The first poem of A. M. Juster’s second collection of mostly original verse, Sleaze & Slander, is "Grandmother Gives Birth to Chimp." The title, as becomes apparent, is from a tabloid. "You never know what ends up being true," Juster writes before noting a few other things that sound outrageous but could nevertheless be called true: "Amelia Earhart flew to Tumbuktu, / then on to Kansas to escape it all," "The Loch Ness Monster is quite real, though small," and "Houdini’s ghost is merely overdue."
Why begin a collection of comic verse called Slander with a poem on truth? It’s a joke, of course. Juster’s tongue is firmly in cheek: "Don’t cringe when cynics call us ‘off the wall’!" / "Thank God the tabloids keep us on the ball!" But it’s more than that. Not to be a killjoy (we’ll get to the sleaze in a moment), but it’s helpful to remember, since Juster is something of a Latin scholar and a Catholic, that we get "slander" from scandalum or "scandal." Thomas Aquinas defined scandalum as an evil action that leads to someone else’s sin, but it can also refer to good actions that are wrongly viewed as evil. Christ is a "stumblingblock" or skandalon, according to the apostle Paul, to those who reject him.
The refrain "You never know" is an appropriate opening, then, to a collection that reminds us of how outrageously vindictive, proud, and lusty we can all be. Some of the poems may offend (there’s a translation of the Middle Welsh "Poem of the Prick" and another I’m too Protestant to name), but they’re also humorous reminders of our frailty and excess, bawdiness and bile.
Juster is at his best in his short poems, which are deliciously acerbic. In "Your Midlife Crisis," the first of three epigrams "From the Workplace" (Juster is the pen name of Michael J. Astrue, who was the head of the Social Security Administration until 2013), he writes: "You found yourself, but at an awful cost. / We liked you better when you were lost." In "To My Ambitious Colleague": "Your uphill climb will never stop; / scum always rises to the top." "I kept hoping she would come alone," he writes in "Mismatch." "She’s a gem, but he’s a kidney stone."
As far as bawdiness goes, there’s this translation of Luxorius, which Juster renders (rightly in my view) as a limerick:
If his words could equal his penis,
He’d be known as a legal genius.
He is up half the night
Missing laws he should cite
While joined by his servant of Venus.
But there’s humility, too. In "Self-portrait at Fifty," Juster writes:
None of this can be denied:
crabby, flabby, full of pride;
hypertensive, pensive, snide;
slowing, growing terrified.
In "Candid Headstone," he asks us to remember "what’s left of Michael Juster": "A failure filled with bile and bluster," and in "Botches" he laments that "These half-finished poems of mine / lie in pieces on the floor / as if Doctor Frankenstein / couldn’t focus on his chore."
The comparatively longer poems (roughly between 10 and 40 lines) touch on political and literary matters. As a long-time civil servant—and one of the good ones, according to Paul Mariani’s 2010 profile of him in First Things—Astrue may have heard the following excuse from "Mistakes Were Made" more than once: "My people screwed up on their own; / I would have stopped them had I known." There’s a Supreme Court drinking song, "A Panegyric for Presidents’ Day" (which begins with the pleasantly corny "In malls today it is inhuman / Not to talk of Taft or Truman"), and "A Prayer to Bill Gates" ("We call to Thee, though Thou shalt not reply"), as well as a send-up of T. S. Eliot (an early influence), William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens called "Prufrock’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Red Wheelbarrow Glazed with Rain beside White Chickens."
The dialogue in the translation of two of Horace’s satires is occasionally confusing but also refreshingly colloquial. His translation of over 70 of Martial’s epigrams is nearly perfect, and matches or surpasses that of the late James Michie. He renders Epigram 28 in Book One, for example, as "To say Acerra stinks of day-old booze is wrong! / Each drink is freshened all night long!" This is much better than Walter C. A. Ker’s literal translation in the Loeb ("He who fancies that Acerra reeks of yesterday's wine is wrong. Acerra always drinks till daylight") and far superior to Garry Wills’ clunky and charmless "They claimed, with blamings not condign / He reeked at morn of last night’s wine. / He intermits not in such ways: / Not last night’s wine—it was today’s").
One of my favorite original poems in the volume is "Proposed Clichés." Would that they were. "Ask not what your country can do," he writes in one, "for fear of the answer." "Love is like a hard-time sentence," he writes in another, "but better than cancer." "If you’re crazy like a fox, / get tested for rabies."
This is a book for the curmudgeon, the wayward washed-up uncle, and anyone else who knows that life is messy and human beings are ridiculous and endearing. It’s also for lovers of wit and anyone happy to learn from a bit of comic carnality.