July 10, 2013

Review by J. Scott Brownleesilt will swirl by John Fry

by John Fry

NewBorder Publishing
2012, 27 pp., $4.99 (Kindle Edition)

John Fry’s first chapbook-length collection silt will swirl is concerned with the body and its relationship to landscape—particularly the queer male body positioned squarely amidst the drought-plagued, dust-thick zero-scapes of southwest Texas.  A native of this region himself, Fry superimposes blue-collar imagery, his own bilingual heritage, and a stripped down, ever-questing essentialist poetics against a backdrop of specific people and places that help situate and guide his reader.

One of Fry’s favorite techniques—inter-rupture—allows him to shift poems’ focus and pace in radical, still-graspable ways that make what would otherwise be cryptic, post-structuralist language experiments feel like intimate, concrete thought-fragments that burst into characteristically Texan love songs.  As the wildflowers bloom in his work, so too does Fry’s voice, shifting from high registers of metaphysical questing (e.g., “is body the shape of soul—is soul the shape of body”) to small seed-packets of intimate physical detail (e.g., “—Judas kissed Jesus—did Christ kiss him back”).

Beginning in the form of a letter to the beloved with standard adherence to grammar and syntax, “pieces of an imaginary ode” provides excellent evidence of this:

In the clean, clean heartbreak of Spring, the angle of reflection does not equal the angle of incidence when the surface in question is none other than that nettlesome otherwhere formerly called el corazón.  lately, I’ve been reading Spicer, which has made me want to ask the radio if its waves are like the breath of

how does God signify
can syntax make manifest


that nakedness
the bare word

Language-made-naked is one of Fry’s most obvious and abiding obsessions throughout this collection—especially language stripped to such an essential quality that it loses the typical “either/or” parsing a reader expects from prose (and, in many cases, poetry).  For Fry, what can be said is less interesting than what is actually happening in the background of what is said.  Getting at that “happening” requires his poetics to at times dart wildly and playfully, seemingly out of control:

I only know
                        I loved you once but
there will be too many
                        I do not know the future.
military airplanes in this poem.

What is to be admired about Fry’s work, though, is that it never is: even when cutting a poem like “pieces of an imaginary ode” into two distinct personas in order to achieve a desired emotional effect of dissonance, danger, and physical separation from the beloved.  “[W]e have one tongue” the poem goes on to claim—and ultimately earn—by including in its experimental toolkit a willingness to accrue logic by degrees.  The end result is a poetics that can be as oblique, fragmented, and emotionally jarring as poets like D.A. Powell (especially early Powell) and C.D. Wright while simultaneously maintaining a discernible and pleasurably excavated narrative much experimental poetry of the same vein lacks.

Many of silt will swirl‘s poems also employ a strategy of language collage that places English alongside Spanish—generating music and meaning from a juxtaposition of the two tongues.  This section of “genius loci” provides an excellent example:

it’s una herida abierta
1,950 miles long

Tijuana to Tejas
all the way aquí to allá

knee-deep en la frontera
late August fireflylight

cicadas & junebugs choiring
their ruckus in our ears

trudging through nepantla
as catfish breathe muddy

river-bottom water
you heard it here first

cloud-covered moon
& three days after

como que lie
why would I

an abuela swears she did
Nuestra Señora’s face

as the tortilla darkened in the comal
silt will swirl down the Nueces

when the priest came to call that afternoon
candlewax already obscured her rose-strewn steps

Fry’s use of Spanish complements and complicates his already metaphysically-charged, sonically-rewarding poetics, which quests the landscape’s body as much as it does that of the queer beloved (e.g. in “pieces for an imaginary ode” the body of another man):

& in the distance between the remembered
& the forgotten, where hell should exist,
a dozen red roses sang to a nest
of wasps fallen in a war with gulf winds.

where hell should exist, there
in the distance between petal & spent

stinger—rival, honey, friend
—I hold you there.

Think of Fry as a Texan Whitman born in an era in which Whitman’s near-mystical desire for his Camerado is replaced by a love of place and person that casts a wide metaphysical net in its search for the source of the poet’s yearning.

“If radio waves undulate more slowly than light’s inscrutable speed, but faster than red’s lowest rung—I nearly wrote lung!—those not quite blue godsteps at the margins of thought, does that say anything about Creation?” Fry playfully (but also seriously) asks.  His is a voice that remains unsatisfied even as it discovers and discusses the beauty of the material world.  For Fry, there is another world circling this one that remains just out of reach—except in rare moments of poetic ecstasy when it can be partially apprehended.  Take, for example, this section of “genius loci”:

kiss Gringolandia goodbye ¡y bienvenidos!

                that warm wind’s lick like a mama cat’s

tongued sweat slicking the inner thigh

                at least listen to the radio gods if you don’t believe me

quinceñeras cost as much as weddings

                elsewhere, & we are, altogether

novenas for luck lottery numbers & unbelieving mothers

                as many tejano stations on the radio as there are ways to die

death has a body here

                evil, an eye

As the chapbook progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Fry perceives and responds to America’s current immigration debate by framing his own relationship to a Mexican beloved other-ed and outcast by current immigration laws.  While his readers may not be able to share directly this experience with Fry, the poet does an excellent job of fleshing out his own experience so that we, too, can come to at least partially understand what it means to love across a border wider at times, even, than longing itself:

if the limits of our worlds are the limits of our words

                y amorcito no hay puentes

hermoso is it when we touched        very cleft of skin intoned

                my morninglight body against your gloaming own

cuando Méxicano you threaded with Anglo me

        over all this barbed wire

solamente los puentes que hacemos

        no wonder one tongue has never been enough

Rarely is there so much to praise, explore, reckon with, and respond to in a poetry chapbook of only twenty-seven pages.  An indication of much exciting work to come, silt will swirl promises much critical success for one of contemporary’s poetry most accomplished and historically relevant young voices.  Fry’s is a page I anticipate returning to for many future reads—and not simply for its Texas-ness, though that is certainly a draw from my biased place-poet perspective.  His is a poetry that reaches out to form a lasting emotional connection with its reader (rather than attempting to frustrate, obviate, and/or repel), and I predict that Fry will find many willing readers in the years to come—both in his native state and elsewhere.


J. Scott Brownlee is a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at New York University, where he teaches poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.  His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ninth Letter, Nashville Review, The Greensboro Review, BOXCAR Poetry Review, The South Dakota Review, and elsewhere.  A Pushcart Prize nominated poet-of-place, Brownlee writes primarily about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a new literary movement that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working-class, both in the United States and abroad.

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August 25, 2012

Review by J. Scott Brownlee

by Alex Dimitrov

Floating Wolf Quarterly
free e-book

Upon first finishing Alex Dimitrov’s conversationally direct, unapologetically glitz-filled American Boys, I immediately wanted to pick up numerous women at local bars and write unflinchingly about my heartbreaking experiences with them. More importantly, though, I felt that beneath each poem’s defensive, deflective exterior (these are very, “I don’t care what you think, reader” poems) was a voice I could both relate to and believe.

While my own straightness means I navigate a romantic context parallel to (rather than perpendicular with) Dimitrov’s, his poems instantly struck a chord with me in the same way that James White’s do in The Salt Ecstasies, or Mark Doty’s do in My Alexandria, or Carl Phillips’s do in The Tether. If you have a pulse and are a human being and want to have sex with other human beings–to be hurt, praised, desired, ridiculed, and occasionally loved by them–then the work of these poets is essential. Dimitrov’s, too, deserves mentioning alongside theirs, and not simply because he is a “gay poet,” or a “gay urban poet,” or a well-connected contributor to and sustainer of New York City’s gay poetry scene through the Wilde Boys salon he curates. His is work that speaks up for itself–confident in its sweeping metaphysical pronouncements, unafraid to be heard.

Establishing this theme from its outset, American Boys opens by demonstrating Dimitrov’s playful awareness of and impressive resistance to desire as a singular poetic end:

You are so in love with love.
You are carving out another heart,
you are filling it with nothing see-through.
You must kill your boyfriends.
You must kill what wants,
like death, to keep you.

“Kill Your Boyfriends” uses honesty (rather than desire) as its primary conceit, and the end result is lines that go a step beyond the traditional love poem, replacing it with a new proto-love poem that is aware of its own inherent weakness/thematic limitation: love itself.

An assemblage of photographs, text messages, and OkCupid date-matching questions (e.g., “Which word describes you better: carefree or intense?”) help break up (no pun intended) the poems in American Boys–and effectively so, I think, as they show Dimitrov’s awareness that a Web-based collection like this has a responsibility to adhere to and at times directly contradict its reader’s expectation of what poetry “is,” what reading “is,” and what it means to encounter a “book” of poetry online, as opposed to in print. By engaging these ideas comically, Dimitrov helps offset the more serious overtones in American Boys. A humorous line like “Where can I find the best blue jeans to sell my book?” from “Leaving Town with Allen Ginsberg” made me laugh aloud, which is a rarity (and something to be praised, I think) in contemporary work.

Another instance of humor comes in the form of a text message exchange between Dimitrov and a disgruntled Facebook-er who apparently disliked a timeline picture of Dimitrov lying on Marcel Proust’s grave enough to send the poet an anonymous text:

Admirer/Decrier: One shouldn’t lie on Proust’s grave
Dimitrov: Who the fuck is this

This is the sort of additional bell/whistle you as a reader will inevitably either criticize or enjoy. At the very least, I found it entertaining, though not as compelling as some of the better poetry in the book:

Someone’s life is a red or blue light in the distance.
None of this will strip you down the way you’d like.
You know you came here for the wrong reasons,
so tell me, if New York was a word
would it be money or ambition?

And love—love again—
like a night siren, passes.
Why go into detail?
America is about finding something to worship.

When Dimitrov is proverbial poetic “money”–lines like these at the end of “American Faith,” for instance–his honest, direct, at times repetitive speaking style finds its groove amidst an equally repetitive context: the trappings of New York City/American consumer culture. After spending the past few years trying to articulate a poetics-of-place that accurately represents small-town Texas from my own straight, white, male perspective, I find Dimitrov’s American Boys project instructive in its treatment and construction of gay urban identity. While the contexts out of which we write could not be more dissimilar, I encounter a brother spirit in his work–one that, like mine, is concerned with place in broad, abiding, uncompromising ways.

While his poems often seem simple on their surfaces, it is their surfaces’ simplicity and reflexivity that Dimitrov is most concerned with exploring and bringing to light, as each mirrors the highly surface-oriented city about which he writes. Like the persistent, simplistic theme of river-as-mirror that dominates my own work, Dimitrov’s meditates on what exists between the spoken and actual thing–the reflective surface behind it, inside it, within it.Subsequently, the speakers in Dimitrov’s poems often float in the ether above the situations they describe/explore. The disembodied-ness of the speaker in “One American Summer” clearly evidences this idea:

In a train somewhere love stalls.
The gutter fills with someone’s glitter
and it’s boring but beautiful
how glitter has only one purpose.
Why I asked, if I asked,
to be here—I forgot.

While discussing American Boys with other poets through correspondence and online discussions, I discovered that some potential controversy surrounds this book–in part because its straightforward, minimalist approach to poetics is in some circles deemed lazy, or not conceptually charged enough, or lacking precise aesthetic intent. While I acknowledge that these are all potential problems with any poet’s work–regardless of school, clique, or clan–I think it would be unfair to assume that Dimitrov compiled the poems in American Boys simply as farce or spectacle, and that there is a distinct, tangible intention behind their placement and overall message worthy of detailed exploration, critique, and debate prior to the release of Begging For It, his first full-length collection, due out in 2013.

“Look at them, always / with an expensive abandon / and a little below the lips,” he writes ironically in “Kill Your Boyfriends,” followed a few lines later by “Say it without caring what they think.” In Dimitrov’s poetic universe, the blind don’t lead the blind–the too-beautiful do. Even if this is a seemingly obvious pronouncement to make, it also strikes me as true. Like his “blond poet crying outside New York University,” I for one admit to routinely keeping my own head down, pen perpetually to page . . . self-doubting, self-correcting, self-reflecting on failed past romantic experiences super-charged by beauty and youth.

I don’t know if there is a poetry more disarming and simultaneously as defensive as Dimitrov’s–one as thematically bold and, at the same time, as traditionally restrained. But then, poetry requires both from us–as readers and scholars and poets–doesn’t it? Wouldn’t John Keats agree? Wouldn’t you, too, agree given a microphone and polished lectern? Negative capability reaches out to us for a buck again and again on the broad, accessible streets of American Boys. And despite it being a collection that has the potential to divide us as poets–into this school, that clique, or that clan–I’ll close this review with the same slew of unifying, democratically-motivated questions Walt Whitman himself might ask reading Dimitrov’s verse: “Does it speak multitudes? Is it honest? Heartfelt? Will I find truth in it, Camerado? If so, how can I not read it?”

for Timothy Juhl, my brother in poetry


J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic from Llano, Texas. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, RATTLE, Tar River Poetry, Front Porch, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Writers’ Bloc, Windhover, and elsewhere. Involved with several literary journal start-ups, he was the managing editor and co-founder of both Hothouse and The Raleigh Review. His current writing project, County Lines: The Llano Poems, explores small-town life in the Texas Hill Country.

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April 20, 2012

Review by J. Scott BrownleeI Live in a Hut by S.E. Smith

by S.E. Smith

Cleveland State University Poetry Center
2121 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44115-2214
ISBN 978-I-880834-98-5
2012, 62 pp., $15.95

Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives
alright. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.

-Terrance Hayes

A week before I read S.E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut, I got a phone call from the director of NYU’s Creative Writing Program offering me a full ride and a completely unexpected fellowship. Shocked, disbelieving, and euphoric, I attended AWP several days later feeling strangely lightheaded and buoyant—both of which are words that aptly describe Smith’s debut collection, a suite of poems that are more concerned with surprise, misdirection, and creative flair than they are with the humdrum, conciliatory, another-day-another-dollar mindset most of us use to get through a prototypical day.

I first opened I Live in a Hut on an American Airlines flight from Chicago back to Austin, which, if you can manage to re-create, is a reading environment for this book I highly recommend. Smith, who has been publishing quirky, Dean-Young-esque poems with titles like “The Pony of Darkness,” “Big Slutty Bear,” and “Becky Home-Ecky and Her Fourteen Boyfriends” for years now, refuses to take about 80% of any given utterance seriously. This results in a first collection that is equal parts farce, diary-esque reflection, and satirical wit. Consistent in her balancing of seemingly incongruent poetic approaches, Smith weaves the ironic, intensely personal, and outrageously hilarious together with a consistent declarative line that makes zany leaps while remaining syntactically careful and clean.

“Un Peu,” a poem bemoaning the French people’s inability to gain weight juxtaposed alongside one of Smith’s failed romances, evidences the poet’s unique ability to work in several registers at the same time (something that is highly admirable, as well as distinct, about her work):

I would like to swap some of my eternity for some
of yours. I don’t know how but I love you so it may
be possible and the French are fat at last. Finally
they are fat. They move slowly, like bears. Maybe now
they’ll leave us alone, maybe now we can get on with it.

I was particularly moved by many of the love poems in I Live in a Hut—finding it easy to identify with their detached, performative, going-through-the-romantic-motions voices because, like them, I felt equally removed from the girl I was currently seeing—the shelf-life of our short-lived relationship made painfully apparent by my upcoming move to New York City.

To throw a tangential, completely out-of-place monkey wrench in this otherwise serious review, I was emotionally compromised when I read I Live in a Hut—in love with a girl I couldn’t stay with after my move to New York City—and there was nothing I could do to change that cosmic fact except read Smith’s book and feel passionately sorry for the speakers of her poems, many of whom lament similarly failed romantic experiences—albeit from a distance, and with a degree of dispassion that I doubted but remained effective, in part because Smith’s poetry evidences how unfortunately elliptical, illusory, and highbrow contemporary poetry expects capital-l Love to be. Aware of this expectation, Smith takes an enormous (and successful) risk by putting romantic expectation on display–poking, prodding, and otherwise dismantling it in these poems, ultimately revealing the vulnerability and concern present in even the most “contemporary” voice.

Heaven forbid our great loves be cliché, and we write honest, unapologetic lines like, “It is getting / dark. I love you,” as Smith does at the beginning of “Sturgeons,” a poem that has more to do with failed romantic interactions (“I propose that we / move on from this place”) and their sexy, metaphysical fallout even before they are allowed to begin (“Deep down I suspect I am a clock-watcher / anxious for this beautiful moment to end”) than it does with sturgeons, the Caspian Sea, or the Ohio River—all of which dominate the surface of what I would argue is the most important, heartfelt poem in the book.

Speaking of hearts . . . I went over to my girlfriend’s apartment when I got back from AWP to try to salvage whatever version of our relationship I could and should have read her Smith’s poem “Happiness,” although I didn’t because I was already too afraid of losing her. It has one of the best opening stanzas I’ve read in quite some time, and served as a welcome distraction from my own failure at attaining happiness during the difficult weeks of What if? after AWP:

Briefly, it is possible. The rain shines down,
the bucket is ready. It makes a nice click,
the last snap on the jacket. It doesn’t have
to be a particular kind of jacket. But it has
to be November, and you must be at the zoo.

I felt more than a bit like the speaker in “Vertical Lake” as well when I left my girlfriend’s apartment later that night, our kissing (and not being able to stop) juxtaposed sharply with the verticality of my body, the rigidity of it, as I forced the car door closed and drove away:

Okay, bye,
I said. I have to get going.

I was dead. It was snowing.
I was going into the vertical lake.

Several days before this it actually did snow in Chicago, and we had texted each other back-and-forth sporadically during AWP, apologizing that we couldn’t play more active roles in one another’s increasingly distant lives (she was on the verge of opening a hip Austin wine and cheese bar that kept her working 60-hour weeks, and I was, obviously, at AWP, meeting NYU students and faculty and trying to decide whether or not I would commit to an MFA.)

Long story short, I did commit. And we did break up. And Smith’s I Live in a Hut remained a beautiful, heartbreaking book throughout this simultaneously necessary and difficult process. While Smith took “history lessons / from a West Virginian horse thief / named Dirk,” I gave two-stepping lessons to the beautiful Jewish/Spanish/French girl I would eventually have to step away from irrevocably—and without even having the ability to repeatedly hurt her, or be hurt by her, or get in our first epic fight (which the unexpected NYU acceptance prevented us from ever having).

“Already we are off to a terrible start,” Smith says at the beginning of “Beauty,” and I couldn’t agree with her more as I thought about all of the possible ways I could manipulate the girl I loved into moving to New York City with me—eventually realizing that to do so would mean acting similarly to the speaker of “Fuck You,” who repeatedly “takes exasperated measures” and “saves [her lover] for later,” comparing his body, with its oils and sugar-sweet taste, to “a pastry . . . in a [metaphorical] bag” of possessiveness.

I had to leave the girl I loved, and Smith’s book—with its insistence on finding grace and beauty in even the most awkward, unfortunate break-ups—helped me understand why. I didn’t want to, but doing so was part of the painful (though altogether necessary) process of fully letting go.

Like the anthropomorphized truth in Smith’s “Your Scrappy Truth,” I “insisted / on taking the high narrow road / out of town.” I simply couldn’t manipulate my girlfriend and ever expect to live with myself afterwards, so I got off the plane (having finished I Live in a Hut) knowing what I had to do, realizing I had to break up with her in order to shatter completely the expectation that she drop everything in her life to accommodate me and my dreams in New York City–where I would be a poet, if only a bad one, in a city full of people far more selfish, witty, and strong-willed, even, than me, and where our hypothetical break-up would probably be three to four times as messy, eight to nine times as heartbreaking, and still—even then—not hold a candle to the raw emotional core burning at the center of Smith’s remarkable first book.

While my Rattle reviews typically tend to focus on the poet rather than his or her audience, in this particular instance I wanted to make clear the connection between Smith’s work and my own life. While such a critical leap might at first seem taboo and/or unwarranted, I think framing this review with a personal narrative is something Smith herself would applaud—her poems being, at their roots, intimate portraits of human awkwardness, honesty, and confusion. I Live in a Hut is a beautiful, delicate, daring, exquisite first effort—whether you identify with my sappy break-up story or not—one that helped me see beyond my own field of vision with a clarity I didn’t possess before reading it. I hope that, in my future writing (and life off the page), I can be half as daring, quick, and imaginative as S.E. Smith is. At the very least, reading her work, I’m encouraged to try.


J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic from Llano, Texas. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, RATTLE, Tar River Poetry, Front Porch, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Writers’ Bloc, Windhover, and elsewhere. Involved with several literary journal start-ups, he was the managing editor and co-founder of both Hothouse and The Raleigh Review. His current writing project, County Lines: The Llano Poems, explores small-town life in the Texas Hill Country.

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January 10, 2012

Review by J. Scott BrownleeBlue Rust by Joseph Millar

by Joseph Millar

Carnegie Mellon University Press
5032 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15289-1021
ISBN: 0887485499
2012, 88pp., $15.95

What have I lost
in the sea’s wide pastures
watching for whales headed south?

-from “Leaving Coos County”

You may have never heard about Joseph Millar’s poetry, but after reading Blue Rust, you will probably end up reading all of it, at least if you are a young poet like me looking to learn a thing or two from a master of the form. A gentle, unassuming, soft-spoken teacher and mentor to wunderkinds like Coos Bay native Mike McGriff and Portland twins Matthew and Michael Dickman, much of the attention deservedly due Millar tends to shine more directly on his students—many of whom have published wonderful books and chapbooks of their own. While it is easy to forget about the existence of behind-the-scenes teachers like Millar, they are often some of the best (if not most well-known) poets of their generation. Blue Rust, Millar’s third and most recent book, provides compelling evidence of this. It is an expansive, thought-provoking, beautifully rendered collection containing some of the poet’s finest work to date.

The book’s ability to strike a successful balance between narration and image is perhaps its greatest strength. Considering Millar’s previous collections, it is not difficult to see why. Overtime and Fortune both contain poems that are successful at creating aesthetic resonance by interweaving narration and an Eastern-influenced emphasis on image Millar shares with his stylistic forebears Williams and Pound. Millar’s voice is ultimately, however, his own—and very convincingly so. As poet Yusef Komunyakaa once said, Millar, who takes his subject matter from an intrigue-riddled, rust-crusted working-class background, is “a poet we can believe,” particularly when he writes about the land- and seascapes of the American Northwest in poems like “Year of the Ox”:

I can hear the sea calling out
from beyond the jetty, smell the pines
near the flooded-out bridge where today
someone tried to winch an old Volkswagen
up from the swirling waters.
Far down the coast the same west wind
blows through the marshes and river mouth
where my brother’s boat rocks on its mooring.
He’s the only one awake, modest and reliable,
replacing a frayed hose, tightening the clamps.
He doesn’t trust the government
shining his trouble-light into the darkness,
his radio tuned to a satellite
broadcasting through the blue dust of space.

Millar has a wonderful eye for detail, in part, because he is much more interested in seeing than being seen. His gaze is that of the speaker in search of a transient, extrinsic beauty. Whether he is describing “a sunset turning dim like a weld over the Bering Sea,” “torches and welding tanks rinsed in blue light,” or the “plutonium shutters and platinum fins” of spacecraft hovering over North Carolina back-country, Millar’s gaze is always turned outward rather than inward. In keeping with the tenets of the Eastern poetics that informs much of his work, this strategy allows Millar to broaden the scope of his own gaze—lending his observations a sense of greater cosmic importance than they would otherwise have, even as he describes something as seemingly mundane as the light thrown on a shadowy wall by a welding torch.

During several stints as a commercial fisherman, Millar gained a profound affinity for and appreciation of the ocean that plays heavily into the themes and conceits of many poems in Blue Rust—so much so that the ocean itself often eclipses Millar the speaker in interesting thematic ways. One of my favorite things about the poems in this book is the tendency their speakers have to slip into the thematic background, giving way to a situation, natural phenomenon, or metaphysical context that can stand on its own without a bulky poetic ego holding it up. Another way of saying this is that Millar’s poems really start to sing when he is a spectator, rather than a participant, in them. “Romance,” a piece in which the speaker’s voice and intentions fade so that the feelings and memories of his friend can be more closely explored, provides a great example of this:

One more month coming up
watching the moon in its changes
hoping the salmon will finally arrive,
one more month listening
to seabirds and wind,
listening to you dreaming out loud
about the waitress in Naknek
who called you Honey
when she brought the eggs
thinking because of your red moustache
you might be one of the Russians
with their slick fiberglass Wegley boats
we never understood how they could afford.

You could have made a life with her, you said
as we watched the cork line
straighten and drift.
You could settle down by her woodstove
turning your back to the road outside,
hidden away in her kitchen,
smelling the spaghetti sauce
like a child or an old man. You could
live easy and die happy, a candle burning
in every window, the blue compass needle
and hands of the clock pointing north
through the field’s wavy grass.
You could make your grave in her.

When Millar is not tweaking the emotional sensibility of his reader, he attempts to draw the reader in with imagery that exists for its own sake—without any need for logic, or even a skewed, New-York-School inspired anti-logic, for that matter. Crickets, in a poem like “Divorce,” for example, provide all the introductory friction Millar’s poem needs in order to move successfully down the page. Without any complex, confounding language games or other postmodern whistles and bells, the image of crickets singing is enough:

Now the crickets are throbbing
the ancient psalm of tall grass.
You clasp both hands over your heart
with its pawnshop guitar and fake fur jacket,
its cloth roses sewn end to end,
the turquoise necklace you traded for money
so far from home and too late for autumn,
frozen star lilies bent to the ground.

The really interesting thing about Millar’s poetic skill is how adept he is at placing the seemingly mundane imagery of everyday life within a larger framework of resonant, ear-pleasing syntax. References to the Steelers and charred onion rings appear alongside vivid descriptions of nature in poems like “Kiski Flats,” combining sound and image in complex matrices of meaning that hum and whir like well-oiled machines:

Soon we’ll be driving the black road
I left by, shining with mica
blistered with tar, the back porch
collapsed where we ate the charred onion rings
watching the Steelers on channel four,
the hatchet sunk deep in the workbench he left
to die in his bed behind the closed door.

It’s no crime to be tired of the sun,
to be secretive, hiding your pain.
We peer now into the choppy rooms,
the windows wavy with age and rain.
Let the phone ring forever, let the mail
pile up. Let the dry nest fall apart,
stuck together with last year’s mud
jammed in the eaves and shaped like a heart.

Millar’s favorite images, the ones he tends to repeat throughout the book, relate most often to mechanization, tooling, and the hard-luck lexicon of the sweat-stained, working-class man. Grease, gears, and other “implements for joining and rending” are used as rhetorical tools by Millar time and again—serving as stand-ins for more plainly-stated emotions. This naming of mechanical parts, the intentional act of listing of them, is one of the most important poetic tools Millar uses to help give poems like “Marriage” momentum, emotional variation, and music.

We could be standing inside an airship
laughing and jostling each other
or inside a dead star
surrounded by metal, the whetstone’s
fine oil, chisels and knives,
torches and welding tanks
rinsed in blue light, threaded light,
bridal light helplessly shining
over the spools of new copper,
over the pocked green lunar cement.

Other points of prosodic interest aside, perhaps the most significant evolution of Millar’s work in Blue Rust is a tendency for him to paint in broad, sweeping strokes what it means to be an American. Millar’s experience and age lend him a rare historical perch from which to critique, explore, and reckon with our nation’s past—particularly with respect to its gradual, decades-long transition from an industrial to a post-industrial power. His, I would argue, is the voice of a working-class prophet who does not intend to prophesy, but nevertheless does. Reading a poem like “Fire,” for example, it is hard for Millar’s reader to not quite literally feel the nation “slouching towards Bethlehem,” as Yeats so eloquently put it, “to be born.”

America raises its iron voice
over the coal fields of Pennsylvania:
backyard engine blocks, chain hoists,
bell housings, toothed gears
resting in pans of oil—stammering out
the poem of combustion,
bright tongues and wings, white-hot ingots
glimpsed in the huge mills by the river,
coke ovens, strip mines, brick stacks burning
over the spine of the Appalachians.

Elegiac snap-shots of 1960’s-1970’s industrial America like this one can be found throughout Blue Rust and make the collection’s title, given the ongoing economic downturn of the United States, seem particularly apt. I found them all very arresting and emotionally compelling—what with their distinctly grim, albeit beautiful ability to encapsulate the past 40-50 years of American economic decline in only a few short, hard-to-forget lines. Even so, this is definitely not a book that pushes its reader in any one emotional, social, historical, or ideological direction. Millar has written for far too long and with far too much care to succumb to any prophetic temptation other than the soul-searching desire to fashion the language hammered steel-solid in him and present it to us on its on rust-clad, blue-collar terms—for its own sacred sake.


J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic from Llano, Texas. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, RATTLE, Tar River Poetry, Front Porch, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Writers’ Bloc, Windhover, and elsewhere. Involved with several literary journal start-ups, he was the managing editor and co-founder of both Hothouse and The Raleigh Review. His current writing project, County Lines: The Llano Poems, explores small-town life in the Texas Hill Country.

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May 5, 2011

Review by J. Scott BrownleeThe Book of Men by Dorianne Laux

by Dorianne Laux

W. W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
ISBN 978-0-393-07955-5
2011, 91 pp., $24.95

After driving two thousand miles from Texas to North Carolina in the summer of 2009, I showed up on the porch of poet Dorianne Laux with the New and Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz propped under my arm—a book I hadn’t read—and a vague belief I could somehow talk my way into one of her introductory poetry courses at North Carolina State University. I brought the Milosz book with me because it was heavy, and I thought its weight would make me look distinguished. I was (and in some ways still am) that vainglorious kid—someone who believed that if you found a great poetry mentor, you too could become great.

I still remember sitting in front of a computer screen in Texas at one of my lackluster undergraduate jobs as a library page reading everything I could about Laux and the seemingly endless number of gifted former students trailing in her wake: Michael McGriff, Major Jackson, Matthew Dickman, Michael Dickman, Carl Adamshick—even the headstrong, anarchic Michael Robbins, who has on several occasions stirred the finger-pointing pot in Poetry.

This particular list of Laux’s former students intentionally includes only men. While it’s true she has taught an equally large number of talented female poets, the release of Laux’s newest full-length collection The Book of Men warrants emphasizing and reflecting upon what is perhaps her greatest poetic gift—an ability to reach across the gender divide and enter, give voice to, and subsequently report upon, the secret world of men.

Tracing the trajectory of Laux’s work from the past to now, it is clear that her ability to write about the opposite sex is without equal. To put this in the kind of clear, easily understood layman’s terms for which Laux herself has an obvious knack, “She just gets guys.” Whether she is describing an emotionally wounded war veteran in poems like “Staff Sgt. Metz” or her sexual exploits with a boyfriend “who was a bit slow” in “Bakersfield, 1969,” Laux displays a remarkable (and I believe unprecedented) ability to move beyond her own feminine gaze into that intimate, reciprocal zone of understanding only the most attentive desire-ers of the opposite sex can ever hope to occupy. “I was scared most of the time,” she says at one point in “Bakersfield, 1969.” “But I acted / tough, like I knew every street. / What I liked about him was that he wasn’t acting. / Even his sweat tasted sweet.”

In an era in which much poetry has distanced itself from the emotional vulnerability and concrete desperation of the real, Laux has championed it—perhaps at times to her own critical detriment. In my own mind (which is a very biased one, to be sure), she should have won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1990 debut collection Awake. Now, with W. W. Norton putting out The Book of Men, it is my hope that some of the recent popular attention the poetry world has received from the likes of Oprah and the soon-to-retire Garrison Keillor will help catapult poets like Laux into the cultural limelight for the first time since writers like Ginsberg, Plath, Lowell, and Sexton attained an at least partially widespread popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.

In Laux’s most recent collection you will find poems that anyone with a fifth-grade education can take something away from and that anyone with a PhD in Critical Post-modern Discourses of Poetic Such-and-Such would do well to close read time and again. It is the kind of book that, to borrow a line from Whitman, “is large” and “contains multitudes”—one that seeks, with its focus on pop culture icons like The Beatles, Superman, and Mick Jagger, to make poetry a democratic activity in which we can all engage.

While reading Laux, you may notice that she is a master of the poetic list. For her, situating ourselves metaphysically within the world means first taking the time to physically orient ourselves within it via everyday objects—be they “the red curb” in “Staff Sgt. Metz,” the wharf at the end of “Men,” or the breast implants of Sonny’s leading lady in Laux’s tribute poem “Cher.”

In The Book of Men, Laux’s penchant for imagistic lists is often focused specifically on details related to the rougher, testosterone-tainted sex—and effectively so, I think. When Laux decides which images and experiences define what it means to be a man in the poem “Men,” her instincts (feel free to disagree with me, fellow Y-chromosome carriers) are spot on: “The self / isn’t an easy quest for a beast with balls, a cock, proof / of something difficult to define or defend.”

There is no poet writing today who has a better instinct for syntactical resonance than Laux, whose work might appear to some critics to operate only on the surface. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. Even when she’s writing poems about pop culture icons like Bob Dylan, Laux’s writing shimmers with a translucent intent. The speaker in her poems is someone we feel we can instantly (and intimately) trust—something most contemporary poetry, with its we-are-“post-utterance”-deconstructionist hoopla and I-can’t-tell-the-truth-that’s-impossible-to-do values structure lacks. “I was born without a father,” Laux writes in the poem “Bob Dylan”—“born again / without another. I searched the grassy / corridors of childhood, calling his name.”

What we’ve been missing for the longest time now in contemporary poetry is the ability to hear the ring of truth in our own voices—something that I think lyricists like Dylan, if they wrote lineated poetry today, would unequivocally agree with. Laux’s poems remind us of this deafness, making it possible for us to re-articulate a clear, direct, renewed sense of confidence in our own ability as human beings to speak.

A master (or should I say “master-ess”?) of the plainspoken line, Laux is at her best in The Book of Men when the conceits of her poems are simplest—as in “Dark Charms,” when she speaks in the collective voice of the Baby Boomer generation:

The clear water we drank as thirsty children
still runs through our veins. Stars we saw then
we still see now, only fewer, dimmer, less often.
The old tunes play and continue to move us
in spite of our learning, the wraith of romance,
lost innocence, literature, the death of poets.
We continue to speak, if only in whispers,
to something inside us that longs to be named.
We name it the past and drag it behind us,
bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,
dreams of running, the keys to lost names.

Is there any other poetry being written today as effortlessly expressed and evocative as that? I for one don’t think so. Granted, I’m a very biased reviewer in this instance, since I drove two thousand miles and attended a library science graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill the past two years so that I could have the opportunity to work with and learn from Dorianne Laux. The commute from Chapel Hill to Raleigh, where she and her husband the poet Joseph Millar live, is about sixty miles roundtrip, but I never regret making it. If you haven’t had a chance to read the work of one of contemporary poetry’s most convincing voices, pick up a copy of Laux’s latest book today. Her friend and mentor Philip Levine once called Laux “the sister of Whitman,” and it’s easy to see why. Hers is a poetry that would have made the white-bearded Whitman—with his tenderness, candor, and zeal for the plainspoken—proud.

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March 20, 2011

Review by J. Scott BrownleeThe Manageable Cold by Timothy McBride

by Timothy McBride

TriQuarterly Books
Northwestern University Press
629 Noyes Street
Evanston, IL 60208-4210
ISBN 978-0-8101-2675-6
2010, 78 pp., $15.95

Deeply immersed in the internal music of McBride’s own life growing up poor on the back streets of Rochester, New York, The Manageable Cold is, as Dorianne Laux lauds in her dust-jacket review, “a first book of great maturity and promise”—one that draws upon a deep well of experience, loss, and redemption to make its many social, political, and philosophical points hit home. While the majority of contemporary poets line up on either side of the formal/free-verse divide in most of their published work, owing largely to the difficulty of simultaneously embracing and pushing against historical poetic forms, Timothy McBride and his down-on-your-luck-and-a-dollar-short-at-the-lunch-counter voice seem perfectly comfortable straddling this line in The Manageable Cold, treating it as a boundary to be crossed rather than as a stylistic barrier.

The Manageable Cold is, by far, one of the most skillfully crafted and thematically unified first books I’ve ever read. You may not have heard about McBride in an MFA workshop, at AWP’s exhaustive book fair, or at the poetry readings you’ve attended, largely because many of the poems in The Manageable Cold don’t appear in the prominent literary journals where you might expect to find them—those metaphorical boxing rings of verse where poetry’s semi-pros take their first steps toward prize fights. The good news is that you will soon have a new up-and-comer to root for in the rings of Poetry, AGNI, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, RATTLE, and other literary journals of distinction: the rough-and-tumble Timothy McBride.

Why? you might be inclined to ask. Because McBride’s poems, whether framed by form, free verse, or some combination of the two, have a tendency to do a lot of heavy, necessary metaphysical work with an incredible degree of verbal economy. The sonnet “Conn,” in which McBride elegizes his father alongside boxing legend Billy Conn, provides only one compelling example of the poet’s ability to compact and complicate language as a practiced sonneteer:

He tried and tried some nights to make me see
how Conn had staggered Louis that first fight:
“He nailed him, Timmy, just like he nailed me,
a right hand, under.” Then he’d have me do it.
Corner him. Beat him to the punch.
Lean in to learn what made his life go on:
five minutes’ worth of hell with Billy Conn,
who took the crown from Louis. Almost. Once.

The Manageable Cold is rooted, at least to some degree, in the imagistic, self-reflexive, Modernist tradition of poets like Philip Larkin, and I think successfully so. Engaging other prominent poets of the Modernist period such as W.B. Yeats in the tribute poem “A Travelogue of Self and Soul” and William Carlos Williams with the these-plums-are-so-delicious line breaks of “Slow Dissolve” allows McBride to link his own existential stake, his own obsession with language, to the stakes and obsessions of a larger historical poetic discourse. More importantly, his choice to emphasize and explore his own literary origins makes the contemporary jukes and jabs of his lyrically focused verse feel more bruising, quick, and nimble than they otherwise might.

I make the reference to prize fighting here (and elsewhere in this review) because McBride, himself an avid boxer, treats language with the same sort of deferential Zen that Jean-Claude Van Damme might if Bloodsport had been a movie about a poetry slam champion instead of a gifted martial artist. In poems like “Villainous,” for example, a piece that cross-references every other anthologized villanelle in the English language while still finding a way to make the form feel new, McBride displays a mastery of form akin to that of a prize fighter who has honed a mean upper-cut punch:

The thing that turned you on? I turned it off.
A contranym’s the opposite of itself.
It always holds back something. That’s the truth.

In “Don’t Use My Blood,” McBride reveals a vulnerable male voice caught in the midst of its own elaborate lie, which serves as the highly believable conceit that guides the poem:

Don’t trust my smile
no matter how I gush
at you from the tilted chair
letting blood
run into your plastic bag.
My heart is sick. My pint is venomous.

Don’t trust my words.
I lied to every question on your form.
I have “taken / given money in exchange for sex”
with men and women,
not “even once,” but many times.
I’ve been “unprotected” in love,
in despair, in loneliness—
in New York and Miami,
in Java and in Niamey, Niger.
I lived through those connections.
That’s why I come to you.

For McBride, writing poetry is a deeply personal, emotionally athletic activity in which the competitor on the other side of the ring, bed, or doctor’s table is ultimately oneself. This idea is emphasized and developed throughout The Manageable Cold, whether in the context of failed romantic relationships (poems like “Surgery Rotation”), elegiac portraits of family life (poems like “Snow Fence “), or meditations on the art of prize fighting (poems like “Liston”) and what this art can teach us about ourselves, whether inside or outside the proverbial “ring.” Above all else, McBride’s work emphasizes, with its careful syntactical resonances and focus on traditional metrical strategies, the possibility of a sublime order in poetry that eludes us in our everyday lives.

The sense of displacement, of “other-ness,” we sometimes feel in awkward social situations is a sort of metaphorical punching bag for McBride—who opts to tackle emotionally-charged experiences head-on rather than simply dancing haphazardly around them. I think this is what I admire most about his work: the fact that his poems aren’t afraid to pick a fight with any idea, any situation, or anyone.

McBride’s work reminds us that writing poetry is as much an activity of historical engagement and the lived life as it is an activity of the spirit–as much the act of putting words together as it is the opposing act of tearing them apart. Larkin, Yeats, and Williams are no doubt sitting up in their respective graves right now wearing Everlast boxing gloves and reading The Manageable Cold aloud to themselves, which is something you’ll want to do as well in order to get the full sonic effect of this incredible book. I’m willing to bet you a buck, a Budweiser, and a couple of free shots in the ring that all three of them are enjoying it and that if you pick up this book, you most likely will too. Time and again, this first effort displays a degree of linguistic sophistication an early-career poet like McBride simply shouldn’t possess. And yet . . . like Larkin and Yeats and Williams before him, McBride does possess it.


J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic. Originally from Llano, Texas, he is currently a library science graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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December 6, 2010

J. Scott Brownlee


Once every year, we slaughter
the bulls. We make burnt offerings

to God while clans of poor Tejanos
jump in old Ford trucks, waiting to melt

the pools of asphalt for new roads.
We take our time when we make

love. We are proud soldiers
who have twice toured Iraq:

our loaded guns, our livelihoods
off safety. We are deer hunters

not for sport.  We hunt here for survival.
We have fought wars you would not fight.

Our bullet wounds and PTS are proof
of what we’ve witnessed outside church:

that only suffering can make a body
bleed enough to cleanse it.

We work so hard some days
our backs swell up

on loading docks like Christ’s,
but we keep loading anyway.

A few of us, the lucky ones,
drive fork-lifts. The rest of us

still use our hands: this heaviness,
this waiting for the weight of day

to pass into the arteries of night.
Then we can rest.  Blood

is the weight of sin we carry.
Blood is the color of the sky

over our town.
We make burnt offerings

to God every December.
We still light candles

with their promise of return.
We know Christ’s coming back.

We still say, “Merry Christmas,”
and believe the Bible’s true.

The swimming pool is where we go
to waste our time—there or the Sonic

with its cheese fries, flurries, drinks.
And at DQ you get a dipped cone

for a dollar twenty-five,
although it used to be much cheaper.

By ten most people fall asleep.
The rest shoot pool at Granite-O,

that bar just outside town where
young men swallow any evidence

of prayer.  Each shot glass empty,
empty, full.  And there’s a hoot owl,

somewhere, singing.  The milking does
and dappled fawns lie in the brush

outside our plywood houses, bedding down.
When they rise it’s Saturday, and raining.

The poor kids start to wrestle in the mud,
wake up their parents in the trailer park.

By noon they’re playing soccer
with the red ball

they stole from Dollar General.
And then on Monday after school

our JV football team at practice
in the sun, their helmets gleaming,

insect phalanx. Yellow jacket stingers,
combs of crab grass at their feet:

it must be August once again if,
past that line of bruised-black boys,

beyond the bleachers and the oak trees,
we hear peacocks with their shrill calls

cry a song we will never forget:
that first music of suffering.

from Rattle #33, Summer 2010

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