Ron Koertge,
Making Love to Roget's Wife:
Poems New and Selected

(University of Arkansas Press, 1997)

The back of the book tells us that this is a collection of his best works gleaned from a dozen previous published collections spanning twenty-three years. Making Love to Roget's Wife contains eighty previous hits as well as twenty-five new gems that include the one which shares its title with the book. Inside, the poems are nearly all comedic, some darkly so, but very much human and humane in timbre.

Ron Koertge is a professor of English at California's Pasadena City College, and his love of books and literature are evident in his works. Also evident is the reason he has won grants from not only the California Arts Council, but also the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many of these poems are self-aware, such as "The Art of Poetry," in which a father, impotent to help his ailing child, finds inspiration in her illness and is at a loss on what to pray for. "Loving Ugly" is for all of us Less Than Pretty People who find love and an evil sort of vengeful glee that the Barbies and Kens are frustrated in their perfection. Facing loss is the focus of "Ozzie Nelson Dead of Cancer." Mourning the loss of a pop icon and his own father, he writes: "What a loss Mr. Nelson, Ozzie of Ozzies, perfect / husband and father."

Not all of his works are sad or bitter, but most of them are wryly amusing if not downright funny. "Diary Cows" leaps immediately to mind as we get to peek into a cow's diary for silliness' sake. "Future Farmers of America" reminds me of my own high school days and brings a slight smile at the shared nerdiness of myself as audience and the narrative voice of the poem. "Victims" reminds the reader that life can be cruel and the future unknown. He returns to his good humor with "I Never Touch My Penis," making fun of the glaring ludicrosity of some social mores and taboos.

The biggest mistake to make with Koertge is to assume one knows what a poem is going to be about by reading the titles. One such poem is the oddly titled "Not Only Naked Indian Girls and Booze But 10-Point Bucks That Line Up Just Begging to Be Shot and Bass in Streams So Thick a Man Could Walk Across on Their Backs." Here he gives the humor a spin, but gives way to pure heartbreaking beauty in these lines:

Everyone knows the uncle of our country,
but what about the aunt. There are no posters
And her not pointing with an index finger like
an M-16, but holding open both her arms,
calling back to their sand forts and tree houses
all the boys who rushed off to war, catching them
in time, and just like she was dressing someone
for church, firmly stuffing their souls back
into their bodies like breast pocket handkerchiefs
into a thousand Sunday suits.

One is caught in a timeless moment of mourning for the lives lost and wondering why we cling so closely to masculine ideals of honor and war. This one poem makes the price of the book worthwhile even were it not already packed with other fine pieces. After the laughter and amusement of his other works, this poem left me almost breathless.

In "Trail's End Curios," near the end of this book, Ron makes this wish:

I close my notebook on another
poem destined to make everyone who reads it
happy to be alive or, if they fold it and stuff
it in one shoe, a little taller.

Koertge succeeds famously in this with Making Love to Roget's Wife; I am indeed happy to be alive after reading his works. Taller, too.

[ by Debbie Gayle Rose ]

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