GMR’s “Slow Burn” review series looks back at titles that continue to smolder, still, beneath the embers of last year or even the year before.

Red Hen Press. 2011. 96 pp.

Red Hen Press. 2011. 96 pp.

A fundamental paradox of the contemporary poetry collection is that poets, unlike novelists, obtain their public legitimacy initially via publishing individual pieces/poems (if the muses are lined up accordingly) in reputable literary journals. To use the parlance of popular music, poets are initially concerned with creating viable “singles” and subsequently have to create “albums” in the service and pursuit of their art.

The question of how and why a poet compiles a collection is both an epistemological (how do we desire the reader to “know”) and aesthetic one, in that the individual poems, when put into a collection, should demand different ways of being known and accessed and require that the reader approach the poems as part of a deliberate totality. Consequently, poets who compile collections are sending their vertically-rendered children into the world twice and with different purposes and desired outcomes: they go out firstly naked and alone, one yawping voice in a panoply of other voices (the literary journal), and secondly as part of a family group amongst other examples of the poet’s voice (the collection). For those poets mindful of how they construct their collections, to compile a poetry collection is its own kind of “writing,” which renders the poems as consequential in new, important ways that can enlarge the poems’ aesthetic import and, indeed, their function.

Call me old-fashioned, but I appreciate poetry collections that are deliberately sequenced and orchestrated. I like it when a Part One that informs Part Two in some comprehensible, consequential fashion precedes Part Two of a poetry book. Like many readers, I am impressed by even a quasi-narrative cohesion in poetry books (e.g., Katie Ford’s recent and brilliant Colosseum), particularly in such a “jittery” poetry climate as today, which too often rewards randomness, “close calls with nonsense,” and discursion in poetry as something to be embraced and, in fact, fervently pursued.

But poetry books qua poetry books still exist, and William Trowbridge is among our best authors of both “singles” and “albums” today, and with Ship of Fool, his Pulitzer-nominated and latest collection, William Trowbridge is finally and firmly in his proverbial wheelhouse(s) and has written a book that consists of poems, and not a medley of poems that constitute a “book.”

Ship of Fool understands that, by and large, gone are the days in poetry wherein readers faithfully follow (or have time to follow) a protagonist a la Childe Harolde or Dante/“Dante.” Such modern attempts to return to the days of old suffer from two fundamental stumbling blocks which apply to both occasional and serious poetry readers: 1) mono-protagonist/vocal verse can be crushingly boring after a time, and 2) straight epic/narrative poetry functions best with time and historicity on its side.

Or perhaps it is because it’s a difficult and amazing thing to not only create a character, but to create a mythology and revisionist mythology which hasn’t already been strip-mined of all lyrical merit.

The poetry reader and writer in me now wants to ensconce Ship of Fool in some august and impressive literary tradition, but Fool reminds me most of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comics (read “graphic novels”) from the early ‘90s. Like Gaiman’s pantheon of “The Endless” with Morpheus (or Dream) at its epicenter, Fool’s universe is likewise peopled with archetypes of nefarious or innocuous intent to confront, avoid, and sometimes spill coffee (or an accidental ice age) on. Which is to say, Fool is anything but a bore.

But for those who don’t read DC Comics, Trowbridge’s Fool is part Lewis Hyde’s Trickster (albeit usually unconsciously so) and part Everyman, from his expulsion from Eden to his sundry interactions with us Earthlings, and is concurrently reminiscent of Baron Van Ashenbach’s Parsifal (both the hero and the poem) in which the hapless hero is a naive, ambitious, and strangely disastrous one who (like all of us) moves from smaller to larger errors, sometimes dressed appropriately, sometimes wearing motely to a wedding. Trowbridge’s Fool is God’s musical instrument and His harp from Hell. He is also, incidentally, a lousy werewolf. He has sand kicked in his face. He’s a sometime spiritual guide to Hitler and is bad with women. He’s a chronic screw up of a savior. But we love him as he fumbles and tries out various personas like high school students do haircuts, such as when Fool tries to slouch through the afternoon, Sam Spade style in “Fool Noir,” which is brief enough to be quoted below in full:

It felt like every other night in this crummy town,
like you’d been cold cocked and stuffed in a dumpster,
like when a pet store ferret crawls up your pant leg
and bites you in the balls, like when you’ve sloshed in
wet cement and don’t know it till you see the tracks
on your new carpet, yeah, and then see darker tracks,
from when you set your sock on fire trying to light
a cigarette the way Bogie did in The Maltese Falcon
and danced hitch-kick flambe around the living room,
knocking Dad’s ashes off the mantle and into the fondu
you put out for the big party nobody but the cops
showed up for. Yeah, business as usual in dullsville
–till she walked in, but that’s another story. Yeah.

Yeah, indeed.

We follow Fool because, a mere few poems in, the alternative is silly. We love this Zelig-meets-Sir Galahad because he seeks to find ways to redeem the world through small kindnesses and, what’s perhaps most laudable about him, his complete inability, like Cool Hand Luke, to give up despite and because of his myriad and sundry failures, as illustrated well in the last six lines of “Fool and His Money”:

[…] After he dies
for us in this and several other wide shots
at guardian-angelship, Fool’s put in charge
of the Small Consolations Detail that plants
dimes and quarters under sofa cushions.
Each one you find contains his blessing.

Even the most fully realized mono protagonist collection, such as Marvin Bell’s several Dead Man collections or Stephen Dobyns’ Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, can and often does buckle under the weight of its idiosyncratic voice. Trowbridge, a poet mindful of theme and pacing, is able to dodge the aforementioned dangers of mono-vocal/protagonist collections by supplying an interlude of sorts in the Fool sequence, comprised of shorter, autobiographical/non-persona poems concerning the poet’s childhood, resuming with Fool in part three. Thus, we as readers in poems with titles like “Naked in Public” and “Rental Tux” are given a brief respite to spend with the young author as he, like Fool, attempts to navigate existence without too much mess, and with about as many “clues” as Fool. This conceit is maintained until the last poem of section two, “Class of ’59,” in which Trowbridge (as the now-Trowbridge) appears at a class reunion, surprised by everything that Fool is surprised and puzzled by, “[…] surprised we’re not unhappy, / showing our age, / showing our class, / lifting our plastic cups.” Thus Part Two is, in a sense, the fulcrum of the work, a naïve youth bookended by a bemused angel.

We need more books like Ship of Fool, more poetry collections that have the import and heft of an inhabitable universe. We need more poets who don’t confuse playfulness with meaninglessness. Trust me, we need more poets like William Trowbridge to remind us what it means to be a glorious schmuck chronically making an awkward bow, but bowing nonetheless—which is to say, to remind us to be human, practicing humankind-ness, as Fool does.

Erik Campbell
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