Woodrat Podcast 39: William Trowbridge

William Trowbridge

William Trowbridge was the last of the four poets Kristin Berkey-Abbott and I read for National Poetry Month (here are my review and hers). We called him up last Monday to talk about Fool and foolishness, humorous versus serious poetry, and why the Midwest produces so many poets, among other things, and got him to read some poems from Ship of Fool, too. Check out his website for a bio and links to all his books.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

Ship of Fool by William Trowbridge

Ship of fool Ship of fool: poemsWilliam Trowbridge; Red Hen Press 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

This is the last of four books that Kristin Berkey-Abbott and I are encouraging others to also read and blog about this month. Send me the link to your blog post and I’ll update to include it.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott: “National Poetry Month Draws to a Close with ‘Ship of Fool’ by William Trowbridge”

It was really just happenstance that I found myself reading Ship of Fool on Easter. But inevitably I started thinking: is Fool a Christ figure? God certainly sacrifices him more than once. And the next-to-last poem in the book, “Foolproof,” contains a pretty broad hint:

“Moron!” God thunders, watching a snot-green cloud
pour out of His perfect wand for hard-to-reach places.
“They’re going to crucify Me in the broadsides.” Could be worse,
thinks Fool, backdraft whistling through his hands and feet.

In another poem, Fool beats God in a game of miniature golf and as a reward inherits the CEO-ship of the cosmos, and “when Fool’s sworn in,/ the meek finally do inherit the earth.” So far, so Christ-like! In one of his incarnations, he is even “The Perfect Fool”:

Every month his house makes the cover
of Before magazine. His Yugo’s the envy
of the trendier scrap yards. Thanks to him,
the common step-ladder now boasts thirty
caution stickers. The ABA would name him
Plaintiff of the Year, if he’d only sue.
But he’s too foolish, grief’s warm-up bag,
unhygenically pure, who might love anyone.

Then again, is Wile E. Coyote a Christ figure? I think the ability to shape-shift and come back from the dead again and again is a basic attribute of any trickster, especially the foolish kind. In “Fool Electric,”

The late news asks if Fool could be Jesus,
back to give every Christian family
their own Lazarus. Polls show 97 per cent

of Americans now believe in a loving God,
the remaining three percent intent on
fleeing the country.

Something tells me that believing any hypothesis advanced on the late news is probably foolish. Also, as Trowbridge goes on to suggest, too many Lazaruses would be indistinguishable from the zombie apocalypse. Fool is always taking things to extremes. Something must be done:

After he dies
for us in this and several other wide shots
at guardian-angelship, Fool’s put in charge
of the Small Consolations detail that plants
dimes and quarters under sofa cushions.
Each one you find contains his blessing.
(“Fool and His Money”)

I don’t mean to be rude, but a lot of poetry these days is essentially autobiographical, so we should certainly entertain the possibility that Fool might actually be an alter ego for the author. But contradicting that theory is the fact that the book does also have a middle section of more straight-forward, first-person poems from a 1950s childhood. Who is this fast-car-driving delinquent smack in the middle of a Fool sandwich? It’s as if Everyman becomes This One Guy for a little bit. And not only he but his friends, his parents, the coach — they all manage to act the fool. Suddenly we’re dealing less with an archetype than an epiphenomenon.

Like his fellow Midwesterner Matt Mason, Trowbridge takes humor seriously. Often after reading a book of poems I’ll realize I have very little idea what it was about — and then I’ll go on to write about it anyway. I would like to think that most reviewers of poetry are like this, and that I am one of a company of fools. With Ship of Fool, though, I have the feeling I understood it all too well — which reminds me of a series of standardized achievement tests I took in the 9th grade. I remember how easy I thought the sections on mechanical ability and spatial perceptions were: I understood all the questions, and filled in the little circles with complete confidence. You can imagine how crushed I was to discover that I got most of the answers wrong in those sections, testing in the bottom 20 percent. My buddy across the table (we took the tests in art class, for some damn reason) aced those sections of the test, but did poorly in the verbal/communicative sections, at which I excelled. “Does this mean I’m stupid?” he asked me. Using my now-certifiably exceptional communication skills, I told him, “I think we’re all stupid in our own way.” Which I persist in finding a deeply comforting thought. I suspect Trowbridge might, too.