Review of the Day: The Man In the Moon-Fixer's Mask
The Man In the Moon-Fixer's Mask by JonArno Lawson. Illustrations by Sherwin Tija. Wordsong (a Boyd Mills Press imprint). $14.95.
In the world of children’s books you’ll often find authors of adult fiction attempt the tricky switch to a much younger audience. Some authors, like E.B. White, are comfortable writing for people of all ages. For most, however, the switch tends to feel unnatural. What pleases a grown-up won’t suit a child, and oftentimes adult writers have some pretty funny ideas about what is appropriate or, more importantly, fun for kids. Until now, I’ve never seen an adult poet attempt the same switch. JonArno Lawson is perhaps best known for serious works like, “Love Is an Observant Traveller” and “Inklings”. A native of Toronto, the fellow has two children. Logical then that he’d try his hand at a field dominated by Shel Silverstein/Douglas Florian types. To my relief, “The Man In the Moon-Fixer’s Mask” is, by and large, a success. Lawson has yet to fully grasp exactly who his audience (or age range for that matter) is, but the book is often a purely enjoyable read. I wouldn’t give this to a kid looking for Jack Prelutsky-type rhymes, but for older children just verging on their teens, this might be just the right slow, thoughtful gift to give them on the sly.
Forty-five poems make up this small, slim book. Few of these last for any longer than a page, but each one is capable of conjuring up wholly new worlds. In “The Empty-Headed Scarecrow”, we hear of a creature that comes “at night / with blood-red rhubarb stalks / to pummel hollow pumpkin drums. / It’s burlap voice is dry as straw.” Or there’s a quick dip with the Gazdinks in the Gond who locate a money pond containing, “Dragonflies with wings of dime / The mud a crush of copper pennies.” Alongside JonArno’s words are the sometimes surreal, sometimes serious pictures of Sherwin Tija.
So is this a book of kids? Yeeeees, I say hesitantly. It certainly tries to be, most of the time. It’s funny how often Lawson will write a poem that combines two animals together like an ostrich with a rhino (a great picture accompanies that one) or a hippo with a possum. There are also some excellent tongue-twisting rhymes that shake the reader out of their complacency (as with “The Great Snoth of Snitch-on-the-Snotch”). Yet sometimes it seems clear that Lawson should really be turning his sights towards teen readers. “My Garden Breeds a Savage Bloom” is a truly lovely poem. It contains heady sentences like, “Under the glowering / goat-lidded loom / of my garden’s / savage bloom.” But only a few kids are going to appreciate what the poet is doing here. Likewise the poem “Talking in the Caucasus” (the title alone should warn you) is so smart and complicated and doggone difficult to pronounce that no one under the age of fourteen would even attempt it. You’re not going to hand a child who has finally grown comfortable learning to read aloud a poem that contains lines like, “Bagvalal, Batsbi, Botlikh, and Buduhk / there’s Chechen and Chamalal / also Circassian (some use Cherkess and some Kabardin), / Dargwa, and Greek, Godoberi, Ginuhk.” Unless, y’know, you hate kids or something. On the whole Lawson keeps to the straight and narrow. It’s only once in a while that he gets carried away with his cleverness and treads into YA territory.
By and large, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in Lawson’s words, though. When you read about “The odious tiny / melodious toad”, it falls so trippingly off the tongue that you begin to question why no other poet has ever thought to string such syllables together before. The silly poems never get so silly as to involve anything gross or scatological. That’s not a criticism, mind you. It’s nice to see a book of poems for kids get away from “Walter the Farting Dog” territory. Still, even if the poetry doesn’t cater to its audience’s need for the ridiculous, a couple more pictures could certainly have been in order. Illustrator (and poet) Sherwin Tija delicately places several pen-and-ink pictures opposite or under their accompanying poems. These illustrations always stay separate from the text, never interacting with them. There’s plenty of white space between the two. Sometimes Tija will work in some slight photography, but for the most part the pictures have an almost Jules Feiffer feel to them (sans any kind of sloppiness). They are not the focus of the book, but rather a delicate complement to Lawson’s thoughts.
Of course, how a poet chooses to begin their title is of the utmost importance. You want to give people a sense of the book to come. Even if your book of poetry doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end, you at least want to start off with something that snatches the child-reader’s attention right from the get-go. What are we to make of the fact that the first poem in this particular book is entitled, “Mope”? It’s a cute little look at a girl who mopes without hopes. Honestly, though, I couldn’t think of less exciting way to begin the collection. If I had my way, I’d begin instead with “Horses in Cities”. That poem just shows a city with a horse-shaped body of water in the center of it. The verses aren’t flashy, but they convey the dreamlike melancholy that makes the book so appealing. It has clever rhymes like “iniquitous” with “ubiquitous” and scans beautifully. Though to be honest, the last poem in the book, “The Dundas Driving Park” is a magnificent way of ending the book. It hits exactly the right chord at exactly the right moment.
This is not a book to hand to a third-grader. Not even those in the fourth or fifth grade would necessarily latch onto Lawson’s smart visions and gentle imagery. Best to hand this book to the intelligent sixth or seventh grader that’s started to move away from the basics and needs a good crossover book to help them discover the world of adult poetry. I feel as if I’ve criticized “The Man In the Moon-Fixer’s Mask” a bit harshly. This is probably because I really enjoyed Lawson’s style. I love how he can twist a word around and around, utterly convoluting the poem’s meaning in the process. I love the visions that poems like “A Princess Apprentice” or “She Took Two Rings” inspired. My only fear is that this book won’t find its intended audience. For verses this smart, a little attention is needed. Not for all kids and certainly not for the reluctant poetry-readers out there, but there are definitely children who need to read what this book provides. Entirely and utterly unique.