Aaron Belz reviews
I Used to Be Ashamed of My Striped Face, by Mike Topp
elimae books, 2001; 136 pp.; $22.50 (plus shipping)
WISDOM, encapsulated in short, memorable sayings, has been around for ages and is deeply inscribed in our cultural imagination. Early examples are the writings of Solomon (900’s BC) and the sayings of K’ung fu-tzu (‘Confucius,’ 551-479 BC). Jesus Christ came out with his beatitudes and parables in the twenties and thirties AD, and several subsequent centuries of monastic practice produced the Verba Seniorum of the Desert Fathers. The poems of Li Po enlightened the eighth century. In medieval England, ‘courtesy books’ provided aphoristic guidance, and by the 1530’s Desiderius Erasmus was putting finishing touches on his Adagia — over 4,000 sayings from classical antiquity, such as ‘Hurry slowly,’ each with a short essay explaining how it might be applied.
New wisdom poetry has had to go elsewhere: non-fiction, stand-up, film, religious tracts, greeting cards, fortune cookies, and so forth. At its best that has meant innovations by the likes of Woody Allen and Andy Kaufman. George Lucas’s Yoda hit us with lines like ‘Do or do not; there is no try ’ and ‘Wars not make one great.’ The now unpopular Ogden Nash wrote epigrammatic doozies like: ‘To keep your marriage brimming / With love in the loving cup, / Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; / Whenever you’re right, shut up.’ Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul both have collections of daily meditations.
Two monks were arguing about whether their train was moving. One said: ‘Our train is moving.’ The other said: ‘The train on the tracks next to us is moving.’ The sixth patriarch happened to be walking down the aisle. He asked them: ‘Would I look good in short shorts?’
But Topp is often more relevant to American culture than these few examples reveal. The first piece in the collection is ‘Flag’:
We were pledging allegiance to the flag and Dad caught me looking out the window. Mom said she didn’t think that was very patriotic of me. I said I was looking at the flag outside on the pole. Dad thought it over and said that from now on we were to all look at the flag inside.
Television-savvy readers might recognize in Topp a streak of Jack Handey’s ‘Deep Thoughts’ from Saturday Night Live, and sometimes the same basic mechanism is at work: a seemingly profound observation, put forth solemnly, is upended by an absurd conclusion. The difference is that in Topp’s writing a deeper wisdom is revealed. Not only does ‘Flag’ deftly deconstruct three separate power-relationships — wife-husband, parent-child, country-citizen — but it reveals their complex interrelationships. He does it again in ‘Less Than Nobel Prizes’:
The Sordid Prize
This has the double effect of satirizing the prize in question and lampooning a whole taxonomic class of negative adjectives. As in much of Topp’s work, this is sort of a language-versus-life battle in which neither prevail; both emerge compromised, and a good laugh is the result.
The influences on writing come more from art and music (William Wegman’s stories, videos, and drawings, Richard Prince’s jokes, Erik Satie’s written comments in ‘Sports & Divertissements,’ David Shrigley’s doodles, Joe Brainard’s diaries, stories, and essays, etc.)... I also like lists, and the throwaway parts of such pulp aces as Jim Thompson, Charles Willefoord, and WR Burnett.
Props to Mike for being resourceful: he is scavenging in a strange cupboard. Later in the same email, he also confessed a debt to Stephen Crane, Li Po, Ben Franklin, and others, but it must be no easier for him than it is for us to locate his taproot in the wisdom tradition. Nevertheless, I think it’s there. It isn’t as though Topp’s poems aren’t true —and also funny, witty, delightful. It isn’t as though they aren’t short and memorable enough; they are proverbs. It is that his way of condensing truth is one of humorous reversals, of toppled positivistic declaration. Topp’s is a Stevensesque universe that has adapted itself formally to list, recipe, anecdote, and mock-parable.
How should we take this? In the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes: ‘The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails.’
Jefferson: Hi, Ben!
Dozens of two- or three-line poems in I Used to Be Ashamed of My Striped Face might prompt the same response: ‘Say, you’re pretty good at that, aren’t you?’ But longer poems complicate that critique. One of the best is ‘Winners Go to the Flaming Pit,’ which begins Bulwer-Lyttonesque: ‘The location for this year’s Dinner with Mr. Restaurant Sweepstakes was the Flaming Pit located in the chic Hanover Marriott in Whippany.’ Five pages of the most delectable Topp comedy follow, a bizarrely beautiful vignette that aggressively dismantles suburban America. Other long poems to look for are ‘Interview With William Wegman’ and ‘Bad Luck.’
WORLD POETRY PROJECTIONS
For further reading, allow me to recommend Kirby Olson’s piece in Exquisite Corpse 8, cited above. The writings of Erasmus are hilarious and underrated, worth looking into. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit is also worth a look. And of course, you must order the Striped Face volume from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacket 16 — March 2002
This material is copyright © Aaron Belz
and Jacket magazine 2002