Vanishing Point: Poems
By William Trowbridge
Red Hen Press. 2017.
From the Blakean embrace of the childhood imagination, to examining aging and death, to the profound undertone of uniting generations, William Trowbridge’s seventh collection, Vanishing Point, published by Red Hen Press in 2017, is a monumental testament to the circle of life in the twentieth century. Remaining true to his reputation as a commander of aesthetic presence, the poems of Vanishing Point are neatly-cut lines of gunpowder syphoned into plastic casings, each reader addicted to the hymnal hiss of the fuse. As nostalgic as it is currently relevant, as thunderously entertaining as it is contemplative, distinguished poet William Trowbridge’s Vanishing Point represents a lifetime spent mastering the craft, a collection as comfortable in a college classroom as it is on a factory line or a dimly-lit dive bar, a reminder that what we remember is “invention: memory and desire’s/ sleight of hand as we call up those we think/ we’ve known.”
Trowbridge’s use of the child narrator places memory alongside the naturally jaded perspective acquired through a lifetime of survival in an unfair world. The collection’s early poems, those mostly addressing childhood, maintain a sense of impending maturity, and the imagery complements this; from describing a Tilt-A-Whirl, “the spins/ of that inner circle erratic as the bully/ summoned by some butterfly wing/ to beat me up three days in a row/ on my way home from school,” to “The Tooth Fairy,” a poem in which a child’s wondrous inquiry, “Who could doubt/ the gospel of magic, with the evidence so clear?” is directly contradicted with his father’s curt response to his mother’s request for a new washer and the words of the local bully, “Go tell the tooth fairy, you little fruit,” Trowbridge’s ability to portray the complex deterioration of childhood innocence is liberating. The honesty of the work is palpable, rooted in humor, sure to resonate long after the pages have fluttered shut, confident in the knowledge that their rumbling will lead us to reopen, revisit the poems like old friends. And we do, perseverant as two old men stumbling out of a local bar, “ambling/ as if they owned the whole damned street.”
Whether it’s a description of the narrator’s father, “a taste for Luckies, bourbon,/ and rage,” or tribute poems to icons of popular culture, William Trowbridge’s Vanishing Point includes some of the most imaginative and vividly detailed poetic accounts ever written about twentieth-century American culture. The collection embraces cultural icons: Bob Steele, and his world “where hats were black or white/ and goodness could drop villainy/ with a Colt .44 from half a mile away,” Elisha Cook, Jr.’s resigned position as “this twerpy jerk who takes the rap for us,” the empowering influence of Meadowlark Lemon, “the ’Trotters’/ jolly trickster,” the panic and ensuing anticlimax of Starkweather’s killing spree, how “Life went back to normal: routine, secure./ Undeceived, we continued keeping watch,” Trowbridge weaves twentieth-century culture, personalized memory, and philosophic presence with a maestro’s precision. However, Trowbridge employs these references for more than the snapshot effect, more than nostalgia. With his trademark narrative deftness, Trowbridge bridges past and present; Omaha’s Peony Park in the 1950’s, “where everyone in Omaha/ came to cool off in the summer—four-million-gallon pool,/ like a small lake with a beach…indoor and outdoor ballrooms for the bands/ coming through: Ellington, Kenton, Basie, Herman,” is presented with the same vividness as the area’s present condition, after “developers razed the place and built a mini-mall, leaving/ half the front gate as ‘memento.’ But there’s still/ a Facebook page.” The result is a sense of suspended time, an invitation for a generation to enter and understand another. In a world of increasing division and declining humanity, where we find ourselves relating to the hogs that “are processed quietly,/ gassed to sleep, moved on conveyer belts,/ no more ugliness, no more human sounds,” Trowbridge’s proposition of unity between generations is remarkable, as needed now as it’s ever been.
The later poems of Vanishing Point grapple with aging and death in a way that can only be described as patently Trowbridge, an unyielding humor in the face of some of the human condition’s most sobering facets. David Citino once said Trowbridge “refuses to join the funeral procession”; Vanishing Point is evidence that, if he’s there, he’s stifling a laugh that “after you die, your hair/ keeps growing…the coffin filling up with hair, which,/ like the Blob, then forces itself out/ under the lid and up toward light,” or quipping at the viewing, “how they make them look so good these days.” Trowbridge interweaves humor with mortality in a way uniquely his own, deftly avoiding the overbearingly solemn approach often applied to such serious content. Whether it’s a recognition, at a high school reunion, that “the years spin like on that dial in Wells’/ time machine, but we’re stuck outside,/ exposed in short sleeves and Bermudas,/ pickled down by decades of time’s/ radiation, soon to be all chicken skin/ and blotches,” or personified age in the beloved superhero, Oldguy, returning to work at a McDonald’s, arguing with a supervisor about the “struggle/ between Ronald and that red-haired hippie/ Wendy” and being promptly told “they’re more real than some old fart taking up/ space in the business world,” Trowbridge’s loyalty to the redemptive effect of humor on human determination is refreshing. Again, it’s a trait that unites generations, blends the “father,/ who never talks about the war” except to say “the dead went down,/ some like dying swans, some like puppets/ with their strings cut,” with the son’s ponderings on death, a poem of last words, remembering a time when “Death seemed as harmless as that little creep/ in fifth grade, sole and sulky member of the chess club.” In Vanishing Point, Trowbridge uses humor as a resilient, bonding mechanism of the human species, a trait that defies and surpasses artificial labels like age. It’s a quality to be appreciated, a quality sure to help this collection find a permanent home on shelves of admirers of poetry for years to come.
William Trowbridge’s Vanishing Point represents an attunement to the world that would drive most of us mad, a feverish attention to detail cocktailed with an astute ability to find significance in something as simple as a set of Harvard Classics, “51 imitation-leather-bound volumes billed/ by Collier and Son as a liberal education distilled/ to ‘a five-foot shelf,’” reduced, over time, to “a yard sale, marked down/ with their kind in yards across the country.” The collection wrestles with some of the most profound experiences of the human condition while remaining whimsically accessible. Trowbridge proves himself a timeless voice, and Vanishing Point is an irresistible call to join him, “to chat about the old days/ and the weather, bum hips and cholesterol,/ our small talk numbing as a dial tone,/ serious as prayer.”
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