Book Review: Ship of Fool, William Trowbridge

In the first section of his latest poetry collection, Ship of Fool (Red Hen Press), frequent Asinine Poetry contributor William Trowbridge presents Fool, a man who suffers from modern cultural mediocrity — and also happens to be an angelic underclassman in the ranks of heaven. Fool lives many lives throughout history, working for that omnipotent stock character, God. Fool's role allows Trowbridge to take the reader to any point in history — or outside time altogether.

Up in cloud space, he tends to be the butt of the joke, as in "Fool and His Money":

    Shooting for a promotion to archangel, Fool draws
    a name out of a hat to sponsor a mortal in need
    of Divine guidance. The office wise-asses
    rig it so he gets Adolf Hitler . . .

Back on Earth, the literary archetype becomes the victim of circumstances, unaware of the mess he’s in. In "Clothes Make the Fool" — note the idiom/song/catch-phrase based titles, "Fool Rushes In," "Foolproof," "Pity the Fool," and more — Fool buys a new serge suit, but for Fool, suit-buying can never be simple.

    In the mirror, the sleeves and pant legs
    look pretty short and the color a little too
    liver. The thing itches, too, like horse-hair.

    The salesman says horse-hair’s coming back
    and that all Fool needs to do is slouch an inch
    or two and it'll fit good as a Brooks Brother.
    Buoyed, he ambles out, slouching and scratching
    till he’s mistaken by a mean cop for a lunatic
    acting like a gorilla. Time for some skull music.

Trowbridge breaks readers' expectations best through his narrative poems. Any poem that has any sort of momentum snowballs frictionlessly. The stories of Fool are like the Twilight Zone of folklore, with some sitcom Kramer thrown in. Limitations must be broken — three big ones in nature: how big a thing can get ("World’s Biggest Fool," a favorite of mine); how little a thing can get; and how much one man can juggle (more than four live chainsaws and a Shetland? Not impossible enough).

God cameos when he feels like it and never disappoints (From "World’s Biggest Fool": "God has to admit Fool's jammed the gears / again, making life difficult for Everybody, / another word He uses to mean Himself."). Fool is also occasionally accompanied by untraditional characters. We also see "the pickpocket Time," which, I first thought was just a nice quip, but then came more abstract-characters like Felicity, Chance (bathing), and Death (spinning records at a cruise ship danse macabre).

Section two of Ship of Fool seems based on what may be the foolish parts of Trowbridge’s own youth. "Antique Classic," a nice balance of nostalgia and humor, starts with what sounds like a newspaper-classifieds ad: "I'm looking for a ’50 Mercury, / two-door coupe. . . " and further description far too specific to be Googlable ("Hilburn-injected Chrysler hemi / cammed with an Isky Crossflow 7000"). Then Trowbridge's smooth voice admits:

    I want to rumble
    slowly through my past
    pressing my bicep
    against the door, looking
    pathetic with my white whiskers
    and Metamucil . . .

Like a true humorist, he stops for a little jab at his age, then ambles back to Omaha, his hometown, into a scene with the aforementioned Merc at Tiner's Drive-In after a football game. In this poem, though, he juxtaposes the ungraspable past to the things he once dreamed of having. These are strong poems, but there's icing on this thematic cake.

In his third section, Trowbridge sticks to more honest humor for these personal poems. For the most part, there’s no snowballing out of control — except for one where he recounts a speeding car spinning out of control . . . Anyway, he remains funny along the way. Take this example from “Prodigy,” on taking accordion lessons as a child:

    I was being baby-stepped toward Lawrence Welk,
    the anti-Christ of Rock ‘n’ Roll, who played
    that anti-matter of the Fender Strato . . .

Trowbridge has a few poems about his home life, but many are integrated with — his references purposely limited to — the culture at the time. This is certainly the case in "WOW," a digression on the experience of riding in a ’52 Chevy coupe that's "whipp[ing] around / like the Tilt-a-Whirl at Playland Park." He uses his uncanny knack for similes to describe what kind of frozen-from-fear they were in the their seats:

    we glanced at one another,
    like Beaver and Wally and Lumpy
    trying to be polite by letting
    someone else be the first to rise
    from the table or like the 3 guests
    on the TV quiz show To Tell
    the Truth, when they would
    try to tease the audience
    after host Bud Collyer
    concluded the game by saying,
    "And now, will the real
    Ira Gershwin please stand up."

The idea behind the collection is as fresh as Trowbridge's line breaks. It may seem at first that the poet is mocking some timeless motifs in literature and culture. However, what makes this collection worth a thorough read is how Trowbridge's lambent wit opens up these motifs, like a lens revealing what is funny about society, mythology, luck, the 1950s, and down to our own imperfections — general foolishness everywhere.

William Trowbridge will be reading from Ship of Fool, along with Albert Goldbarth and Camille Dungy, at KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street, NYC, September 9, 7 p.m.

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