We don’t know much about him.
We don’t know what he’s done.
We don’t know what he stands for,
Or why he wants to run.
We don’t know if he’s able,
Or even if he’s sane,
But, hey! let’s vote Obama,
He looks good off the plane.
— From Hart Seely’s “Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”
Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard. By Hart Seely. Free Press, 128 pp., $12.95.
By Janice Harayda
Songwriter Tom Lehrer once said that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. But Hart Seely proves otherwise in this lively collection of parodies of rhymes by Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.
Seely lacks the finesse of Calvin Trillin, whose satirical verses include his brilliant farewell to the first President Bush in Deadline Poet: “You did your best in your own way, / The way of Greenwich Country Day …” Trillin’s targets are typically self-evident in context, but some of Seely’s poems will need footnotes in five years. Even now, how many people remember the so-called Macaca sandal that involved former Senator George Allen (“The Cock Doth Crow”)? Or know who former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed is or why “his pals were indicted” (“Little Ralph Reed”)? Trillin also uses iambic meter, the closest to natural speech. But Seely has to work with the less subtle meters of the nursery rhymes and other poems he parodies, such as dactylic and anapestic. This constraint can lead to forced or obvious rhymes when he takes on heavier topics, such as Barbara Bush’s influence on her family (“Mother Bush Had a House”) or Rudolph Guiliani’s attempts to cash in politically on the goodwill he earned after 9/11 (“Rememberin’ Rudy”).
Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington works best when it sends up lighter-weight trends that befit its nursery-rhyme format, including the tendency of Americans to favor candidates they don’t know well, such as Barak Obama (“Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”). In a section on the media Seely deftly lampoons Bill O’Reilly, Judith Miller, Tim Russert and others. He also tweaks the focus on Katie Couric’s appearance instead of news after her move to CBS (“Rock-a-Bye, Katie”):
In the big chair,
Though the news breaks,
The headline’s your hair.
Over the centuries, many of the rhymes in this book have acquired tunes. And even the weaker poems would lend themselves well to a cabaret show. If entertainer Mark Russell tires of writing his own material, he might find all the help he needs in Seely.
Best line: Some of the sharpest lines in this book have nothing to do with politics, such as these from a poem called “Blah, Blah Blackberry”: “Spam from PayPal. / Spam from a scam. / Spam from a site / That eliminates spam.”
Worst line: Poetry collections usually open with a strong poem, so it’s odd that the first one in this book is weak on every level. “Mother Bush Had a House” tweaks Barbara Bush with lines that could have come from bright eighth-grader: “She had a son, George, / A fine-looking male, / He was not very bright, / But still made it to Yale.” Among the problems: The point of the lines is unoriginal. The adverbs “very” and “still” are there are only for the sake of the meter. And all the lines end with a noun or adjective, when verb end-rhymes tend to be stronger.
Recommendation? Don’t forget this book in December when you need a stocking-stuffer for your most political friend. Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington could also be a great choice for book clubs that want to do more poetry, because it spares neither Republicans nor Democrats. [I may post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book later this summer.]
Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Published: June 2007 www.simonsays.com
Furthermore: Seely is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and on National Public Radio.
Janice Harayda is an award-wrinning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.