- The Hole Story of Kirby the Sneak and Arlo the True by Greg Williamson
It would be easy to mistake The Hole Story for a children’s book, and to expect that children’s literature has enlisted a poet already known for his keen wit and high degree of skill in handling meter and rhyme. The main characters of this story-poem are two dogs and a cat, and Brian Bowes has supplied it with engaging cartoon illustrations. But if confronted with the book, under-eights will be baffled. These aren’t talking animals. We are given just their solitary thoughts, never their words, except on one occasion when Kismet the cat gives Kirby the sneaky dog a bit of advice. True enough, readers of any age can appreciate many of the smoothly flowing and musical couplets, as in this description of Kismet and her sorcery:
That crepuscular hunter, that somnolent purr,That lightning strike wrapped up in quicksilver fur.
She could hear a slug slide and the sneeze of a snail.She could make a cloud rain with the rings in her tail.
She could leap off a lamppost and land on her feetAnd hear the small heart of a bumblebee beat. [End Page 282]
She could fly through the night on the back of a broomAnd see through pitch black in a windowless room
And foretell if a girl would say yes to a groomOr if sailors were heading for fair skies or doom.
Yet there are more than 600 iambic pentameter couplets, far exceeding a very young reader’s attention span. Less easily fathomable passages are peppered with allusions to Amazon Prime, Mensa, quantum mechanics, Euclidean geometry, Baedeker, Mercutio, Freemasonry, Ptoleomy’s theories of motion, Velazquez’s painting “The Spinners,” Chaucer’s fabliau of Chaunticleer, and much besides. The first part of the poem, not quite half, tells the story of how Kirby the Sneak, a sheepdog with a doctorate, determines to play a prank on another dog, the annoyingly virtuous Arlo the True. He hits upon the very thing: he will steal Arlo’s more cherished possession, a hole Arlo dug when he was a pup, a “downhole instead of an up.” This valued object Kirby digs up and bags, and buries in a neighbor’s garden—a theft that sets off a catastrophe. All nature breaks down and starts falling apart. Fortunately, Kirby puts back the hole, and nature is restored. End of story. Any brave or incredibly mature child who has stuck with the book through page 54 can now give up on it.
The poem, however, continues for another 394 excellent couplets. Kirby begins to think about things, among them genealogy, the history of the Old West, the nature of time, even the question of how creation took place:
Does the “Arrow of Time” have a target? We knowIt’s flown by. It keeps flying. But who drew the bow?
So then was there a was there before that—a then?Or a where for an archer to stand, or a when?
At what point did that state of inaction desistAnd the heat lamp flash on, and the planets exist?
If the universe—if—is a lather-borne bubbleAnd way way way way past the lenses of Hubble
Are a googolplex more of them—you do the math—In some cosmic Jacuzzi, well, who drew the bath?
Good questions. I suspect that if we hold it against The Hole Story that it isn’t a children’s book, we will be blaming the poet for not doing what he [End Page 283] never set out to do. Grownup readers of poetry will cherish this odd work, especially if they enjoy challenging thought expressed in tight forms and tight forms fulfilled with mastery.
This, by the way, is another remarkable product of Philip Hoy’s unique publishing house, which specializes in nothing but outstanding poetry. Not content to publish editions of the collected poems of Anthony Hecht, W.D. Snodgrass, and Richard Wilbur...