by Austin Allen
Word was, George Green had been working on this book for decades. A poet-professor at Lehman College, in his 60s, from the ’60s—with the stories to prove it—he’d been published in prestigious journals, was friends with an impressive roster of poets, but had never put out a poetry collection himself. Now finally it had arrived, the summary of a writing life: Lord Byron’s Foot.
The first thing that struck me was the slenderness of the volume. The second was its tone from the title onward: “a little quietly facetious upon every thing,” to steal Byron’s own phrase. The third was Green’s preferred form: a sturdy but sprightly blank verse. Most surprising, though, was his subject matter, which—far from a cartload of stored-up emotional freight—is endlessly, often hilariously, dishy.
And the dish spares no one, from Green’s family to the giants of history and art. A poem about Pavarotti begins: “We had concerns. He was so huge his tux / Looked like a tent.…” An elegy for lost astronauts ends up recounting Samuel Johnson’s reckless gunplay. We meet the senile, awkwardly flirtatious mother of Green’s friend. We meet Green’s own mother, a devout woman who dreamed of walking “among the lilies with the Lord,” but grew to such Pavarottian proportions that her son “had to laugh” picturing it. We learn about Mao’s constipation, John Wayne’s hangovers, and Warhol’s social climbing. We don’t learn much about Green himself, except in fleeting glimpses.
The frisson of reading these poems is exactly like that of hearing “real” gossip. I suspected embellishments. I questioned the teller’s taste, and my own. I was hooked.
More than that, I was fascinated by the book’s larger statement. Why would a poet, hedging his bets on a single volume, try to immortalize something as seemingly ephemeral as gossip? Why dress something so casual in impeccable pentameter? And why would a writer who—in his book’s last poem and perhaps its only true confession—mentions “my return / from the pigpen to Methodism” choose a mode so compulsively irreverent?
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