“Karma, dharma, pudding, and pie…” isn’t exactly how we remember the line read to us in our tender years. But then, nursery rhymes are no longer thought of in the same way either—as innocent little ditties for the kiddies. The conventional wisdom now is that the sing-song patterns of childhood verses are sneaky ways of sharing subversive and dangerous information or ideas and that your Jacks and your Jills are stand-ins for historical figures. The pair who went up the hill and were injured on the return trip, for example, represented King Louis and Marie Antoinette, who had rather severe cranial mishaps after tripping on that little bump in the road called the French Revolution. Humpty Dumpty was the nickname of a formidable cannon constructed by the Royalists in the English Civil War (1642-1649), whose supports were shot out from under it, but, alas, you guessed it, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” And Georgie Porgie, who is alluded to in the title of the volume of poetry under review here, was a Duke caught in a sex scandal at the time of Charles II (he “kissed the girls and made them cry,” then ran away “when the boys came out to play”).
So Philip Appleman is being true to the form when he uses the bouncy rhythms and clever rhymes of youth to make some adult points about modern life. In addition to Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, Appleman has penned seven collections of poetry, three novels, and five nonfiction works, including the popular Norton Critical Edition of Darwin. He is the winner of prestigious national awards including a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanist Arts Award of the American Humanist Association. The current collection is also whimsically illustrated by the line drawings of Arnold Roth, whose work appears in such magazines as The New Yorker, Punch, and Playboy.
The poems in Pudding go down very easily, for the most part. They’re witty, satirical, full of intellectual wordplay, unapologetically opinionated, heretical, and sprinkled with surprises that are sometimes serious and often bawdy. Many of the poems are here for sheer enjoyment. Take this takeoff on a college catalog, a poem called “Arts and Sciences,” which reduces subject areas to what undergraduates are usually thinking about—sex. Here’s his description of “Physics” (best read aloud like a nursery rhyme):
If E is how eager I am for you,
And m is your marvelous body,
And c means the caring I plan for you,
Then E = Magna Cum Laude
Some entries in the collection mix humor with serious intention. In his opening poem, Appleman gets a kick out of pulling off a double apostasy—both Western religious traditionalists and strict secularists may not approve of an invocation called “Five Easy Prayers for Pagans.” It’s an appeal to a sundry pantheon of powerful forces including a personified Karma, Aphrodite, Shiva, Mammon, and the “Goddesses of Good Fortune.” It provides insight into what a nonbeliever who wants everything might secretly ask for—great abs, a financial fortune, sexual prowess, A’s on every test, fast friendships, faithful love, a perfect world, universal irreverence “and before our world goes over the brink, teach the believers how to think.”
There are also touches of beauty blooming amidst the prickly patches in Appleman’s garden of verses. There’s love for places (especially those with French names, in “Petals on a Wet, Black Bough”), love for times (reluctantly, the month of April, in the sonnet “That Time of Year”), love for times gone by (“Nightingales and Roses: The Desert at Shiraz”) and love for his wife, Marjorie, in two especially lovely poems: “Said” and “Horoscope.” If you love dactyls (who doesn’t?) and if ever you’ve become enamored with someone’s name as well as their person, you’ll like the former. If ever you’ve dated a flake, see the latter.
Just how funny or charming you’ll find all these entries is, of course, a matter of taste. So too is the effectiveness of Appleman’s criticisms of organized religion done in regular meter. The poem “God’s Grandeur” is what I would call his version of God’s reproof of Job (chapter 38, verse 1 onwards). Or maybe it’s a response to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem of the same title. It begins and ends as follows:
When they hunger and thirst, and I send down a famine,
When they pray for the sun, and I drown them with rain,
And they beg me for reasons, my only reply is:
I never apologize, never explain.
When the Angel of Death is a black wind around them
And children are dying in terrible pain,
Then they burn little candles in churches, but still
I never apologize, never explain.
. . . .
Of course, if they’re smart, they can figure it out–
The best of all reasons is perfectly plain.
It’s because I just happen to like it this way–
So I never apologize, never explain.”
That’s harsh. But, of course, readers are doubtless familiar with such a critique of the omnipotent, omniscient, and supposedly just and merciful central character of Western religions. The longest section of the book—“Bible 101”—is a primer on what’s wrong with idolizing such a figure and what comes from doing so.
Appleman’s most pointed attempt to drill into the theistic viewpoint comes at the end of this section. It’s a serious poem, infused with wry humor and paradox, and which abandons nursery rhythms for free verse. It’s the best poem in the book. Titled, “On the Seventh Day,” it asks a question that might be out of the Talmud: why did God create man? The poem is an internal monologue and a character study of God, who begins as a sympathetic figure. After creating the universe, except for people, God is still lonely and bored. Existence has no surprises, no challenges, and it stretches on forever. So he considers what to do next:
if being God was going to be worth it all,
if He was going to get any fun
out of the job, He needed
something permanent, but evanescent,
something negligible, but outrageous…
Something—someone special, someone
capable of understanding how cleverly
He’d stacked the deck—capable of knowing
how his omniscient
justice, and mercy, and love—capable
So at the last hour, on the last day,
He’d made up His mind: do it,
and call it Man, or Woman, or, why not,
create both of them, and let them
help each other
Yes, there’s a sadistic thrust to this turn of thought, but it comes from a character who is, I think, ultimately unhappy and tragic. Ironically, Appleman shows us that just as humans in the Bible story are God’s most interesting creations, the mirror image also holds true. In other words, we should see God as one of our species’ most interesting fictional creations.
In the last section of the collection—“Darwin 101”—Appleman, an expert on Darwin, cautions both dabblers in evolutionary theory and die-hard creationists against superficial smugness. In “Intelligent? Design?” (sung to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), he counters creationist’s arguments by reminding all of us that humans are not perfectly formed creatures, that, for instance, our eyes are not as efficient as those of other organisms and the narrowness of the female pelvis is a cause for problems in childbirth. Appleman also points out, in “Not For Love,” that, like Darwin, though we may be awed by nature and find beauty in its features, the theory of evolution shows nonetheless that life is filled with struggle, human action is self-serving as well as compassionate, and that we’re not immune from the possibility of extinction. (This is a caveat to humanists who believe in the perfectibility of the world through science and reason.)
Whatever ideas come through, Appleman’s joy in using language is one of the primary pleasures one experiences in savoring his latest collection of poems. He uses language in all its glory to amuse, to teach, to move, and to persuade. And he succeeds in recapturing some of the freshness of the time when we first learned our native tongue, when bonding sound to meaning was still something new, exciting, and fun.