By: Joel Brouwer
Reviewed by: Steven Ford Brown
Four Way Books, 2009
Joel Brouwer’s new book And So furthers his reputation as careful craftsman and ensures his inclusion among the best of the younger generations of poets writing in America today. And So is a lyrical and erudite book in which the characters—and this is a book about people together, alone, and often alone together—live out their lives in a series of changing landscapes and relationships.
The characters that populate And So are mostly tourists in the great museum of loneliness called America. Although his characters often carry their loneliness and separateness with them like a companion suitcase, they still come together and drift apart in the landscapes of Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, South Dakota, and occasionally France and Holland, sorting out themselves and their lives. But there’s nothing fatal about the loneliness here as in the poetry of Berryman, Plath, or Sexton. The encounters are not large but matter of fact, the currency of daily life.
The poems about South Dakota and the Indians are among the most compelling, for what group could be the loneliest people in America? Although the conquest of the Indians and forced relocation to reservations is one of America’s most shameful chapters, Brouwer doesn’t interject polemic or politic in the poem “A Reparation,” but instead he contrasts history of place with the tourist who came to Wounded Knee and is met by a contemporary Indian descendant who begs for money. The real sadness here is of the tourist who went to the atrocity to experience the horror to feel better about herself.
Brouwer’s poems are essentially x-rays of a contemporary world filled with lovers, the loveless, and those who lost out in a new world order in which borders, cultures, environments, and values have merged into a new pastiche of modern life filled with its own surreal excess.
I like these poems and feel cheered by their quirkiness, charged lyrics, unexpected imaging, and small revelations. One such poem is “The Other Half’s Dark,” a poem set in the suburbs where there is the efficient removal of death—small animals (a bird, a squirrel)—either by the hand of nature or a street sweeper. The mundane things of daily life are recorded, although at the end there is a small epiphany:
…We subsist on scattered
moments of joy and faith. Between them
our choices are patience or despair.
The puppy sniffs the dry, leaf-choked gutter
like a bored sommelier. The husband
thinks of a particular afternoon
of sex, laughs easily, without desire.
The puppy startles. A silver balloon caught
in the pecan’s branches catches headlights
from the avenue and flashes back half
And So is an impressive book of poetry, a collection of fables of our modern times. April 2009
Alabama native Steven Ford Brown divides his time between Boston and Amsterdam, where he writes on boxing and mixed martial arts and rock music and jazz. His most recent book is a co-translation of Jorge Carrera Andrade’s classic book Microgramas (reviewed in Reviews Online June 2008). He will be a featured speaker at a John Beecher/Harriet Beecher Stowe literary conference in France in 2010.