Let There Be Light Verse, a book review of Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie by Philip Appleman: Dan Barker

Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie
By Philip Appleman
The Quantuck Lane Press (2009)

By Dan Barker

Light verse can shed a lot of light. A poem that is fun and frivolous on the surface can hint at volumes of meaning behind the party mask. Why do we laugh at jokes? Because they are funny. And why are they funny? Well, if you have to explain a joke . . .

Irreverend Philip Appleman, always the impish impious improviser of words, shows us how poetry, glancing off the little funny bone on the lumbering body of life, can tickle the exact nerve that prompts us to grin and say “Ha!”

Phil Appleman’s newest collection, Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, kisses the girls and boys and makes them chuckle. Even the few ostensibly serious selections, such as “Intelligent? Design?”, can make you smile. Read the second verse:
You wish a guy’s urethra did
The jobs that were proposed:
Both lover’s clout and waterspout
Is what you had supposed.
Alas, the Great Designer squeezed
A prostate ’round your hose:
Intelligent Design!

That is even more fun when sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (Until I recorded Phil’s poem to air on Freethought Radio, I’d never had the pleasure of singing the word “prostate” before!)

The first dozen selections in the book take sideways glances at the human comedy, many celebrating the wickedly egalitarian joy of love-making. In “Arts & Sciences” we read:
Here’s a nice thought we can save:
The luckiest thing about sex
Is: you happen to be so concave
In the very same place I’m convex.

Yet even in these general stanzas, Appleman can’t help skewering religion. His first poem yearns to “teach the believers how to think,” and he later slyly observes that “Masses are the opiate of the masses.” In the knowing “S*x After S*xty,” he exults (to “you kids in your fifties”): “Paradise Regained!”

The final 16 poems (eight of which we were honored to be the first to be publish in Freethought Today) turn face-on to take aim at the bible, creationism, and religious fundamentalism. In “God’s Grandeur”–which Phil allowed me to set to music for FFRF’s “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist” CD –“God” responds to natural disasters, disease and holy war by intoning, “I never apologize, never explain.”

“Oh, why can’t pious people just be moral?” Appleman ponders in “Reading the Headlines,” which goes after black-collar criminals. And we find this gem in “Prairie Dogs,” which, after noting their tragic fecundity, ends:
Today, like aardvarks, yaks, and gnus,
Prairie dogs are kept in zoos.
Surviving rodents, may we hope
You have a message for the pope?

I’m sorry for giving away the punch line, but there are many more laughs like that in the book.

Besides the humor and pathos–or are those the same thing?–there is an entirely different allure in Appleman’s poetry: the sheer joy of words. You can listen to music simply enjoying the art of melding melody and harmony, without it having to “mean” anything at all. Likewise, you can read Appleman’s poems for the pure beauty or catchiness of the sounds they create. The double dactyl poem, “Said” (which truly should be “said”), playfully links the name “Philip Appleman” with the name of his wife, “Marjorie Haberkorn.” Read it into the air, and smile. Kharma, Dharma is a well-timed book because in these days, we all need something to smile about!

Arnold Roth, who has illustrated The New Yorker, Playboy, Punch, and Esquire, adds a head-turning, comically blasphemous touch–there is no such thing as a “right touch”–to Appleman’s poetry. Purchase Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie now, while it is still in its first printing, because it is destined to become an iconoclassic.

Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Ulysses Press, 2008) and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist (FFRF, Inc., 1992).

Freedom From Religion Foundation