John J. Trause
Exercises in High Treason
great weather for MEDIA
Reviewer: Francine Witte
The cover of John J. Trause’s new collection of poetry, Exercises in High Treason, tells you exactly what you are about to walk into. A casual glance at the cover shows a jumble of letters and words in red and white, but a second, closer look reveals that the red letters are actually a poem turned on its head. great weather editor, Jane Omerod, says she designed the cover influenced by the fact that Trause has performed work while standing on his head. Treason.
And if the title didn’t already fill you in, this is a collection that will commit the treason of turning poetry every which way, with humor and a wink. Rather than occurring as a challenger or antagonist, Trause comes across as an MC of sorts and invites the reader to act as accomplice. Stand on your head, he is saying. The view is exquisite, and it makes everything new.
The first section, “Translashations,” is aptly named. Here, Trause takes the lash to some familiar poems and “translates” them with a wry nod. Oh yes? he says of the “The Lark,” you think you’re so fancy? It turns out “The Lark” is the English version of the song we learned as children, Allouette, gentille Alouette. Trause aptly makes the point that stripped of the euphonic French and lilting melody, the words are clunky and, actually, quite cruel.
Alouette, gentille allouette
Je te plumerai
Lark, nice Lark
I am going to pluck you.
This continues with the plucking of the ears, the eyes, and so on. Not so fancy now, says Trause, having stood this poem on its head, forcing the coins out of its pocket.
He goes on, shaking up the work of Horace, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, and even the Bible. He satirizes “Psalm 23,” experimenting with political correctness:
The deity (if there is one) is my pastoral manager. I will not be negatively impacted by the economy.
You can’t help but smile. But it’s a smile that has an underlying sense of the serious. In “A Conversation Between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Darth Vader” Trause invites you to stand our culture on its head.
RBG: All respect for the office of the presidency aside, I assumed the obvious and unadulterated decline of freedom and constitutional sovereignty, not to mention the efforts to curb the power of judicial review, spoke for itself.
Darth Vadar: No, I am your father.
The poem goes on. Every time RBG speaks in this dialogue, it’s a brilliant piece of wisdom. It is not women’s liberation, it is women’s and men’s liberation, RBG says. DV’s comeback is always the same. Here, Trause turns to the reader and says, okay, you’re laughing, but which of these quotes are you more familiar with?
This section entertains and provokes and may even change how you approach poetry. High treason indeed.
Another section, “Trompe l’oeil,” takes the treason a step further. A trompe l’oiel, literally translated, is a trick of the eye. The trick here is that there is no trick. For example, the poem “Self Centered” is simply the word “self” centered on the page. What else, Trause asks, were you expecting?
My favorite in this section is “Corpus Christie,” a visual representation of Governor Chris Christie:
Governor Chris Christie
GGGOOOVVVEEERRRNNNOOORRR CCCHHHRRRIIISSS CCCHHHRRRIIISSSTTTIIIEEE
and so on.
I will leave other examples to be discovered by the reader, but most of them are fun and inventive, and will make you wish you had “thought of that.”
The third section, “Arcana Mundi,” plays with a variety of forms, including an abecedary, which is a poem that includes every letter of the alphabet. But wait, this is John Trause, who presents us with “A Child’s First Pathological Abecedary”:
A is for Anna who ached with Anorexia
B is for Byron who barfed bitter bile
C is for Conrad who contracted chlamydia
This is a dark take on a usually light and playful form.
My favorite in this section is a list-poem titled “This Poem Will Piss You Off.” I guess the title suggests that it shouldn’t be my favorite because I too will be pissed off, but I’m not.
This poem will not be about Charlie Parker or Charles Mingus
or John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis or Leadbelly
or Robert Johnson.
But it is about them, John Trause. Because you mentioned them.
This poem will not be about Vincent Van Gogh or any other failed
artist who tried hard to be French, but was better when he was
Dutch and a writer and preacher and painter of dark Low scenes,
and who knew he was a failure and finally, graciously killed himself
to spare us more bad art.
No, not about him at all.
The section “Anagrammaton” (which is actually only one poem) brilliantly couples and anagrammatizes words under a subheading.
The Easter Mystery Anagrammatized
The Graduate Anagrammatized
The section “For Immediate Release” contains the very clever “Cards Against Humanity: My Expansion Pack,” a long list of those things with which, it appears, Trause is disenchanted. Among them:
Bronzed Baby Shoes
Chia Pet obedience schools
Vladimir Putin’s selfies
Cappuccino flavored potato chips
as well as some more serious:
Setting the homeless on fire
and some I just do not believe:
Wild make-up sex
By the time I got to the back of the book, which is aptly titled “The back of the book,” and goes something like this:
I felt like I was watching one of those films you think is over, though the credits are just another wonderful part of the action. I didn’t quite know when Trause had stopped asking me to stand on my head.
Exercises in High Treason is so simultaneously funny and smart, you’ll know that there’s more than one reading of it in your future.