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Fun for Seekers

by G.P. Skratz

How to Be Perfect, An Illustrated Guide, words by Ron Padgett and pictures by Jason Novak, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2016, 99 pages, $16.00.

THIS IS A POET'S "graphic novel," a form invented for poetry by Dave Morice's many "Poetry Comics." Unlike comic strips, though, this takes the form of a preschooler's "reader"—a little text & a simple illustration per page.

Ron Padgett is one of the most playful of the playful New York School poets, & Jason Novak's work has graced the pages of The New Yorker, The Paris Review, & other sturdy venues. They have produced a frightening book to review: if one judges it, one doesn't really "get" it.

One enters expecting sarcasm but sometimes we find the straightforward commandment, e.g., "Do not waste money you could be giving to those who need it" (p.29). Happily, even those more straightforward texts often wander into the unlikely surreal: e.g., "If someone murders your child, get a shotgun & blow his head off" (p.26). Or what starts as sensible advice veers into the obsessive reverse: "Don't be afraid of anything beyond your control. Don't be afraid, for instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone you love will suddenly drop dead" (p.4).

The illustrations, of course, are at their best when expanding our view to unexpected meaning. The simple "Calm down" (p.35) is pictured as a man relaxing in a lawn chair by a rustic farmhouse as a tornado barrels down. Bravo, Mr. Novak!

Sadly, many illustrations simply illustrate. Page one, "Get some sleep," shows a man sleeping. A jumble of "Z"s, perhaps in a thought balloon, might have had more "lift."

There's an amusing dash of Catholicism in some of the pictures (not entirely out of place in a book of aphorisms hungering for the "perfect"). The simple admonition "Go upstairs" (p.43) shows a monk ascending stairs with a look of tentative hope. "Keep your windows clean" (p.47) shows a bishop washing a stained glass window with a brush strapped to his Holy Miter. This might seem to be a predilection more of illustrator than of poet, but I imagine their collaboration to be one of gleeful back-&-forth.

Summing up the book: here's what it is: a fun ride, nice & easy, often hilarious. Enjoy!

G.P. Skratz performs poetry and music with Arundo and "twisted roots" music with Smooth Toad. He's the author of The Gates of Disappearance, Fun, ghostwriter of the Three Stooges biography, Larry/The Stooge in the Middle, and co-author, with the late poet Darrell Gray, of Everything Else. His new book is Sundae Missile: the Mass of the Church of the Center that will not hold, from Poetry Hotel Press. He lives in Oakland, California.

— posted September 2017

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