Clowning Around with Junk Mail
Freeze & Thaw
78 pages, $15.00
In his new collection of poems, Freeze & Thaw, Richard Sale refers to himself as having gotten, “with the stretching of the years,” the reputation “if not of wit, at least of clown.” As a Texas poet, Sale has certainly played the fool for quite a while, and his uncommon humor (especially unusual among the state’s poets) has grown ever more impressive and salutary. Although as an English professor he retired from the University of North Texas a number of years ago, he has kept active as a teacher through his creative wit, turning out poems that address rather wide-ranging subjects and concepts, mostly satirical in tone and intent. He often takes aim at our over-inflated egos and ambitions, but as Sale himself says in this new volume, he is the “self-aware narrator” in his own story and has now become the one satirized, the one who is “outside the narrative loop, outside / the corral of criticism, out into the meta- / range we used to call the psychological.” But despite his seemingly critical self-image as a clown and writer who all his life has “drawn blanks on the simplest of words” and makes “jokes” out of “frigid” language, Sale employs his poetry as an “unguent” for curing serious wounds suffered in war and for the loss of a son to AIDS. And to keep those of us born north of Mexico from having our “Soul . . . siphoned off before we even know it’s there. . . . / Sucking the absence of [our] thumbs” while we go on being “out of joint with the lay of the land.”
Like most light verse, Richard Sale’s witty poems present a comic view of life, frequently of his own career as a college prof. This is true, for example, of “The Day I Was Bucked Off the Horse and Broke My Hand.” After being thrown, he is asked by a farrier what he really does for a living, since the blacksmith does not believe the speaker’s claims, first that he is a farmer and then a horse-breaker. Finally, the thrown one “almost” comes “clean” when he says that he teaches “philosophy,” to which the farrier responds: “That figures. Casey Tibbs couldn’t a-stayed / up on that horse with stirrups that high.”
Sale’s book includes poems that reveal his erudite reading of medieval philosopher William of Ockham, while others are based on the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh and the Chinese Book of Songs. From the latter we find in Sale’s rhymed version this universal expression of the struggle to understand a state of overwhelming sorrow: “In my grief what can I do? / What is my crime against heaven? / I am sad as if beset with a sickness. / The road to Chou is level and even, / But overgrown with brush and weeds.” A humorous treatment of Oriental literature appears in his “Generic Haiku,” which refers to the classical form of 17 syllables and its traditional content: “5 / 7 / 5 / (But always mention the seasons!).” The poet also provides an example of a “straight” haiku: “Four moths on a twig, / Maybe late fall hatchlings? No, / Four pairs of brown leaves.” As the title of one poem has it, the poet is “In Training,” getting a “notion of the universe / . . . learning to leave that anxious / mirror-man out of the game, / an apprenticeship in reality, / and vision, and illusion, / all three good words to me these days.” As a professor, Sale learned the hard lesson that comes from seeing one’s students do well-even worse, better than their teacher: “those who apprenticed / to you . . . turn out to be journeymen and more, / taking braver steps than you had balls / and brains to take. It produces / pride with a dash of humility. Pride / with a dash of envy.”
One question that occurs throughout Freeze & Thaw is what and how much one should wish for, which is not a “lite” consideration. In “Redundancy,” Sale speaks of things he does and does not want: “I don’t want Reason, don’t want / even one reason, not even ten / good reasons. Want a heap / of hypotheses and then some. / . . . Don’t want it all made clear to me / when I have (Hoo, Lord!) / crossed the bar.” If allusions to 19th-century literature and medieval philosophy crop up from time to time, along with a bucking horse and “the tail end of a Texas August,” the poem entitled “Vibrating Crystal” evokes a more “postmodern” image as it pokes fun at a typical can’t-do-without offer that comes in the mail uninvited and highly presumptuous. In this “found poem” that reports the terms of the offer, Sale explodes the notion that we need more than we already have. Not only does the offer include the speaker’s own “one-hundred-dollar / Four-Million-Year-Old / Vibrating Crystal,” which has been “gemologically classified and / is a power stone treasure” and is being held for him in the company’s “Security and Safekeeping Div. / in Safe Deposit Vault #565 / under [his] personal registration file 37A,” but he will receive in addition, just for the $19 he’s to send for covering “shipping, jewelry handling, / insurance, and certification processing,” a free “special edition of / Crystal Power News which tells [him] how . . . / to gain money, love, and happiness.” After finishing with his account of the contents of the offer, the speaker concludes with this comment: “They don’t know I already have / all the money and love I want / and how close their Crystal letter / comes to making me perfectly happy.”
The reference at the end of “Vibrating Crystal” is obviously to the poet’s wife Teel, an artist who designed the attractive cover of Sale’s new book. A delightful tribute to Mrs. Sale counts “The Ways,” a la Elizabeth Barrett Browning, of the poet’s better half and why he loves her so. Among the list of 66 of her qualities that serve as his birthday gift to her, as if in place of candles on the cake, are the following:
Puts stray objects together in ways they become united. Is a democrat and a republican, distrusts Democrats, hates Republicans. Lets compassion win over practicality. Cleans house with love and attention. Designs and develops (over thirty years) beautiful bathrooms. Gives her art away joyfully. Stays cool toward the faddish ways of the computer. Can never get reconciled with unfairness, earthly or cosmic. Suffers one fool gladly.
One can easily see why the poet does not need a “power stone treasure” to bring him love and happiness. As for money, he has this to say in “Play Money, Counterfeits, and Reales:” “Look, I don’t need a whole chest / full of coins: I’d take just one for now, for ever.”
Other poems look closely at animals and discover misconceptions regarding their true nature. This is the case with the “Snake,” which, alluding to Genesis, the poet says is a creature that has “no gravity- / defying impulse to uprightness / just one straight shot / that then kinked along / the ground in sequential esses, / that could grab bank and circle boughs, / swallow a full-grown pigeon / in unhinged spasms whole, / the polished berry eyes that could see / back before good and bad, / before A & E, even before G,” yet “she” was “demoted by storytellers / as symbol in the book to mere tempter, / tester, tease, corrupter (says the book) / of her own progeny! and since, / as living symbol who issued / from deeper down than language, / she will not speak, it falls on me / to speak for her this emblem and lament: / paradise is always after or before.” Another “animal” poem is entitled “Pigs, Mules, Homing Pigeons,” but this is really about a man named Victor who died in 1996. Like the poet himself, “Nobody had a better bullshit detector than Victor,” and like several poems in Freeze & Thaw, this is a touching elegy to a man the poet knew and compares to Thoreau, in that both men owned animals that they lost but never stopped looking for. The poem ends: “You can make something of that if you want to.” Another poem, entitled “Ambsace,” is about a friend the poet rowed on the lake with, who is also compared to Thoreau (Sale is a member of the Thoreau Society) since he is “no scientist / but something of a seer, a seer-through-foliage. / A country-man, lover of solitary places, / the kind of man to build a cabin on a pond, / dig in the earth and think elevated thoughts.”
The best way to close this review of educator Richard Sale’s “light verse” lectures is, it seems to me, to quote entire his “Whale Song,” the final poem in his witty, rewarding, and certainly welcome new collection:
Sitting at the desk in front of the window watching the gulls bob in the bay, I had just finished typing these words: “If a whale doesn’t show up in this cove in ten days, I’m out of here” when a whale rolled over slowly fifty yards from the shore. Must have been the Great Ear out there listening. After I had focused my attention the whale rolled a second time. I called Teel to the window and the whale did it a third time for her. There are those, I hear, who check each item off their list: Whale, saw a, or Wall, of China, Great. Not me. Imagine, never seeing another whale, never again climbing Machu Picchu- probable, but why plan on it? I want to walk, on foot or crutches, the streets of the Marais, forever. If a whale doesn’t show up in this cove shortly, truth to tell, I’ll be back.
Dave Oliphant’s latest book, Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State, will be published by the University of Texas Press in 2007.