Book Review

Elizabeth Savage, Grammar, Furniture Press, 2012

by Sherry Chandler

If I had had a text like Elizabeth Savage’s Grammar, I might not have chafed so much at having to spend 8th grade diagramming sentences.

But then, if I had had Grammar for my text, I would not have been trying to hammer the round unruly peg of English into the logically square hole of Latin grammar. I always got bogged down in analyzing the compound complex. As Savage acknowledges in the epigraph

English isn’t fair
           yet grows
           to second nature

It is the nature of these whimsically light-footed poems to play, not just with the structure of the English language—the parts of speech, the elements of a sentence—but also with American prosody. “Prepositions,” for example, begins with the most famous four words in American poetry

So much depends

and continues, using Williams’s structure and vocabulary, to deconstruct that which might already have been deconstructed

the burdens
with which

we wheel

our happiness. . . .

This wheelbarrow is not static. It carries a load called “happiness,” an abstract noun that would not have been allowed in the original, where Williams tolerated no ideas but in things. “Prepositions” works both as a gloss, emphasizing the importance of prepositions to the original, and as a parody, skewing Williams’s words back at him.

. . . So much

depends upon a rural

And throughout it all, the starkness of the white

glazed with white

Beside darker

And the violence of the red

So much for

balancing its red

So the “rural imaginary” ends as the wheelbarrow of history, with a wound and a loaded weapon.

Grammar is a book of serious play, teasing at the heart of poetry’s essential tool, language. Beginning with “A Common Noun,” the book works through sentence structure, punctuation, verb tenses, and devices of rhetoric such as “Parallel Structure.” Cheeky to make a book of poems about a subject as dry and as essential as grammar, a challenge with many opportunities for failure. But Savage’s language never fails to delight, whether it is playing with rhyme, as in “Ellipsis”

before a clause
like the pause

or with clichés, as in “The Expletives”

. . . Sometimes
it’s hard to be a woman. There’s more
than one way to skin—sweet talk, red
wine, a well-placed wind. It’s a cinch . . .

or winking at Donne in “The Future Perfect”

Go and catch tomorrow by the toe
teach a child’s first paradox

L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E, OULIPO, Flarf are all forms of poetry that deal self-consciously with language and pre-existing texts. Grammar may owe a debt to all these forms. Like them, Savage’s poems explore the “known unknowns” of the politics of grammar. Non-traditional as Savage’s work may be, I see also firm connections with the traditional English lyric, as in “You, Understood”

laying its long cloak
             over a puddling image
             that I may step
into you

But I don’t want to weigh this book down with a load of theory. Like English grammar, its complexity can’t be constrained by logic. Mostly I just want to share the joy of reading these smart poems, of watching Elizabeth Savage’s fierce intelligence at work. They’re the kinds of poems that make you want to call up a friend and say “Listen to this!”

Sherry Chandler is the author of Weaving a New Eden, a collection of persona and formal poems in the voices of women who featured in the history of her home state, Kentucky. Look for her work in Kestrel, The Cortland Review, and the South Carolina Review. Chandler lived in Chicago for six years during the 70s during which time she is sorry to say she never once traveled over into Wisconsin. She is, however, a Facebook friend of former WI poet laureate Marilyn Taylor.