Eventually, we might have a poetry collection devoted to every major piece of pop culture. We’ve seen a collection responding to the E! Network (Kate Durbin’s E? Entertainment) and multiple collections about Dolly Parton (Steven Powers alone has two books, The Follower’s Tale and Hello, Stephen focus on the singer and her theme park, Dollywood). More surprising is Mara Katz’s new collection, Finding Waldo, which is unsurprisingly focused on the series of Where’s Waldo books. It’s hard to say whether or not Finding Waldo lives up to the reader’s expectations, but this is mainly because it seems like expectations must be quite low. The series was, after all, wordless and simplistic, and the character eventually provided more entertainment as the source of visual puns than as an actual book character.
Despite the low expectations, the collection doesn’t clearly rise above them. A different poet might have tried to imbue Waldo with a complex inner life or tried to think about what Waldo means as a culture figure (taking a page, for instance, from Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imaginations, though in a much more lighthearted way). Instead, the opening poem, “The Beach” gives a narration that presumably is supposed to capture a sense of alienation but instead comes across as creepy, A description of all of the other beachgoers seems to imply a stalker more than a man on the margins, and it’s definitely at odds with the cheerful grin Waldo typically sported in the books (unless the reader assumes that Waldo’s smile was hiding a dark interior of rage and hatred). Lines like, “the children play, I dare not approach” makes the reader want to put their arms around any nearby kids, keeping them safe.
Things don’t get much better from there. While other poems are less creepy, they tend to produce confusion and unease more than complex meanings. “Waldo in Hollywood”, for instance, could be a meditation on Waldo as a stock character, a simple image with no real character development. Instead, it focuses on giant, gaping maws and an artificial alien attack. The poem might be more at home in a horror or sci-fi collection than something inspired by brightly colored children’s books. Perhaps if it had been a more fun, campy examination of aliens and human-swallowing caverns, then the poem would seem more like an enjoyable reboot instead of a deliberate attempt to alienate both fans of the original text and the typical poetry reader.
It’s easy to imagine the many directions that this could have gone. A deeply personal examination of how the texts might have marked time for the poet (similar to some of BJ Best’s work in But Our Princess Is in Another Castle, for instance). A series of scenes at cons, with Waldo costumes anchoring the scenes. Even a collection of Waldo-themed erotica might have been disturbing in a fun way (similar to Donna Crock’s erotic poetry exploring trysts between McDonaldsland characters and other pop culture figures, I’m Lovin It). In the end, this collection could have been about nearly anything. The only real connection it seems to have to the original books is that the pieces leave you searching, squinting, and wondering if finding what you’re looking for will be worth the effort.