When you devote half a collection of poetry to clowns, you insert preconceptions into the reader’s head; the clowns on television, the clichés and traditions of clowns, and the clown shows the reader remembers from childhood or has taken their own children to, all play a part. This obstacle comes as an addition to the connotations conjured up by secondary definitions of the word clown: unsophisticated, incompetent. More relevant regarding the collection’s title, the fool and the physician, is the fact that the word clown once referred to fools and jesters, who also pop up in the book, but in the first of the book’s two sections the comic entertainer in exaggerated make-up is ever-present.
Andy Brown, Director of the Writing Programme at Exeter University, and a former Arvon Centre Director, is the author of, among other titles, Hunting the Kinnayas (Stride, 2004) and From a Cliff (Arc, 2002), and recently co-wrote a collection (Goose Music) with John Burnside. Brown would have been wise to retain the influence of Burnside in the fool and the physician. With such a playful theme, can the form and styles of the poems afford to be equally frolicsome? Among sonnets, villanelles and pantoums, the reader is blinded by the flashing of gimmicks and concepts not worth a mention. The fact that the poet clarifies every ounce of inspiration and genius (Notes on the Poems eats up five pages) is his downfall. Solving a puzzle, or even realising there is a puzzle to solve, would surely provide enough entertainment to allow the poems to incorporate the earnest tones they sometimes yearn for. But humour is the redeemer and works best, with dark overtones, in the shorter poems.
The epithet for ‘A Clown in the Moonlight’, ‘There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight’ (Lon Chaney), sums up well a poem which brings to the party the fear factor clowns can wear as effectively as a green wig. The three-lined ‘Portrait of a Man Falling Over’ does what it says on the tin so deliciously it is well worth pulling out of the hat. Though sombre rather than witty, the two quatrains of ‘Sad Clown Triolet’ make the clown-world abruptly come alive, depicting disgraced clowns, in the aftermath of a disastrous show, being forced to run around the ring following the departure of the audience.
Some of the clown-inspired lines in this section are the book’s salt and pepper and are truly comedic. Lines such as ‘The blue planet turns like a plate on a stick’ (‘Clown in Space’) and ‘Blessed are they who spank the crowd with a slap stick.’ (‘The Clown’s Prayer’) might make you hark for what could have been. The standard, like a tightrope walker who hasn’t put in enough practice, eventually has to fall.
Another fine element arrives with the drumroll query: What constitutes a clown? A few characters think they have the answer. In ‘Clown Alley’, where Brown characteristically turns prosy, a clown responds with:
‘To remain in incredible light, yet embrace its promised
darkness; to forget the present in favour of tomorrow;
to never forget that the world is there and that everyone
is people, even you.’
The clown concludes with an insider’s secret:
‘When you’re out there throwing knives, always aim with
purpose for the heart.’
A receptionist in ‘Egg Register’, when a clown turns up at the offices of Clowns International to register her character and set routines (this means of copyrighting clown costumes is not fictitious), says:
‘It’s not just comic wigs and outsized
shoes; it’s not just tumbling and pratfalls, a fight with a
collapsing chair. It isn’t only squirting flowers, rubber
chickens, custard pies, confetti buckets, tripping over
your own two feet, or too many jokers climbing out of a
So what truth lies underneath the facade?
‘It is a state of being; being someone
who can make you smile no matter what the cost. It
means running your life, daily, down the knife edge of
humour and chaos. You know there are some tribes for
whom the ceremony cannot begin until the clowns have
made each person laugh…’
The second section is a series of poems based on paintings by, and the life of, the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (the cover painting, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, is one of Bosch’s). The idea might lack originality but this section follows on fittingly from the first. W.H. Auden used Peter Breughel’s painting The Fall of Icarus for inspiration for his poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’. ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ was inspired by ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’:
As in Bosch’s painting
The Adoration of the Magi, for instance:
how everything turns away from the unmoved
town at the mouth of the river,
Marring this section are a few tribute poems to Hieronymus Bosch. Each line of the three quatrains in ‘Rhyme’ begins Hieronymus Bosch, Hieronymus Bosch, and ends Hieronymus, Hieronymus, Hieronymus Bosch; you won’t have the patience to care about the rhyming content between, though judged separately those lines are enjoyable. Each line of the tercets in ‘Hieronymus Bosch’ is an anagram of the painter’s name; the only thing more time-wasting is that Brown informs the reader of his feat in the notes.
Andy Brown likes an obsolete poetry form. In this section there are two villanelles. A villanelle’s cameo in a contemporary collection is an omen for calamity, but Brown knows a brilliant villanelle when he writes one. ‘Ship of Fools’ and ‘Fools for Christ’ are stunning examples of a customarily wearisome form rejuvenated for one night only.
These poems-on-paintings might have been more triumphant if they recaptured the atmosphere of the penultimate (if you count ‘The World Egg’ as a poem, which, sadly, Salt does) poem, ‘The Truth About the War’, which while entertaining us in its own milieu also revives the atmosphere of the clown theme:
The thimble-rigger makes his golden ball
vanish with dexterity. He chants:
On my table three cups and a wand;
in my hand I hold a golden sphere—
where will it go?
We all need humour; ergo we all need clowns. We need awe, mystery, tricks to mull over, whether we ourselves could perform such magic; ergo we all need to be fools.
The ball will disappear
just like the gold in the audience’s purse,
yet still they jostle forwards, gape agog,
like communicants before a twisted altar—
‘How does he do it?’