Devils and Islands

by Turner Cassity

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Devils and Islands

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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...

(This entire section contains 1579 words.)

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look of follies gone before”; in “Amazonas.com,” where the natives dress up (or down) as headhunters for the tourists; in “Hitting the Silk,” which comments on severance packages given to big executives; in “Where Is Gutzon Borglum Now That We Need Him?” which proposes rebuilding New Hampshire’s fallen Great Stone Face as a generic Yankee, Jackie Kennedy, or favorite rock star; in “Edith and Woody and Nancy and Ronnie,” about loyal widows of great men who jealously guard the reputations of their husbands; and “Guidelines for a Cover Illustration,” which defines the old-fashioned hero-adventurer before the age of political correctness.

A number of poems look back nostalgically on a bygone era, but with similarly comic effect. Such is “The Last Newsboy,” which destroys the myth of the newsboy as role model but still laments his passing “As now newspapers are. As AP, UP ebb,/ Ex-buyer on my corner, see you on the Web.” In “The Last Elevator Operator, or, Mr. Otis Regrets,” the lament is for the spiffily dressed figure who put “a human face on ups/ And downs, the accidental stops.” In “The Last Cigarette Girl,” the skimpily dressed but unsuccessful entrepreneur considers selling drugs but decides she will have to settle for hitting the “talk show circuit” as a “Transgendered dwarf.” Then there is the “duenna” in “The Last Chaperon” who not only “could have held down AIDS, and overpopulation” but also could have arranged many a marriage on favorable terms. These sad characters from a bygone time symbolize the extent to which the sleazy contemporary world has fallen.

Other poems look all the way back to classical or biblical times, but with a contemporary application. While Adam and Eve’s perversity has already been noted above, “The Devil and Daedalus” depicts Daedalus and Icarus as their classical counterparts. “Inventing the Subdivision” reinterprets the landing of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat as a developer’s dream, though fighting among the animals aboard might have caused a few extinctions. “Fishers of Men” ends on a grace note to the hookers in Mexico’s Atlantic resorts. “Administrating” presents Pontius Pilate as a typical harried executive, “The Passion of 1934” describes the Oberammergau Passion play as produced and acted by the Nazis, and “Afterward” examines the disbelief after Jesus left the tomb.

Cassity draws on his travels in a few poems, which are at least reassuring that folly exists all over the world. However, in Europe the follies have been somewhat more somber, taking the form of a violent history of regime changes: “Free Trade in Mitteleuropa” comments ironically on the changing fortunes and names of Trieste; “Models” describes St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg as resembling many U.S. state capital buildings, but one where democracy has taken a beating; and “Update for Francis Joseph” describes restorations of ruins in Vienna and Budapest as resembling a Japanese movie set for Godzilla, though “Centuries/ Of occupation by the Ottomans/ Have left at least a Turkish bath, intact/ And functioning, a crescent on its dome./ Or is it sickle without hammer, Marx/ As emblem put to rout? Crusades and creeds/ Come each apart. The Double Eagle split.” In “Self-Guided Tour, 1987,” Cassity finds “diversity” as lacking in South Africa as back home, “Though we do not admit it.”

Cassity saves some of his unkindest cuts for the arts. In the collection’s opening poem, “Fantasia on Dummy Keys,” about a practice keyboard without sound, Cassity opines that “Lacking sound,/ It will forgive wrong notes, not know an exercise/ From Bach, if there indeed is some distinction. Mute,/ It is the ideal medium for twelve-tone works,/ If not the Chopin repertoire.” In “Erich Wolfgang Korngold,” Cassity favors the famous composer for the movies who, as a Jew escaping the Nazis, fled his native Vienna for Hollywood (where his classical critics accused him of selling out), but in “Dance” he slams the famous dancer and choreographer Martha Graham: “A dance is footwork or is nothing, as the tango knows,/ And hoofing. Get real, Martha. Ancient Greeks in brilliantine/ Or Appalachians in taps each mock the origin.” While Cassity speaks up for an underappreciated instrument in “A Course in Sax Education,” he also proposes, in “Report of the Monuments Commission,” a monument to slavery on the Washington Mall.

Cassity could be accused of being outrageous just to get attention, much like the media whose influence he consistently shows (in “Soldiers Three in the Big Easy,” he admits to channel surfing). Otherwise, it is hard to say what he really believes. Perhaps what he personally believes does not matter so much as the point he makes with his outrageousness: In a free country, there should be no limits on belief, thought, or speech. He does not seem to have a political agenda, since his wit cuts several ways: It implies opposition to religious fundamentalism as much as it does to political correctness, both of which are forms of mind control.

Cassity comes closest to stating his point in the poem that gives the collection its title, “Robinson Crusoe to Capt. Dreyfus.” Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was the French military officer of Jewish descent who was wrongly accused of treason, tried and convicted, and imprisoned on French Guiana’s infamous Devil’s Island. In Cassity’s poem, Robinson Crusoe tells Dreyfus: “All islands are the Devil’s in a sense:/ The forcing ground of idleness, their threat/ Of limits, of the inescapable.” Islands seem to symbolize not only physical confines, prisons, but also limitations of thought, prisons of the mind. Victims of shipwreck and anti-Semitism are equally circumscribed by the Devil.

With heroes like Korngold, Crusoe, and Dreyfus, it is not surprising that Cassity sounds like a voice in the wilderness. Still, it is a voice worth listening tofor its skepticism, scorn of fashion and hypocrisy, and humor.