Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish
Most readers who consider buying David Rakoff’s final book, a long poem called Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, will know the story behind it already: a beloved essayist, diagnosed with terminal cancer, races against the clock to write a masterpiece in a form wholly new to him: the novel in verse. I won’t belabor it here with re-telling, save to say that Rakoff’s loss must be a huge blow to his friends and family, and that his drive to create to the end is an inspiration.
Unfortunately, the finished product is more a novelty than a novel, a clever but not deeply imagined poem of the kind you’d hear on public radio on the weekends, meaning it might make you snicker or say “huh” but it won’t make you think for more than a minute about anything that matters lest you be too distracted to catch the next unlikely rhyme.
The central conceit of the book is the idea that the absolute worst parts of life—rape, suffering, betrayal, and death—can both move and entertain when told in a loose and sing-song anapestic hexameter with lines that break on the clause: ba da dum ba da dum. Think “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” if Santa had performed a series of abortions before depositing the presents, and with more beats per line.
The problem with Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is the same problem that exists with This American Life, where Rakoff and his collaborators David and Amy Sedaris cut their teeth. No one is prescribing solemnity, but if you’re going to treat serious subjects with the attention they deserve, self-mocking whimsy cannot be the only arrow in your quiver. Meaning if you think it’s a fun idea to read stories of child rape in knocked-together doggerel verse, you don’t understand either those stories or that verse.
The chapters (cantos?) each tell the story of a different character at advancing (and somewhat confusing) jump-points in the 20th century. Each mise-en-scène is packed with period clichés (a dingy abattoir in the gristly teens, the endless cock-romp of ‘70s San Francisco, the pointless glamour of Manhattan in the ‘80s) and one by one we meet Margaret, Clifford, Helen, Ted, Josh, Susan, et al. Usually, once we’ve met them, we never see them again, but not before we know at least one of their traits (Ted smells good, Margaret has red hair) and one awful thing that befalls them (unless the character is a woman, in which case the awful thing might be one of her own traits: cupidity, faithlessness). Ted dies young, Susan betrays two husbands, Josh falls into despair, etc.
There’s been talk in the review sections (and on NPR) about how all of these narratives “come together” at the end of the story. They sort of do, and the moment is a nice one, but most of the details—most of the words—that the book spends getting there are found to be more-or-less inconsequential once we’ve arrived.
In a glowing review in the Boston Globe Matthew Gilbert praises Rakoff’s “moral questioning” in the poem, but there is exactly zero questioning of anyone’s morals here, for the reason that there’s little moral ambiguity. Frank, who rapes a child, is a monster—there’s no question about that and there shouldn’t be. Clifford, who sleeps around and then is blindsided by AIDS, doesn’t raise moral questions either. He had no idea AIDS existed (he was one of the early cases, back when it was called GRID) so he’s merely, terribly, a victim. Were these stories about safe sex post-’84, or subsequent policy decisions, we would be in the realm of Moral Questions. But for Clifford, there really aren’t any. The same is largely true for each of the characters as they pop up and then disappear. There are good people in this book and bad people and they have almost nothing in common. Gilbert goes on to praise the narrative for its ambition and sweep, “Rakoff jumps among a handful of disparate characters and interlocking tales….” What Gilbert does not point out is that the result of all this jumping is … well, jumpy.
Heller McAlpin at NPR also finds the stories “oh-so-cleverly connected,” and yet they’re not, not really. Aside from the fact that she’d met a minor character in a later story, Margaret’s red hair and her horror at the beginning of the book have zero bearing on what’s to follow. To say otherwise is to speak of what might have been. McAlpin does acknowledge that “at first blush, the opening pair of hard luck tales may strike you as somewhat trite and sentimental. Stick with them.” I stuck with them; they are trite and sentimental throughout.
Both McAlpin and Ian McGillis of the Montreal Gazette cite Vikram Seth’s 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, as a progenitor to Rakoff, though McGillis calls the former, better novel “largely forgotten.” I don’t know what he means by this: it’s an in-print and frequently read title by a bestselling author, far less forgotten than nearly all of the brilliant books of poetry (and quite a few of the novels) published in America each year. The Golden Gate is worth noting here, though, because it is also an ensemble piece, also set in San Francisco, and one that balances tone and content perfectly in near-perfect verse; The Golden Gate is tender, touching, genuinely funny, and full of the real stuff of poetry: allusion, assonance, subtle and varied enjambment, ambiguity. None of which is done well in Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.
Instead, Rakoff’s verse-novel evinces a lot of obvious stretching for end-rhymes, achieved through approximation, filler words, and rhymes on part words broken by the dash. Once or twice would have been funny—oysters rhyming with roister /-ing, for example—but they quickly outwear their welcome. There is a lot of inexact metaphor. At a butcher’s shop, “pigs who’d been carved up” don’t actually look “like corpses at battle,” even if battle conveniently rhymes with cattle. Or:
And just by the tapping of knife against crystal,
All eyes turned his way, like he’d fired off a pistol.
This is exactly the kind of rhyme that would sound funny if it were coming from David Sedaris’ mouth on the radio, because it was so obviously a comedic exaggeration and because it’s not intended to survive scrutiny. Once you do think about it, the strings are cut.
There are phrases clearly inserted for no reason other than to make rhyme, as in the following, where Rakoff explains what a drunk and a brute Frank is:
Drink, in some men, is a beautiful thing.
Sweet Eamon Dolan finds courage to sing,
Shy William Thomas will realize he’s handsome,
But Frank holds them prisoner without any ransom.
Does the meaning of the sentiment really change with the addition of ransom?
The spoken lines don’t sound like people talk, of course, but I don’t just mean that they rhyme. At the beginning of the second chapter, Clifford’s mother muses:
“I once heard it said that there was an ocean
Not terribly distant from where we sit here.
But, I suppose that was just a bum steer.
Escaping me now are the details specific,
But could it be named something like ‘The Pacific’?
This is office-Christmas-party verse. But also note the sloppy meter. The sing-song rhythm is so persistent elsewhere that we can’t help but read the second line as, “Not terribly distant from where we sit here.” It works for a few beats and then it stops working, which isn’t to say the meter isn’t sustained enough to be consistent, but that to comfortably adapt itself to variation it ought to be less consistent elsewhere. When we’re given an exception to the anapest, it ought to be a consciously-chosen exception. Otherwise, the result reads like the meter is in charge and not the poet; it doesn’t scan.
One last example. Apropos a pubescent girl:
Even now, she’s as pale as a thing stuck with leeches,
And thin! Her dugs ought to be ripe, swelling peaches.
Why “dugs”? Because Rakoff wanted to avoid making breasts a stress-word, presumably, knowing we stress it anyway as readers (since we register it as an important word), and substituted the unlikely dugs so he could preserve his meter with the pyrrhic foot dugs ought. A more natural-sounding solution would be to drop a few syllables from the line (as he does elsewhere) for the sake of emphasis: “And thin! Her breasts should be ripe, swelling peaches.” Does every line have to thump? And if every line thumps, are you communicating anything meaningful through the noise?
Though Entertainment Weekly, in a glowing review, incorrectly identified the meter as “iambic tetrameter,” McGillis rightly begins his Gazette review with the proper words “Anapestic tetrameter,” expounding:
Unless you move in rarefied and specialized circles, it’s a term unlikely to come up in book-club gabfests and water-cooler chats. A whole novel written in rhyming couplets of the meter in question would seem a particularly far-fetched proposition … for many perfectly good readers, the last encounter with extended narrative poetry may well have been the Byron or Milton they were assigned in school.
What McGillis has just suggested is that “perfectly good” readers have absolutely no reason or motive to pick up extended narrative poetry unless it’s rolled-out as a bestseller-bait by a well-known comedian, and that it would be “rarefied” and “specialized” for them to do otherwise. I might suggest such readers ask the poet in their Facebook circle to recommend some titles or, just open an Amazon screen now and buy either a cheap used or nice in-print copy of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, or Frank Stanford’s Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If you’re looking for the kind of narrative poems that could eat Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish for breakfast, you might try Kenneth Koch’s Ko or A Season on the Earth or W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs.
Agreed, none of the above are written in rhyming anapestic tetrameter; but that such a meter might not just seem but in fact be a half-baked method for communicating meaningful and challenging stories is nowhere addressed in McGillis’ review; and yet any number of alternative rhyming meters do exist and would have readily served. Joseph Moncure March, for example, wrote 1928’s The Wild Party in a jazzy rangy verse that could vary its line length at will and accommodate nearly any verbal formulation he felt like including, as here when both the rhythm and the sentiment unfurl together like a cat’s arching body and its flexing paw:
Queenie woke up feeling shot.
She lay stretched out on the crumpled bed
Naked: slim arms above her head.
She stared at the ceiling;
She stared at her feet;
She stared at the clock,
And she cursed the heat
She looked exquisite; saintly.
But one suspects that Rakoff’s readers aren’t looking for either multi-tonal storytelling or poemcraft. If they were, there are a hundred novelists and a hundred poets (all of them undervalued) waiting patiently on the shelves. No, what Rakoff’s readers and listeners want is the clunky old-fashionedness of the verse, the sense of its being difficult, of the poet cheating in front of them and knowing they can see him cheating. They want a hammy performance of no real consequence but that of the moment, a ghoulish knick-knack made from a child’s toy. And they want it to look hard, but not too hard.
This is why Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a poor headstone. If its characters were intended to be as two-dimensional as they come off (as March’s are, or Edward Gorey’s—no matter what horrors befall them, we laugh) then Rakoff shouldn’t have taken the apparent effort to make the story a moving, touching one, that ends on a note of terribly ironic hope. The words and the tone are at odds, the flavors don’t cohere: they’re treacle and tripe.
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Sculpture, and Bookforum. Under the Small Lights, his first novel, is available from Miami University Press.