Book Bag: ‘Abracadabratude’ by Chris O’Carroll; ‘Darkest Before Dawn’ by Robert T. McMaster

  • “Abracadabratude” is a new book of witty poetry by Chris O’Carroll. CONTRIBUTED

  • “Darkest Before Dawn” is the next in Robert T. McMasters’ Trolley Days Series. CONTRIBUTED

Staff Writer 
Monday, September 05, 2022


By Chris O’Carroll 
Kelsay Books


In a world of serious poets, Chris O’Carroll brings a lighter touch to things, using his witty verse to offer fresh takes on any number of subjects, from love to sex to baseball to children’s tales. A standup comedian as well as a poet — he described himself to the Gazette a few years ago as a “recovering journalist” — O’Carroll is a regular and award-winning contributor to a variety of online and published journals.

One of those forums is “The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology,” a collection that, according to its liner notes, “brings together the work of more than one hundred smart aleck poets who serve as bulwarks against the bombast and fatuousness of modern popular culture.”

But in an introduction to O’Carroll’s newest collection, “Abracadabratude,” fellow New England poet Alfred Nicol says one should not be fooled by O’Carroll’s approach: “He’s one serious poet, a master craftsman with such a wealth of wit, I imagine him raising a glass with the gang at the Mermaid Tavern. Those Elizabethans would have welcomed him as a kindred spirit.”

In his new book, O’Carroll, who lives in Pelham, offers mostly short poems, but they’re distilled down to what’s important — and what’s consistently funny. Take the nine lines of “Dramatic Gestures,” which begins with “Tragedy ends in death, they taught, / While comedy ends in sex. / Comedy starts with sex, I’d have thought. / The subject gets way complex.”

Want some diverse topics? “Tall Tale” is inspired by a letter Frank Lloyd Wright wrote to The Nation in 1931 denouncing New York’s Empire State Building, while “Toke Me Out to the Ball Game,” a variation on the 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat,” followed the announcement in 2019 that Major League Baseball was removing marijuana from its list of banned substances for players.

“The outlook was, like, brilliant for the Weedville nine that day. / They vaped some prime sativa. Ergo, ultra-psyched to play. // When Weedville got the munchies, there was never any doubt / That vendors stocking Cracker Jack and peanuts would run out.”

O’Carroll also reinvents some children’s poems and stories, imagining the Owl and the Pussycat discovering on their honeymoon that “Coition in any position” is a huge challenge for a cat and a bird. In “The Princess and the Pea,” meanwhile, the prince is excited to wed a girl “who, for me, has it all, / Is one who knows how to get worked up in bed / Over something incredibly small.”

In “Ode to a Dairy Product,” the poet finds delight in a variety of cheese, writing that “For justifying God’s ways, Stilton / Has the edge on malt and Milton.” This particular poem is introduced by a quote by G.K. Chesterton, who once wrote “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

But O’Carroll can also be open and — dare say it — heartfelt when it comes to the subject of love. Perhaps the best example is “Good Enough Love Song,” in which the poet tells his better half he remains eternally grateful she chose to be with him.

“Thank you for settling for me, darling. / That’s just what I was hoping you would do. / Though I know I am not God’s gift to women, / God knows I might be good enough for you.”


Darkest Before Dawn

by Robert T. McMaster

Unquomonk Press


Over the past 10 years, Williamsburg writer Robert T. McMaster has put together a series of novels, known as the Trolley Days Series, set in and around Holyoke in the second decade of the 20th century. Historically, it was a tumultuous era that makes for a good backdrop for the books: war in Europe, growing battles between workers and capitalists at home, the women’s suffrage movement, increasing industrialization and tensions over immigration.

The series is centered on Jack Bernard, the teenage son of working class French-Canadian immigrants, and Tom Wellington, the Protestant son of a wealthy Holyoke factory owner. Despite their different backgrounds, the two form a friendship that takes them through a number of adventures and genuine danger, while a host of secondary characters, including members of Jack and Tom’s families, help flesh out the novels by examining the universal issues of love, loss, happiness and strife.

“Darkest Before Dawn,” the fourth novel in the series, begins in March 1919. Jack, now 20, is headed to Boston on a packed troopship from France, where he’s spent the last year serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. World War I is over, the Germans have been defeated, and Jack luckily avoided combat. But he’s seen enough horribly wounded men and destroyed towns to be sickened in his heart.

He’s also despondent that his love interest, Anne Wellington — Tom’s sister — has ceased for months to write to him. He can only assume Anne has dumped him for another man, though he doesn’t know why.

Tom, meanwhile, who had previously served in the U.S. Navy and barely survived the sinking of his ship by a German submarine, is back in Holyoke, working for his father’s company and looking for more excitement in his life. An often reckless guy who’d previously gotten himself into a number of scrapes, he’s thinking of opening a speakeasy, now that Prohibition is due to kick in in January 1920.

“Darkest Before Dawn” focuses on Jack’s rough re-entry to civilian life and to his family — his father, Charles, and his two younger sisters, Marie and Claire — and his mix of anger and despair over his seeming abandonment by Anne. “At one time, Jack felt at home here ... Now, somehow, he felt out of place, like a spectator, an outsider, viewing a world he was no longer a part of.”

The novel also examines the way World War I has disrupted the local economy. Jack’s family, which has raised crops for years with a neighboring family on nearby land, has lost customers and must find new markets for their produce. McMaster brings some real detail to this part of the story, and one of the appeals of “Darkest Before Dawn” is learning how widespread farming was in the Valley a century ago, including right in Holyoke.

Jack is drawn out of his shell a bit when he’s reacquainted with an old high school friend, Pauline Foley, who’s now a student at Wellesley College. Their friendship might become more than that, though Jack may also learn more about Anne’s disappearance from his life. Like the previous novels in the series, “Darkest Before Dawn” looks at the class barriers and tensions in early 20th-century America and the often rigid social mores of the era.

Readers of the previous books in the series will likely want to follow along with Jack, Tom and the other characters in this new novel. More  information is available at trolleydays.net/index.html.