“Talk happiness,” wrote the prolific poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox about 125 years ago. “The world is sad enough / Without your woe.” The former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins has largely gone in that direction, and so has Scott Poole (’92 B.S. Psych.; ’95 B.A. English), who lives in Spokane and reads his poems Monday mornings on public radio station KPBX (91.1 FM).
In short, if one has a sense of humor—preferably of the absurd as well—it’s hard not to like most of the 43 poems that comprise Poole’s second book. “I’m sleeping on the coffee table tonight. / I think someone stole my bed.” So begins one of Poole’s poems. Driving home with one headlight burned out, “eating free restaurant mints, / listening to my wife snore, / I wonder how many people / have been married at McDonald’s,” Poole writes in “Location.” Remembering a McDonald’s located near a mountain, he thinks, “who put this mountain / next to this McDonald’s?” When he thinks of “Smoked White Turkey” lunchmeat, Poole—or his speaker in the poems—thinks of Andy Warhol, and he falls in love with the caller from the Multiple Sclerosis Society, because she has “a gorgeous southern whiskey / drawl of long porches drenched / in bougainvillea and lemonade.”
Okay, fine, cautions the inner critic, but levity can only go so far; serious poets, the great ones, offer other, darker pleasures. Were Milton or Keats, Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Robinson Jeffers, or Rilke humorous? But perhaps the readership for poems would be much broader and more enthusiastic if it were otherwise. Isn’t it possible to enjoy the pleasures of even the darkest poets while reserving a place in our hearts and minds for those who would make us think through humor? The citations above are not to say that Poole is never “serious.” His wit is compassionate, not scathing or sharply satirical, and the last poem in the collection, “Sincerity,” is an admirable tribute to the victims of September 11.
One chord struck throughout the poems is the surreal. The opening poem, “The Way Water Wears on Us,” begins: “A man walks with a waterfall / cascading down his back. He wears / a plastic suit and a hat with a pump. / Moss has grown over his coat.” Surrealism, like the poor, will always be with us, and its most comfortable home is in the playfully serious poems of writers like Poole. But is there a limit? How playful is too playful? Is there a line between the whimsical and the silly or the downright inane? This is the risk poets such as Collins and Poole take. Whether they succeed is for their readers to decide.
Lost Horse Press has done an admirable job with this book, and former WSU fine arts professor Robert Helm’s illustrations are a welcome complement to the poems.
— Ron McFarland, Professor of English, University of Idaho