ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Sky Pallette," a review by Peter Mladinic of What I Meant to Say Was, by Gary Grossman, Impspired, 2023


To be or not to be, that is the question—the most important word in this line from Hamlet is the article “the”.  It’s not a question, it’s The question.  Similarly, in Gary Grossman’s What I Meant to Say Was…the pronoun takes precedence.  Why?  It’s as if the title, with its ellipsis, were something a third person—he, she, they—is saying to the speaker in the poems, not the author’s intention but an idea to ponder. Either way, the title hints of something about to be clarified. Ironically, the I in the poems is big and small. How so?  Small in that the poet blends, chameleon-like, in with his topic, big in that he is his topic, even in poems where he says little about himself. Ironically, in defining the I, the reader comes away saying, The I is not a narcissist.  The I is the poet.  Three of his concerns have to do with the ritual, the seasonal, and the continuum of nature and humankind. 

Rituals in Gary Grossman’s poems have to do with work, home, family, and religion. This poet, like many others, taught in academia. Only, unlike many teacher-poets, his classes were in the sciences. This poet’s work rituals involve living in a university town, with its “parade of college kids,” and, though recently retired, being part of today’s academy, in which ‘the “business model” has won the war…” Home rituals involve morning cups of coffee and morning jogs.  Family rituals are found in memories of his grandmother’s cooking and fishing with his grandfather, and the religious in his Cousin Jessica’s Bat Mitzvah, (where he almost dropped the Torah). In “Boats Floating Down Stream” 

Every Rosh Hashanah we perform
Tashlich, writing down our sins—omission
and commission, crumpling them into
paper boats, then launching them into 
some nearby stream.

Gary Grossman has the eye of an artist and the ear of a musician, though the painting may be a cloud formation and the music the trill of a cardinal. Seasons are significant in his images and rhythms. The sense of a person who plans and also allows for spontaneity, who remembers the past and is engaged in the present is suggested by seasonal images such as his description of clouds. “Winter’s disparate hues are a/ painting by Whistler, white on silver/ silver on ash, ash on cream.”  Consider lushness of the metaphor, its tone sensual and somber.  His summer metaphor, in “The Joys of Gardening” is different: deer are rats.  They are rats because they are menaces, defying boundaries, trying to destroy the poet’s garden. In late July he says, “I’m thinking back to that spring night…when…those rats took out an entire seventeen by five foot bed of various lettuces: little gem, red oak leaf, Batavia, trout, red sails, black seeded Simpson, red cos, and bib.”  The metaphor’s wry humor underscores the frustration, the anger the gardener feels, as would anyone in his place. 

Continuum is big word connoted by all the fine words, lines, poems in this book. The adage “wherever you are is the center of the universe” is applicable to this poet. As in numerous poems, in “Off-Blue Sky” Grossman employs personification. He begins, “So I asked the sky..”.  The sky says, of the earth, “we/ stop her from rolling down the astral bowling lane right into/ the Sun—which would leave humanity twisting and/ popping like bacon in hot cast-iron.”  Ironically, to say who the poet is, is to say what he is not:  he is not pedantic. Not at all.  And he knows a lot of stuff!  How to garden, how to be on a doctoral exam committee, how to be loving spouse, a loving parent. Part of the continuum of…the universe,  he is a maker of poems that evoke that continuum.  In one of the most memorable poems in this collection of memorable poems, “Paying Attention on the Baldwin Grade” the startling metaphor is  tree-lined hills are oceans.  The rhythms of the long lines complement the majestic panorama of this visionary poem. The month is July.

…white and red oaks do their best sets of push-
ups provisioning oxygen, while loblolly and shortleaf pines
comp us with chasers of pinene, the real deal, not that fake 
Christmas tree hanging from your rear-view mirror, and I
am gobsmacked by the immensity and continuity of this 
robust green landscape, distant from the ocean, yet looking
like nothing so much as a horizon-long set of large rollers 
from a mid-Atlantic storm, so many waves of yellow-green, 
green-green and blue-green, colors ebbing and flooding with
the breeze, like some window shade that you pull down but
keeps rolling itself up…

Just as he makes a smooth shift from the horizontal thrust, (the ocean’s rollers), to the shade’s vertical thrust, (the rolling up), Grossman brings in other disparate elements: the Grand Prix, a speed limit sign, neurons, and himself—the I within the enormity of creation.  

Gary Grossman is Professor Emeritus of Animal Ecology at University of Georgia. His immediate family is well-credentialed. To say who he is, is to say who he is not, no “stuffed shirt academic,” no professor aloof in the lab, the lecture hall, the research stacks.  Much could be said of who he was. In his poems “less says more.” In “Growing Up Poor” he says “the gaunt fingers/ of poverty still crawl the/ canyon walls of my brain.”  Collectively, images in various poems add up to a difficult upbringing. Disadvantaged is such an abstract word. Grossman is not abstract. Note the tactile synecdoche in his canyon image.  Let it suffice to say he wasn’t born with “a silver spoon in his mouth.”   Gary Grossman is a poet saying things in his poems that have never been said before, and saying them eloquently.  

Buy this book and read it.  You’ll be glad you did.


Author Peter Mladinic’s fifth book of poems, Voices from the Past, is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications.
An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico, United States. :

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