June 8, 2013

John Brehm


I cannot save her, she will be broken, is broken,
will be broken again and again, this little girl,
five or six, in a grubby pink dress,
black hair, fat cheeks, hard black eyes
on her father—a giant version of herself
inflated by time and half-controlled
rage—who grabs her shoulders
and shoves her down on the sidewalk,
against the brick wall of the bookstore
I’m about to enter, and stands back
waiting as she gets up, tries to run
past him, unstoppable force,
immovable object, and grabs her again,
slams her down, the exact same motions
but harder this time, both of them
like marionettes the god who rules over
ruined childhoods guides with gnarled fingers,
and my hard-wired, Paleolithic radar
for violence flares inside me, turns me
towards them, makes me want to slam him
into the next universe, and horrible things
will happen today that none of us can stop,
savage human fear everywhere in full swing,
the need for comfort never-ending,
need beyond all depth and measure—
everything will happen and none can stop it
but this will not happen, not here, not now,
though she will be broken, and I say,
“Hey, man, you do that again, I’m calling
the cops—what is going on here?”
and he says, “She’s having a time-out,
call the cops if you want to,” and the raspy
mother smoking on the street corner says,
“She’s having a time-out, that’s good discipline,
daddy,” and I stand there, held in this moment,
and then he starts to gentle her, sets her
softly down, and she snarls her lip, sputters
up at him, five-year-old for go fuck yourself,
and I think good for you and he calls her
honey, kneels down close to talk to her,
and I can’t tell if it’s a show for me or if it’s real,
though I can feel he feels my eyes on him,
and I’m not going anywhere, until he takes
her hand and walks her inside the bookstore,
a shimmering mirage of loving father
and trusting child, and I follow them
to where all the helpless words are kept
and time itself rests inside the covers
waiting to be set free now
and forever and he lets
me walk away.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


John Brehm: “The incident described in the poem occurred just outside Powells bookstore where he was on his way to buy a book by Ron Padgett. He lives in Portland, Oregon.” (web)

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July 15, 2012

Review by Alejandro EscudéHelp Is on the Way by John Brehm

by John Brehm

University of Wisconsin Press
1930 Monroe Street
Madison, WI 53711-2059
ISBN: 978-0-299-28624-8
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: ajescude@hotmail.com. His websites are: www.alejandroescude.com and www.alejandroescude.blogspot.com.

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June 18, 2012

John Brehm


Framed in the upended triangle
of the dead pine’s
now un-

roots a cluster of
larkspur perfectly composed.



Death and beauty and
the of of each
gives us

all we
need to say
then takes it all away.

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011
Tribute to Buddhist Poets


John Brehm: “I started writing these short, six-line poems as a counterpoint to my longer, talkier poems. They’re very much influenced by the 12th century Japanese poet Saigyo, a captain of the imperial guard who abandoned palace life to become a wandering Buddhist monk.” (website)

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June 18, 2009

John Brehm


Thank you for your letter informing me of the errors
in my 2005 filing. I’m enclosing a check for
$5,657.00 to cover the tax which I evidently
still owe and the interest on that tax.
I would hereby like to ask, however,
that you forgive the penalty of $1,136.00
since the employer failed to send me a 1099
for the income I made as a consultant that year.
Of course I realize it’s my responsibility to report
all my income, but in the absence of a 1099
I simply forgot. I have a number of clients
and I’m (obviously) not the best bookkeeper.
Nor am I particularly “good with money.”
I am a poet as well as a freelance writer,
and being a poet isn’t quite as lucrative
as you might imagine. You may notice,
for example, that for all of last year I received
$57.00 in royalties. (A friend of mine helpfully
observed that I could have made more money
“as a parking meter,” to which I replied that
I could have made a lot more money as a parking meter,
and gotten a lot more respect as well.)
Unlike most hard-working poets in America,
I don’t teach, mainly because I don’t know anything.
I’m probably not all that far from the clichéd notion
of the romantic poet you yourself may hold.
I get stoned sometimes and stare at trees and clouds
for hours on end, try to see the wind, etc.
I weep for no reason, remember real or imagined
slights for ages, and lick my wounds with words.
I live in a studio apartment, a garret if you will.
I have a huge desk—it’s like the deck of a ship,
and I its landlocked captain, gazing out to sea.
It sits underneath my sleeping loft, which
my girlfriend likes to call “the lofty loft,”
for reasons I won’t go into here as they may seem
inappropriate, or too personal, or perhaps
irrelevant to my purpose, which is to ask your
forgiveness of the penalty and to offer reasons why
by explaining the hardships of the poet’s life.
I’ll just say that sometimes it gets pretty lofty up there
and sometimes we imagine we’re on a magic carpet
drifting smoothly above the city below, in its state
of semi-controlled, slow-motion collapse,
and on out over the ocean, which she loves and fears,
just like I do, or over the summer-campy Catskills,
where we can’t afford to buy a country house,
with their worn-down mountains and charmingly
self-effacing trees, so unlike the impossibly massive
and overly serious cedars and hemlocks and
Douglass fir trees of the Pacific Northwest,
where I used to live until poverty forced me East.
Those trees are brooders—dignified, mist-shrouded
monsters—beautiful, of course, and awe-inspiring
(I wonder if you have felt this), but too damply
archaic and imposing and uncomprehendable
for my taste. I like a tree you can take in with
a single steady gaze. I wonder if you are as bad
at poetry as I am at accounting. Perhaps we are
the inverted mirror-images of each other.
I don’t imagine you get asked that question
very often or receive many letters like this one.
Maybe you’re reading this out loud even now
to your office (I almost said “cell”) mates. Of my book
a reviewer once said that “one simply can’t resist
reading these poems out loud to someone else,”
and I wonder if you feel this—the irresistible
need to read this poem aloud. I’m sure
the letters you receive are mostly angry ones,
the kind that say things like, “Here, take my
Goddamn money and buy Dick Cheney a few more
gallons of puppy blood for his nightly ablutions,”
or “Dear IRS, please use the enclosed check to
purchase some hand-held rocket-launchers to blast the fuck
out of some poor Iraqi’s house, which you prefer
to call ‘a suspected insurgent stronghold.’”
Or, “Please give this money to the CEO of Exxon
so he can buy silk socks while I regurgitate
my supper and try not to starve.”
I thought of taking that approach, I felt
that desire to get in a shot or two, to give voice
to righteous indignation, treat you like
a non-person, someone mindlessly
and heartlessly saying “no” all day long.
But I’m done with all that, I want to reach you,
to speak to you as a fellow human being immersed
in the same joys and suffering as I am—didn’t you
once write poems yourself, poems of anguish
and loss and loneliness?—and to remind you
of the karmic delights of forgiveness that
await you if you release me
from this debt.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2008
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention


John Brehm: “‘Dear Internal Revenue Service’ took shape after I’d written a very similar, though much shorter, letter to the IRS, explaining my predicament and asking for mercy. (Which, no surprise, was not granted.) While I was waiting for a response, I showed a copy of the letter to a friend who said, ‘That sounds like one of your poems.’ And so I turned it into one.” (web)

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