The Usefulness of Hippopotamus
by Vincent J. Tomeo
Atticus Publishing

"A self-portrait of Pablo Picasso roamed freely, / whispered into the ear of a Girl with A Pearl Earring / the boy in The Torn Hat was up to mischief."

Tomeo’s collection of short, whimsical verses was written as a balm against the trying times through which we have been living. His verses cover the gamut of human experience and are foremost linked thematically in their wit and attempt to make light of the human condition. There is the poem quoted above about art coming alive in a museum paralleled with one covering the rambunctious food left in the fridge. Another expands the colloquial wisdom shared with children about the effects of consuming a watermelon seed. At times, Tomeo tones down the humor and adds a little more tenderness and connectedness. For example, he closes the title poem by speaking of the hippopotamus, “Paving a route, creating streams, roads for other animals to navigate their way.” It is a nice allusion to his wish for humor to help us navigate our own way.

Reading a collection of humorous verses often evokes initial connections to poets such as Shel Silverstein, works like Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, or even the comedy and wonder that can be found in Lewis Carroll. However, as many of the works also spring out of personal experience, like Tomeo’s streaking confession, there is a thematic link to the confessional poets. For instance, “My Streaking Days Are Over” does not include the deep remorse and unforgivableness of, say, Robert Lowell’s “Dolphin,” but it does include a bit of self-parody as well as a wink to something more than streaking when the persona is left clothed only by a piece of The New York Times, while “No one said a word.” In “Pancakes in Heaven,” Tomeo mentions that St. Peter offers them pancakes as they prepare to enter heaven. However, by the end of the poem, the persona is told to go to hell. In “Dream Song 55”, John Berryman, one of a handful of the better-known confessional poets, states, “Peter’s not friendly. He gives me sideways looks.” Peter will serve Berryman’s persona a martini, “strangely needed,” and the persona mentions that they feel their application to get into heaven is failing. These connections provide an opportunity to see more depth in what Tomeo is attempting and add a link to a group of poets who spent a lot of time writing about their own failings in ways that could be equally heartbreaking and humorous.

Tomeo primarily writes short, free-verse poems with occasional instances of end or internal rhyme that are essentially tuned to deliver their parting thought like a punchline. The humor has strains of Twain running throughout, mixed with simpler, childlike puns. In just a page turn or two, Tomeo’s tenderness—“I will splash upon your walls to bring you golden light, / and whisper cryptic messages to help you walk between the shadows.”—will find a way to pick readers up and carry them before setting them down in a brighter place. In that manner, they are achieving what they set out to do, and a reader looking for easy-to-understand, whimsical verses intended to lighten one’s mood for a moment will find just that in Tomeo’s collection.

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