Ship of Fool by William Trowbridge
(Red Hen Press, 2011)
reviewed by Liz Kay
In his fifth full-length collection, William Trowbridge offers a comical, historical account of man—both mankind, and the singular man—through the archetype and character of the fool/Fool. Sections one and three present Fool as an everyman with spectacularly bad luck, a sort of perpetually recycled Forrest Gump who’s brushed shoulders with the important snapshots in human history and left the smudge of his fat thumbprint on each one. Fool’s experiences are not limited, though, to the terrestrial realm. He is, we learn in Trowbridge’s answer to Milton, “Fool’s Paradise,” a sort of angel whose fall from grace was not through intent, but as fitting a fool, accident:
Fool, who was standing too close when God
swept the rebel seraphim into perdition, tries,
as the former Lucifer exhorts, to make a heaven
of Hell. After all, feeling your eyeballs boil inside
keeps your mind off your smoldering testicles.
Fool maintains his rotten luck and kick-me grin throughout his misadventures.
He’s “Basic Fool” in Cupid’s army, an unsuccessful werewolf, the captain of a
child’s bathtub boat, and the 97-pound weakling from the Charles Atlas ads. He’s
God’s (musical) instrument, a spiritual guide assigned to Hitler, and a perpetual
celestial fuck-up. In the poem, “Foolin’ Around,” Fool is left in charge by a
vacationing God in a mythical future in which earthly life has been perfected:
[…] But he can’t resist trying to pick up
the Hammer of Creation, which causes him
to stumble against the Divine Trash Bin,
spilling Hate and Death into the Pipeline,
which schleps them back into the fabric
of temporal life, where there’ll be hell
to pay, Fool knows, being omniscient also.
This is neither the first, nor the last time humanity bears the brunt of Fool’s misguided efforts, as in “Fool Demonstrates His Invention.” Envisioning fireworks and celebration, Fool introduces gunpowder into human history.
“Think of the children,
their upturned faces
shimmering in the dark,”
says Fool. “Think
of the stubbornest obstacles
blown away,” he says
to the Emperor,
who’s already thinking.
Yet this demonstrates what is both Fool’s frailty and his redemption—his naivete, his inability to see the shoe about to drop. Fool, we’re told, is “grief’s warm-up bag, / unhygenically pure,” who might love anyone, and indeed, he does. While God and other celestial beings pop up in poem after poem, it’s Fool who loves humanity, who weeps for the earth and “how its six billion passengers / bump along in sorrow and hope and terror and sometimes / that sweet jalopy called love.” Fool’s
takes up a galaxy. There’s room in it
for all humankind, even burdens on society
and threats to public decency […]
The middle section of the book breaks from Fool the archetype’s adventures
to recount the foolishness of a singular life. We’re taken through childhood
adventures like “Pantsing Bobby Freeman in Fifth Grade,” through accordion
lessons and getting pounded by the neighborhood bully. We see the dumb
luck of teenagers managing to live through the stupidity of fast cars and young
heartbreak and adolescent anxiety. We’re shown the musings of an older man,
a little wiser only in his ability to recognize himself as a fool, to realize the
foolishness of his youth, yet still fool enough to be nostalgic for all of it.
While the Fool poems of the first and third sections are sharp and crafted and
full of wit, it is this middle section that resonates. Where Fool is naïve and
guileless and incapable of anything but spectacular failure, the middle section
reveals us as we are and shows our small sad failures, our small, un-Fool-like
hearts. Take “Pantsing Bobby Freeman in Fifth Grade,” in which our speaker
witnesses the pantsing of a victim chosen for “the eyes that said // ‘free shot.’”
shit stains!” somebody yelled,
as Bobby squirmed to cover up
his tiny pecker and those eyes,
and I joined in a ballsy-toned guffaw,
one like I’d heard my father share,
with his buddies from the plant—
one B-flick Viking to another
as the monastery roars. It felt OK,
and school so nearly out.
Throughout the book, we’re treated to Trowbridge’s trademark talents—the fine
craft of his poems, his irreverent humor, and his egalitarian mixing of references
in which Milton and Hume share equal footing with Mr. Bubble, classic movies,
and hot-rod cars, especially one “with Lake pipes, Olds spinners, / Hilburninjected
Chrysler hemi / cammed with an Isky Crossflow 7000.”
It takes pieces of all of this to capture the story of mankind, and of course, our
story is one with less of a hero and more of an anti-hero, one with not much luck
but with a lot of heart, bumbling through the best he can. The secret, from “The
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” is to
[…] Quit brooding on the high speed
wobble, the endo, a decline in futures.
Have faith in the sturdy god of gyroscopics
and, despite the October chill, this tangy day
when you’re not yet dead or worse.