Misanthropes Rarely Procreate by John David Muth
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
“Misanthropes Rarely Procreate”
Kelsay Books, 2021
$16.00, 72 pages
The speaker of the thirty-eight delightful poems that make up John David Muth’s Misanthropes Rarely Procreate seems to be one of those anti-social curmudgeons who hates children and pets, the quintessential Mister Wilson character from the Dennis the Menace comics. But underneath the horror and dismay he expresses at the messy, bratty, selfish and expensive phenomenon of children, we encounter a gentle, loving and loyal man.
The collection begins with a section about the hardships of ancestors who toiled thanklessly and died young. There’s Great-grandmother Mary, married off at fifteen to a man nearly twice her age, forced into motherhood at just sweet sixteen, a life spent caring for others. There’s great aunt Carmella, taken for dead from diphtheria by the family doctor when only a teenager herself, but who manages to pull through.There’s great uncle Anthony, who survived diphtheria, whooping cough and measles, only to be killed in World War II, and great aunt Kate who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy at forty and engineers a miscarriage. Great uncle Gino, only known from third-hand accounts, died from the Spanish Flu while still an infant.
She lived to be almost eighty
loved to travel
always had money
and never had children.
I feared her as a child.
Now, she is my idol.
Life is not easy. The section comes to an end with the birth of the speaker. “An Ode to Dr. Brydon” a mock-heroic poem about the perilous journey of a sperm cell, like a “lone rider” charging up the Kyber Pass, ends:
I, living proof
the birth control pill
is only 89% effective.
Muth then brings us to the present and a glimpse of the future in the next three sections. Yes, he’s set us up for a perspective on life that is skeptical and fraught, and he is consistently skeptical of parenthood, an unplanned child himself. But marriage? Family?
The second part is appropriately called “A Little Too Old for That,” as the poems focus on a middle age marriage – though the hilarious poem of the same title deals with a woman breastfeeding her toddler in a diner, seemingly daring the speaker to object; he turns away to his breakfast, “two eggs, sunny side up.” The speaker is devoted to his wife, Emily, who appears in twenty-three of the remaining thirty-two poems, nearly three-quarters. She shares the speaker’s view of children, not really wanting any, though she’s supportive of her pregnant friends. In “The Waitress Rolls Her Eyes and Walks Away,” Muth writes:
I'm glad she dislikes children
and inconsiderate parents
almost as much as I do
though I sometimes worry
she’ll change her mind.
They’re sitting in a restaurant watching two people absorbed by their smartphones while their toddler shrieks and carries on.
They’ve been married three years, together five, and they seem compatible, on the same wavelength. In “Lunch on a Lake George Cruise,” during another meal, they regard the “loud one in the backward baseball cap” with the same disdain, fearing he’ll try to engage them in a one-sided conversation. In “It Was Supposed to Be a Nice Evening” they similarly endure the mother of a first-grader rattling off the child’s food allergies to the waitress. In “Our First Christening” they endure the Catholic ceremony for the newborns of friends that seems more like Medieval torture than a blessing. “I look at my wife / head bowed / lips pursed / gritting her teeth. / She hates loud noises.”
There’s also the speaker’s niece, Glenda, his goddaughter. “She’s the one person under twenty-five / who doesn’t annoy me.” Glenda figures into four poems and always fondly and with admiration. In “Father Under Glass,” indeed, the speaker implicitly vows to look after Glenda should the worst happen to his sister, Glenda’s mom.
The very title of the next section, “A Moment to Ourselves,” hints at the pleasure the two find in one another’s company. There are some hilarious poems about visiting Emily’s brother Dave in Houston. He has six children by three different women, and they all go out to dinner together with predictable results, as related in the hilarious “Visit on a Custody Weekend.” In “Looking Forward to No Future,” Emily looks incredulously at her brother as Dave hits on a waitress, surrounded by his six kids. “He says children give a man purpose. / There’s no future without them.”
The two enjoy being together during the holidays, too, as we see in “A Pleasant Little Thanksgiving,” in which Glenda also appears. “It’s just dad, Emily and me,” the speaker says, noting that Emily is out with her father and his newest girlfriend.
After dinner, I send her a video
of dad sleeping on the couch,
snoring with his mouth wide open.
She responds with a text:
I can do better than that,
and sends a video of her own father
arguing with his girlfriend
while her youngest daughter
lies on the floor
shrieking from a tantrum.
The final section, which includes several humorous, self-deprecating poems, like “”Sperm Attack” and “My Chinese Name,” strikes an almost elegiac tone in poems like “Men Die First,” in which he and Emily lie before a fireplace on a winter’s night discussing their deaths. “We Could Be Trees” continues this theme, a vision of an afterlife as trees in which their branches twine together. “Cello Sonata for a Childless Couple” is a tender poem about their harmonious relationship, and finally, Glenda returns for the final poem, “Dreaming of 2075,” in which his niece, now an old woman, tries to explain her uncle to her granddaughter but understands the futility when the child wails sadly.
Glenda quietly left the room
remembering her inability to console
was something she learned from me.
Misanthropes Rarely Procreate is both comical and tender, a defense of those couples who choose not to have children, even as the world expects them to want a family.