Turner Cassity, No Second Eden.
Typically indifferent to current trends, the fire-dry poems of Turner Cassity, through nine collections, seldom vary from their pet concern and target: human nature. His newest offering, No Second Eden, runs true to form. The poems teem with the satirical prickle that has become a Cassity trademark. In the Garden, after all, didn't human nature (presumably with a choice) blow it big time? Since then, occasions of man's behavioral triumphs have been rare bright spots in a dispiriting trend. Human nature appears to thrive on bad habits, and this is where Mr. Cassity makes his living.
Still, he does not deal with transgression for its own sake. Nor out of the reporter's compulsion to "tell it like it is." This is one of our finest poets endeavoring to gain a foothold on sense in a nonsensical world. And he goes about it by employing an adaptation of familiar Socratic theory: namely, that truth is approached most fruitfully by first identifying and eliminating the things that truth is not.
What makes Cassity especially interesting among poets of satirical ilk is that he doesn't just stage our weaknesses and leave us twisting. The taste he leaves is bittersweet--with possibility often winning out over vulnerability. Savor his delicious mastery of humor from "In the Receiving Line":
... I have been In many weddings. All the fun, without Exception, was for single Best of Men And Maids of honor from divorce court. Stout Yet eager to sing any diet's praise, They proffer cake, drink, straighten Ascot ties. "Do ring me up sometime." Yes. Nothing says Some Foolish Virgin may not end up wise.
And on first tying a Windsor knot from "Neckties":
My Dad and I confronted, face to face. I did what he did. Things fell into place. He tended bar. Weekends he drove a hearse. We weren't close but--it could have been much worse.
Cassity's poem titles say he finds his fun almost everywhere. Many outdo Wallace Stevens in their zaniness. These are typical: "Uses of Hot Air"; "Let My People Go, but not without Severance Pay"; "Program Notes for an Orgy"; "Never Use a Stock Ticker without a Geiger Counter"; and "Our Lady's Juggler."
Yet his poetic execution is anything but laid back. Among today's poets--at least those whose work I'm familiar with who have won confirmation of their talents in meter and rhyme--Cassity is hands-down the most consistently traditional. Oddly enough, the formal line is not what one notices first. His singular sophistication includes the skill to diffuse tightly formal constructions through a dexterous avoidance of end-stop lines. This is true in poems ranging from his hexameter blank verse to rhymed trimeter couplets. In the former, "Manual vs. White Collar," for example, where Hofmann's Jesus painting is a bit too CEOish for the poet's taste:
As the Book of Acts makes clear, Disciples are a form of Board Room, arguments Concerning seating precedence and all, to say Nothing of bribery, denial, treachery. One should not represent divinity made flesh In such white-collar form as to excuse the mob That cried, "Free unto us Barrabas" by some hint There might not be that much to choose. White collar crime Sanhedrin and the Roman governor alike Would be inclined to pardon. Rehabilitation, Then, not resurrection, would have based our faith. And what would be its symbol? Fish implies the fishy.
And in short-line rhymed pieces like "WTC":
Our tongues so long confused Must fail and be recused In face of terror. Base To summit, be its place The Plain of Shinar, Main Street, Wall, the Tower vain If glorious is downed By envy; goes to ground With its automations Unschooled as to response.
Included in No Second Eden, inevitably, as in every book, are a few poems which seem less convincing than their page mates. Among these, "Transpositions" (cross-voicing/dressing at the opera) works a bit too hard for the humor of its premise--a premise that itself is a bit misty; and "Estate Planning" (the vicissitudes of inheritance) which, clever as it is, takes a long and bumpy route home. There are one or two others, each suffering mainly by the proximity of surrounding excellence. But I'd venture to say this poet's lifetime on-base percentage exceeds that of Barry Bonds, with a cache of home runs to boot.