March 21, 2013
(++++) FLIGHTS OF POESY
My Brother’s Book. By Maurice Sendak. Michael di Capua/HarperCollins. $18.95.
Stardines Swim High across the Sky, and Other Poems. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Carin Berger. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The New Kid on the Block. By Jack Prelutsky. Drawings by James Stevenson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $9.99.
A Pizza the Size of the Sun. By Jack Prelutsky. Drawings by James Stevenson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $9.99.
There are poems for all ages – and not always the ages for which you expect them. Anyone who thinks of the late Maurice Sendak as a children’s-book creator will surely think again after reading, and looking at, My Brother’s Book. This is the final completed work by Sendak (1928-2012), and it is adult on every level. Drawing on verbal imagery from Shakespeare’s difficult and puzzling late play, The Winter’s Tale, and using an illustrative style reminiscent of that of William Blake, Sendak here offers a dense 24 pages of art and verbiage that jointly celebrate and mourn the closeness of brothers in general and that of Sendak himself and his own older brother, Jack (1924-1995), in particular. This is a book about “continents of ice,” a book in which a star “scorching the sky” tears brothers asunder, a book about a monstrous bear that is and is not the constellation Ursa Major, a book about the power of riddles and stories, the power of love and the irreconcilability of yearning for someone who has passed on. It is quite unlike any other book that Maurice Sendak ever wrote, and is emphatically not for children – perhaps not for most adults, either. Mysterious and pervaded with sadness even as it describes and shows transformations that seem to lead at last to warmth and peace, My Brother’s Book is a curiosity and an oddity, a book that Sendak’s many fans will find puzzling and disturbing and that fans of poetry and art will find strange and evocative.
Jack Prelutsky’s poems are far more straightforward and aimed squarely at children – sometimes ages 4-8, as in Stardines Swim High across the Sky, and sometimes ages 5-10, as in the new paperback editions of The New Kid on the Block and A Pizza the Size of the Sun. In Stardines Swim High Across the Sky, nature gets a makeover, whether the subject is astronomy (in the title poem) or whether Prelutsky is punningly writing about “poor boring chormorants” (which “labor over senseless chores” all day), ever-messy “slobsters,” effervescent “jollyfish,” or the irritating “tattlesnake,” which is “Acting so wrong,/ Sticking your snout/ Where it doesn’t belong.” Carin Berger’s offbeat collages go particularly well with these Prelutsky gems. The tattlesnake, for example, is shaped and patterned like a rattlesnake (complete with rattle), but sports an old-victrola-style, trumpet-shaped horn at the front; the “gloose” has feathers and wings, yes, but its body is made of a tube of glue; and “fountain lions” resemble big cats with decorative water displays atop their heads. The poems here are all short, and the rhymes and meter are often very clever: “The sobcat is sad/ As a feline can be/ And spends its time crying/ Continuously.” The portmanteau words that are the names of these odd creatures immediately and amusingly describe their habits, whether Prelutsky is creating a “bardvark” (an irritating poetical creature) or a “panteater” (a long-tongued consumer of “mountains of pants”).
Nor is the “panteater” the only Prelutsky creation that endangers that particular article of clothing. In The New Kid on the Block, originally published in 1984, one of Prelutsky’s longer poems, “The Carpenter Rages,” is all about the man’s problems with – what else? – carpenter ants, which eat his tools one by one and move on from there: “The carpenter suddenly leaps in the air,/ he writhes in a furious dance,/ for those carpenter ants, with incredible flair,/ have eaten the carpenter’s pants.” The immediately recognizable art of James Stevenson enlivens this book as well as A Pizza the Size of the Sun, which was first published in 1996. In The New Kid on the Block, readers will meet (or, if they are parents, perhaps re-meet) the ever-battling Mungle and Munn; find out what happened “When Tillie Ate the Chili” (featuring an especially amusing Stevenson drawing); commiserate because “Suzanna Socked Me Sunday”; and discover the Zoosher, which hangs out “with mashed potatoes on its eyes,/ with fried zucchini in its nose,/ with carrot sticks between its toes,” and so on. Some of the short poems here (which have entirely apposite illustrations) are just right: “Throckmorton Thrattle has charm and class,/ he’s wealthy and he’s handsome,/ small wonder that his looking glass/ is holding him for ransom.” Other, longer poems sometimes fall all over themselves with absurd lists, as when a boy’s mother tells him, among other things, “Do not squeeze the steamed zucchini!/ Do not make the melon ooze!/ Never stuff vanilla yogurt/ In your little sister’s shoes!” And Prelutsky, abetted by Stevenson, is just as clever in A Pizza the Size of the Sun, where “Dester Dixxer mixed elixir/ in his quick elixir mixer,” and where “I made something strange with my chemistry set,/ something all gluey and blue,/ something a little like half-scrambled eggs,/ mingled with vegetable stew.” Here are “Herman Sherman Thurman” and “The Improbable Emporium” and “Opossums” and “An Unobservant Porcupine” and “Mister Pfister Gristletwist.” The prolific Prelutsky seems to have an unending ability to have fun with language and concepts, plus unceasing delight in creating the most improbable characters and situations possible – then describing them so they come to thoroughly illogical but always-amusing poetic life.