Book Review: Shirley Brewer’s After Words

Most of us don’t live in hamlets. Even if we did, I suspect we’d still get our news mostly from the Net, from neighbors and co-workers and friends, TV, the diminished but dogged daily papers, the weeklies. Surely not from books. Rarely do we experience our news directly. It’s hand-me-down, a leeching of vitamins from vitamin pills, not whole foods.

Yet After Words somehow defies all this to deliver its news needle-to-vein, turning the reader into a direct witness. It burns in the palm and reads like a teletype. It is a knife thrust. Dispatch after dispatch, Shirley Brewer leaves us no easy way to turn our eyes. So yes, the book is reportorial. Yet it is more: part cenotaph, part elegy to this clearly bright, sweet fellow, this real-life Everyman, someone a lot like you and me. Part of the teeming masses. A citizen. A researcher at Johns Hopkins. A budding medical student.

But two days shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, this Everyman was stripped forcibly of his anonymity and burst unavoidably into the headlines when he bled out on a city pavement, heart punctured by a mugger’s knife. A private life, a public death.

And so this Everyman got a name. Stephen Pitcairn.

Pitcairn’s slaying occurred one block from the author’s home in the Baltimore hamlet known as Charles Village. She never knew him, as most of us remain unknown to each other until fortune, good, bad or notorious, draws attention to us; never knew him, yet in the pages of After Words constructs an incisive and meticulous portrait, perhaps of the victims (yes, plural: “When you kill a son, you kill his mother too,” the poet reminds us), perhaps of our common, most atavistic selves. This isn’t a poetry to turn to for pleasantries.

Disclosure: Like Shirley Brewer, who stitched together the discarnate bulletins that make up After Words, I never knew Stephen Pitcairn; but Shirley I know. She is a deft and professional writer, an acrobat who inches across the high wires of her art with grace and roisterous good humor. If you, too, are acquainted with Brewer’s work – and the public audience is certainly growing for her spirited, haunting, sometimes insistent, always capacious, Thoroughly Modern Shirley voice – then this slender volume may surprise you: the voice is pretty spare here. Appropriately spare. While the grace informs every page, the wry humor has been flensed, scooped clean, replaced with the unhurried, fully permeable nobility of a mourning sensibility. Much in the way of lamentation comes from the victim himself, shade of a shade.

Is it too much to ask
for one piece of chocolate cake?

I grieve for my parents, my sisters,
my co-workers, my friends –
the light they lost when I died.

My mother heard my final cries
over the phone – Mom,
the last word I spoke.

[from “Slain”]

Since she never knew him, Brewer pulls off this act of fine imagination with her back against the wall, especially in the creation of particulars: returning to us someone she never met, delivering him in high, unforgettable contrast. And so reading the poems is something like assessing at close range the gradations of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a large print of that icon, perfectly developed, which is a sort of magic on the wall. After Words is a sort of magic in the hand: sitting by Adams’s lens, by Brewer’s pen, we rise to become bystanders in the half light preceding the dark.

Brewer, for all the gypsy scarves and fires gladdening her other work, is no necromancer: she knows damned well that she can’t raise the dead, that the dead don’t shine, don’t feel, don’t speak, and ditto inanimate objects, yet she wags her pen and forcefully conjures these selfsame riddles and runes. Stephen rises (so to speak, and speak he does) and shines (“brighter than a full Charles Village moon”). The moon speaks. Even the ruinous knife speaks. The pages of After Words record Brewer’s struggle for reconciliation and meaning, even if only existential, no alchemy, no thaumaturgy, no voodoo to it, the mode elegiac, the voices disconsolate.

In “The Role of Elegy,” Mary Jo Bang addresses the point:

What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now – after the fact –
What you were meant to be:

The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.

This poet tells. She invites Stephen to come onstage again and again, invites him to be himself the while, and what emerges is not so much memoir as a grounded and very sentient but unsentimental study.

I live on in blue,
a doctor of sky.

Yet she is not unremitting. When she asks us, in Stephen’s voice

If I could look in a mirror
right now, what would I see?
No one says: Death
becomes you.

she allows him a rare droll moment. But then he continues, absent a whiff of irony

The dead cannot speak –
both lungs and larynx lost.

If another language thrives here,
I have not learned it.

My words still shine like candles
tossed into the white cauldron of moon.

and we are back on track, in the demimonde of the associative. The heart’s blood of poetry. This track leads us to a (technically, emotionally) admirable passage, Stephen’s too-human realization that

This lonely country could be an illusion,
except I remember my casket

lowered into the ground,
severing me

from my sisters drenched in black.

[from “Lifeline”]

“. . . my sisters drenched in black” – did you notice? – there’s the economy of the artist asserting itself. But of course. Of course.

This is real poetry pressed into the service of nobility, not simple art. Deceptively hard to do, yet Brewer, as in everything she’s shared with us, is abundantly equal to the task. But perhaps she had help. Let Stephen’s words abide, then, for the poet, for us, for his family:

Did they think a knife
was enough to part us?

How do I relinquish
the parts of me that will not die?

Invisible, my hand rests
steady on your shoulder.

Shirley Brewer will be a featured reader at the Minás Gallery open mic this Sunday. Admission is $3. Click here for more details. For insight into Shirley’s approach to writing and craft, see her contribution to our Concerning Craft series.

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Book Review: Hot Sonnets

There’s something fishy about the sonnet. It isn’t supposed to work anymore. Hayden Carruth admits as much in “Sonnet 9,”

As a poet I don’t care for the stale remainder
of conventional sonnetry

and goes on to chastise himself (mid-sonnet) as “an absconder/and apostate in my era.” Yet something has driven him to “lean backward lazily” into “the old romantic bed” of the form, a sin in which he allows us to capture him mid-commission. Mid-wallow. Carruth understands that some pleasures are best contained in the gracious old chalice of fourteen (give or take) lines.

Hot SonnetsThe editors, thankfully, agree. Their premise is simple. These poems are intended to be hot. Hot, as in Hawt! Smokin’. Provocative. And they are. If sonnets were a sidewalk, you could fry eggs on these.

Ranging from the libidinously literary to the lasciviously louche, just about every tick on the erotic thermometer is exposed. And then exploited. Open the text to almost any page: fourteen hot lines and you’re on to the next. And the next. Once you start, it’s a flood. Order one fish, you get the whole school.

The book celebrates a splashy bouquet of contemporary poets, yet pays requisite homage to modern forebears. No less a craftsperson than Millay calls to us from a hash of hormones, cries out “a certain zest” to bear her lover’s weight upon her breast.

So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind

The sonnet appears to be the clarifying impulse for these minds, that pulse: the sweet volta that clears the noggin and empties the body, even if just for a moment. (“How can I quench him? Let me burn to powder.” – Meredith Bergmann)

There’s no small number of clouded minds and clarifying pulses crowding these pages, each urging towards a climax of sorts. If these poets formed a congress (well, a Congress), the orgasm platform would be passed by common acclaim. Look no further for evidence than two couplets from Marilyn L. Taylor’s extraordinary round, a crown of sonnets celebrating “The Seven Very Liberal Arts”:

And then, Professor, sign me fore and aft,
as if I were a promising first draft.

and

the time has clearly come for you to lay
your Freddie Mac against my Fannie Mae.

A little more? Here’s Robert Crawford oh so far from keeping his mind on “Kitchen Remodeling,” grown “glassy-eyed,”

and lost, imagining what I could do
on this expanse of countertop with you.

Here’s the thing about this particular form. Most poets are good for a good line or two. That’s why an index of first lines reads like bits of sparkling glass, sonnet-like even in a random stringing:

It’s loud enough to make the rafters ring
I watch two twentysomethings on the train
She’s just a bag of skin puffed full of air
We smell, I burn, your knees are at my feet
I’ve been unfaithful to you with my wife
I swanned at the gold calf’s hoof, I whored
Viewer, it’s night. I’m locked into a straightening device
The man with the crooked dick shines his shoes
After the supper dishes, let us start
We lie like poems, undulating rhyme
In here I own the voyage of your hip
I wanted to write a dirty-talking sonnet
The bathroom’s ready for romance. It’s lit
Much will have changed since your last visit

Those first lines are unremittingly good. You might say that negotiating the first line of a sonnet is something like stepping from the dock onto a small boat. Exhilarating, but not terribly hard. And thus it is with the last line or two as well, the cap to the sonnet, often a classic couplet: well within the reach of the professional poet. Bang the iambic bongos a few times while walking the commodious pentameter line and you’ve got yourself a satisfactory, satisfying dessert, the perfect end to the meal. Not unlike stepping off a small boat and onto the shore at the end of a short journey.

The problem arises with those ten or twelve lines of white water the poet hits once s/he’s set out from that shore, and well before turning back. It’s the mark of the fine sonneteer to navigate these shoals with unforced rhyme, sweet elision, the sense of a sure hand on the tiller. Many a sonnet vessel’s been broken mid-steerage on the hard rock demands of clear thought, consistent accounting, logical discourse.

The editors understand this, of course, and wisely opt for poems made well, poems that travel a complete narrative arc, as Susan McLean does in “Your Other Women,” beginning with “Your secretaries, eager to assist you” and continuing through “my own best friends; the maid who comes to clean” before ending neatly on its two-footed denouement. Or turn to David Rothman in “She Receives Flowers,” where the poet laments “Late in life you don’t expect romance,” but then moves with feral grace to a concluding “Surrender to this sight, this scent, these hours.” Or let yourself surrender, indeed, to the taut sexy charge of Amy Lemmon’s  faithless “Invitation.”

Love and heat are given free range in all their forms. If you’re up for a little S&M, hie thee to Rose Kelleher’s masterful (mistress-full) “Rope.” And the homoerotic gets full play as well, sometimes achieving the high lyricism of the gifted, rule-breaking David Bergman (“In Nordstrom’s”), sometimes the terrifying grit of David Trinidad (“At the Glass Onion, 1971”), sometimes the homey, pedestrian, almost wistful beauty of Molly Peacock (“I Consider the Possibility”), who manages to perfectly conflate funny and racy, a feat unto itself.

Hot Sonnets was co-edited by Clarinda Harriss, who must in fair measure by now be numbered among the most talented poets working in English, and Moira Egan, who contributes an introduction as cheeky (and penetrating, and receptive) as you’re likely to discover in any anthology. It is at once perky, luminous, incisive, squisito, and it displays a knowledge and love of the sonnet you’ll encounter about as often as a Phrygian-capped Orpheus strumming his vihuela.

If you read nothing else in Hot Sonnets, read this introduction. But of course, that’s a bit canny: for once gorged on those brilliant first few pages, you can’t help but leap from the dock to the boat. A boat filled with lovely hot fishes.

Note: Works by both Clarinda Harriss and Bruce Sager have appeared in the Little Patuxent Review. Go to the Summer 2011 Make Believe issue section on this site and watch a video of Bruce reading “The Eighth Annual Wright Brothers Martini Award.” Then read Clarinda’s poems, published in the the same issue, and her account of the craft that underlies them. All a delight.