These collected poems explore memory, regret, and missed connections.
Along with being a bioethicist, physician, and lawyer, Appel (The Amazing Mr. Morality: Stories, 2018, etc.) is also a prolific, award-winning writer of short stories, novels, essays, and plays. He now offers a collection of 43 witty, thoughtful poems, many of which were previously published in literary journals. Appel’s poetry has a narrative quality that’s appropriate for a fiction writer, telling compressed stories that often end in moments of realization or summation. In the title poem, for example, the first line provides a nutshell character sketch: “You could never put one over on my uncle.” Instances follow: “Scoured his returned change for Canadian pennies, / Steered clear of con games like synagogue / And life insurance.” The poet makes no judgment about the uncle’s cynicism or lack of mercy; he simply does the compassionate thing by visiting him when no one else will. But the uncle remains himself: “Of course, you’ve come, he says, /… / You were always a sucker.” Con artists and chumps are a recurring motif in Appel’s fiction, with tension between the morality of truth and the comfort, even the magic, of illusion. Is it wrong to be a sucker if it means a dying old man gets a visit from a family member? Other poems consider mortality and the past’s irretrievability, such as “Summer Camp Socials,” which recalls a girl who’s cheerful despite being ostracized at a dance for her bald scalp. Looking back, the speaker writes that she “stars in the revision of my life,” one in which he asks her to dance, but in his “unrevised life, she is still waiting.” The past can’t be made up for; imagination can revise, but life resists editing. Even the future is unsusceptible to change, as in “The Homely Girls,” where a kindergarten teacher predicts that the unattractive girls have only steely endurance ahead of them. Of course it’s possible for even homely girls to have fulfilling lives, but the teacher, like the uncle, is paying the price for cynicism—sourness that overtakes all perceptions.
A strong collection of insightful narrative poems.