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This is Jacket 16, March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |    

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.
      Two hundred years later Ben Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanac, full of phrases such as ‘Necessity never made a good bargain’ (1735) and ‘He that lives upon hope will die fasting’ (1758). Emerson carried the torch in the 19th century: ‘Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.’ Even as late as 1895, Stephen Crane’s Black Rider and Other Lines held forth sagaciously in scads of terse parables; a hundred years later we still remember why the naked desert creature was eating his own heart.

Topp book cover       With the advent of Modernism, however, wisdom fell on hard times. No more sayings, proverbs, parables; allegory was tossed out too. In their place came realistic but often fragmentary description, narrative, and stream of consciousness. Truth, if ‘truth’ it could be called, was told ‘slant.’ Frame-of-reference supplanted ‘facts.’ Science put the kibosh on religion, psychology vanquished morality, and all that ancient mystery suddenly seemed mysterioso, trite. That is not to say that Modernism left no room at all for wisdom — for ‘good fences [do] make good neighbors,’ and we all know how Eliot’s world ends — in a way that would have pleased the teacher. But Modernism left little room for wisdom packaged as terse, memorable, stand-alone phrases — what Judeo-Christian scholars refer to as ‘wisdom poetry,’ what a classicist might term ‘adage.’ The emphasis on being in art largely preempted its didactic use.

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.
      At its worst this migration has meant Reader’s Digest, Erma Bombeck, and Life’s Little Instruction Book. It has also meant board rooms decked with inspirational posters (‘Teamwork: Together we can achieve the impossible’); it has meant chatty church marquees and commencement speech sound bites. A ‘fortune’ in a cookie I recently opened read: ‘You long to see the great pyramids in Egypt.’ Even popular music has gotten in on the act with slogans like ‘You can’t hurry love; no, you just have to wait.’ What an oddly benign bête noire ancient wisdom-making has borne!
      However, a certain strain of artsy poets are making hay from old wisdom. In 1970 Yoko Ono published ten years of her poetry in Grapefruit, and almost all of it is instructional: ‘Make a mask smaller than your face. / Let it drink wine instead of you.’ Ono’s verse is Zen consciousness plus LSD — not exactly Solomonic, but it’s a start. A year later James Tate came out with his dopily surrealistic Hints to Pilgrims, containing such poems as ‘Recipe for Sleep’: ‘knit the mosquitoes together / beneath your pajamas / let a stranger suck your foot / reach inside of yourself / and pull out a candle / clutch the giant shrimp tighter,’
      In 1974 Neruda published Book of Questions, a sort of Job 38 in soft lighting: ‘What weighs more heavily on the belt, / sadnesses or memories?’ and ‘Is 4 the same 4 for everybody? / Are all sevens equal?’ William Stafford and Russell Edson find a place in this strain somewhere too, perhaps, although they are less oblique. In a way they all inherit one aspect of Wallace Stevens’s modernism: an observant yet propositional poetic, the appearance of a public wisdom.
      Mike Topp falls into this sequence and capitalizes on its latent energies. His latest collection, and at 134 pages his first full-length book, is available only by emailing and is somewhat oddly bound, but it is well worth buying. Short fables and wise sayings are mingled with recipes, lists, and jokes. Poems like ‘Phenomenology’ remind us immediately of Ben Franklin: ‘A rolling stone can gather moss if it is rolling very, very slowly.’ ‘Advice’ reminds us of Yoko Ono: ‘Listen to a pillow by pressing your head to it. Listen to a table by pressing your ear to it and listening through your palms’ (the Ono-Topp connection was first observed by Kirby Olson in Exquisite Corpse 8; see There is a clear allusion to the Confucian morality story in ‘This Mind is Buddha’:

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
The Scurvy Prize
The Vile 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.
      One might observe that these poems are ironic and therefore have no place with Ben Franklin’s more straightforward proverbs. Indeed, Topp has found a home many times in the super-ironic McSweeney’s journal. Note, however, that irony is an old bedfellow of wisdom, even as far back as God’s taunting response to Job: ‘Surely you know, for you were already born! / You have lived so many years!’ By far the best evidence of irony and wisdom’s relationship is in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. It is no coincidence that the world’s foremost expert in adage (Adagia) also authored a long speech full of quotable sayings, a propagation of ‘Foolosophy’ designed with the double purpose to challenge heady scholasticism and to recast classical wisdom in a way that would make it applicable to Renaissance readers. Sixteenth century readers wondered, how should we take this? Clarence Miller, in his introduction to the Yale edition, writes ‘[Erasmus’] continuous revisions show that he also considered it a serious and important book: not merely foolish, not merely wise, but foolishly wise (morosophos)’ (xiii).
      Topp, like Erasmus, presents meaning through opposites or contrasts. Topp’s ‘Chinese Dumplings,’ after calling for ingredients such as ‘300,000,000 tablespoons shortening’ and ‘750,000,000 cups milk,’ concludes ‘Makes 800,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 DUMPLINGS.’ On one important level, this is humorous. But in juxtaposing the comfortable simplicity of the recipe genre against the mind-boggling complexity of the population of China, Topp teaches something.
      It becomes rather clear, however, that avant-garde ‘wisdom poetry’ doesn’t fit neatly in the grand old tradition outlined above. Topp himself, in a personal email, reveals sources that lie well outside of it:

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.
      But I Used to Be Ashamed of My Striped Face also contains works of purer beauty, such as ‘Balloon’:


ballo  n

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.’
      Topp’s ‘Balloon’ reminds me of the Ecclesiastical nail: a statement of true essence, impenetrable and unquestionable; its simplicity binds it tightly. Yet we are not fully absented from the conceptual ping-ping match in so many other Topp poems: ‘Balloon’ might also be considered also a cliché of concrete poetry, something to laugh at. Which is it?
      We shake our heads along with Erasmus’ readers. Topp has found ‘just the right word’; a true foolosopher, he might have found just the wrong one, too.
      Aphoristic wisdom, as I have said, does not thrive in Modernism, in the age of machine and information. We are too savvy for it. When it comes to poetry, Mike Topp might be the best Ben Franklin we have. But will he ever be taken very seriously? A scene from Stan Freberg’s comic masterpiece United States of America (1961) reveals the fate of the wisdom-maker in the modern era:

Jefferson: Hi, Ben!

Franklin: Tom.

Jefferson: You got a minute?

Franklin: Well, to tell you the truth, I was just going out of town for the weekend.

Jefferson: But it’s only Wednesday.

Franklin: Yeah. Well, you know, a penny saved is a penny earned.

Jefferson: What does that got to do with anything, Franklin?

Franklin: I don’t know. It was the first thing that came into my head. I was just making conversation. An idle brain is the Devil’s playground, you know!

Jefferson: Say, you’re pretty good at that, aren’t you?

Franklin: Yes, they’re just some new ‘wise sayings’ I just made up.

Jefferson: Wise sayings?

Franklin: Yeah, I call ’em ‘wise sayings.’

Jefferson: Uh-huh.

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.’

In the end it is Mike Topp’s quirkiness and extreme sense of humor that allow him to get away with being a classical wiseman in the modern era — like Erasmus, he is ‘foolishly wise.’ For there really is a wisdom, both asthetic and moral, a kind of perspective-making much needed in today’s poetry. Often, Topp is able to go where no other poet has dared to go:


2010  12,385,825,000 poems
2025  14,963,017,000 poems
2050  15,365,924,000 poems
2525  29,809,397,000 poems

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

Photo of Aaron Belz
Aaron Belz is working on a Ph.D. at Saint Louis University. His writing has appeared recently in Fence, Books and Culture, and Fine Madness. He invites email at

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