‘A Clown at Midnight’ by Andrew Hudgins
“She laughs because there’s nothing else to do”
Andrew Hudgins, a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist, explores the important intersection of comedy and tragedy in his new book, A Clown at Midnight. The title of the book comes from silent film actor Lon Chaney, who noted, “The essence of true horror is a clown at midnight.” Chaney’s statement highlights the significance of context. While a clown at the circus might be amusing, a clown at the night’s darkest hour is out of place, draws suspicion and causes discomfort, even dread. Unfortunately, the titular image contains more depth and humor than the majority of this collection.
The title poem is a villanelle that takes the “bad joke” as its central figure. This joke is not in a comedy club, not in the funny pages, not exchanged among friends. Rather, the joke fraternizes with “fat whores”; it is “defiant.” It does not “want to rub your funny bone.” (The poem seems to carry a sexual undertone, as it is littered with words like “rub,” “moan” and “bone.”) No, this joke wants to “break” your funny bone, “then skip town.” It isn’t likable, and, as the poem goes on, it becomes less and less possible to view the joke as a joke, which may or may not be the punchline.
While the form feels clean and contained, the joke in the poem is not. “In the Arboretum” also relies heavily on a set structure. In this columnar poem, each short line ends with a word that contains, in its final syllable, the letter “m”—“snowstorm,” “arboretum,” “ecosystem,” “autumn,” “phantom,” spectrum,” etc. The construct gets redundant and ultimately detracts from the poem’s concept. Hudgins’s poems also contain many accentuated rhymes, which often lend themselves to standardization, sometimes prompting the reader to “fill in the blank” before s/he reads the line in full. The formal nature of many of these poems is restricting, disabling Hudgins from more fully and explicitly exploring the nebulous overlap of comedy and tragedy.
As Hudgins would probably tell you, this kind of exploration is by no means new. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, around 335 BC, we’ve been confounded by the mirror relationship that comedy and tragedy share. Recent updates on this issue include Woody Allen’s 2004 film Melinda and Melinda, which follows the same character (Melinda) through two different plots, one comic, one tragic. The plots are generated by screenwriter friends who, in the opening scene, debate whether life itself is essentially comic or tragic, or whether either viewpoint yields a “deeper reality.” Hudgins appears to be addressing the same issue. He opens section two of the book with an epigraph from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Shall I laugh with Democritus, or weep with Heraclitus?” Since the central issue of Hudgins’s book is not necessarily fresh, a reader’s expectations are that some new insight on a familiar issue will be offered. A poem called “The Humor Institute” theorizes on the function of humor and the human need for the absurd: “She laughs because there’s nothing else to do, / because there’s worse beneath the worst she feared.” These lines beg the question: where is the line to be drawn between humor and insanity? Can the laughter described in these lines be defined as comedy or is this the laughter of a woman who has become mentally unbalanced? Are these the same thing?
In contrast to the poems that revolve around a “joke” are poems such as “Autumn’s Author,” a serious poem of 10 longish lines. “Autumn’s Author” ends the first section of A Clown at Midnight and carries more poetic weight than any poem in the collection. The speaker of the poem describes “an exhausted autocrat” that was “Once all gloss, paunch, and wanton frivolity.” The poem’s central figure contemplates the “enthrallments” of his younger days, and the poem ends with a chilling image: “He knows they [the enthrallments] weren’t false, though behind the last, / unlocked knob, a chalk-faced pallbearer coughs.” The poem is at once reassuring and bleak. The Autumn Author knows that the follies of his youth were real, and yet, they cannot eradicate the inevitability of death.
Hudgins’s speaker faces other human realities as well, carnality for one. In “Fairy Tale with Ex-Wife,” the speaker and his wife at the time are caught in a snowstorm that forces them to seek shelter in a stranger’s home. During the night, the speaker puts the moves on his wife, and, understandably, she becomes impatient, chiding the speaker: “She’ll catch us.” and “Goddamn it, no.” Perhaps this is, in part, how she became the “ex-wife.”
But too often, the poet tries, and fails, to give his poems the effect of good jokes. A more disturbing and less comical reality is portrayed in “Princess after Princess,” for example. The poem is set at an Easter celebration, where the speaker bounces several young girls (presumably his nieces, as he is “Uncle Horse”) on his knee, telling each that she is beautiful. There is one girl, however, that isn’t awarded the same praise. This girl has chocolate on her dress and sports an “overbite.” When the girl demands an explanation for why she is not called “beautiful” like the other girls, the speaker admits he won’t “lie.” (Spoiler: he eventually lies.) His way of distinguishing beauty between young children is deeply unfunny, and assures one of little more than the fact that Uncle Horse is kind of an ass.
The sort of base jesting evident in “Princess after Princess” and other poems from A Clown at Midnight is not unique to this book. In a new memoir from Simon & Schuster, The Joker, Hudgins explores an affinity for what many would find to be tasteless humor. Many of the types of jokes he admits to enjoying are explicitly racist, an issue expounded on in this New York Times review of the memoir. The unfortunate humor that Hudgins displays in The Joker litters the pages of A Clown at Midnight, and it seems that The Joker functions as some sort of justification for sometimes paltry and lazy comedy. The tragedy in these poems is, in fact, the comedy itself: not jarring, not shocking, just not really very funny.