BOA Editions Ltd, 1 April 2011, 92 pages
reviewed by Mike Walker
Last year’s winner of BOA Editions’ A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, Keetje Kuipers, seriously impressed me with the book of poetry which came out of that swell victory, Beautiful in the Mouth. In fact, it was slightly uncanny that the very same day CutBank published my review of Kuiper’s book, a package came in the mail for me from BOA Editions containing the book by this year’s Poulin Prize-winner, Deborah Brown. My first thought was ”how much alike or how different will this be from Kuiper’s work?”. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare, but the evolution of winners of any literary prize over the years can be an interesting thing to watch—just as interesting as the winners of the Super Bowl or who makes the NBA All-Stars or what team has the best enforcer this year in the NHL.
For some reason, one of the things I cannot help myself from when I first look over a new book of poetry is to check out the author’s biography—if it’s someone whom you’ve not heard of before or know little of, you have to wonder ”who is she? what else did she write? what else does she do?”. In asking these questions I learned that Deborah Brown is an accomplished poet, translator, and also a Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester. So she’s not new to this. The promotional tearsheet that came from BOA described Brown’s poetry as ”sage”, seemingly stealing a word right from my pen, as once I started reading Walking the Dog’s Shadow ”sage” was the best word I could muster to describe in an all-encompassing way what Brown had provided on these pages. Brown writes with an expectedly mature and knowing voice yet one which betrays no traces of effort in capturing the feeling of awe she often finds in her observations of life. Thus, her poems feel not only very natural and even flowingly light in places, but also—and without irony or contrast—come forth as powerful bulwarks all the same. They stand up—they have a feeling of age and gravity to them, of footing secure and robust. Much like Jorie Graham, Brown brings together images from science, history, and the arts in a way that never seems overwrought yet provides deep metaphor via her considerations on life. Not content to simply observe, Brown however also strikes the iron while still hot when it comes to personal experience and often her ability to bring herself into the larger fray of things—world events even—makes the vastness she seeks small enough to have that most powerful of meanings it warrants. Small enough, in fact, to hold in your hands.
To say Brown’s poetry can place a human face to issues too grand to grasp in their humanity, their real intimacy, may sound trite but it’s also very true. In her poem ”For the Cousins” we see this readily, as we start off feeling Brown may be about to tell us about what a nice time she had visiting some cousins until we realize, with due horror, the cousins concerned here are in fact distant ones suffering from war crimes in Albania. As I’ve studied the Balkans in depth myself, I felt the gravity of what Brown was speaking of, but I also felt even more her deep empathy—nearly guilt, really—of a woman who can read a book of poetry in comfort because her grandfather escaped the land where these cousins now encounter a daily hell.
I’m writing to you from inside,
in the thick of it, knowing you’re well
out of it.
With that Brown enters her poem ”Thick and Thin” but these words really could serve as a good introduction to many of Brown’s poems and, even in cases such as in ”For the Cousins” where Brown must admit she’s really also ”well out of it”, she still seems to hold a lift-ticket to the top of that mountain or the doctor’s otoscope to look into the ear of that beast. She has a key, but she turns it with great care. Do you remember that one high school English teacher who tried to impart the utility of poetry to your class in some mish-mash of a lecture (often just before reading some Frost) detailing how poetry isn’t just fancy words or for hopeless romantics but can open up doors into places of the world we cannot otherwise venture with any ease? Deborah Brown makes good on that promise. She really does open those doors, the doors to the life of a middle-aged woman who connects with family near and far through her words, the doors of physical places in her memory, the doors of depth into the world the news and Internet share out only as postage-stamp or paint-chip sized postcards of its actual self.
Back in 2008 I read a book of poetry entitled Salvinia Molesta by Victoria Chang which in great part Brown’s Walking the Dog’s Shadow remind me of in places, as both books often approach horrible, depressing, topics but do so in a way that is true and adroit in their feeling and scope. It’s a tough trick to pull off, to seem neither journalistic nor overly emotional when writing about things like genocide or a woman who may suffer from mental problems, verbal abuse, or both. It is difficult to speak of these things in clear truth when we’re surrounded by them in the newspaper or via television’s consant soap opera-scripting of life. Brown, unlike Chang, is more diverse in her topics and the leitmotif of gloom and doom in Chang’s book is absent (perhaps thankfully so) here. However, it is often when Brown addresses the most difficult where she’s at her very best, such as in her poem ”Clue”:
I am almost ready to say to the men who remove their belts
to strap a child, ”I understand
you must have been hurt yourself”
In short, I become a fool.
What Brown is saying, of course, is that empathy is a tender and frail—though highly powerful—emotion, one that can be useful yet should not always (or too quickly) be trusted. She has empathy, but should she allow it out of its Pandora’s box? She knows better than to become a fool from it—at least here she does.
The first poem in Brown’s book, ”Proof” is a manifesto, though one with a hidden, if not uncertain, trajectory. It’s in places such as ”Proof” where Brown reminds me for all the world of Jorie Graham. It is also here, at the first glance at Brown’s poetry, that I realized how ardent, adroit, and expansive a voice I was going to hear in the pages yet to come. Death, leaves, the sky, dirt—all the meanings of ”earth”, in fact, as whole planet and dust composing the same—these are the items most recurrent in Brown’s poems. Through it all, in many ways, I felt Brown’s thesis was to best stated in some lines from ”Proof”:
When did the innocent part of the country become one with the rest of the violent world?
That’s it right there: whether Brown means this in literal terms—and in many ways I suspect she does at least in part—or it takes on more nuances in her mind, it’s still grandly powerful. Her ”innocent part of the country” includes such marvels as willow tres, crumpled brown leaves, white flowers: it is everything we expect of an autumnal, enchanting, New England or western European rural experience. She’s sly enough to not color it in too many direct details, allowing few proper place names and providing uncertain time frames but it feels like New England just past the second world war to me. Yet Brown leaves time and place up to her reader in many cases, inviting them to make it all their own. She certainly knows the power of that. Even Brown’s summers have fall already in their air and her tone is always not exactly wistful but something we do not even quite have the language in English to fully express; there is the term mono no aware in Japanese, somewhat akin to the neoclassical literary concept of the sublime except that instead of a thing of grandness or subtle beauty being viewed as awe-inspiring, it is viewed in sadness—even pity—as how delicate the nature of beauty is in the world and how quickly such true beauty often vanishes. Brown doesn’t pretend to store such beauty away in a museum but instead to simply recall where she found it in the first place. She gladly recalls for us, and shares with us, but this beauty is one of memory and of landscape—neither her own nor ours, either.
Another part of what makes Brown’s writing so highly adept is that she never strives towards grandness in the least; there is something very natural yet romantic about her poetry, yes, but she never brokers on romanticism. More importantly, she never bets that winsome images will carry her trajectory without a strong gravitas at the center of her wings. That core of gravity is always found in Brown’s work, and it is most often a very humble thing, a shy essence which might rather hide had Brown not called it to the front of the classroom to speak for itself as the last presentation of the day after each of her lovely images and softly beautiful metaphors have already had their turn.
Do you believe the way the grass
trusts its roots to loam? What do you trust this way?
With this, Brown opens her poem ”Mamaloschen”. She takes us back to the origins of her family, to her mother’s own age as a young adult, to how things have changed, to what it is to be ”an underling” and how, oh, there are all sorts of those. How deep do our roots go? How far will we trust? These are questions Brown revisits time and again in her poems, but she’s astute at keeping her visits fresh and finding novel means each time to speak again and again of truth without making such trite. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but history whether global, local, or personal has the uncanny power of being something that once actually happened and we are able to revisit again. What an awesome power this is in hands as expert as Deborah Brown’s. Of course, when one knows one’s history—when one speaks of history as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote of it, or as Clyde Edgerton incorporates it into his novels—we are all the more expected to wonder, again and again, ”when did the innocent part of the country become one with the rest of the violent world?”
Deborah Brown is a poet, author, translator and Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire—Manchester. She is the winner of BOA Editions’ A. Poulin, Jr. Prize for the year of 2010.
Mike Walker is a writer, journalist, and poet. His original research and other academic work has been published in: AirMed, Goldenseal, EcoFlorida, BrightLights Quarterly, the ATA Chronicle, Translation Journal, Multilingual Computing and Technology and other journals. His journalism in: The Florida Times-Union, The North Florida News Daily, Satellite Magazine, Twisted Ear, and other publications. His poetry in: Meanie, the Church Wellesley Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and other publications. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.