Devils and Islands

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Poet Turner Cassity is not only out of tune with the prosy autobiographical poetry of the past fifty years or so but also out of tune with the past couple of centuries. He is like a throwback to the eighteenth century, or rather, with his leanings toward rhymed couplets, satire, and waspish wit, he could be a reincarnation of the spirit of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in the contemporary world. How would such a spirit of the Enlightenment adapt to the media-dominated postmodern world? The answer is “easily,” like an antediluvian alligator to the swimming pooland with an entertainment value of four stars.

Naturally, there are some big differences between Cassity and Pope. Cassity’s rhymed couplets do not display Pope’s balance, order, and decorum; instead, they reflect the shifts, disconnects, and idioms of the popular media. His memorable one-liners are an answer to the sound bite. Reading his poetry is sometimes like channel surfing, with the same issues popping up (obviously he finds the media fascinating, though not in the way intended). Also, while Pope, a Deist, felt that God had at least given the right order to things, Cassity seems to feel that the Devil has taken over and the world is a mess. The Universal Chaos feared by Pope has come about in Cassity’s postmodern Waste Land.

Although appearing frequently, rhymed couplets are not the only verse form Cassity utilizes in Devils and Islands. Some poems are in triplets or quatrains, rhymed or unrhymed, while others are in blank verse or some other unrhymed iambic line. In any event, all of the poems draw on iambic meter and traditional form. While his poems contain some instances of awkward word order, ellipses, or fill-ins for rhymes, these are probably no more frequent than in most traditional poetry and do not seriously hinder understanding. In reading Cassity, it helps to slow down, reread, or read aloud (thereby capturing musical qualities missing from much contemporary poetry).

Just as Cassity looks to the past for his poetic forms, so too does he look back for his subjects, themes, attitudes, and comments, especially when he is addressing the hottest issues in the media. The poem “Energy Crises” is a good example. Here a news report of bats that “divebomb the windmill farm” raises suspicions: “Against a nonpolluting power source/ A kamikaze strike to reinforce// Suspicion fossil fuels may be best.” Going on to mock “the newest trend/ In solar heating” and “Methane from cows or ethanol from corn,” the poem opts for a return to “Strip mine and drills,” wood, and whale oil: “Once the mounting fears,// Threats, economic ups and downs grow thick/ It’s back to Ahab and to Moby Dick.” The poem concludes by asking whether the kamikaze bats will “biodegrade?// Or as the trust fund cases hug the trees/ Hang in until the global warming-freeze?”

Similarly outrageous is the poem “Eclogue against Ecology,” whose mocking title provides the key to interpretation. The poem refers to the garden of Eden“Fool’s Paradise? And is there any other kind?”as the original ecologically balanced environment. Perverse humanity, in the form of Adam and Eve, “that nude pair so bored they took up with a snake,” finds prohibitions more attractive than preservation. They also find hunting the animals more exciting than naming them, so, outside the gate guarded by “Checkpoint Angel” with a flaming sword, “From food to sport to murder is a seamless scale.”

The contemporary world also gets the Cassity treatment in “After the Fall,” where city planners take “a backward glance/ Toward Babylon” and “The future takes on, more and more/ A look of follies gone before”; in “,” where the natives dress up (or down) as headhunters for the tourists; in “Hitting the Silk,” which comments on...

(The entire section is 1579 words.)