Review by Alejandro Escudé
HELP IS ON THE WAY
by John Brehm
University of Wisconsin Press
1930 Monroe Street
Madison, WI 53711-2059
2012, 68 pp., $16.95
John Brehm won me over while I listened to him read and speak about his book of poems Help Is On the Way on the KUSP 88.9 poetry podcast. Something about his voice (perhaps it’s always in the voice) told me this was a poet who knows poetry. I want to be very clear that I think this is extremely rare today. Often in the circles of poetry one runs into fans who don’t know a good poem from a passionately read bad one, editors won over by the ornate frame around the poem rather than the poem itself, and widely recognized poets enamored more with the verbal acrobatics in a given piece than the emotional core of the piece. But John Brehm is a true poet. And any astute reader of poetry will readily confirm this by opening Help Is On the Way and coming across the first poem, “Pompeii.”
Brehm describes the experience of noticing a poster for a movie called “Pompeii” on a train in New York City. He’s disturbed about the timing of the poster, not long after 9/11. “And now we rise creaking,” Brehm writes, “over the Manhattan Bridge, where/ one can see through the scratchy windows/the city skyline and the buildings that are/not there, where thousands tried/to breathe air on fire and failed.” This is an interesting piece because even though it is informed by the events of 9/11 it isn’t about 9/11. This is more of a poem about a grievance which clearly reveals the cruelty and insensitivity present in our society. To a poet as sensitive as Brehm, to any sensitive person for that matter, America doesn’t really feel like America anymore. Some ad exec, for the sake of making a buck, allowed that heinous poster of people outrunning a wall of flame to be posted on a New York train during an emotionally charged time for that city and for the country as a whole. But that’s the America we live in today: anything goes as long as you’re making money. The Great Recession teaches me that on a daily basis. This poem also succeeds because it avoids descending into a political rant. The poet politely makes a point of correcting the poster printer who brazenly asks of the commuters: “How can you outrun an eruption/faster than this train?” Brehm points out that the train he’s on is incredibly slow and that anyone would be able to outrun it. He sadly muses, of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, “how easily they might have done it./But that is not what they were asked to do.”
The second part of the collection called “Still Falling” consists of one long sequence entitled “Lineage,” in which Brehm playfully retraces the ancient roots of the human race. Similar in scope to Heaney’s bog poems, Brehm meditates on the place of the first artists and poets in this mythic early time. He imagines “the very first artists who painted on cave walls,” and wonders “why would you descend to darkness to make/your art?” A bit later in the sequence, Brehm wonders how many “proto-poets” were killed by predators in the dawn of civilization because they were prone to wandering alone. This is just a lot of fun to read. And in my opinion, it’s a sequence that works as an extended metaphor for the human condition in today’s difficult times. At the end of the sequence, Brehm seems to come to terms with the abrasive reality of his own contemporary society by deciding one must “start grasping things and reshaping them,/turning the world into your/idea of the world.”
There are some misses in the collection. I didn’t enjoy a few short lyrics, such as the poem “On the Subway Platform.” This piece is pure filler in my opinion and doesn’t stand with the rest of the work in this collection, which is powerful and holds a reader’s attention through Brehm’s lyrical control and hard-earned gravitas. Despite Brehm’s strong reading of “Newborn, Brovetto Farm” in the aforementioned radio program, it’s also not a particularly standout piece. There is a overly emphasized antipathy towards meat consumption orbiting the description of the newborn calf which comes off as preachy and melodramatic. But these, of course, are the exceptions.
And how does one criticize a collection of poems that needed to be written? In the third part of the book, “Side by Side,” Brehm chronicles the experience of traveling to Japan in order to donate a part of his liver to save his dying nephew, George Masahiro Brehm, to whom the collection is also dedicated. It is striking. There’s not one false note in the entire narrative sequence and it hits you right in the gut. It’s a sacred piece both for the poet and inevitably for the reader who is fortunate enough to come across it. This section of Help Is On the Way is reason enough to purchase the book.
Alejandro Escudé is the author of two chapbooks, “Where Else But Here” and “Unknown Physics,” both published by March Street Press. Among other journals, his poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Rattle, and Phoebe. Alejandro is originally from Argentina and he works as a high school English teacher. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His websites are: www.alejandroescude.com and www.alejandroescude.blogspot.com.