Melissa Balmain: Review by D.A. Jeremy Telman

Balmain Cover

Walking in on People by Melissa Balmain (Able Muse Press)

Twenty years ago, in his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia restated his title’s question more precisely as follows: “What possible relevance does this archaic art form have to contemporary society?” Wallace Stevens provided an answer, Gioia tells us, when he observed, “The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man’s happiness.”  A few pages earlier, Gioia had noted that “a few loners, like X.J. Kennedy and John Updike, turn their genius to the critically disreputable demimonde of light verse and children’s poetry.” X.J. Kennedy himself might have had Wallace Stevens’ criteria in mind when he selected Melissa Balmain’s collection of light verse, Walking in on People, as the winner of the Able Muse Book Award.

     One feels compelled to explain one’s fondness for this “critically disreputable” genre.  Balmain’s book, like so much excellent light verse, succeeds because it contributes to a conversation in verse.  Sometimes it does so merely by its exacting attention to form; sometimes it does so through quotation, formal allusion, adaptation or parody.  Because her jokes often turn on a literary allusion, she asks a lot of her audience, and so her light verse does not exactly register as a guilty pleasure.  It takes intellectual work to appreciate her humor, but the work only heightens the pleasure.  

     I had read many of Melissa Balmain’s comic prose pieces before I read her poetry.  The speaker of her poems is the familiar clever, self-mocking, multi-tasking woman I know from the prose. She raises self-deprecation and explorations of the modern, distressed body to an art form.  Based on her writings, one would imagine Balmain a female Inspector Clouseau, ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of motherhood or modern technology.  But in Walking in on People, her first poetry collection, Balmain reveals herself to be an extremely accomplished prosodist.  Despite her modesty, she is among the most accomplished poets writing light verse today.

     As the editor of the online journal Light, Balmain knows very well the contours of what one can accomplish in light verse.  It is not a form that lends itself to weighty philosophizing or argument, but it also should not be trivial.  In the three sets of poems called “Afterwords,” Balmain starts with a familiar line and joins it to a contemporary one that takes it in a startling direction.  The first set of “Afterwords” all invoke contemporary technology: television, twitter and iPhones.  The second set has a modern medical cast: sunblock, rhinitis and cryogenesis.  The third set combines the subject-matters of the first two sets, to accentuate Balmain’s favorite theme, the human body’s imperfections.  So Shakespeare’s mistress’ eyes may be nothing like the sun, “But wait until her laser treatment’s done!”  And Balmain answers Wyatt’s “They flee from me that sometime did me seek” with “My Arrid Extra Dry ran out this week.”  In each of these clever, pleasing poems, much of the fun comes from the contrast between the familiar poem and the zany direction in which Balmain takes it.

     Balmain has a gift for clever word play and for last-line reversals that elicit responses ranging from gasps to belly laughs. Repeating forms, such as the villanelle and the triolet, are great showcases for Balmain’s talents.  She makes the repetends resonate with completely different senses, which is the best way to make use of these forms.  Her “Villain Elle,” begins:

     Whenever I wake up and don’t feel well,
     I like to read a women’s magazine.
     I know that I can count on Vogue or Elle, . . .

     The poem seems like it will introduce the reader to the pleasures of such magazines, but Balmain editorializes as she describes the magazines’ contents.  The magazines show how good a woman can look, “if you’re six foot and live on Lean Cuisine.”  They list “wardrobe musts” that are reasonable “for a queen.”  They illustrate how to stay looking young with a photo of “a model of eighteen.”  And so in the closing quatrain we learn the sense in which these magazines help the speaker get out of bed.

     I know that I can count on Vogue or Elle

     to make my time in bed such living hell,
     I’m out of there in sixty seconds clean.
     Whenever I wake up and don’t feel well,
     I know that I can count on Vogue or Elle.

Similarly, in “Toilet Triolet,” Balmain navigates from optimism to realism on the subject of potty training.  We start with:

     OK, let’s go! It’s time to use the potty!
     No way you’re wearing diapers from now on.

Four urine-soaked lines later, we arrive quite plausibly at:

     Ok, let’s go.  It’s time to use the potty?
     No way, you’re wearing diapers from now on.

     Such poems are advertisements for the continued vitality of traditional forms and could be great tools for introducing students to forms the usefulness of which might otherwise be thought exhausted.

     The book contains a number of understated gems.  The poem, “Tale of a Relationship, in Four Parts,” is far shorter than its title, consisting of four lines and four words.  Balmain even manages, in this very short poem, a highly effective turn in line four.  “Shopper’s Life List” is nearly as economical.  It begins with the mundane: total numbers of orange juice, bread, and soap bought over threescore and ten.  But then the poem, while remaining comic, embraces not merely a lifetime of shopping but death as well:

     A dozen wallets (black)
     Ten cars
     Eight dogs
     Six cats
     Three homes
     Two canes
     One granite plaque.

     “Your Rejection Slip, Annotated” is a poem that every writer has contemplated composing, but Balmain’s version would be hard to beat.  One has to wonder, since she is herself an editor who presumably must reject more submissions that she accepts, if this time the joke is on her readers.  

     Balmain’s gift for word play is also in evidence in “Her Suit” about a hirsute woman responding to what seems to be an actual personal ad from New York Magazine placed by a man seeking a woman with extensive body hair.  The poem tells a story, in doubled ballad stanzas, of the speaker’s life as a hirsute woman.  The reader is unsurprised to learn that men did not admire

     my hairy breasts, my hairy feet— 
     such a fluffy pair!—
     my hairy stomach (so petite!),
     my hairy derrière.

So it was until she meant Jack, who was attracted by a glimpse of her “furry shin.”  But all did not end well.

     He took me to his family’s farm;
     we always had our fun
     in stalls atop a bale or two.
     I did enjoy the sex,
     until the day we heard a moo,
     and Jack sighed, “That’s my ex.”

Which explains why the speaker signs her letter, “Wary.”  

     Balmain’s love poems are of the “nothing like the sun” variety.   In “The Marital Bed,” she apostrophes the “king of beans.”  But there is always an unexpected turn in Balmain’s poems:

     You scratch your back and sigh,
     you grunt, harrumph and bray.
     And yet the crazy truth is I
     can’t sleep when you’re away.

     “Memo to Self, in Bed” is a far darker poem.  While “The Marital Bed” focuses on the inconveniences of sharing one’s bed with another burping, farting body, this poem explores the poet’s inability to escape her own mind.  The poem is a sonnet that lists the speaker’s worries while in her lover’s embrace.  The worries are so pressing, the turn must wait until the final line: “Don’t think: just wink at him and keep pretending.”  

     Finally, there is Balmain’s “Thoughts During a Quiet Car Trip,” which addresses the uncomfortable topic of a couple, long-married, that can no longer keep the conversation going while alone together.  Here too, as in “Memo to Self, in Bed,” we have an inventive list, this time of the conversational themes the couple has explored.  The writing here is funny enough to make one wonder if it could ever be boring to spend time with Balmain.  One doubts that her fecund mind would ever exhaust possible subjects for conversation.  But marriage is long:

     So we’re left to just sit, yawn and sigh, hum a tune,
     like the bulk of paired women and men.
     But don’t worry: senility’s bound to hit soon.
     Then we’ll say it all over again.

     Light verse does not shy away from ugly subjects, nor does it offer us the sorts of consolation we might seek from more weighty poems.  It just lets us laugh at our greatest fears, and thus, for a little while at least, contributes to our happiness.


D.A. Jeremy Telman is a professor of law at the Valparaiso University Law School and the editor of theContractsProf Blog, to which he contributes, among other things, limericks that summarize cases that he covers in his courses on contracts and business organizations.  His scholarly writings have appeared in Austrian, French, German, Indian, Israeli, Serb, South African, U.K., and U.S. publications.