CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Love's Labors" by Brent Newsom

Love's Labors by Brent Newsom

Review by Aaron Brown

To labor at what we love—whether that is tinkering away at the car in our garage or carrying our first child to life—is a process of concentrated intensity just as it is a painful, lengthy, and arduous journey. To labor, then, implies paradox: the flash-flickering moments of strenuous human effort and the dull understanding that relief is a long road ahead. Brent Newsom’s debut poetry collection Love’s Labors captures such a paradox. In Newsom’s poems, we encounter an intricate growing narrative of the poet’s becoming a father just as others around him lose their own loved ones. Life and death, grief and shame, flare up with equal intensity, just as a complicated consolation slowly cools the senses.

More than any other collection I’ve encountered before, Newsom’s poems speak with one another. At the collection’s outset, we encounter poems of desire, where the speaker and his lover join together despite their fragility: “Welcome to where we dwell / in the wounds that we inflict... we join / grafted... your skin on / my burn” (“Epithalamion”). Alongside these poems between the speaker and his lover, we encounter the surrounding characters that Newsom brings so skillfully to life. Here in the opening sections of the book, we meet Floyd Fontenot, a hard-working drunk, down on his luck, who propositions his bartender Patti and loses her as quickly as they met. Elsewhere, we encounter the prim, church-going Esther Green, who buries her unchurched husband taken through cancer. These poems embody contradiction through the complexity of their characters, erasing stereotypes and revealing beneath the surface characters we find all too human. As the poet and his wife struggle through and revel in their love for each other, the surrounding characters of the fictional “Smyrna” come together and ultimately fall apart.

Out of these fluctuating desires, however, approaches the possibility of rebirth. Poems such as “First Ultrasound” and “January 2009: For Anthony” embody perhaps the strongest narrative undercurrent in this collection: the impending birth of the poet’s firstborn child. These poems and others are preceded by short epigraphs, indicating the length of time within the child’s gestation period (sixteen weeks, thirteen weeks, etc.). While not always progressing chronologically, these poems act as place-markers throughout the collection. We wait, just as the speaker does, for the birth of his child, and we suffer through the anxieties and sickness the expectant parents feel:

For weeks to come, stories...
will flock in on the wind, an unkindness
of black-winged birds drawn to feed
on every seed of hope
(“At the Clinic”)

These specific poems anchor the narrative yet increase its velocity. We relive the seemingly superficial anxieties of new parents in poems like “Strawberries,” where the very thing that would help the new child makes the mother sick and winds up in the toilet, a “deep red swirl of bile and berries” that looks “like some awful afterbirth.” Characteristic of Newsom’s poetry, the poems shift from superficial to serious quicker than we expect—we are lured into a false sense of security before the poet upsets our expectations, and we are left to pause deep in thought, wondering and worrying with the speaker.

As the child grows, other poems of life happening around the speaker become juxtaposed with this narrative strand. Again we encounter the character Mason Buxton, whose return from overseas duty in Iraq has left him traumatized and his young family longing for some kind of return to their peaceful past. Elsewhere, the character Floyd reappears, abandoned by his love interest and now aimless without his recently deceased father. He longs to “breathe in deep that dust cloud of exhaust,” and in another poem, he “kicks across the current... swims hard / till his chest burns and head throbs and breaks / the surface and sucks in great gulps of air.” Each character searches for a return to the status quo or else longs for some new high plain of peace that is elusive. Many voices lure the characters in with promises of peace—through suicide, distraction, sex, religion—but each character finds his or her path to a deep feeling of sincerity and catharsis or else rejects it all together.

To say that Newsom doesn’t pay attention to poetic form is furthest from the truth—in the sonnet sequence “Claudio Blackwood Has Her Doubts,” we encounter a character reminiscent of the woman in Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” whose lack of faith conflicts with a desire to keep up appearances in the community at large. Here, the poet alternates between English and Petrarchan sonnets, interweaving these sonnets by ending them with one line that is carried over and repeated at the beginning of the next poem. Something we’d sooner see in John Donne’s “La Corona” than in an American poet writing about life in small-town Louisiana. There is a deep formal underpinning to the collection: from his skillful sestina “Inheritance” to the slant rhymes in the sonnet, “First Ultrasound.” Discovering the forms behind many of these poems only reassures us of the authority and dexterity this poet has.

As the son approaches birth, the poet himself wrestles with his own upbringing, afraid of the repetition of the sins of the past. In the final, masterful long poem “Cut,” Newsom explores the struggles he had with his own father, whose means of instruction came through demonstration rather than direct communication: “He cuts a clean edge, / careful to follow through, guiding / the fresh-cut boards clear of the blade.” The poem cycles through memories of a maturing boy increasingly becoming resistant to his father’s wishes. As a way of processing the past, Newsom shifts in other sections of the poem to liturgical prayers and images of his own son emerging into the world. “I have only just made peace / with having a father,” writes Newsom as the poem approaches its conclusion, “and here you are to make me one.” Despite all the surrounding turbulent human struggle, the collection’s greatest triumph lies in its depiction of the poet’s own vacillations: from hesitant father to tender dad, doubtful Christian to self-consoled believer. Love’s Labors certainly carries its full weight.

About the Author:
A native of southwest Louisiana, Brent Newsom has also lived in Oklahoma, Texas, and, for briefer stretches, China. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, The Hopkins Review, PANK, Cave Wall, and Birmingham Poetry Review, as well as several anthologies. Currently he lives in Oklahoma with his wife and two children.

About the Reviewer:
Aaron Brown's prose and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, The Portland Review, and Ruminate, among others. He is the author of Winnower, a poetry chapbook published by Wipf & Stock, in addition to being a Pushcart Prize nominee. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, Aaron lives with his wife Melinda in Hutchinson, Kansas, and is an assistant professor in writing and editing at Sterling College.