Weekly Poem: J. Allyn Rosser finds deeper meaning through humor

“Mimi’s Trapeze,” a new book by J. Allyn Rosser, starts with a quote by Balzac in the original French. The poet translates it roughly as, “Being human — what an appalling condition! in which every happy moment depends on an ignorance of some sort.” Or in other words, ignorance is bliss.

“This is an awful thing to say and such a true thing to say,” Rosser told Art Beat.

“You think about elation over getting a promotion, or winning an award, or someone you love tells you they love you back. Well, what if the promotion was some political fluke, the award had nothing to do with our deserving it because of skill or effort and that this person you love is secretly seeing or longing for someone else. These things happen every day and yet our happiness depends on them.”

That perspective may be bleak, but Rosser hears humor in it, and that humor is essential to the way she tackles serious subjects.

“Humor is my version of when Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.'” Humor has a way of sidestepping reader resistance, she says.

It’s a tactic Rosser wants to employ, especially when she’s writing on a topic she’s obsessed with, like global warming.

In “Children’s Children Speech,” the poet had to find a way to speak about the subject without her readers “putting their guards up,” to approach the topic obliquely and “avoid that groan from the reader.”

Listen to J. Allyn Rosser read “Children’s Children Speech” from her new collection, “Mimi’s Trapeze.”

Children’s Children Speech
What would we want our luckless heirs to say,
Now that we too globally see it will end —
The bees, the buds, the mercurial sea, the air
All spoiled — that we made waste of miracles?

Now that we’re so globally sure it will end,
We should prepare a speech defending all
The spoils we’ve made so much of. Miracles
Are merely things we think we don’t deserve.

We may as well prepare it now, the speech
That would explain the things we had to have
Were merely things we thought we would deserve
In a heaven we had stopped believing in.

That would explain some things. We had to have
Whatever made us feel above the land,
So that the heaven we’d stopped believing in
Could be had here, by plane or satellite.

We craved what made us feel above the land
Whose laws were fixed to leave us in the dirt.
What could be seen by plane or satellite
Was fast depleting: ice floe, forest, meadow,

Whose dirty laws were fixed, made by that god
Who’d also made our minds that made whatever
Fast depleted ice floe, forest, meadow.
Any speech we have a mind to write

Our mind’s made up to stand behind, whatever
We may do to bees, or seas, or air
Empowering speech. We have a mind to write
Our luckless heirs, but what’s the use? They’ll call us

They. “They did this. We’re weren’t even there.”

Rosser moves between traditional form and free verse and in this poem, she was guided by the form of the pantoum, which uses the second and fourth line of a stanza for the first and third lines of the following stanza. “Children’s Children Speech,” however, doesn’t repeat full lines.

“I cheat just enough so it doesn’t sound unnatural. Most forms do sound unnatural and I am one of those poets who wants the natural feeling of a poem,” said Rosser. “I think it’s important to violate forms. When you give a poem a form, it’s a resistance against what you want to say and that’s helpful sometimes, but then you have to resist the form to make the form come back alive. Let the poem rebel, but then keep the form more or less intact.”

While Rosser moves in and out of traditional form, she holds strong to absurdity — a kinship that she feels with one of her primary inspirations, Samuel Beckett.

“He gives you the most awful conditions, really tragic conditions, but he makes them funny, ultimately, because he gets through to the other side of it. Alternatively, he’ll start funny and you’ll wind up realizing that this guy is saying something that is the most important thing for me to learn. This is wisdom, but it’s funny, funny as hell.”

Whether it’s a work by Samuel Beckett or the Balzac epitaph at the beginning of “Mimi’s Trapeze,” the poet is attracted to moving through all the cruelty and disappointment to find a “profound truth.”

“Any book of poetry that has no humor in it, I’m a little distrustful of it because that’s not the whole of it,” said Rosser. “The facts are what they are, but how the mind transforms them is our spiritual life and our sublimity and that’s what poetry tries to capture — our access to the sublime.”

“Children’s Children Speech” from “Mimi’s Trapeze,” by J. Allyn Rosser, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Dec. 8 to clarify Rosser’s translation of her epigraph.