Williams' "This Is Just to Say" plum poem -- and anyone who reads "Fresh Air" for the first time and doesn't laugh out loud is no friend of mine. But seriously folks, one of the funniest books of poems I've read in a long time is now before us: Twilight of the Male Ego by klipschutz (aka Kurt Lipschutz . . . don't ask me).
On twenty pasty faces,
The only thing in common
Was burrito breath
begins "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Burrito," and if a better parody of the famous Wallace Stevens poem is ever written, I won't be around to see it. I could really just quote it all, but here's two more stanzas:
I had three dollars,
Like a street person
Who panhandles three hours per burrito.
I think clever phrases
And bipartisan, utopian ideas;
But I think, somehow,
That the burrito is more useful
Than what I think.
The same modesty appears in a poem addressed to "Dear Ezra,": "My plot to dictate the economy goes badly. / The elders screen my calls, ignore my counsel." Indeed, one of the attractive things about these poems is the recurring complaints of a persona at his wit's (and ego's) end. In "So Long as the Heart May Wish to Succeed," the culprit is an invalid calling card code:
Twice now a robot's voice
has my number and that number
is no good. 14 of them
in fact. I am invited to redial, . . .
I will repeat my 14 digits,
and put no numeral before thee.
Get hence Two-Hyphened Monster
Of Social Security!
Well, it's not exactly St. George slaying the dragon, but poets don't get to pick their times. The thing about humor, though, is that it can also be corrosive; if there's a theme that's more prominent than the complaints klipschutz gives voice to here, it's his scorn at the various remedies advanced for their solution. Here are some lines from "Ghazal of the Imperfect Likeness," one of a series of ghazals, a hard form to pull off that he manages with surprising combinations of grace and acerbic wit:
Known for your inappropriate smiles, you can rest unassured,
Lighter, whiter, wider across, less guilty every day.
Say hey to the Age of Agelessness. Now we can die, at all times
Younger than each other, simultaneous and once and for all.
"Have you gotten your daily minimum requirement / of defilement?" he asks in "I'm Wearing My Heart on Your Sleeve" (the titles are often pretty good poems all by themselves). Everything's been co-opted, he implies; for one thing, "the left is dead":
mourn in silence
lift in song
one big union
move along . . .
where "this" is more mindless sloganeering and feel-good advertisements for "Defeat, the drug of the 90s . . . sold on the corner, in stores." ("Ghazal of the Reconstituted Illusion") And relief certainly can't be found through poetry:
her turn at the open reading
MOTHER I LOVE YOU MOTHER WHERE ARE YOU
she miscarries again thank god
was it that lawyer in North Beach with the rash
("A Real Live Girl")
Such absence of sentimentality is required for the hard satire of these poems; it contrasts with the cinematic backdrops to unsuccessful affairs, where the "love scenes [are] by Sam Peckinpah," and the female lead is "cute as a button / best left unpushed" ("Cinematic Affair"). The stripping away of pretense is perhaps clearest in "Funicello at 50":
Annette has MS, she needs Mickey's help
out of the limo and onto the boulevard. . . .
She uses a walker to walk, but today
her hub takes an arm, her mouse takes an arm,
and she walks the Walk of Fame, . . .
tonight the domed man-made beach in Japan,
near where Mickey jobs out his watches
and they job them out again.
So it's the attitude that I respond to in these poems; klipschutz takes a hard-eyed look at the scene and concludes that the only way out is to live by our wits, "Study[ing] émigré routes / on a you-are-here map" ("Sedentary Strut"). Not all the work is as effective; to my mind (and taste), there are times when his corrosive humor becomes just clever. For example, there may be a few too many mentions of other poets, which deflect his attention (and ours) onto himself and his thwarted ambitions rather than directing it outward at a recognizable social world. That world's again in focus, though, in "Miguel," the last poem in the collection, a prose narrative. Miguel cleans the rooms at an artists' colony and has gotten himself in a bit of legal trouble with a car rental agency. "This can be a great country," thinks klipschutz, "depending on who and where you are." As they say their good-byes, he makes it clear that Miguel is a little bit worse off than the rest of us: "All it takes is one spooked animal in the headlights of a rented car to be spending what seems like the rest of this life litigating your way back to zero."
But let me close with some lines from at once a more typical and yet, to me, entirely unique poem called "Echolalia of the Numerologist," wherein it can be intuited that even zero is just another number that can be re-arranged, re-combined and surmounted . . . if we had wit enough and time:
Six stages 12 steps
four horsemen three stooges
lone gunman two parties
Fortune 500 and one thin dime
Two aces three eights
multiple orgasms ad nauseam
Top 40 bottom dollar mid-life crisis
mark of the beast mark of the beast . . .
100,000 missing plus or minus 3%
Please be 6' + no exceptions
Joe Safdie is a writer and former editor of the literary magazine Peninsula; he teaches at
Lake Washington Technical College. His latest book is September Song (Oasis Press, 2000).