Ship of Fool


Red Hen Press, February 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59709-446-7

This book consists primarily of poems about a character based on the fool archetype, which appears not only in silents and standups (e.g. Keaton, Pryor, Woody Allen) but also in tales running back to the beginning of storytelling. To borrow from Yiddish comedy, he is a combination of schlemiel and schlimazel. The difference is that the schlemiel is a bungler who’s always accidentally breaking things and spilling stuff on people and the schlimazel is a sad sack who’s always getting his things broken and getting stuff spilled on him. Trowbridge’s Fool is both. He is often treated harshly, which seems to come simply from his being a fool. Most fool figures, though comic, are subjected to a great deal of violence. The very term “slapstick” derives from this.

I laughed out loud reading William Trowbridge’s new collection, Ship of Fool. In the delightfully absurd experiences of Fool, an angel with a big heart for humanity, it’s easy to see ourselves—the joys and heartbreaks, successes and failures of our ordinary lives underscored by chance, mishap, all the accidents of history to which we are bound. The past rears up in these poems, often homely and uncomfortable, tempered by Trowbridge’s fine wit and unsentimental tenderness. As with the best humor, mirth and despair are twinned here—the truth of our human condition to which Trowbridge turns again and again with his wise and empathetic vision.

Natasha Trethewey

Already known as one of America’s best and wittiest poets, William Trowbridge has, in Ship of Fool, found the perfect vessel to convey his vision: comic, tender, wry, compassionate, full of insight and rueful understanding of what it means to carry on, cream pies in the face, pants falling down as the Green Weenie rampages through our foolish, beautiful lives.

Charles Harper Webb

Anyone who’s delighted in Bill Trowbridge’s Kong or slaughterhouse poems knows he can whip up an extended poetic sequence like nobody’s beeswax . . . and in Ship of Fool he’s done it again, a witty souffle of Trowbridgian verbiage, with chewy nuggets of gravitas therein. a paean to the lovable bumbling stumbling shlemiel in all of us.

Albert Goldbarth

We need more books like Ship of Fool, more poetry collections that have the import and heft of an inhabitable universe. We need more poets who don’t confuse playfulness with meaninglessness. Trust me, we need more poets like William Trowbridge to remind us what it means to be a glorious schmuck chronically making an awkward bow, but bowing nonetheless—which is to say, to remind us to be human, practicing humankind-ness, as Fool does.

Erik Campbell

Green Mountains Review

Fool’s Paradise

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.
And there’s practically no dress code, other than
that coat of film you get from the burning
bodily discharges. “This is great,” he tells himself,
scalp bubbling. “Good as Heaven. Better.”

He trades the key to his Heavenly treasure
to Moloch for a lighter pitchfork and membership
in the Gehenna Debating Society. He joins
the Woeful Chamber of Commerce, where he initiates
Bingo Night. When the morale of the damned rises
56 percent, he gives off-shore real estate a try.

But the now-Satan thinks he smells a power play,
and God’s wrath rattles the cosmic chandelier
when half the cherubim start flying weekends
to some new spot called the Lake of Fire
Floating Oasis. The two hold secret talks
in a neutral galaxy, where, after a thousand years,
they negotiate a win-win solution.

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.”

first published in The Gettysburg Review


The Juggler

Fool starts with three red balls, tossing them up
like fountain water, first two-handed, then one.
It feels good, natural, but too easy, so he
tries behind the back, between the knees,
over the shoulder. Child’s play. He’s got a knack,
he thinks, a calling. But he needs to stretch.
He tries two chairs and a table, then a pole lamp
and two radios, then four cleavers and a hatchet.
Finally he does the one he saw on Believe It or Not:
three chain saws on full razz. A cinch, so he adds
another, plus an ocelot and two bicycles. He’s
on a roll now. Up go a Shetland, a Clydesdale,
a widow and her banker. Not enough,
so: the New York Philharmonic, Hoover Dam,
Neptune, Jupiter. It’s cosmic now, celestial,
which brings in God, Who’s not too pleased
at such levity encroaching on His grandeur.
Zap, Fool finds himself empty-handed,
waking from a dream his analyst will say
symbolizes masturbation, though Fool still feels
the heavenly wheeling, the lift and catch,
the windswept to and fro, dam after planet, she
after he, gravity become Fool’s blithe assistant
in a skirt so short you can see to Pago Pago.

first published in The Gettysburg Review


Fool Noir

It felt like every other night in this crummy town,
like you’d been cold cocked and stuffed in a dumpster,
like when a pet store ferret crawls up your pant leg
and bites you in the balls, like when you’ve sloshed in
wet cement and don’t know it till you see the tracks
on your new carpet, yeah, and then see darker tracks,
from when you set your sock on fire trying to light
a cigarette the way Bogie did in The Maltese Falcon
and danced hitch-kick flambe around the living room,
knocking Dad’s ashes off the mantle and into the fondu
you put out for the big party nobody but the cops
showed up for. Yeah, business as usual in dullsville
–till she walked in, but that’s another story. Yeah.

first published in River Styx

Interview at New Letters

Listen the interview at New Letters or PRX. The author of three chapbooks and five poetry collections, including The Complete Book of Kong, Missouri Poet Laureate William Trowbridge is unafraid of incorporating pop culture in his work, perhaps because he felt deprived of it as a child. In his 2011 collection, Ship of Fool, Trowbridge takes on the Fool archetype, leading his character through humiliations and sufferings with his signature humor. In this interview, he discusses his affinity for complex characterizations and descriptive language and his belief that comedy is as necessary as tragedy in great literature.  ...

Pif Magazine interview

The fool represents human fallibility, and mine also represents the human capacity for hope in hopeless situations and a basic will towards goodness, however unreachable that may be in a world that is most often veering towards its opposite. Fool represents what the novelist Stanley Elkin called the main theme of modern comedy: powerlessness — specifically the powerlessness of the individual in the course of human history, especially modern history. So there’s a seriousness beneath the comic surface in nearly all my Fool poems. This seriocomic element is present in the works of all my favorite writers and comedians. I think the tension created between comedy and seriousness generates an extra element of power in the works of authors who can maintain the risky balancing act. Read the rest of the interview...