In the hot Washington afternoon, in one of those endlessly bustling government offices, there sits a man named Michael J. Astrue, the fifty-four-year-old head of the Social Security Administration. Competent, organized, bald, and busy, he is not a politician, exactly, but one of those people who has to live in a highly political world, trying to make what the politicians come up with actually work.
Groomed by the American system for some job like the one he holds—high school at Roxbury Latin, undergrad at Yale (and president of Yale’s prestigious Political Union in his last year there), law school at Harvard—he belongs to a type of quiet and careful civil servant that Caesar Augustus would have recognized. As would Phillip II and Napoleon and Gladstone, for that matter. Powerful governments have always needed this kind of man: the senior administrator, the superior public official who (to reverse the entropy the Irish senator W.B. Yeats feared) makes the center hold and keeps things from falling apart.
Across the city, in the only slightly less hot Washington evening, in an apartment overlooking Georgetown, sits Astrue’s opposite, a man named A.M. Juster: formalist poet, comic versifier, and classical translator. Eight years ago, Juster won the Richard Wilbur Award for his collection The Secret Language of Women (2002), besides publishing book-length translations of Petrarch (the 2002 Longing for Laura) and Horace (the 2008 Satires).
His poetry can be astonishingly gentle, as in his moving sonnet “Cancer Prayer.” Dear Lord, the sonnet begins:
Please flood her nerves with sedatives
and keep her strong enough to crack a smile
so disbelieving friends and relatives
can temporarily sustain denial.
Please smite that intern in oncology
who craves approval from department heads.
Please ease her urge to vomit, let there be
kind but flirtatious men in nearby beds.
Given her hair, consider amnesty
for sins of vanity; make mirrors vanish.
Surround her with forgiving family
and nurses not too numb to cry. Please banish
trite consolations; take her in one swift
and gentle motion as your final gift.
On the other hand, Juster’s verse can also be cruel and unforgiving. The sonnet “On Remembering Your Funeral Was Today,” for instance, seems to be composed entirely of darkness. When I first swore to tap-dance on your grave, it begins, and ends this way:
For while my daily rage maybe diminished,
I assure you we are still not finished.
I bet by now you have stolen time
To edit The Beginner’s Guide to Hell.
I trust you’ve cheated Charon of a dime
And somehow brought a blush to Jezebel.
I see you basting in satanic slime
Before deep-frying in your cockroach shell.
More often, though, he aims at a kind of sardonic comedy, as in his “Rejection Note for Paradise Regained,” imagining what John Milton’s publishers might have said to his follow-up to Paradise Lost:
Loved that first book—it’s got no equal—
but, Johnny, we don’t love your sequel.
If you would only take a chance
on self-help or a gay romance,
we’d let you keep your last advance.
Phony conspiracies would do
if you could find a hook or two—
like someone famous who won’t sue.
Marketing knows you’ll see the light,
and thinks Da Vinci is just right.
This formal and clever poet must find some such sense of the comic necessary, as he changes places each morning with that formal and intelligent commissioner of Social Security—since, as you’ve probably already guessed, they are one and the same person. Michael J. Astrue is the best poet ever to hold a truly major appointed position in the American government. And A.M. Juster is the best senior civil servant of whom American poetry can boast.
The question, of course, is why this double life of a public persona? Why has this former head of a major biotech firm, a lawyer, and a public servant chosen to share the same shadow as this very private poet with the sensitivity of a W.H. Auden mixed with the scathing wit of a Jonathan Swift? An even more fascinating question is why Astrue has for so long insisted on keeping these two identities separate. Years ago, when the poet X.J. Kennedy asked him why he insisted on using a pseudonym, Astrue told him that the main reason was that he didn’t want to be known as a novelty act—which, in truth, is more a dodge than an answer.
There are some parallels with other nonacademic American poets—William Carlos Williams, for instance, who practiced medicine and delivered thousands of New Jersey babies while writing the American epic Paterson. Or Wallace Stevens, the lawyer for—and eventually vice president of—the Hartford Insurance Company, who turns out to have been another great American poet of the twentieth century.
Then there’s Astrue’s friend (and fellow Bush appointee) Dana Gioia—a former vice president of General Foods who has proved himself a major figure on the American poetry scene, helping to lead the New Formalist fights of the 1980s and 1990s before chairing the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009.
But such poets as Williams, Stevens, and Gioia never deliberately hid their poetry, while Astrue has kept unnervingly quiet about his other life. In “Candid Headstone,” a poem intended to serve as his grim epitaph, he does offer a clue—but so delicately that only those who already knew of the connection between Juster and Astrue could get the pun:
Here lies what’s left of Michael Juster,
A failure filled with bile and bluster.
Regard the scuttlebutt as true.
Feel free to dance; most others do.
Thus, Juster, to rhyme with bluster. And as true to hint that Mr. Astrue sees himself as something of a public jester, even as he attempts to administer justice to millions of his fellow Americans. But there’s something darker and truer in Juster’s writing—perhaps, most of all, in the sense his poems convey of someday simply disappearing. In “Weldon Kees in Mexico,” written in the sonnet form he favors, we have Astrue’s take on what happened to the poet Weldon Kees, whose car was found abandoned and still running on the Golden Gate Bridge when he disappeared at age forty-one.
Because no body was recovered from the water, it was presumed that Kees, like Hart Crane before him, had jumped into the nameless, all-swallowing waters of the yawing ocean below him. But Juster imagines (as others have) that Kees assumed a new life in Mexico under the name “Robinson,” living another ten years before finally committing himself to the waves. After all, Kees wrote a number of poems about a fictive alter ego under that pseudonym, an alter ego Astrue has described as merely some “mysterious, detached, urbane figure”:
He hardly ever spoke; we thought his name
was Robinson and watched him from afar
for fear of yanqui guile. When he first came
to town, he played piano at the bar—
some Friday nights—jazz riffs that blended
into weary talk—though soon he grew
more scarce. He drank more and the concerts ended,
which is what exile and tequila do.
One day his landlord said he didn’t know
if Robinson had skipped out on his rent.
We kept an eye out while the tide was low
and poked around the canyons when we went
out walking, but a search was never done.
We had no reason, and desired none.
A search was never done—very possibly the same fate Juster imagines for himself, and thus his own truer epitaph. Certainly the line resonates with the poet’s sober understanding of humankind’s mostly anonymous mortality.
To watch Michael J. Astrue in public is to see that he has mastered the necessary political persona and successfully constructed his wealthy CEO/lawyer/commissioner edifice. When you speak with him in person, however, he adds a layer that is candid, comic, and refreshingly forthcoming. A mix of mostly Boston Irish, he spent his early years at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where his career-army father was stationed. After Harvard Law School, he clerked for the federal court, practiced law in Boston and Washington, and ran such biotechnological companies as Biogen in Cambridge.
He counts C. Boyden Gray, special envoy for European Union affairs under Bush, and Kenneth Novack of Time Warner among his mentors. Among other important influences, he counts his former professor James Q. Wilson, now a senior fellow at Boston College. Pressed to it, he also will name President Ronald Reagan, in whose second administration he first came to Washington to serve as general counsel to the then commissioner of Social Security.
But he also names his wife, Laura Mali-Astrue, a French teacher at the Belmont Day School, in the shadow of Boston, from 1993 until mid-2007, when she joined her husband in Washington. They have two children, James, an army officer who is headed for Afghanistan as a translator of Farsi, and Caitlin, who finishes up at Washington University in St. Louis this May and then plans on serving a two-year stint teaching inner-city elementary-school kids for Teach for America.
Finally, there is an aging English springer spaniel, Maggie, named for Margaret Thatcher. (The kids, he wryly told an interviewer, wanted to name her “after a famous British woman,” and “the only ones they knew were Margaret Thatcher and the Spice Girls.” To no one’s surprise, Astrue pushed for Maggie Thatcher.)
He was briefly but furiously in the news back in 2001, when President Bush picked him to head the Food and Drug Administration. Astrue being not a figure admired by the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, his nomination was protested on the grounds that, having worked for biotech firms, he was “too close to industry.” Massachusetts’ entirely Democratic Senate delegation of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry went along with the assessment to the point of preventing his confirmation—only to hear a howl, when the senators got back home, from the hospitals and medical firms around Boston, whose leaders thought Astrue was as good as they were likely to get from the Republican administration in Washington.
The outcome was, as various sources report, that both Astrue and the White House were quietly informed that no block would be put on his nomination for some other position, and in 2006—five years later—Bush put his name up to head the Social Security Administration. Senator Kerry himself led Astrue into the Senate hearing room and introduced him to the Finance Committee as one of Massachusetts’ favorite sons, a man whose appointment no one would ever dream of opposing. With this declaration that the two Democratic senators from Massachusetts were behind him, he cruised through his hearings and the subsequent Senate floor vote.
The job description of Social Security commissioner would of itself wither the souls of most mortals. In taking on the responsibility of caring for the nation’s elderly and incapacitated, Astrue has found himself at the head of some 1260 field offices and 60,000 employees. As it turns out, he took charge just as the first wave of 78 million baby boomers began reaching retirement age. And this at the rate of 10,000 per day for the next twenty years.
The fact is, when Astrue took over the Social Security Administration, he inherited a gargantuan system in crisis—its trust funds raided by congressional budgets, its employees and clients disheartened, and its budget perennially short. With the larger economic problems the nation faces in funding the Depression-era program, Astrue has made little headway, particularly since he took office after the collapse of President Bush’s efforts to reform the system, and especially now that his six-year appointment has carried him, a Republican legacy, into a Democratic administration.
But one thing Astrue did promise to do when he took office was to expedite the millions of new disability cases—a category that has, thanks to modern medical diagnoses, doubled in recent years to fifty separate categories. Half are for various forms of cancer; the other half represent a cluster of rare diseases, including early-onset Alzheimer’s. Seeing the backlog of disability cases he inherited when he took over, Astrue made clearing these cases one of his top priorities. His own father, he points out, was one such case after he suffered a severe stroke in his early fifties—Astrue’s age now.
Likewise, Astrue has been expediting some of those 10,000 baby boomers now retiring daily, which includes any American born on or after January 1, 1946, the inevitable effect of hundreds of thousands of military men and women settling down and having families after being discharged from the service. To facilitate the registration of this new crop of baby-boomer retirees, Astrue has taken the Social Security Administration online, with an elaborate and imaginative new website.
While interviewing and researching Michael J. Astrue, I have come to see him as an admirable and even kenotically selfless individual. But poring over his poems and translations, I find something even deeper. There is, undoubtedly, a fascinating and nuanced self that operates on the linguistic and sonic levels in the man’s best poems. Even within their formal edifices, Astrue reveals someone who—like Lord Byron or the late Bill Matthews, and (perhaps more to the point) Jonathan Swift—has learned to manifest his own too human vulnerability while at the same time protecting himself with his savage wit. Think of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in which the artist Parmigianino gestures with his hand in the painted convex surface, as if welcoming us, even as the figure in the mirror pulls away.
Poetry is a matter of sound and dramatic delivery, Astrue insists, when asked about his own poetic impulses. “Back when cars had tape players,” he confesses, “I had to be careful listening to my tapes of Wendy Cope, or I would go off the road laughing.” Wendy Cope: not a household name, either. But well known to some as the seasoned British poet and satirist, ten years older than Astrue, whose poems will break your heart in one line and chill you to the marrow in the next, and whose books Astrue used to keep on his nightstand. I used to think all poets were Byronic, / Mad, bad and dangerous to know, as she once wrote. The truth is, though, that they’re mostly wicked as a ginless tonic / And wild as pension plans.
Wild as pension plans. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Astrue pays her tribute in his own serio-comic triolet:
I was unsettled to discover
I am in love. With Wendy Cope
My nightly read, why take a lover?
I was unsettled to discover
How often I was thinking of her.
But if he has been an outspoken advocate of the New Formalism, he is quick to point out that he is by no means against the free verse that most American poets have favored for the last hundred years. He “adores,” he says, such poets as Richard Hugo and Linda Pastan, and as a young poet he began trying to write in the style of his antithesis, Robert Creeley. Of the earlier vers librists, he points to T.S. Eliot, although he despises Ezra Pound for “multiple sins.”
Poetry—great poetry—must always challenge us, Astrue knows, but poems that try to make a virtue of being obscure he dismisses as outright failures. If the confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s wrote some good work, he is quick to point out, they nevertheless led to the writing of too much “dull, self-absorbed” poetry at the expense of the craft of language. Of poets writing today, he can think of only three whom he thinks will still be read in a hundred years’ time: Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott. Even then, he’s not sure of Heaney or Walcott.
We’ve had so few artist/public servants in American history that there’s a temptation to praise Michael J. Astrue and A.M. Juster simply for existing. Is the commissioner genuinely a good poet, or is he merely one more amateur, singing his yearly couplet to the moon?
It’s clear from his “Letter to Auden,” which he wrote some fifteen years ago, that he is devoted to W.H. Auden, and especially to the young Auden, who wrote some of his most effective and biting formal verse between 1935 and 1940. Like the British poet, Juster can be both biting and comic—as can those two masters of wit and fluid syntax, Howard Nemerov and John Berryman.
And then there’s Richard Wilbur (like J.V. Cunningham, a major influence on all formalists writing today), who, thirty-five years ago, translated two of St. Aldhelm’s seventh-century Latin riddles and thereby inspired Juster to undertake his latest project—a translation of all one hundred of Aldhelm’s strange, knotted, and antiquated puzzles.
These, Astrue told me, he took on by way of penance for having spent so much time translating Tibullus’ less-than-holy love poems, which Oxford probably will bring out in the next year or so. (It’s worth mentioning that Astrue, like a surprisingly large number of the old New Formalist crowd, is a serious Catholic, a man who sees his work at the Social Security Administration as nothing short of a vocation to do “both the right and the compassionate thing.”)
When he compares himself to such poets as Richard Wilbur, he is quick to insist on his own amateur status. But his life and work—carrying out the brutally hard business of governance while surrounded by politicians and all the powers that be—have also offered him something that becomes real and genuine in his poetry. I’vo piangendo i miei passati tempi, an aging Petrarch, facing retirement himself, sang to his beloved Laura, long dead. In Juster’s heartfelt translation, the lines run:
I keep on weeping for a past I spent
on earthbound passion for a mortal thing
although I know I could have taken wing
and tried to set a better precedent.
Seeing all those thousands of bureaucrats, military officers, lawyers, and hangers-on, the Roman poet Horace knew too well the world in which Astrue dwells. Is it so surprising, then, that the boy from Roxbury Latin grew up to translate the Satires? “Tell me, Maecenus,” Juster has Horace ask his Roman patron and boss,
why no one’s content
with either what they’ve done or fate has sent,
yet they applaud men taking other trails.
“O lucky businessmen!” the soldier wails,
his body weighted down by age and shattered.
Yet whenever southern winds have battered
his boat, a businessman will surely cry,
“Can’t beat the army life! Don’t you know why?
Two sides will clash, and in a flash you’ll see
a sudden death or joyous victory.”
Watching him live this double life of public man and poet, one wonders what Astrue—or Juster—is really thinking when he answers the biting questions of a reporter demanding to know why the new commissioner hasn’t yet personally fixed the entire Social Security system. Here’s CBS’s Armen Keteyian, staring into Astrue’s eyes with the unblinking gaze of some solemn Salem judge, in January 2008, eleven months after Astrue was sworn in, and demanding, “Are you aware of the level of desperation in America right now [like that] backlog of 24,000 cases in cities like Atlanta?”
Astrue: Congress has bled resources out of this agency for a long, long time. And just under the administration, we’re almost a billion dollars under what the president has recommended. . . .
Keteyian: So the people who have paid into this system, believing there would be a safety net for them, now get the . . . “well, there just isn’t enough money.”
Astrue, sighing: It’s shameful. And . . . I’ve gone up relentlessly to explain that there’s a direct connection between the backlogs that they’ve complained about and the underfunding.
How does one win in the face of such interrogations? And how many of us would be willing to face such inquisitors? Certainly not the majority of those who go by the name of poet in America. But for my money (literally, considering the fifty-four years I’ve paid into the system), his answers are as honest as I’ve ever heard from a Washington commissioner, for Astrue does seem genuinely to care about the thousands and thousands of individuals he tries to help in a practical way.
Lord of those writing lucid poems, Astrue’s St. Aldhelm pleads: assist / Me, clumsy as I am, so I may show / Clandestine mysteries of things through verse. Even while many other American poets strive for public notice, the most public man to be a poet in America strives to keep his poetic persona private. And make no mistake about it: Michael Astrue is a very private person. Even his poetry—clear as it is—offers as many unresolved questions as it provides us with answers.
Why, for instance, has he spent so much of his time translating the frustrations of human love and politics, be they Tibullus’ or Petrarch’s? And why the twists and turns of a little-known Anglo-Saxon bishop of Malmesbury, St. Aldhelm, who—besides administering to his flock—used his evenings to compose some of the most puzzling verse riddles ever concocted? Of course, that’s just what this most private and most public of men does, spending Washington’s warm evenings as A.M. Juster and Washington’s hot summer days as Michael J. Astrue. He came to believe that he should perform his precarious balancing act for reasons that are complex and not wholly explicable. But part of the answer may be his sense of private language, as reflected in his longest poem by far, “The Secret Language of Women,” about the Chinese women who found a way to communicate with their sisters in spite of the Maoist revolution and all the powers of earth.
And part of the answer may reside, as well, in the Roman republican element in Astrue, which seems to have foreordained him to become the best translator of Latin poetry into a recognizable American idiom. There’s a moral precision about him as a man and as a public servant; without being prissy or showy in his moralism, he sets himself to the Stoic task of seeing that the jobs at hand are those that will be done. When the center holds in the midst of all the mess and madness of politics, it holds because quiet men do quiet work of public purpose.
Of course, Astrue has as well a wry, sardonic streak. But that, too, is typical of those who have played similar roles in public life down through the ages. Even while they have done the necessary work given them to do, they have understood it wasn’t forever. They have known too in their very marrow that there is no final victory in this world, and they have known that their political masters would never really stop playing a bloody game of ambition and small-mindedness. They have given it their best shot, but they never have given it their hearts, and among themselves they have remained ironic and dry.
But only among themselves. Or under a pseudonym, like Michael J. Astrue, the smart and serious commissioner of Social Security, and the poet A.M. Juster, wry and clever, attempting most evenings to solve the clandestine mysteries of things through verse.
Paul Mariani is a poet and professor of English at Boston College.