Around the Scuttlebutt – Brief Poems by A. M. Juster

A. M. Juster (born 1956) is the pen name of Michael James Astrue, an American lawyer who has worked as a public servant at the highest levels, holding a position as associate counsel to two Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush), then as general counsel to the Department of Health and Human Services, and finally as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration from 2007-2013. In the private sector, he practiced law and was a senior executive at several biotechnology companies. For the purpose of this post, I prefer to deal with the poet (A. M. Juster) rather than the political appointee (Michael Astrue) although an informative and entertaining article by Paul Mariani in the religious journal First Things skilfully explicates both sides of an intriguing personality.

A. M. Juster was the first moderator for Eratosphere, the largest on-line site for formal poetry and his work may be associated with what has come to be called The New Formalism. He has won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award three times, most recently in 2008. My own favourite sonnet of his was one shortlisted for the award: Weldon Kees in Mexico. He also won the Richard Wilbur Award in 2002 for his collection, The Secret Language of Women. In 2014 he was a co-winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize for his translation of a Middle Welsh poem by Gwerful Mechain. His books of translations include Longing for Laura (2001) a translation of Petrarch, The Satires of Horace (2008), Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (2015), The Elegies of Maximianus (2018) and John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (2019) a translation of the young John Milton’s Latin poems. W. W. Norton will publish his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere in 2023. Recent collections include Sleaze & Slander (2016),  The Billy Collins Experience (2016), and Wonder and Wrath (2020) which, according to Dana Gioia represents the culmination and integration of A. M. Juster’s diverse and remarkable career.


TWITTER – @amjuster 

For a Twitter account, that of A. M. Juster is particularly lively, engaging and provocative. He explains his interest thus: I reluctantly dipped my toe into Twitter (@amjuster) a year ago, and I like its concision and reach. I am not an academic or a networker, so it exposed me to a small but interesting group of poets and scholars. He tweets regularly, constantly offering a “warm Twitter welcome” to those who have joined, like a benevolent party-goer happy to see other like-minded souls in attendance. He is an advocate for the poets whose work he admires, promoting the work of such poets as A. E. Stallings, Rhina Espaillat and Kay Ryan and, in the past, campaigning for a Nobel Prize for the late Richard Wilbur. He is also a trenchant and persistent critic of those who he sees as undermining the craft and the reach of poetry. Ben Lerner, Christian Bok and Ezra Pound are often subject to his acerbic wit. Of those poets who use Twitter, he is certainly one worth following.



According to Wikipedia: Scuttlebutt in slang usage means rumor or gossip, deriving from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water (or, later, a water fountain). The term corresponds to the colloquial concept of a water cooler in an office setting, which at times becomes the focus of congregation and casual discussion… Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became Navy slang for gossip or rumours.

In the concluding poem below, a mock epitaph entitled Candid Headstone, with its concealed pun in the third line, the scuttlebutt is regarded as a poetic approach and the “bile and bluster” mentioned in disparaging terms is, in the shorter poems (and in many of the best of the longer poems in Sleaze and Slander), refined by rhyme and meter to a humorous and a caustic stance. This is evident in the translations of Martial below and in the Martial post. It is also evident in the brief poems which follow. Satire is one aspect of this approach. The Billy Collins poems, collected in The Billy Collins Experience, are a remarkable act of ventriloquism. Another poem meshes, like a frenetic disc jockey with his mixer, Eliot’s Prurock, Stevens’ blackbird and the famous red wheelbarrow of Williams. As well as Martial, there are translations of Horace, Erasmus, Ausonias and Luxorius, all rendered in a bilious American idiom. As for the two poems from the Middle Welsh of Gwerful Mechain – Poem of the Prick and Poem of the Pussy – suffice to say that the great Australian erotic poet, A. D. Hope, would be smiling in his grave. (A shorter poem by Gwerful Mechain is included below.) Rhina Espaillat put it best when she wrote in Light:  He doesn’t use satire to settle scores with “Them,” but to attack, with self-deprecating humor, the traits, customs and practices that need attacking in all of us.


Brief Poems by A. M. Juster

from Martialed Arguments 


To say Acerra stinks of day-old booze is wrong!
Each drink is freshened all night long!



Diaulus was a physician;
now he’s a mortician.
The undertaking’s the same –
it just has a new name.



Paul is reciting poems he buys.
At least he doesn’t plagiarize.



Dear Max:

Your reading opened with a whine
about your laryngitis,
but since your alibi was fine
why reread on and incite us.



Sex with Sertorius is anticlimactic;
rapid withdrawal is his typical tactic.



Since you both share the same approach to life
(a lousy husband and a lousy wife),
I am bewildered it
is not a better fit.



Your seventh wife, Phil, is buried in your field.
Nobody gets from land, Phil, that kind of yield.



Dear Telesilla,

Four times in one night is what I can do.
Damn! Once in four years is plenty with you.


All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Further translations of Martial by A. M. Juster, together with the original Latin, are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.




Night Snow

I wondered why the blankets were so lacking,
And then I saw my window brightly glow.
With night long gone, I knew we had deep snow,
For through the calm the bamboo trees were cracking.

Translated from the Chinese of Po-Chui-i


Escaping Myself

Absorbed by wine, I do not notice dusk.
The blossoms fill my clothing when they fall.

I stand up drunk, then wade a moonlit brook.
Birds scatter; just a few are left at all.

Translated from the Chinese of Li Po


A Riddle from Saint Aldhelm

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:                                    
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

(Answer: wind)

Another Riddle from Saint Aldhelm

I share now with the surf one destiny
in rolling cycles as each month repeats.
As beauty in my brilliant form retreats,
so too the surges fade in cresting sea.

(Answer: moon)

Translated from the Latin of Saint Aldhelm


To Her Husband for Beating Her

Through your heart’s lining let there be pressed – slanting down –
A dagger to the bone in your chest.
Your knee crushed, your hand smashed, may the rest
Be gutted by the sword you possessed.

Translated from the Middle Welsh of Gwerful Mechain


Anonymous East African Proverbs

Let the relentless fist
be kissed.

No donkey can cart
what weighs down your heart.

Outside a man is respected;
at home that man is neglected.

True words end;
lies extend.

Translated from the Oromo


All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.




Poems are best
when compressed.

I detest
the rest.


A Stern Warning to Canada

If you want peace,
withdraw your geese.



I kept hoping she would come alone.
She’s a gem, but he’s a kidney stone.


A Consolation of Aging

Despite my thinning hair,
no barber cuts his rate.
At least the airlines care
and do not charge by weight.



Despite what’s promised when you marry,
actual results may vary.


From the Workplace                                                                                            

Your Midlife Crisis

You found yourself, but at an awful cost.
We liked you better when you were lost.

To My Ambitious Colleague

Your uphill climb will never stop;
scum always rises to the top.

Concession to My Colleague

I know that you will win in time;
the rising sewage lifts all slime.


Self-portrait at Fifty

None of this can be denied:
crabby, flabby, full of pride;
hypertensive, pensive, snide;
slowly, growing terrified.



We wander at the scene
of first and final love,
and what was there remains:

warm light through window panes,
a call across the courtyard,
the bristling of elms
with offhand majesty.


Sudden Onset                                                                                                              

They stay upbeat, then say,
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” –
that classic Nietzschean cliché.

We’ll know before much longer.

The problem is it’s true
for hate and tumors too.


Candid Headstone

Here lies what’s left of Michael Juster,
Failure filled with bile and bluster:
Regard the scuttlebutt as true.
Dance on the grave; most others do.


All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.




The A. M. Juster website.

An interview with A. M. Juster on political poetry.

A brief interview on the Headstuff site.

Another brief interview with an audio link.

An interview with A. M. Juster by Alfred Nicol

Paul Mariani on the double life of A. M. Juster/Michael J. Astrue.

Introducing Mike Juster by Rhina Espaillat.

Some interesting comments on the Evidence Anecdotal site.

A review of The Secret Language of Women.

Ten Riddles of Saint Aldhelm.

Anonymous East African Proverbs translated by A. M. Juster.

A review of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles.

A. M. Juster discusses his translation of St. Aldhelm’s Riddles.

Brooke Clark reviews Sleaze and Slander.

A brief review of Sleaze and Slander.

Another brief review of Sleaze and Slander.

Patrick Kurp reviews Sleaze and Slander and The Billy Collins Experience.

A review of The Billy Collins Experience.

About The Elegies of Maximianus.

A review of Wonder and Wrath by Sally Thomas.

A review of Wonder and Wrath by Sunil Iyengar.

A. M. Juster reading from Wonder and Wrath at Rattlecast #62.



All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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