Each Other’s Anodyne by Marnie Dresser. Darkling, 2013.
Review by Judy Barisonzi
I’ll start this review with a disclaimer: for many years, Marnie Dresser and I were colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. Several years ago I also stood at the State Capitol and chanted slogans against Governor Walker’s attack on Wisconsin public employees. So you might say I am not an objective reviewer for Each Other’s Anodyne, Marnie’s new chapbook (Darkling, Spring Green, WI).
But who among us is objective? We all come to a book with our life stories and political convictions. In this case, the experiences I share with Marnie make me—in my opinion at least– an ideal reader for her collection, which is about teaching, particularly teaching English to college freshmen and sophomores, and most particularly about teaching in a climate of frequent hostility toward public education.
And let me tell you, Marnie has got it right. She knows teaching—the burden of grading, the quest for the perfect lesson plan, the moment of exhilaration when a student finally understands. The political message isn’t heavy handed here: it’s more of a let-me-tell-you-what-teaching-is-like-and maybe-you’ll-change-your-mind. Because teaching is about changing minds. It’s hard work, says Marnie, and it’s joy.
But Marnie doesn’t tell her readers about teaching—she shows, through humor and metaphor, what a teacher’s life is like. I like Marnie’s understatement, the unexpected punch lines, as in “Prayer for a New Semester”:
No massacres, no guns at all, no death,
no sharp-turn, black-ice, driving-to-work car wrecks,
no suicides, no overdose, no heart attacks,
no valiant battle with cancer lost, no death.
And also, just this one semester,
could everybody get to class on time?
And I am delighted by the variety of metaphors Marnie finds to describe being a teacher: a semester is like a “damp pile of limp balloons” (“Metaphors: a Semester”); teachers are spittoons or travelers on a cruise ship (“Each Other’s Anodyne”) or pigs “rooting through the slop of their to do lists” (“In Defense of the Swine”), or perhaps
of the academic world,. . . brave brewers
of sticky ideas (“The Amazing History of Hiving”).
It’s the unexpected, the playful, that characterizes Marnie’s poems. She plays around with poetic form, but most frequently comes back to the sonnet, with a deft touch for slant rhymes, as in these four lines about committee work from “In Defense of the Swine”:
The mess they make is made of others’ messes.
We count on their willingness to eat corpses
And kitchen scraps with equal relish and then yes,
We butcher them and eat their screams like a sauce.
Each Other’s Anodyne is a very personal book. It’s beautifully produced by Marnie’s husband, Nate Dresser, and it is informed with the daily experiences of living and teaching in rural Wisconsin. If you’re a teacher, you’ll love this book. If you’re a student, maybe you’ll understand your teachers better. And if you’re not personally concerned with education, you’ll—but aren’t we all learners and teachers? So I guess this small book is for everyone. Give it a try.
Judy Barisonzi a retired professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, living in northwest Wisconsin. When not outdoors enjoying the woods and lakes, Judy is likely to be tutoring new writers or reading or writing poetry. She is a member of the Northwinds Poetry Group and WFOP and have published in magazines such as Rattle, The Lyric, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual.