Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, Philip Appleman, Illustrations by Arnold Roth, Foreword by X.J. Kennedy, The Quantuck Lane Press
When T.S. Eliot was asked which of his books he personally favored, he replied, not “Prufrock,” not The Waste Land, not Four Quartets, but Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. In Possum the dour Eliot pictured on the dust jacket of his Collected Poems gave us light verse, which, reincarnated as the Broadway musical, Cats, probably endeared him to more fans and made him more money—albeit posthumously—than all of his serious masterworks added together.
Nonetheless, nine out of ten books of poems published in America continue to be Arnoldian in their high seriousness. To publish satirical verse is to relegate oneself to the kind of exile peopled by writers of haikus. Despite such redoubtable satirists as Swift and Byron, as well as, more recently, Auden—in his late phase—twentieth century light-verse practitioners have been associated with such bantamweights as Ogden Nash, Phyllis McGinley and Richard Armour, whose witty lines graced the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal until he met the Grim Reaper in 1989. It’s no coincidence that the poetry magazine, Satire, went belly-up about ten years ago. Nowadays, John Mella’s Light Quarterly is a major venue for satirical verse. In the past few years the venerable Poetry magazine has sponsored an annual issue devoted to “Humor,” though it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the magazine will continue to uphold the tradition.
Now, in sync with the Obama administration, as if in response to the stiff-upper-lip aura of dead-serious secrecy during the Bush years, the amiable Hoosier, Philip Appleman, has given us a thinking man—and woman’s—laff riot. Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie is at least as scandalous as Georgie Porgie kissing the girls and making them cry. Appleman’s book, a 6 1/4” X 10 1/4” oversized tome, smaller than a coffee-table book, is a lovely item to have and to hold. On its 95 pages you will behold compositions so smart and sassy that they compete with your most cherished Mother Goose nursery rhymes in their gnomic maddening memorability and off-the-cuff bravura. Appleman is master of all he conveys. Witness his three double dactyls, an apparently effortless tour de force of a love poem based on the poet’s wife’s maiden name; the lines eschew Hecht and Hollander’s popular initial line, “Higgledy-Piggledy,” in their seminal book of double dactyls, Jiggery Pokery:
you with the daringly
somehow your sonorous
sets me aflame—
syllables tinkling and
jingling like glockenspiels
tickle my ventricles
dactyls are dangerous,
we’d better put
both of our names in an
think of the singular
medley you’d make—
Appleman couldn’t be
taken for anyone
else by mistake.” (Said)
Whew! If Eliot filled one line with the inkhorn word, “Polyphiloprogenitive,” “Appleman” does Eliot’s shtick three times. Among the many marvels of this terrific ditty is the way its title sets up the speaker’s monologue. Appleman is “catch-as-can” insofar as he’s able to “wing it,” to fly, despite the weightiest restraints. To alter the metaphor, like Dylan Thomas, Appleman “[sings] in [his] chains like the sea.”
Endowed with awesome technical gifts, Appleman has gifted us with 28 poems in traditional and hybrid forms. Their subjects are religious fundamentalism and Intelligent Design. But the book’s opening section goes further in excoriating whatever prevents us from exultation. Somewhere between William Blake’s outcry against all sorts of constraint and Wallace Stevens’s pagan appreciation of Nature, Appleman targets Mammon, “malaise and moral cancers.” In lines that echo Pope’s heroic couplets he questions his own ability to resolve issues:
Platitudes come easy, silence hard.
Advice is always simple to discard.
So go, little rhymes, but don’t be in a hurry:
When chaos whispers, men say, “What, me worry?”
Most prefer hot cures to cool prevention.
Wisdom shrugs when no one pays attention. (“Maxims for Diverse Occasions”)
Elsewhere, Appleman’s humor is broad as an Indiana barn. Here’s one of his four-liners in “Arts & Sciences,” a hilarious sequence about sex:
Russian you would be deplorable,
But your Lapland is simply Andorrable
So my Hungary fantasy understands
Why I can’t keep my hands off your Netherlands. (Geography)
No matter that Appleman is no young buck. He’s as raunchy as Georgie Porgie—and as enthralled by puns as Shakespeare. I thank whatever gods may be for Appleman’s feistiness, his unabashed corniness.
What’s more, X.J. Kennedy’s Foreword to this volume is stellar in its savvy derring-do. And Arnold Roth’s illustrations are sui generis, absolutely off-the-wall in their spot-on comic surreal visual takeoffs of Appleman’s verbal takeoffs. No matter how many times you’ve seen Roth’s cartoons in The New Yorker and Esquire, you won’t be prepared for his drawing of a one-eyed sexpot angel flying, dispensing largesse that looks more like bottle caps than gold doubloons. Or else beware of Roth’s drawings of men with giant, beak-like proboscises separated from their mouths—or men whose mouths are swallowing weird and sundry viands. Perhaps the funniest, punningest Roth drawing accompanies Appleman’s “On the Seventh Day,” where God’s hand has just reached down from Heaven to bonk Edenic Adam on the head with the forbidden fruit, i.e., the poet is truly an “apple man”!
If “fun” spelled backwards is “nuf,” Appleman can’t get enough fun. Why not pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and get hold of this book. It’s guaranteed to make you smile.