Moira Egan

On "Assorted Masters Perform"

     Julia Randall came of poetic age in the 1960s and 70s, those years of bad-boy, poet-as-playa, "where's the little black book for this town?" reading tours. In "Assorted Masters Perform," she gives a bravura performance, a wry critique of Po Biz that is--dare I say it?--masterfully embodied in the very form of the poem.

     The title puts us immediately in subversive territory. The "Masters" (let's not belabour that point) are "Assorted"; it matters little who they are; they are here to "Perform."
she gives a bravura performance, a wry critique of Po Biz that is--dare I say it?--masterfully embodied in the very form of the poem
The internal rhyme of "assorted" and "perform" calls attention both to the anonymity of the masters and the shades of meaning of that masculine verb, "to perform."

     The poem's first sentence places us squarely in the performance. The graceful, iambic hexameter sentence is broken after four feet, laying the groundwork for various surprises. The inverted foot of "Rather" jolts us rhythmically; the iambs' emphases on "look" and "speak" serve to play up the surprise that these poets seem like gentlemen, that they even, to rhyme with the "surprise," do wear "ties." The subtle, double-entendre joke "of the lay audience" is emphasized with the arrival of the stressed "lay" after the pyrrhic "of the."

     In the next, perfectly iambic line, "They speak of mothers, fathers, daughters, wives," the poets' subject matters are defined in the possessive, not as individuals but as entities in relation to some other: obviously, here, each poet. The poets then branch out to speak of the things of the natural world, but in a continuation of this iambic list, that possessive remains implied. In a witty parenthetical, we are informed that "they are all creationists…having been there." Further, in these lines, Randall artfully slant-rhymes "seniors" and "stars": those distant, shimmering entities to which, by definition, we must look up.

     At least for now, the poets are "sober on the stage," whose meanings we may read both as sententious and as not-yet-drunk. The strophe's antepenultimate line about their being creationists scans more trochaically, breaking the assumed order of things. (Still funnier to contemplate, this line is one unaccented syllable away from being a perfect Sapphic line.) But the final two lines take us out in an iambic pentameter couplet that sums up both the control the poets exhibit and the authority they have assumed in updating "verse by verse, our youth and age."

     The center strophe is a marvel of easy, almost unbroken iambic pentameter, its structural artifice pointing up the highly crafted personae of the poets themselves. "The unselfconsciousness is careful. Too" leads to the nicely slant-rhymed, arch "bon mot / to hide the embarrassment of being here." It is rich to read a Shakespearean elision in "th'embarrassment" following the very regular iambs set up by the lines preceding: Methinks this line protesteth too much. It leads us, humorously, into the final line with its insistent assonance of the long i sound, which beautifully embodies, in both sound and sense, the poets' solipsism: "behind the mike, light-blinded to the crowd."

     Though the poets cannot see their adoring fans, the audience is not without its vision. "'I see,' my friend said driving home": this tetrameter line break "drives home" the commentary of the subsequent lines. Although Kennedy's reputation as a debauched patriarch would not have been graven in stone at this time, the mention of the patrician name in this metrically messed-up line carries real weight: "past the Kennedy Center, 'what is wrong with my brother." This almost anapaestic exercise in fourteen syllables, "all out of shape from toe to top," leads us to the brother's problem: "He keeps it all inside." These lines embody an arch ars poetica, that wish inherent to poetry, to control, to order the chaos, which is fully realized in the tidy summation of the poem's final lines.

     To take us out of the poem, the speaker's voice reasserts itself, controlled, close to iambic: "Oh blessed art / that lets us put between ourselves and that / kingdom of chaos where we all began." The iamb breaks, appropriately, at the "kingdom of chaos." The poem's closing image recollects the distance between the poets and their audience, as well as that between the poets' true selves and their stage/poet personae. The final, truncated trimeter line, "a stance, a speech, a scrim," linguistically embodies the distance between actuality and perception. This strophe is held together by the slant-rhyme of first and final lines, "home" and "scrim," emphasizing and criticizing the very artifice we use to maintain control.

     Randall should be as well known as the male poets she skewers in this neat yet mordant poem. Alternating easily between the strict iamb and whatever meter she needs to emphasize words such as "kingdom" and "rather," she creates a seamless masterpiece of satire, as subversive in content as it is effective in form.

On "Aubade for Wallace Stevens"

erhaps I'm more sensitive to this tradition of the multipartite elegy written by one poet upon the death of another because I wrote one for my father, the poet Michael Egan, in whose inherited library I rediscovered Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" as well as Brodsky's "Verses on the Death of T.S. Eliot." It is sad and curious that Julia Randall's "Aubade for Wallace Stevens" is not well known, like these others.

     This elegy sets its terms in a series of iambic pentameter couplets, not all of which rhyme. The speaker imagines the morning of the poet's death, that "mimic August crowed / particulars of mourning in your tongue." The "mourning" pays reference to the title, an "Aubade" rather than "Elegy." As with Auden's and Brodsky's poems, one of the central themes is the continuation of life in spite of the death of a poet.
It is sad and curious that Julia Randall's 'Aubade for Wallace Stevens' is not well known
Randall telegraphs this with "a gorgon day of stone," then employs Stevensian language when "the rabble rigor seized him, to be done." The poem continues, in the landscape of Stevens himself, "Chocorua…Kissimmee," the prince who might attempt to "delay such embers in the sun." But no! in a graceful assimilation of Stevens's own language, the song goes on ("old fa, old si"), and "the cock is new, the light is in his eye." While the elegies by the men embody a stronger note of sorrow for the death of the poet, this poem celebrates immediately the new day, the continuation of life and song, even in the face of the death of an individual. The calm and stately iambs establish from the start a sense of control, the possibility of art's immortality. In fact, in the lines "But no! / the cock is new, the light is in his eye," I doubt that Ms. Randall was making use of a sexual double-entendre here, but it is interesting that she celebrates the dawn, even a dawn on which an important poet has died.

     The second part features the Stevensian character, Beau Chanticleer. The sing-song rhythm and rhyme echo Stevens's own linguistic playfulness. "Beau Chanticleer stood / by the once-again wood / while the leaves of that day / dawned." We are again in morning, having almost forgotten the mourning thanks to the song. Neologistic nursery rhyme, à la Stevens, carries the song: "Cock-am-I, / cock-a-cry! / What I see / in my eye!" and proceeds to the list of exotic places which were real to Stevens only in his imagination. The sing-songy lines enjamb and extend in the final strophe, however, as Ben Chanticleer sings pastoral yet ominous images that recall the lists in Auden's poem: "the trough as it brimmed, / and the gate as it whined / in the wind, / and the bell / as it rang." These images sung remain inscribed on human consciousness, even if their singer has gone into some other realm. Even more than in Auden's and Brodsky's elegies, the value of "song" itself carries hope.

     The third part of the poem begins with artful line breaks and internal rhyme. "Thus, thus / day's dust dissembling, we are one / body." Subverting traditional funereal prayers, these lines make a liar of the dust which we are fated to become, and give us the hope of one / (great line break) body. But it is to the fellowship of poets rather than saints to which Randall gestures. In an apostrophe to Stevens, calling him "brother," she asks for light from the deceased, that we may "press / pitch paths that die before us." In lovely Stevensian language, the speaker makes a verb of "lantern," to light the "carolling / for beast, for bride." The beautiful last sentence of this section again asks for light and emphasizes the poet's formerly holy role in a society: "Be sunburst that we know / the bars of praise, the text: that who / conceives the day blesses the day's increase, and stars / the ordinary evening." This unusual syntax makes new the prayer and the hope that, as Auden says, poetry will survive, "[a] way of happening, a mouth."

     The fourth section is similar to the other elegies in its looking outward to the natural world, to the seasons that will continue to pass, in spite of the death. The first stanza's almost iambic lines set up a dignified lament: "Now August lies in her late majesty," tracing the colors and imagery of the season's change. The metrical regularity of the subsequent stanzas breaks, however, as do sections of the gentlemen's elegies. Those sections, with their incantatory trochaic rhythms, read as prayers or invocations. Recall Auden's: "Earth, receive an honoured guest; / William Yeats is laid to rest: / Let the Irish vessel lie / Emptied of its poetry," which works its way to "In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start, / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise." In the same way, Randall praises the poet: "You are the country that we love, the land … of fair thoughts." She skirts across Stevens's landscape, "Now Hausatonic, now Connecticut / condense in silver all the fruited plain." Most touching of all, perhaps, is the final stanza of this section, in which Randall channels the sometimes fanciful language of the master himself, exhorting him to "cry up" his lusty company. "Crisp, crisp, oh crispin-crisp, now crispin-clear," he will wake the cock of Amherst and of Paterson, vital loci of American poetry, who will continue to hammer his "not-to-cease upon the dawn."

     That final line, summing up what we as poets most devoutly hope, should be as well known as the lines of Auden and Brodsky. Bloom writes of the anxiety of influence, that the male poet feels an oedipal urge to kill off his poetic forefathers. Ostriker and other feminist critics have written that the female tendency is to seek out the poetic parents, to establish a dialogue with both the men and women who have come before. This poem is a loving and generous example of a female poet who clearly knows the body of work of one of her most important forefathers, and is able to channel his language playfully and poignantly in an elegiac song that is, from its outset, more a celebration than a lament. "Aubade for Wallace Stevens" "worships language and forgives / everyone by whom it lives," and needs to take its rightful place among the elegies for poets. Following its example, we too hope to hammer our "not-to-cease upon the dawn."


Moira Egan’s first book, Cleave (WWPH, 2004), was nominated for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review, Passages North, Poems & Plays, POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Smartish Pace, and West Branch, and in the anthologies Kindled Terrace; Lofty Dogma; Sex & Chocolate; and Discovering Genre: Poetry. Work has appeared in translation in Nuovi Argomenti (Italy) and her poems have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Work from her most recent chapbook, Bar Napkin Sonnets, won the Baltimore City Paper Poetry Contest (2005).


Eleanor Wilner
Moira Egan
Julia Hutton Randall
Meg Schoerke

Therese Chabot creates delicate, ephemeral installations – carpets, dresses and crowns – using flower petals and natural materials to speak of the stages of life and the paths we are given to choose from.
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