The Wallet You Dropped May be Your Own: David Atkinson on William Trowbridge’s Ship of Fool


Ship of Fool, William Trowbridge, Red Hen Press

The archetype of the fool is by no means new. To most people it symbolizes naivety and innocence, the blissfully ignorant facet of people that leads them to the mistakes that painfully give way to experience. Most people seem to regard the fool in a condescending fashion, a pitiful element that they feel superior to. However, William Trowbridge’s Fool, his own exploration of the archetype, is not such a simplistic creature.

Now, I have to say that I’ve been waiting for publication of this collection for a few years. Some of my original familiarity with Trowbridge’s poetry came from me hearing him read one of his poems dealing with his version of the archetypical fool, aptly named Fool. I was intrigued and asked around to find which of Trowbridge’s books included these poems, only to find out that he had not yet put them into book form. Instead I delved into Trowbridge’s other books such as Flickers, O Paradise, Enter Dark Stranger, The Four Seasons, The Packing House Cantata, and The Complete Book of Kong. I enjoyed the poetry I found there, but this was the book of poems for which I was waiting.

And, Trowbridge does not disappoint. The Fool poems are full of a unique kind of humor, such as where “Fool goes to visit his English cousin Foole” who is “an unemployed court jester…who’s been waiting since 1573 for the jester market to recover[.]” However, though humor alone would make the poems worth reading, but humor is not the only aspect to these poems. More often than not, there are thorns hidden in that humor, almost always directed at Fool, such as when “his mom and dad, though dead,” call Fool on his birthday “to ask if he has Prince Albert in a can” and shriek to let him out without waiting for an answer. Additionally, Trowbridge slips in extremely unusual word choices in his imagery to vastly complicate the apparently simplistic surface, though enjoyably, such as where Bill follows up his line “Fool’s shouts about sainthood and inseams don’t shield him from the fusillade of buckshot” when a swat team mistook him for “a lunatic acting like a gorilla” with “[t]he movie stars Fabio.” Deceptively presented as funny poems, the emotional range hidden beneath the surface is extensive.

At the core of these poems about Fool, however, it seems to me that they are not just humor, interesting images, or even an impressive range of emotions. Contrary to the condescension with which many people regard the fool archetype, Trowbridge seems to perceive humanity through the lens of Fool. Though tragic in a laughable way, Fool is everything that is good and hopeless about us, Bill Trowbridge included. We are good at heart, but we are screw-ups. No matter how hard we try, we will never catch an even break. At the same time, though, Trowbridge shows us why this makes our lives so very beautiful. And, Trowbridge does not hold himself exempt from this rule, as evidenced by the more authorial-voiced non-Fool poems in the collection such as “Prodigy” where the narrator recounts his childhood inept musical experiences with the marvelous accordion.

No, in these poems Bill laughs at himself as he laughs at all of us. At the same time, he also pats us on the back warmly, affirming that this strange fool element within us is what is both our most endearing aspect and the one that most unites us. This can be seen nowhere better, in my opinion, than in “World’s Biggest Fool.” Fool, through no fault of his own, accidentally removes all that is bad in the world. This sets “off God’s Doomsday Device for when life gets too good for our own good. BANG goes the whole shebang, leaving God back at square one. ‘OK, Goddamn it,’ He sighs. ‘From the top: Let there be light…blah, blah, blah.” Meanwhile, Fool, reincarnated, “grabs a fig leaf and tries to look busy[.]”

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Whistleblower Shibboleths: Mimi Albert on Michael Neff’s Year of the Rhinoceros


Michael Neff, Year of the Rhinoceros, Red Hen Press, 2009

Michael Neff’s debut novel is a serio-comic jeremiad, set during the very long eight years of the Reagan administration. While extolling the life and fate of one young Manny Eden, whom we first meet as a resident of the notorious St. Elizabeth’s hospital for the mentally ill in Washington, DC., Neff is able to take a poke at the many shibboleths and mannerisms prevalent during the Reagen years, and the distressing period for our nation during which Reaganomics thrived. Neff’s writing is frequently reminiscent of other notred political satirists, from Voltaire through Vonnegut, and sometimes even calls forth the spirit of Tom (not Thomas) Wolfe, who manages to put in a personal appearance in an early chapter. Prior to Manny Eden’s incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s, (surrounded by “vomit-smelling couches” and loathsome fellow residents, male and female,) the reader learns that Eden was a bright-eyed idealist, newly arrived in DC to do his bit for the republic, although not necessarily for the Republicans. The novel shows us Eden applying for a job with an agency set up, presumably, for the protection of those heroes of our civilization, known as whistleblowers.

Today, that word clearly defines men and women courageous enough to stand up against the hugest corporate machines dedicated to the proliferation of tobacco, firearms, and what is humorously known as “individual liberties” of many different kinds–all liberties, in fact, which exclude such “excesses” as arms control, legalized abortion, abolition of the death penalty, and universal health care. In his quest to do his best for his country, the candid Manny falls into the clutches of a certain Mr. Hunsecker, who apparently recruits for The Office of Whistleblower Counsel in Reagan’s administration. This agency has, as framed by Manny Eden’s reveries and Michael Neff’s intricate prose, purportedly “helped a whistleblower regain his job at the Justice Department,” and Manny is eager to contribute his energy and intelligence to The Cause.

Eden’s subsequent career, which guides him straight into the padded intake cells of St. Elizabeth’s, (an institution which gained its greatest share of notoriety as being the place in which American poetic luminary Ezra Pound was detained for mental illness after siding with the Fascists during WW II), creates much of the fabric of this fast-paced, glistening novel. The plot is an amalgam of the recounting of various misfits, miscreants and “perky” misses who comprise the population of the Reaganesque and Washingtonian world of the 80s. Neff’s eclectic and rapid-fire prose reminds this reader of the history of the innocent Candide in the words of that great French cynic, Voltaire, and owes some of its literary debt as well to contemporary writers such as Vonnegut, Kesey, and the abovementioned Tom Wolfe. Manny chases Eden, integrity, women and happiness in that order, and finds himself in St. Elizabeth’s after Reaganomics spits him out with impunity, as it did so many others, along with their ideals.

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Mimi Albert is a reviewer for venues such as the SF Chronicle, The American Book Review, and Poetry Flash. She has published two novels, and teaches three workshops in the writing of fiction for the UC Berkeley extension’s Post Baccalaureate Writing Program.

Compelling Clarity of Insight: John Domini on DeWitt Henry’s Safe Suicide


Safe Suicide, DeWitt Henry, Red Hen Press

safe-suicide 

 

It’s called creative non-fiction, and these days there’s just no stopping it. More and more commercial publishing depends on the memoir, ostensibly non-fiction and most, at least, remain reasonably true to the facts. Meanwhile, at universities all over the country a fledgling writer can earn multiple degrees in the genre, though it seems just recently hatched. Truman Capote could claim to have invented the approach in 1965 when he published his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood.  Another originator could be Tom Wolfe with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968 or when Norman Mailer bulled onto the scene with The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both also ’68). All fine work, no denying, and all apply the intimacy, subtlety, and significant shape of a made-up story to a real one. They take the moil of experience and recompose it with a beginning, middle, and end; they excavate character, establish metaphors, and identify watersheds.  

 

DeWitt Henry in his new collection of “narratives, essays, and meditations”—the subtitle for his quiet yet stinging Safe Suicide—doesn’t take his subjects from the headlines, as Capote did with his Kansas murders or Wolfe with the Merry Pranksters (Mailer, typically, leapt up on to some of the biggest stages in the nation). Rather, Henry works with the sort of materials that engage your average MFA-candidate namely, the tensions, changes, and illuminations that occur around a largely unremarkable family and home. His opening piece bears the humble title Memoir of My Father, and its subject is an absence, a deed never witnessed:

Also, as far back as I can remember Dad, there was the oddness — long before I had any explanation for it — and tension that he couldn’t drink anything alcoholic, even desserts that had a mint liqueur, but that on special occasions Mom, and then later my brothers, could. Out for dinner or at another grownups’ party, there would be, when he was offered cocktails or whatever, a stiffened refusal, almost angry, and right there, a sense of odd and shameful difference….(1)

As the child grows, he picks up details of his father’s struggle with alcohol, over and done with before little DeWitt was old enough to notice. Still, throughout, the essay emphasizes impressions like that “stiffened refusal” and its effect.  “Memoir” ends with a close description of the father’s sleeping face, in a later photo.

 

In that photo, Henry detects memento mori: “The mouth is darkly gaping, slack.” (6) The essay concludes with the chilling touch of the nullity his father sought in booze, rather than the noisy business of how he acted out his self-destructive impulses. There’s no Million Little Pieces here, no broken crockery or broken bones—which makes a reader trust this writer a lot more than anyone should ever have trusted James Frey. To put the point another way, Safe Suicide offers creative non-fiction in the classic vein, the kind sometimes still called “the personal essay.” Such work tends to be less flashy than the examples I’ve cited. In sensitive hands like Henry’s, however, it allows for compelling intensity and clarifying insight.  

 

With this aim in mind, Henry’s best essays are those with a smaller scope. A few concern his childhood in and around Philadephia, and a number of others grow out of his Boston-based adult life as a writer (he has an award-winning novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts) and editor (he was the founder and longtime director of Ploughshares).  For instance Odd, a reminiscence of pre-teen days, smartly inverts the coming-of-age meditation, since the emphasis is never on the young storyteller but rather on a local celebrity, a retired boxer. Via this swaggering, damaged man, there dawns the awareness of how the years demand their pound after pound of flesh. 

 

Another essay, Bungee, presents a success of a very different sort and provides the title phrase, “We live and trust in our safe suicides.” (73) Henry’s own first bungee jump came when he was an adult, esteemed as an editor, author, and prof, not to mention a husband and father deep into middle age. Thus, his take on this more-than-half-crazy form of recreation allows room for the full range of his learning and experience. The essay’s no ordinary recollection, but rather constructed in a series of blackout-brief thoughts, and these range from a fire-and-brimstone passage of the late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards (the famous warning that God dangles our souls “much as one holds… some loathsome insect over the fire”) to a businesslike self-assurance that, should something happen to him, his wife and children would be taken care of.  The whole comes together wittily and movingly by essay’s end as its final musing pivots around that key oxymoron. 

 

A number of Henry’s best meditations are similarly laid out like prose mosaics in which the final piece has the stuff of poetry. Gravity skillfully juggles memory, scholarship, and dream looping back and forth across the subject of evanescence, and in the end this becomes a potent fragmentary metaphor for literary art: “The yearning of these words, tethered to their vanishing.” (81) So too, Beautiful Flower ascends from thoughts of self-immolation in particular the Buddhist monks who set themselves afire to protest the Vietnam war to a remarkable affirmation of faith. So too, Arias sings a penny-pincher’s ode to love, and Returnables takes dumpster-divers as avatars of the imagination.

 

If the lovely phrase “quiet fire” weren’t forever linked to early-‘60s Miles Davis (I believe Bob Dylan in the poems on the back of The Times They Are A-Changin’, was the first to describe Davis that way), it would serve well for Henry at his finest. With restraint, he reduces his materials to their core heat and illumination.  The weaker essays here emphasize political struggles over lyric association. The re-hash of in-house squabbles at Ploughshares, for instance, seem to me notable mostly for their honesty. I wish all literary magazines were so forthcoming about money (I should mention, too, that I knew DeWitt Henry slightly in the mid-‘70s serving as a low-level editor for at least one issue of the magazine, but he and I lost touch when I left Boston). 

 

By and large, however, Safe Suicide stands as a example of why creative non-fiction currently takes up such space on our bookshelves. It calls to mind the marvelous anthology The Art of the Personal Essay assembled by Philip Lopate.  Himself a sharp-eyed non-fiction writer, Lopate demonstrates by his choices that such work had a distinguished roster of practitioners long before Capote et al made their noisy, albeit splendid, contributions. Art of the Personal Essay reaches back as far as Seneca including such essential figures as Montaigne, Thoreau, Woolf, and many more. To me it seems like suicide, quite unsafe, to suggest that one or two of Henry’s exercises haven’t earned a place among that number.

 

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John Domini’s current novel is A Tomb on the Periphery.  In 2009 he’ll publish a selection of his essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb. See www.johndomini.com.