April 12, 2012


Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems. By Gail Carson Levine. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Harper. $15.99.

I’ve Lost My Hippopotamus. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $18.99.

      We are well into political silly season, and that means we are well into false-apology season as well: “I apologize if anyone was offended,” “I am sorry that my words were misconstrued,” “I had not meant to speak in a way that may have inadvertently upset some people,” and all the rest of the weasel-word apologies that are not really apologies but attempts to maintain deniability and wiggle room.  Politicians are far from alone in employing these unapologetic pseudo-apologies: their handlers and supporters do so as well, and so do corporate chieftains, and so – if we are being honest about it – do many people in everyday life who meant just what they said but who encounter a stronger reaction to their comments than they anticipated.  William Carlos Williams invented the false-apology poem, calling it “This Is Just to Say” and explaining that he was sorry to have eaten the plums of the person to whom the poem is addressed, but my goodness, they were delicious.  That is, he is not sorry at all to have gotten to the fruit first.  Gail Carson Levine includes the Williams poem in Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It, then adds to it a whole pile of her own false-apology poems, all with the same title as Williams’.  Her introduction (which she withholds until after several of the poems) explains the poems’ structure and urges readers to write their own.  And Matthew Cordell aids and abets the whole devilish enterprise with illustrations showing the successful perpetrators and dismayed perpetrated-upon.  Some of Levine’s poems deal with simple family matters: “I swiped/ your lucky/ baseball/ cap/ which/ made you tragically/ lose/ the state playoff/ Forgive me/ the cap/ keeps the sun/ out of my eyes.”  Others involve famous fictional characters, such as Pinocchio: “I have shortened/ my nose/ with your saw/ because/ honestly/ telling lies/ is so much fun/ Forgive me/ I don’t care/ about becoming/ a real boy.”  And then there are the sendups of lullabies: “I’m the one/ who stuck/ the cradle/ in the tree/ which/ was probably/ a stupid place/ to put a baby/ Forgive me/ I thought/ that bough would break/ sooner or later.”  And non-apologies about nursery rhymes, such as “Three Blind Mice”: “I confess/ I sliced off/ their skinny/ tails/ which/ they seemed awfully/ fond/ of waving/ Forgive me/ I wanted symmetry/ sightless in front/ tailless behind.”  The whole book is a modest sort of guilty pleasure, giving vent to a nyah-nyah-nyah impulse barely concealed behind clever verbiage and suitably amusing pictures.  Maybe, just maybe, kids who read it will absorb a dose of skepticism, suitable for application when they are old enough to vote.

      Jack Prelutsky’s poems in I’ve Lost My Hippopotamus are more straightforwardly humorous, less wry and considerably less cynical, but are just as much fun in their own way.  Some, such as the title poem, deal with imaginary situations involving real animals.  But the imaginary situations involving imaginary creatures are even more enjoyable: “The GLUDUS are a nuisance,/ With a tendency to cling./ It’s hard to make them go away,/ They stick to everything./ If you should meet the GLUDUS,/ There is little you can do./ You’ll find that you are out of luck—/ They’ll soon be stuck on you.”  Poems like this one seem especially to inspire illustrator Jackie Urbanovic, whose takes on WIGUANAS (“the world’s/ Only lizards with hair”), HALIBUTTERFLIES, the agile HOPALOTAMUS, the PENGUINCHWORMS and other critters are absolutely right.  Prelutsky’s imagination runs rampant in poems about PELICANTALOUPES (which “are predisposed to mope—/ They’re never very jolly”) and an unusual specter: “Most ghosts are insignificant,/ Incalculably small./ It’s impossible to find them,/ Even when they caterwaul./ A number are voluminous,/ A few are extra tall—/ The enormous ELEPHANTOM/ Is the grandest ghost of all.”  The oddball animals and other creatures are scattered throughout a book that also includes poems about golf, bouncing, conspicuous consumption (“Otto Gottalott”), a snake that can do math (it’s an adder), and the unexpected (but unapologetic) consequences of eating fruit.  A set of haiku about real animals makes an attractive mid-book change of pace; then the silliness resumes, remaining in place to the end of a set of poems that can be as much fun to read out loud as to use for chuckling quietly while reading them to oneself.

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