By: Andrew Hudgins, with illustrations by Barry Moser
Reviewed by: Norman McMillan
The Overlook Press, 2009
When I pulled Andrew Hudgins’ new volume, Shut Up, You’re Fine, from the mailer, I was struck immediately by Barry Moser’s cover design. The choice of print, the border, the faded subtitle all looked terribly old-fashioned, and I thought immediately of The New England Primer. After completing the poems, I went online to check my memory, and I found that the covers are indeed similar. Then I read the Primer, and I knew that Shut Up, You’re Fine could well be read as a parody of books that exhort children to be good and warn them of the terrible dangers of not doing so.
The New England Primer is full of such exhortations and warnings for children, and several poems are placed within the mouths of children. Take this quote from one of them:
Young SAMUEL that little child,
He served the Lord, liv’d undefil’d;
Him in his service God employ’d,
While Eli’s wicked children dy’d:
When wicked children mocking said,
To a good man, Go up bald head,
God was displeas’d with them and sent
Two bears which them in pieces rent,
I must not like these children vile,
Displease my God, myself defile.
It is quite safe to say that no little Samuel can be found among Hudgins’ children, but the wicked sons of Eli abound. These imps, without one pang of conscience, go quite happily about their wicked business.
The title of the book might lead one to believe that the poems are from the point of view of adults. A few are, but most of them are spoken by children (or adolescents) who are willful, irreverent, larcenous, lascivious, resentful, disobedient, irresponsible, lazy, and hypocritical. At the same time, these children are as irresistible as, say, the wicked children in Charles Addams’ cartoons (the ones, for example, who launch submarine attacks in Central Park on the sailboats of good little children).
The adults in these poems come off much worse than do the children. They are often self-centered and unsympathetic. In “My Last Dream,” when a child has a terrible nightmare, his parents say, “You’ve put on quite a show. / Don’t let us hear another peep. / Shut the hell up and let us sleep.” Some adults are worse than that: They actually take advantage of the children, sometimes even sexually. In the ironically-entitled poem, “My Hero,” a gay uncle makes moves on his nephew so slowly and seductively that the child seems to have no clue as to what is really happening. For example, the young speaker blithely tells us that his uncle promises him an extra Oreo “if I fumble in his pocket / and pull it out real slow.”
This sort of innocence is found repeatedly in Shut Up, You’re Fine. “Hide and Seek with Mommy and Dad” describes the parents having sex while the son is safely hidden away waiting to be found. The adultery of another speaker’s mother even creeps into the innocent activity of a child observing the shapes of clouds. But this innocence of the child is not always in evidence. In some of the poems, speakers hope for the hurt or even death of others. In “Prayer Before Bed,” a boy asks that his sister get a chronic and severe rash. In “Prayer,” an adolescent asks God to destroy his girlfriend’s family so he can make his overtures to her while she is grieving.
Hudgins has long had a preoccupation with the ugly. I thought of him recently when I read this from a painter friend: “We [British painters] are suspicious of art that is only celebratory—glasses of champagne raised around a table. We prefer something more bitter, straight from the kitchen sink.” In the present volume, Hudgins continues to evoke winces and turn stomachs with the potions he administers. There is a dog whose “blind eyes ooze gobbets of goo.” Designing an appropriate demise for a yapping dog next door, the speaker wants to “feed it—tail first, slowly— / into the chipper-shredder.” One speaker describes draining, gutting, skinning, dismembering, and eating a favorite cow, “slathering her chops in her own creamy butter.” A grandmother spits out her dentures, which are “slick with mucilage.” It should be pointed out that every wince and turning stomach the reader may experience is quickly supplanted by laughter and lots of it.
For most of these poems, Hudgins appropriately uses variations on the ballad stanza, with the a-b-c-b rhyme scheme the most common. There are also couplets and one case of terza rima, but all poems embrace rhyme and accept its discipline. In a couple of poems he even reworks non-rhyming versions that appeared in a previous volume. The acrobatics of the rhyming itself will cause many a chuckle. A few examples: defile her/Rottweiler,” extort her/quarter, hammer/goddamn’er, and jewels/drools. Also notable in these poems is a strong trochaic drive, which works well for the energy of the speakers.
Behind all these poems is the looming presence of the gleeful poet, Andrew Hudgins, delighting in every irony, in every wince or wave of nausea, in every momentary shock, and in every sending up of commonplace pieties. And I must say the delight is absolutely infectious. April 2009
Norman McMillan is the author of the memoir, Distant Son, and of two plays, Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky and Ashes of Roses, based on stories by Mary Ward Brown.