William Trowbridge in Tar River Poetry

Ship of … uh, what? This, after pipsqueak predecessors like, say, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Byron, Twain, and even a financial website called The Motley Fool? Readers love poets who run big risks, but Ship of Fool? Why not just forget about poesie in the face of THBD—the great god This Has Been Done? Who's the fool if the writer, accompanied by nary so much as a linebacker, steps in front of Jim Brown, third and goal at the three, and bids Mr. Brown a cheery good afternoon? Says the headline in the Plain Dealer the next morning, "Poet Last Seen Disappearing in Clouds over Lake Erie." Yet another mistake by the lake. But William Trowbridge has faced such risks before and flattened the bulldozing fullback. How solve the problem of THBD? The ancient, simple, unforgiving answer is one Trowbridge knows cold and hot: it's achieved by one telling word after another, phrase by hypnotic phrase, brilliant inventions unfolding moment by moment, year after year. Who but Trowbridge would feature King Kong across two masterful volumes? Even more to the point, Trowbridge has long since demonstrated in his eight books published since 1986 that he can transmute common American life and language to the highest pitch of art, his command of a vast range of tonal complexities always at work. Never glib himself, as the tonal depths of his poems irrefragably establish, he creates glib speakers again and again—when he wishes. He has shown a profound, unerring sense of how we talk, see, think, act, succeed, fail, take delight, and suffer. He has found authoritative, wholly personal ways to give his eloquent stamp to such material, even if that eloquence is often delivered in a deadpan as level as the Mississippi on a still night. He knows in encyclopedic detail how we make popular art and respond to it; he catches everyday language with his astonishing ear and distills it into a quintessence. He gives voice—and finds voices—that make his vision of daily life as clear and convincing as the music of Joe Turner or Mose Allison. Trowbridge gives us back ourselves but in his own intricate, electrifying manner. And if the writing is often shot through with pain, no American poet can be funnier when he chooses. Yet a quiet, trenchant understanding of trouble is steadily woven through the humor. Sympathy may be his greatest strength. In the present tripartite book he devotes the first and third sections to Fool, a splendid creation who struggles and stumbles, encountering terrestrial or even heavenly experience with a trusting forwardness, only to have trouble pound him repeatedly. (Yes, heavenly: many of the poems place Fool in situations of cosmic dimensions, Trowbridge suddenly very like the fluently, mockingly mythopoeic Byron of The Vision of Judgment.) In the process Trowbridge takes stock phrases involving "fool" and parlays them into titles like Ship of Fool and "Fool Rushes In," or he'll use other common phrases and plug "fool" into the mix for the same purpose ("Ninety-seven-pound Fool," "The Incredible Shrinking Fool"), the fun going full tilt. But in the second section, Fool leaves the stand (you know those lounge musicians: play forty minutes, take a forty-minute break), and Trowbridge moves into a series of poems that go deeply back into his real or imagined past. These second-section poems are often achingly sorrowful, as in "Obedience," which I'll cite in full: The ghost of it whimpered back last night [ no break ] from a wet November fifty years ago: a scraggly cocker that shadowed me home from school and, when I let it in, ignored a meal to snuffle crotches and hump legs as if to win us with what it knew of love, its sad pink dick unsheathed like a gut protruding from a wound, its rheumy eyes spinning with dread, its odor of mushroom and shit making itself at home in our carpet. [ stanza break ] "No. Bad dog. Down," we said, shoving it away till my father got it in the car, and we drove off through the dark to a cornfield outside town, where the rain blew and it slumped off right away, going to get lost, like a good dog. One sees the risk of worn subject matter, cloying sentimentality a millimeter away. But the lean, vivid, confidently astringent language makes the scene immediately unforgettable, evoking memories of troubled sorrow and compromises between sympathy and impatience. Trowbridge's words can hit like bricks in boxing gloves. This poem's interior lines are a reminder that a recent, relentless, brilliant but scarcely bearable Trowbridge chapbook, The Packing House Cantata, addresses his experience as a young man working in a slaughterhouse. The mythmaking is already sailing down the drag strip in the book's second poem, unsurprisingly titled "Fool's Paradise" (Trowbridge, after all, published a book called O Paradise), the prevailing pulse—a loose pentameter—doubtless a homage to Milton. Fool, thrown out of heaven when he's unwittingly too near "when God / swept the rebel seraphim into perdition," ends up first in what will become Hell, then in what will become Los Angeles. The poem's last of four stanzas reads as follows: Fool finds himself near the La Brea Tar Pits, in the first of his innumerable earthly lives, and Satan gets to use a gigantic flaming sword to chase Adam and Eve out of Eden to a world where they and their baffled descendants are subject to sin, disease, insanity, and death, all of which are invented for this occasion. Fool takes a deep breath of miasma, feels groggy. "This is great," he declares. "Couldn't be better."The third through seventh lines are pure Byron, especially the seventh, while the final line catches a certain crazy flavor of American cheerfulness perfectly. Indeed the whole stanza, Milton and Byron notwithstanding, is pure Trowbridge, the wackiness and jerry-built cosmos undercut by a disquieting awareness in the reader that "sin, disease, insanity, and death" are real and ubiquitous, whether invented by a ditzy god or not. There's not a shred of kidding in "baffled," a fine instance of how Trowbridge can isolate the tonality of a word or phrase from dissimilar material around it. Suddenly one realizes that in such undercutting Trowbridge may have moved closest not to Milton or Byron but to the Robert Frost of a poem like "Design." Next comes the 23-line, one-sentence "Fool Expelled from Eden," which continues the mythmaking, the whacked-out fun, the disquieting violence, and the final sense that one is trapped inextricably between the ludicrous and some comprehensive, unavoidable disaster—all of this delivered in a breezy language Trowbridge controls perfectly. The humor is dark but real; the darkness is sometimes funny but always just as real. On a first reading of the first section, one recalls from the table of contents that the book has three sections. Will all three contain such Foolish poems in a dizzying act of invention? No: the second section is waiting with its earthy realism, scene after scene from the daily American life Trowbridge enacts with such precision and power. But then the third section brings Fool back, and the book goes on. One of the later poems, "Fools Give You Reasons," finds Fool "[b]ack in the Celestial City for another reassignment." He wants to talk about what he's experienced on earth, but the office functionaries where he used to work have unceremoniously put a shredder on top of his desk and can't be bothered by his stories: They're sorry, but the Theology Department's two buildings down. They like to think of themselves as facilitators, the ones who polish those crystalline gears the system rides on, and are humble enough to admit they couldn't say exactly what that means. There's no time to suffer fools here. No time, period. Now Trowbridge has evoked Blake's hatred of pious passivity in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and There Is No Natural Religion ("The same dull round even of a universe would soon become a mill with complicated wheels"). In all of this the reader understands again that William Trowbridge, entirely himself, belongs with such earlier masters.