Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A Clown at Midnight : Poems

by Andrew Hudgins

National Book Award finalist Andrew Hudgins offers a meditation on humor, ruminating on the consolations and terrors, delights and discomforts of laughter.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780544108806
ISBN-10: 0544108809
Pages: 112
Publication Date: 06/11/2013
Carton Quantity: 36

“Recklessness and rigor, in equal measure, mark the stirring poetics of Andrew Hudgins in this fine new book. Hudgins can wrestle a rhyme scheme into submission with one hand tied behind his back and can penetrate the black heart of history with a single, subtly rendered detail. He laughs with Democritus and weeps with Heraclitus and, line by distillate line, contrives a tonic antidote to “the acetone / of American inattention.” — Linda Gregerson

In A Clown at Midnight Andrew Hudgins offers a meditation on humor with a refreshing poignancy and cutting wit. He touches on love and nature, but at its core this collection is about the consolations and terrors, the delights and discomforts, of laughter, taking its title from a quote by Lon Chaney Sr.: “The essence of true horror is a clown at midnight.” Skillfully probing paradoxes, Hudgins conjures the titular clown: “Down these mean streets a bad joke walks alone / bruised head held low, chin tucked in tight, eyes down / defiant. He laughs and it turns to a moan.” Hudgins gives us utter honesty and accessible verse, exploring moments both uncomfortable and satirical while probing the impulse to confront life’s most demanding trials with laughter.

“Hudgins’s poems are often funny, hinging on a joke or wisecrack or malapropism, but human nature red in tooth and claw has always been his greatest theme.” — BookPage



Andrew Hudgins

ANDREW HUDGINS is the author of seven books of poems, including Saints and Strangers, The Glass Hammer, and most recently Ecstatic in the Poison. A finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, he is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships as well as the Harper Lee Award. He currently teaches in the Department of English at Ohio State University. Read More

A Joke Is Washed Up on a Desert Island

A joke is washed up on an island,

miles of coarse, brown grit

and a few bent palms. He’s thrilled. Alone,

he’ll stroll the beach or sit


mulling the gray surf and his life.

He believes he’s kept the sacred

sacred by profaning it.

But words and stories sped


so quickly from his raucous mouth

he hardly thought about them.

Alone, he’ll study doubts he’s had

since on a dubious whim


he swaggered into that first brothel,

first bar and first bar mitzvah,

first monastery. What angry hope

or compulsive mania


flung him on the judgment of friends

and strangers: a laugh or silence?

He’d never paused to mull things over,

and though thinking’s a nuisance,


it’s time to think. He sits, considers,

and the teasing sea deposits

a naked beauty at his feet — 

a movie star. Huge tits?


Or small? Full lips or thin? You


Whatever turns your crank,

that’s what floats up. And then two more,

beautiful, blond, and blank.


They swirl around him, asking, “Is that

a banana in your pocket?”

Smart women whoring for a joke!

And all at once he gets it:


the human cost of laughter. It pains him.

The people he’s offended,

they’re human, unlike him, a concept

he’d never comprehended — 


a reverie of thick self-pity

that’s broken by a shout

of “Help me! Help me!” from the waves.

Annoyed, the joke swims out


and finds an armless, legless man

bobbing in the spray.

“I’m Bob. Remember me?” Bob shouts.

The joke saves him anyway.


The joke has always hated Bob,

the lamest slip of wit,

and now Bob’s propped on the joke’s beach,

choking and spraying spit.


The joke stares down the empty sand,

listening hopelessly

for the peace he’d hoped to find. He drags

Bob back into the sea.


At first Bob bobs, but head held under,

he blubbers, bubbles, drowns.

This joke’s a killer. He looks out to sea,

sees what he sees, and frowns.


The waves are pitching with old punch lines,

washing, like Natalie Wood,

ashore. They couldn’t live without him,

although he’d hoped they could.


As each one staggers from the waves,

it asks, “Where’s Bob?” The joke

says, “He’ll turn up.” Why are they asking?

Who cares about that jerk?


He’s got to blow this island, man.

He jumps into the sea.

But he’s my joke. I send a shark

and the shark chomps off one knee.


He keeps on kicking at the waves.

The shark chomps off both legs.

“Very funny!” screams the joke. “So now

I’m Bob. Come on,” he begs.


“Let me be Art!” Tear out this page

and pin it to your wall:

He’s Art. Or throw it on the floor.

Bingo, he’s Matt. Your call.


But I like the turning point of jokes.

He’ll bob, but he won’t sink.

Let’s leave him there to meditate.

The shark will help him think.


Three pale blonds gather on the beach

to watch him flail. In moonlight

their roots turn dark, their hair turns black.

Their eyes are old-moon white.


Birth of a Naturalist


Among moist bromeliads

I was bored, and the soft-fingered

ferns annoyed me like an aunt

touching my face and trailing

her fingers down my cheek.

What was I, a possession?

In the gift shop where I desired

nothing, a stranger confused

boredom for balked desire

and bought me a small pot

with a blunt nub, like a toad’s

brown snout, jutting

from dry soil. “Thank you,” I said.

“Thank you,” as I’d been taught,

and she departed, a plump whorl

of black hair and red scarves.

In my pocket, the pot rode

my thigh like a damp stone,

and because it was a secret,

my secret, I began to love it.

The next day the toad’s

tumescent snout, now mossy green,

cracked the packed dirt.

On the windowsill a rickety stalk

rose and kept rising, rising

until it fell into my bed,

and with the toppled orchid in my arms,

I slept until Mother’s laughter

woke me, and I was shamed.

Again in secret, I tucked

its roots in spongy humus

beyond our lawn, where, spindly

and limp-leafed, it dwindled.

Now when I stretch out

over its absence, the coarse

vigor of its killers cushions me,

and I see the lost

orchid animating bracken,

buckthorn, buttercup, and bramble.

Morning glory overclimbs it all,

green on green, blaring

its beautiful and murderous

alabaster trumpets

while twizzling vines unfurl,

spin in sunlight, and, clutching,

caress my face.

First Year Out of School

A man . . . may have wild birds in an aviary; these in one sense he possesses, and in another he has none of them.

          — Plato, Theaetetus

I fingered flannel shirts

and wrinkled seed potatoes,

derelict in dusty bins,

but bought a birdcage,

white paint peeling off

corroded wire. For weeks

it crowded my bedside table

until, walking to work,

I heard baby rabbits

mewing in a hole. Later,

at my desk, I watched a crow

ferry three gray lumps

to an oak limb and pick them

into red strings. In one

imagined life, I caught

that crow and taught it Blake —

Little Lamb, who made thee?

In another, I gleaned raw corn

from nearby fields at night,

fed it to the strident crow,

and every night after work

cleaned its fetid cage.

In this life, I sold the cage

for a quarter what I paid,

and moved to a city where,

on the street one Monday morning,

a man chanted, “Spare

change, spare change,

spare change,” so rote

that like everyone before me

I didn’t bother saying no.

I was no different. Why then

did he block my path

and offer me a matted,

damp, dark thing —

a hatchling half held,

half nestled in his beard?

And why did I linger over

the unfledgeable lump?

“No,” I said, pushing past,

but after an hour I returned

and with five grubby ones

paid for the epiphany

he’d led me to: I yearn for flight,

but believe in the two

reliable slow feet

on which I stood, receiving

from his hands unto mine

a gasping, unsalvable mouth.