What’s So Funny?

Terminalia BY Daniel Menaker. The Portal Press. 74 pages. $16.

Daniel Menaker (1941–2020) was a fiction editor at the New Yorker, the editor in chief of Random House, and the author of seven books, including the celebrated novel The Treatment (1998) and the 2013 memoir My Mistake. Last January, Menaker received a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and spent the next months chronicling his illness in verse, writing with mournful honesty and surprising humor about his diagnosis and treatment against the backdrop of the pandemic’s larger “sickness circus.” In his own words, Dan “wrote poetry his whole life, but kept it to himself for a long time, after being told by William Maxwell, his otherwise kindly teacher at the New Yorker, ‘Stick to prose.’” Menaker died in October 2020, after completing Terminalia, a collection of twenty-four poems. —n+1 Editors

Robert (by Robert Daniel Menaker)
We — my brother, Mike, and I —
called our parents “Mame” and
“Bobby,” parental first-name-ism
being the forties’ lefty vogue.
So why they named me Robert
baffles me to this late day.
In any case, to avoid this Self-
Inflicted Bob confusion, I was Danny.
But in leases, licenses, and probably
my own upcoming certificate of
expiration, so as to be legally dead,
I am and will be Robert. As I am,
on every second Wednesday, for the needle
and its temporarily time-buying poison.

(“Danny Boy,” the grownups at your uncle’s camp
would say to and even warble at you,
so often as to drive you nuts. But
now the pipes indeed are calling —
and pretty loudly, at that — and the
song becomes anthemic and funereal and
grand. And if you are not alone,
you must turn away and hide your eyes.)

What’s So Funny?
In the kitchen, decades ago, you drop
an egg. You lean over, with a quiet “Fuck!,”
to clean it up, and from
behind comes “hyuh-hyuh-hyuh-hyuh-hyuh”
from his highchair, Will’s first laugh —
at five months and your expense,
but you laugh, too, and wonder how he —
how we — know how to start to laugh.

In fourth grade, the teacher asks if
someone knows the names of Columbus’s
three ships. Up goes Roberta’s hand.
“The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”
We laugh, those of us who understand
not only what went wrong but on
some instinctive level how it’s right:
the threeness, the scansion, the overlapping
Santas, and the land-and-sea conveyances.

In college, in a soccer game, a substitute
for the other side fields a throw-in and begins
to dribble in the wrong direction. He
corrects it right away, but both sides laugh
a little, and the game goes on.

At work, in publishing, you keep a list
of orthographic errors of high quality:
esprit décor, kneed in the walnuts, Al
Italia called, from the gecko, gets my
gander up, ultraviolent radiation.
You laugh each time you look at them.

You have always wondered what’s
so funny about anything you think
is funny. As the gemcitabine drips its last
few drops, to knock you down, Nurse Luddy
accidentally drops her cellphone
into the trash. You both laugh, and
then, after what is fast and so unfairly
approaching an entire lifetime, you get it.
All previous ideas about humor fly
into that same trash. You have the answer:

We are cast ashore here on the beach
of life without the faintest idea why.
Because there is no reason and no plan
that we can ever know. Your mother
had a headache on that climactic
night? No you. Mine? No me. Federer’s?
No he. Golda Meier’s? Presley’s? His dad’s?

We are accidents. We know that,
even if we tell ourselves we don’t.
So what we laugh at, even when it’s “planned,”
is always accidental, and at its heart about
our predicament.

Any pratfall is our pratfall.
Any knock-knock joke is about our fears.
Gorilla walks into a bar? What
could be more random?
The universe has no truck with fairness.
There’s nothing unfair about my
situation. Nothing unfair about yours.
Bad, maybe. Horrendous, even,
arbitrary, unwarranted. But
if we are not in too much pain or peril,
the only thing to do is laugh.
(You’ll see how that holds up when you are dying.)

Nurse Luddy drops her phone again.
Guess what we both do.

Excerpt from Terminalia by Daniel Menaker, Copyright © 2021 by The Portal Press, is reproduced by permission of n+1 Books. All rights reserved.