by Marc Straus
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
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
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
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.