Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month: My Favorite Recent Books of Poems

NOW THAT APRIL IS National Poetry Month, April Fools Day
takes on an entirely new significance. In honor of this month and its poemtryness, TWR will devote all of its April posts to favorite recent books of poems.

"Recent" doesn't mean this year, but it does mean this millennium. Books could mean chapbooks; poems could mean prose poems. It will not mean song lyrics, nor will it mean quotes from Donald Rumsfeld.

It will include Tom Thomson in Purgatory, the beguiling book by 50's film star Troy Jollimore. Okay, he's not really a 50's film star, but he sure has the name of one. Between that moniker and the fact that the cover plugs an intro by Billy Collins, it seems impossible not to like the book.

In fact, it is impossible not to like this book.

Simply saying the poems in it are funny does the author a disservice, but the poems in this book are funny. Or, put more directly, the character of Tom Thomson is funny. Jollimore's project is a strange one in that his book is really two books. The first part, entitled "From the Boy Scout Manual," has great fun with the earnest manuals of the eras of 50's film stars, while the second, called "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," features series of sonnets written in what I will describe as "high slang." Take the opening two stanzas, for example, from "Tom Thomson in Vogue"

With Pyramids behind, and with a glass
of some bright liquid sharp with fissioning sheen
in hand, he small talk make with shiny babe
as Photo Man for Hot New Magazine

the shutter clicks, and captures cover shot.
His stock is rising. What's he saying though?
Ain't no one listening to a word -- and him,
he listening least of all. But cares he? No.
The off-rhyme and near-dialect remind, of course, of John Berryman and his Dream Songs, but Jollimore's persona is less dark than Berryman's, not as severely developed and more overtly playful. But, like The Dream Songs, the Thomson sonnets are, despite their humor, profoundly sad. It's that veiled sadness, squeezed into sublimated humor, that keeps the poems from being self-indulgent or self-mocking. What's fun about these pieces is how the poems become less about Thomson and more about the nameless speaker. Thomson is just a prop; the speaker is the real protagonist.

Jollimore is not as funny as Collins, but he's also not as silly, which should make these poems both accessible and rewarding for casual reader and the poetry devotee. Their engagement with popular culture will also please reader skeptical about poetry's "relevance."

Tom Thomson may be in purgatory, but readers of this book certainly won't be in hell.

1 comment:

  1. Dude, what you really need to do is a knockoff of the Tournament of Books, but for poetry.