"The savoring of unintended ironies” could well be the tagline for this clever and enjoyable collection of poems. The phrase, appropriated by George Green from the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, cogently sums up the underlying theme of the verse compiled here: Green delights in overturning our assumptions about everything, from pop stars to historical events to the meaning and significance of art.
The title poem has the singsong quality of a children’s nursery rhyme, and the repetitive, though slightly varying, refrain gives it an almost ridiculous feel:
You stood there on the quarter deck beglamored,
but we were all distracted by your foot.
Your foot, your foot, your lordship’s gimpy foot,
your twisted, clubbed and clomping foot, your foot.
Of course, the irony here is that Lord Byron was known for his serious, often melodramatic, poetry, and a personal appearance that would have been more readily compared to the Don Juan of his epic poem than to Quasimodo. Byron’s clubfoot certainly did not hinder his success with women (or men, for that matter), and his contemporaries consistently made note of his extraordinary physical beauty. Two centuries later, he is remembered not as a cripple but as a playboy.
So when Green states, It’s all we think about—your stupid foot, we know that we are in on a joke. He says the opposite of what we all know to be true—and this is the intended irony. The unintended one lies in the fact that Byron actually did have a lame foot, a deformity that, had Byron been a different man, could have been his defining feature.
In “The Searchers,” Green uses a more contemporary example to illustrate the irony of fame.
Hangovers helped John Wayne evince deep torment
In The Searchers, when he comes unglued
while tracking the Comanches who’ve abducted
While we, as viewers, might think that Wayne, who plays a tortured Confederate veteran in the 1956 John Ford film, gives a nuanced, emotional performance, Green tells us that we are being duped. On the other hand, Jeffrey Hunter, the young star who played Wayne’s fellow searcher, went on to play the role of Christ, / as well as anyone has, in King of Kings.
No one can portray the Son of God very accurately, though, and Hunter was no exception. He shaved his armpits /
for the Crucifixion, knowing well / the Lord must suffer in ideality. But Hunter himself died in “obscure circumstances” just 10 years later, his career largely down the tubes and his fame a fading memory.
In a historical bend, “Confederates Try to Burn New York” characterizes John Wilkes Booth as a lonely actor whose thwarted love for a beautiful actress is his main driving force. Green takes us from an 1864 performance of Julius Caesar, in which Booth is momentarily upstaged while trying to impress said actress, to the assassin’s bloody demise five months later. Using factual accounts of the months leading up to Booth’s death, Green unearths, in a few short stanzas, the ultimate irony of Booth’s assassination plot.
Booth, apparently determined never again to be upstaged, leapt onstage at Ford’s Theatre after shooting Lincoln in the head, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!”—a phrase attributed to Brutus at the assassination of Julius Caesar. Which leaves us wondering: Had Booth lost the ability to distinguish between life onstage and off? Was the assassination even about Lincoln, or was it simply a young actor’s ultimate act of bravado?
Green’s occasional forays into personal narrative don’t strike quite the same note as his more referential poems, much to their detriment. His strength as a poet lies in his ability to make us question our assumptions, an ability made all the clearer when dealing with topics, people, and situations with which the reader is familiar. At times, he chooses to focus on lesser-known subjects—Rose Poe and Hartley Coleridge, for example—but even then he relies on our knowledge of their more famous relatives (Edgar Allan and Samuel Taylor) to communicate the full significance of their stories.
The impact of these poems comes not from their descriptive quality but from their serious, ruminative undertones. Beneath the witty, often hilarious, surface runs a philosophical discourse on the quandaries of human existence: Why do we struggle? Why do we fall? How do we reconcile the enormous inconsistencies of human nature?
Ultimately, George Green encourages us to enjoy these inconsistencies, the “unintended ironies” that make life interesting. While recognizing their full weight, he does not pretend to have any answers. Reading these poems is rather like having a late-night conversation with a good friend—laughs included.
Julianne Dudley is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.