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[.]”