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A Descent into the Maelström

By: Deborah Warren
February 21, 2019

“A Descent into the Maelström,” the title of a poem in William Baer’s Formal Salutations: New and Selected Poems, isn’t a bad description of this handsome collection of his very best work. Baer’s long and star-studded literary career has earned him, among other honors, a Guggenheim fellowship and a Fulbright scholarship. I opened this book with high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

This collection includes many translations of other poets (Jorge Luis Borges, Luís de Camões) and interpretations of Biblical stories, but the majority of the poems are sonnets, mostly Shakespearean. Baer is a “formalist” poet; after all, he created The Formalist, the gold-standard journal dedicated to metrical poetry. But his unfailing ear also allows his own meter the frequent hiccup that adds aural spice to the line.

Baer hews to a strict rhyme scheme, but knows by instinct and craft how to subordinate rhyme to natural phrasing. In formal poetry, rhyme has a way of getting in the way; but not with Baer—except when it’s noticeable by design, as when a would-be modernist abbé:

argues for his Indexed opus
and his monkey, Sinanthropus.
. . .
then stumbles down the nether zones,
with old test-tubes and monkey bones.

The book’s lyric and narrative poems are often portraits, especially of likeable anti-heroes. In fact, if there’s a typical protagonist in this collection, it’s the picaresque scoundrel: rake, liar, thief, cheat, hypocrite, adulterer, con-man—cheesy, sleazy, unsavory, and appealing. (Sometimes this ne’er-do-well is a hyperbole to the point of parody). His misdemeanors and felonies are far from our personal experience; we can share his peccadilloes and crimes with vicarious pleasure. We enjoy his lawless triumphs; we commiserate with him when they come home to roost—when, as often as not, his come-uppance is remorse. And often his confessions on the page can release pressure of his secrets:

You’ve wanted to tell someone all day long:
exactly what you did back then, the scar
that festers, the unforgivable wrong.
Someone needs to know who you really are.

The collection’s opening poem, “New Jersey Noir” (also the title of Baer’s hard-boiled detective novel) gives us some cultural coordinates. Here he describes a zaftig gun moll:

She stared at me so deep my insides hurt.
I knew the type. She was more than “trouble,”
she was a walking/talking battle-zone . . .  

If this accumulation of reprobates has a downside, it’s the sameness. On balance, however, the rogues’ gallery is actually one of the book’s splendid distinctions. We leave steeped in and stamped by an atmosphere not happy, maybe, but (most often) fun.

The voices are alive with humor. “Confidence Man” reminisces about

Jamaican Hustles, the Indian Penny Scam,
the Violin, the Diamond Ring, and the Missing Heir

Not that Baer’s wit always involves sharp practice. From “Bobblehead”:

Last week I made a bobblehead of you.
. . .
As, over and over, you happily acquiesce,
smiling and nodding: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Apropos of humor, one poem’s title, “Arse Poetica,” says it all. And several other poems use wit to reveal Baer’s genuine ars poetica:

Meter, of course, is classicist;
Rhyme is Catholic-medieval;
Blank verse is lapsed and Anglicist;
Vers libre is French (and evil).

Another poem labels the poet “Two fifths talent, three fifths fake.” Baer might personify poetry: “When did the little poem get suicidal?/Maybe in revision…” or  “The ballad rode into town.” One of several parodies begins:

A poem should be dumb,
Like its poet.

Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” More than on an idea or a story line, poetry depends on idiom and nuance. It plays and plies the language by using unexpected words, imagery, voice, irony. By this definition, Baer is one of today’s top poets.

It’s true that the reader encounters predictable phrases, heavy on adjectives, as in the sonnet “Dry-Rot”: “a devastating flood,” “a “desperate longing.” Here, although dry rot is an ideal metaphor for remorse, superfluous appositives dilute its power: “the stinking dry-rot,” “a filthy toxic ring of waste.” In other poems, uninspired and abstract modifiers call God’s grace “enigmatic”; Christ’s conception is a “fathomless mystery”; Mary is “humbly accepting”; Elijah is “in total despair; Jezebel wears “luxurious robes; a snowflake falls “whirling”, “aimless”, “ever-so-gently”.

But in these same sonnets spectacular phrases stop the reader in his tracks. The snowflake is a simile for love. For Elijah, “the wind comes, like an epitaph.” Passers-by “see/the dog dung in the field and smell the smell/and ask: ‘Is that the beauty Jezebel?” Baer’s “obscure Jewish girl”

                        would say
Fiat,” the handmaid of her Father’s will,
to consummate eternity, then pray
. . .
singing her silent Magnificat.

Whether sonnet or ballad, one of Baer’s natural homes is narrative poetry. And he spins a good yarn (I won’t spoil the surprise endings of poems like “Swimming Pool” and “Hospital”). And for a seductive story, just read—listen to, rather; it should be read aloud—“The Ballad of the Death-Row Lover” with its felicitous punch line.

Yes, a piece of Baer’s turf is life’s underbelly. But you won’t leave this collection with a sense of degeneracy or cynicism. Formal Salutations gives us many deftly lyrical poems. I use the word ‘deft’ advisedly, because Baer isn’t one to vent sloppy emotion; the lyrics are all craft, imagery and wit.

The love poems tend to end badly, whether it’s an amnesiac’s “ever-patient ominous past/creeping along in the dark,” or a psychic’s “whitish lie,” or a chilly lover’s metaphorical self-“quarantine”.

It isn’t only romance that’s ill-fated. Other lyrics with unhappy outcomes include “Ave atque Vale,” based on Catullus’s poignant phrase, and—to move from the sublime to the ridiculous—“Monte Carlo,” with its contrast between continental sophistication and a loser’s relocation to her mom in Maine.

It’s hard to pick favorites from this collection of poems. Still, it’s a pleasant job to try to assign laurels in a field of strong contenders, and I’m going to crown five stellar love sonnets:

“Chocolate” features the same conceit as Frost’s line “And to do that to birds was why she came”: a lover’s origin myth. Baer’s sonnet is every bit as exquisite as Frost’s.

Or take “Embraceable You.” Baer uses allusion masterfully; the Gershwin song title is (literally) perfect for a sonnet that envies anything that embraces or touches the poet’s beloved. We’ve seen the same theme in two earlier lyricists—both, incidentally, writing about the quintessential lover, Romeo. Consider the song “A Walkin’ Miracle” by the Essex: And I know how happy his clothes must be/’Cause that's how I feel when he's close to me,” (which also labels the boyfriend “kooky and crazy like Romeo himself”). Speaking of Romeo himself, he wishes he “were a glove upon that hand,/That I might touch that cheek!” “Embraceable You” almost exceeds the standard of these predecessors.

Baer himself refers to Romeo and Juliet in the brilliantly chilling “Monster”:

It slithered down the funeral parlor halls,
coming like a plague, a death, a pox
on all their houses, sliming across the walls…

In “Cartographer,” the desolate tale of “the tiny tropic town of Isabel,” narrative expertise converges with tone, mood, and atmosphere to captivate the reader. This strange and oblique love poem does what a sonnet is meant to do; its structure takes advantage of a form that lends itself to the story. Repetition, rhyme, and enjambment subliminally leverage our emotional reaction. If you’re a formal-poetry skeptic, read “Cartographer”.  

The museum exhibit in “Protanopia” places us ultra-visually in a setting where the Pre-Raphaelites’ jewel-like colors are integral to a dazzling synesthetic metaphor. It opens with:

He stood in the palace of color, colorblind,
surrounded by Rosseti, Hunt, and John Millais.

“Protanopia” goes into my personal pantheon of great sonnets.

But if any one poem floats to the top of my list by virtue of sheer inspiration—and “inspiration” is in fact the striking central image—it’s “The Swimming Pool Float”. I’m torn about this spoiler, but Baer’s own words are the only tribute possible. The speaker

opens the valve, and sits beside the pool,
then feels her breath rush gently over his face,
alone with loneliness, alone with death,
he inhales her last remaining breath.