Not God

"Not God"

by Marc Straus   

May 2006

Triquarterly, 2006

88 pp.

Trade Paper

ISBN 0-8101-5169-3 / $ 14.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Reeve 

Marc J. Straus, author of Not God, is described in all his biographical sketches as, first and foremost, a practicing oncologist. He is the recipient of the Robert Penn Warren Award in the Humanities from Yale University. Yale University Medical School, to be exact. This is exactly how his book should be best appreciated -- as an exceptional work from a medical professional, though an unremarkable work from a poet. Its value lies not in its contribution to literature per se, but rather in its contribution to the literature of the medical community.


Not God describes itself as "a play in verse," and accomplishes this by alternating short poem-monologues between two dramatis personae called "Patient" and "Doctor." Under scrutiny, however, it is neither play nor verse. As a play, it sacrifices any and all chances at dialogue by stringing together a disconnected series of anecodes. It lacks the crescendos and dénouement one expects of drama. As a collection of poems, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, it fails to do what could not be done better with good prose. I can imagine Not God as a funny and perhaps even lucid memoir, but as a book of poems? Not so much.


When you hear the words "poet" and "doctor" in the same sentence, the first person that comes to mind is probably going to be William Carlos Williams. The "good doctor," author of Paterson and such minimal classics as "The Red Wheelbarrow," was known to write poems on prescription pads, but he rarely wrote explicitly about being a doctor. Straus, on the other hand, is a doctor dressed up to look like a poet, who, it would seem, rarely writes a poem about a subject other than medicine. "Write what you know," for Straus, is a maxim taken in a painfully literal sense.


Straus, for all the poetic attention he lends to his day job, falls prey to the mistakes of an amateur. His self-conscious logophilia, for instance, is something one would expect only out of a beginner. In at least three monologues, Straus muses at length on the sounds of words: "In my work," says the doctor of Not God, "I'm burdened with such straight-forward terms: lung cancer, lymphoma, breast cancer, leukemia." Elsewhere, he lingers on words such as "blemish, blotch, blister," with forced alliteration. In "Cancer Prayer," he begins, "Tell me, please, how to be cavalier / after twenty years of treating patients / with arrogant adjectives [...] and nouns with such innocent sounds -- lymphoma, melanoma, breast cancer." This guy seems to really enjoy the sound of the word "breast cancer." Poets shouldn't write poems that talk about the words themselves--they should simply use the words in poems. It is moments like this that makes the author at best indulgent, and at worst someone the Brits would call a "wanker."


Not God does have its funny moments. The problem is, most of them fall into the category of cheap jokes. "Red Herring",  for instance, is a poem about a literal and figurative red herring that is discovered in the Bronx. It would be a great set-up for a poem if it could manage to use its subject matter in any kind of transcendent way. Rather, it deflates mightily due to its own tongue-in-cheekiness. The speaker seems to be saying "Look at me! I'm being clever!" and as a result, the piece fails to be anything more than an extended pun. Likewise, another poem, "Mr. Biggers", is a joke about hospital staff who have ironic names. "Dr. Plummer is a urologist on staff," it goes, "then, too, / there is Mrs. Muffin, a nurse's aide who gives out breakfast." I feel cheated. This is all fine fodder for the hospital doctor's lounge water cooler, but isn't this supposed to be a book of poetry?


I'm sorry to say that these poems do such a good job of straddling the line between witty and wise that they avoid falling into either category.