At a recent Fourth of July barbeque, a colleague asked me the following: “Most of the Contemporary Poetry I read seems more like prose. There’s no form. It’s just stories with line breaks. What’s poetic about that?”
If you’re a poet writing in the 21st Century (and for much of the 20th), you’ve been asked this question and, no doubt, have devised countless answers. On this particular occasion, I answered with a question of my own: “If you took these poems and gave them some sort of predetermined form, would you actually like them more?”
I, for one, doubt it. Robert Frost’s notion that writing free verse is like playing “tennis with the net down” can be interpreted in two ways: the way he meant it, that writing free verse is like playing a game with no rules, or in the way he did not mean it, that writing free verse requires the poet to create his/her own rules, to blaze his/her own trail through the tangled wood rather than via a predetermined path.
This is exactly what Brian Brodeur does in his second collection of poems, Natural Causes, winner of the Autumn House Press Poetry Prize for 2012. In one wonderfully crafted narrative after another, the poems of Natural Causes address loss: of human memory, of life, of sanity, and of the connection to our world as we grow into old age (and eventually die). While it’s perfectly fair to call these poems prosy, this is the first, most obvious observation one should make, and the underlying negativity of the term prosy when applied to verse exists in these poems purely for the fact that, yes, they are narrative; yes, they tell stories—not that they are flawed in some essential way. The second (and more worthy) observation a reader should make of these poems is how deftly Brodeur utilizes sound, meter, figurative language, and other more traditional poetic devices to spin these yarns in a way more akin to sermons, more akin to music, than to “stories with line breaks.”
Take “The Clearing,” for example, in which the speaker eventually takes shelter from a downpour in a utility shed with two of his co-workers he’s just witnessed making love in the woods. Brodeur lures us in with the music of his line:
I’m thinking of Gidge Tomioli, the Systems Operator
power-washing the tanks and helping technicians
at the Upper Blackstone Treatment Plant
where I worked part-time the summer I turned sixteen
superheat greywater into pellets
we sold to local farmers as fertilizer.
while keeping us reading with narrative:
That was when I saw them, two nude figures:
a woman and a man in the clearing,
lying together, their skin turning bright pink.
True, if you took out these line breaks, you’d have extremely poetic prose, but that’s all you’d have. It takes more than mere prose to write a story, after all, and the poetic pacing of lines like “at the Upper Blackstone Treatment Plant” and “where I worked part-time the summer I turned sixteen” is clearly poetry. There’s also that wonderful, Levis-like opening: “I’m thinking of Gidge Tomioli…”; the poem that follows is structured according to a sequence of memories and the speaker’s meditation on them rather than conflict, rising-action, resolution, and all the other more-or-less required makings of an actual plot. This is something poetry can do and prose (short stories, essays, flash fiction, you name it) simply does not.
It’s not only the line that makes these poems so engaging. The narratives themselves reveal details we tend to keep to ourselves. The title poem, for example, tells the story of our speaker, who kisses a dying woman while doing the rounds his first week at a nursing home. In “Human Services,” the speaker is helping one of his more unpredictable patients bathe when she pisses in her hand and slaps him across the face with it. His response: “‘Fuck you!’ I screamed and threw the soap at her // as she laughed… / ‘Know what’s funny,’ I said, ‘Your own mother / abandoned you here because she never loved you…’” In “An Incident,” the speaker tends to a homeless man who has collapsed on a sidewalk. As he waits for an ambulance to arrive, he thinks “I’ve never touched a black man’s hair before.”
Brodeur keeps these narratives fresh with some playfully long and apt titles, e.g. “Finding the Handwriting of a Woman I loved in a Paperback She Left Behind Years Ago,” “On Hearing Congress Has Declared October Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month,” and “The Grandfather of the Groom Steps Away from the Reception and Talk to His Great-Grandson Asleep in a Pack-and-Play.” He has a great sense of humor that pops in and out of his verse, and he plays quite a bit with different free verse structures: the title poems consists of three, free verse stanzas; many of the poems are in tercets or couplets; some end abruptly while others are more conclusionary; and many are in sections. The result is a collection in which the reader doesn’t know what to expect, even though the reader recognizes its narrative tendencies.
Perhaps the best poem of the collection, “After Rukeyser” (an emulation of her famous “Poem”) opens “I lived in the second century of world wars. / I woke each morning and dry-swallowed my pills / for hypertension and high cholesterol, / and turned on my devices asleep on the desk / to check the night-time progress of the wars.” “After Rukeyser” is a lyric poem that, much like “Poem,” meditates on the psychological effects of war and, in particular, on the dysfunctional effect wars have on people when they have a great desire to change the world but are unable to. There are a number of other more lyrical poems in the collection that center themselves around the transformation of the subjects of everyday observation, such as an old sweater in “The Sweater,” a housefly “caught between the storm window / and screen” in “Housefly,” and “The Boy Without Arms”: “From the Metro Station, he steps into the sun, / his sleeves cut off, his hands dangling // directly from his shoulders, stiff, unfinished.”
While I grow tired of the notion that narrative poems are merely “stories with line breaks,” Natural Causes would probably be a better collection if it had more poems of lyrical intensity. But there are plenty of analogues to Natural Causes by better-known poets that have been very well-received by the Academy as well as the reading public such as C.K. Willaims’s Tar, Lynda Hull’s The Only World, and numerous collections by Phillip Levine, Rodney Jones, and Linda Bierds.
I wish I’d had Brian Brodeur’s Natural Causes on hand at that barbeque a few weeks ago. It’s an essential book of poetry for any reader’s bookshelf and a greatsecond book in this young poet’s career.