History of the Day, by Stephen Edgar.
Black Pepper. $24.95.
The Ecclesiastical adage about no new thing under the sun remains true most of the time, or is always true but could be amended to say “almost no new thing.” A lot of poets strain toward originality. Some don’t bother. It’s probably given an unsustainable amount of importance. In any case, Stephen Edgar’s poems aren’t quite like anyone else’s. When you first read them, there’s a chill between you and the page as you try to guess his angle. But eventually you will have to read him on his terms. Precursors come to mind and might be fruitfully discussed, given space. One could say Auden. But no one would think “Auden” for more than a moment while reading him. Happily, History of the Day makes you forget the issue altogether. It has scope, depth, technical mastery, and power enough to offer the willing reader a lot of pleasure and who knows how many readings.
I say “willing reader” because many poems in History of the Day are difficult. Edgar has packed the book with stuff to discover, and many of its 109 pages could inspire paragraphs of interpretation. The difference between these poems and much difficult contemporary work is that these yield meanings sharable by reader and writer. The poet’s deliberate brand of mystification leads to some very satisfying eureka moments. Edgar frequently describes his subject such that it doesn’t at first appear to be what it is, forcing the reader to see things from an alien viewpoint. One specific method is radical zoom (in or out). Here’s the beginning of “Landscape with Figures: an Interlude”:
Some wobbling disconnected globules rise
Spontaneously behind the far hung plastic
That warps above the green.
Too late by now. There was a world before,
But not this world.
This poem gives ground more quickly than others. The next lines tell us that this abstraction is really an empty sunlit landscape and an approaching car, with “a family inside it, playing I Spy.” Elsewhere an abstraction might describe acts of murder or a baby dying in utero. The need to put in effort forces a kind of phenomenological identification with whatever consciousness is at work in a given poem. Nothing flattens poetry more quickly than abstraction, but Edgar almost always succeeds in using it to add resonance.
Something else contributing depth to Edgar’s poems is their seamless engagement with literature, art, music, history, and science. Thought-provoking references to Beaumont and Fletcher, Arthur Koestler, and Dr. Who are there for you if you notice, but it won’t ruin your enjoyment if you don’t. A few poems depend on potentially unfamiliar concepts like time dilation or places like Noosa. When context doesn’t help, Google might. But the unfamiliarity can also expand readers’ horizons. Without pretension or ethereality, Edgar occasionally uses geology, biology, and physics to take his poems into territory untrodden by most poets. In “Event Horizon,” the view backwards from a space-time boundary serves as a metaphor for memory and its annihilation at death. “The Grand Hotel” compares dimensions theoretically compressed into quantum space with the dimensions compressed into an artwork. “Succès de scandale” traces geological and biological evolution, reducing life momentarily to “the ambition,” and organisms to “patterned appetites.” The poem continues:
The annelids, the giant dragonflies
With wings of sunlight peeled from the water’s surface
Stretched tight, incinerated sauropods
Among the ferns that saw the holocaust
Unfold and ripple like a hot aurora
Pouring from heaven and, in pits of pitch,
Attempts at deer like bottled specimens
And smilodons appended by their fangs
Deep in the black museum—all wasted effort.
The feather in the shale like a pressed flower
In a book of verse, the fetal hunch of bones
Delivered from the rocks: unshockable,
Completely ill-equipped to get the point.
Edgar’s perspective, vast or minuscule, conveys something important about his worldview. There is no perspective starker than that of nature, or more sublime. The poet exploits that fact constantly to show both aspects everywhere. This could be read in spiritual terms, but I think that reading could deflate the poems somewhat. Edgar’s world is the same with or without spirituality, and sublime enough without.
However impersonal these poems can seem, they eventually gravitate toward more human concerns. Later in “Succès de scandale,” the poet writes:
But here the single hands all clapped in ochre
Imprinted on the deep wall of a cave,
The diary of bison, or the prayer,
And in the floor the neatly parcelled bones
As though sent on, even as they were left
Behind, to reconnoitre the new lands
Now first emerging, the glimpsed otherworld
Too good to be believed in, or resist,
To counter this, where they might all soon follow.
In this case, the vast distance between ourselves and the painters of Lascaux or Red Hands Cave highlights the permanence of our shared need to come to terms with survival and death. But most of the human concern in History of the Day originates in situations less alien than a cave. There are personal poems like “Her Gift,” which touchingly interprets the symbolism of a Chinese padlock given as a present. There are elegies like “2:00” or “Nocturnal,” both of which describe nighttime memories of a “dead belovèd.” “The Cars” considers a police yard with some crashed cars in it that still contain coins, a crime novel, gum—“What residue the wreck retains / Of those who have gone home by other ways.” Other poems depict larger-scale human suffering, such as genocide, war, or natural disaster. In these, Edgar’s restraint becomes crucial. He lets facts speak for themselves, bringing scenes into sharper focus with just a few carefully-chosen details, and often mediates the subject with temporal or spatial distance. An extreme example is “Totenstadt,” which invokes the shadowy past of Noosa, a Queensland vacation spot, where European settlers long ago massacred indigenous Australians. Edgar gives no historical details, but with the title and a few clues lets readers slowly share the horrifying irony of Noosa’s present-day malls, public flowers, and kites.
An important aspect of these poems, as seen in the quotations above, is versification, which Edgar uses throughout History of the Day. Some contemporary verse writers overdo things with lockstep rhythms on top of regular meters, or with bad full rhyme. Some use bad off rhymes and loosely metrical lines inspired by Stevens and Lowell without the aplomb of either Stevens or Lowell. But Edgar has mastered versification so thoroughly that it’s no more intrusive than other rhetorical devices, and, more to the point, heightens and modulates his language in the service of meaning. I’d think that Edgar must be on the short list of the best living practitioners of verse, rhymed or blank. His remarkable poems have been a highly rewarding discovery for me.
And So, by Joel Brouwer
Four Way Books. $15.95.
I read Joel Brouwer’s third book, And So, as a single story comprising forty-one short lyrics and three prose poems. It took me two days to notice it could be read that way—a fact I admit with only slight embarrassment, given the book’s considerable fragmentation and the absence of any explicit mention by Brouwer or Four Way Books of a unifying narrative. I hope I’m not exaggerating the poet’s intentions. Either way, the book isn’t the miscellany readers have come to expect from a contemporary poetry collection. As a miscellany, the book can seem a hodgepodge of obscure poems about a guy’s sexual disappointments from South Dakota to Paris. But viewed as a coherent whole, And So is the ambitious story of two sympathetic characters whose doomed relationship yields a fair amount of psychological insight.
The story hinges on a time-honored plot. The TV Guide description might be: “Young lovers battle differences in this creative modern-day tragedy.” The differences are suggested in “A Report to an Academy,” which opens things, epically, with the “And so” of the book’s title. The poem’s title refers to the 1917 Kafka story in which an ape describes his acquisition of human behavior. In Brouwer’s report, the male half of the nameless couple is en route to the warm, sleepy female half. Reading Kafka on a bus,
He has been cheated of: the river, dawn,
a considered fingering of his long
and polished rosary of second thoughts.
Brouwer later explains: “the knowledge that dooms a marriage / is the knowledge prerequisite to marriage.” The poem “Hamartia Symbolized by the Stray” specifies the couple’s situation as tragedy in the oldest sense. Their tragic flaw is that they really only love their idea of themselves. Consequently, despite some promise (see “A Promise”) and past good sex (see “In Illo Tempore”), their aims never mesh, and they spend much of the book disagreeing about marriage, children, and life. The young man knows the benefits of settling, but he’s also self-absorbed, restless, and noncommittal. The young woman fixates on domestic fantasies that make him squirm. They’re desperate, lost, and can’t discuss it, but they continue playing house. Cruelty and despair follow, and with them a lot of poignant and disturbing stuff. There are surprises, too. But Brouwer’s plotline isn’t the most important feature of the book.
It isn’t style, either, though style is a hugely salient feature. Brouwer’s is full of highly metaphorical language and a kitchen-sink rhetoric that shifts from deadpan to plucky to flat. It’s coarse, portentous, swaggering, self-effacing. To temper a stab at profundity, he’ll say regular guy things or crack jokes. Poetic gestures are framed as simple statement. Subjectivity and objectivity blur. The rhetoric sometimes gets downright hokey:
Jerry had a pack of Marlboros and together they smoked most of them before it started to get dark and she thanked him for the ride and the stories and the smokes and got into her truck and drove home.
Whether you find this good or bad is almost an ideological issue. Either way, it becomes a feature to be embraced or ignored. Most readers will probably feel the threat of entropy at some point.
One of Brouwer’s most important rhetorical strategies is metaphor. He has both a fertile imagination and a mania for imaginative exactitude, and this combination often produces striking results. “Checkbook voice,” for instance, describes the man’s tone with the woman during a health scare. Elsewhere, she gets sick on Chablis, then snores “wetly beside him / smelling like something spilled on a rug.” Another poem references “Satie’s wistful plinking.” Chandleresque metaphors and similes abound: “Patrol cars rolled / by like loaded dice, “his cock bobbed around [in the bathtub] like a cork,” “The puppy sniffs the dry, leaf-choked gutter / like a bored sommelier,” “at dusk the sun turned chemical / sherbet,” “pickles in Ball jars topped / with gingham skirts.”
The flip side of this facility is that, sooner or later, the focus becomes an expectation that another unusual comparison is coming. That expectation distracts from the overall tenor of the book, which is far more compelling, and which can be challenging to follow anyway. It’s as if the author is unsure when he’s nailed something and has to assuage his uncertainty by firing off more arresting comparisons until one is finally arresting enough. Everything is brought vividly to life, including a jar lid. A few times while reading I felt I could see him winking as he blew away the smoke from the barrel of his simile-pistol. Then, near the end of the book, Brouwer does something that seems almost specifically directed at this kind of complaint. In “In Minneapolis,” during a desperate burst of meta-narrative, the meta-narrator blurts out, “Like like like like like like like like like like.” It’s a relief to reach this line and discover that Brouwer is aware of his reliance on the “like like like” mode of description. The problem is that by then many readers will have beaten him to his disillusionment with it.
Another effort at vividness that can ring false is Brouwer’s attempt to evoke worldly realism via the romance of the road, and via sex. As the couple makes their emotional journey, they also journey through the Midwest, New Jersey, New York, Paris, etc. South Dakota always seems somehow “realer” than Paris or New York, and the truck stops, Marlboro-yellowed fingers, and seedy motels start to seem like props. The sex is always of the You-Are-There variety: “in the morning he fucked her ass and she / fucked his right back.” Sex is important to the story. It can be appropriately funny or abject. But it’s also dulling after a while.
Brouwer’s active imagination works best when it’s woven naturally into the fabric of his description and adds up to something more than clever, localized effect. This is well illustrated in “The Other Half’s Dark,” a poem about domestic purgatory:
Having pressed its case all
summer, the sun rests softly on houses,
joggers, the sparse brown lawns. The verdict left
unread. The husband steers the new puppy
through the cool morning. The rubbery bird
beneath the pecan tree yesterday is
gone today; the dead squirrel in the gutter
yesterday is gone today. The husband
thinks he will clip his fingernails. The wife
is up now, in the kitchen, being told
by the orange juice carton’s cap that she is
not a winner.
The poem’s title is a triple pun, with “Other Half” referring to either spouse, to the proverbial social class, and to a Mylar balloon tangled in a tree so that only the word “Happy” is visible.
In the end, despite its having the appearance of a lineated fragmentary novella, what makes And So most compelling is its psychological realism. Psychology and characterization are one, and they’re our one perspective. There are two main characters, but really everything is in the man’s head, and it’s his psychology that captures the attention. As the narrative hops around from poem to poem, time to time, and thought to thought, thousands of fragments accumulate, just as they might in normative realist fiction, but kaleidoscopically. These bits and pieces are artfully layered to create a troublingly believable psychological progression. I resist calling it free association because the author worked hard for it. It imitates thought well enough to spark genuine identification with the book’s tormented characters.