By: Robert Gray
Reviewed by: Russ Kesler
Negative Capability Press, 2009
Robert Gray’s book Drew: Poems from Blue Water straddles two genres. In its subject matter and narrative arc, it is a memoir of the life and death of Gray’s older brother Drew. Broken into seventeen discrete sections, the story centers around the family’s cabin at a central Alabama lake. Yet that story is told via a series of poems, each section comprised of one to four poems. As memoir, the book is a moving and compelling tale. As a collection of poems, it achieves less success.
Gray has chosen an anti-chronological structure for his narrative, a shrewd decision that allows the book to reveal important but incomplete details early, then return to them for greater development in later sections. This strategy mimics the way the mind and heart return again and again to painful events in order to process them. Along the way, readers learn of Gray’s evolving relationship with his brother, first as the younger sibling overshadowed by the one who can do no wrong, then as an equal partner in the excesses of adolescence, finally as the grieving survivor who is still a bit envious of the older brother’s free spirit. Interspersed with that story are poems about Gray’s gradual awakening to the world of words, the redemptive and alluring power of poetry.
All of those aspects of Drew: Poems from Blue Water make for an honest and engrossing read. But the poems themselves leave much to be desired. Here is a complete poem (all of the poems are untitled and unpunctuated):
drew and jenny lynne
tammy and keith
were not two couples
but a single foursome
tammy and keith
married rather young
and no one really knew
if drew and jenny lynne
were a bona fide couple
or simply friends
we just assumed
the two of them would
It could be said that the flat, declarative tone here is appropriate for a memoir about great loss. But that tone, combined with Gray’s handling of lineation, produces a kind of detachment from the subject matter that results in a lack of movement, or sense of urgency in the telling, that we hope for in poems. All but one of the lines in this poem are broken between grammatical units, whereas some use of more urgent enjambments might at least create the half-meanings, and resultant tension, often associated with that type of line break. There is very little of the seductive play of syntax working now with, now against the energy of the line. Many of the poems in the book mirror the structure used here—shortish lines, each delivering one piece of semantic information, the poem itself a more or less complete part of the overall story that, while it advances the story the book tells, contains very little to recommend it as a stand-alone piece of art, a poem that might compel us to return to it over and over. One looks in vain for a sub-text, the reason this poem demanded to be written and given this particular shape.
This tendency is noticeable even in the poems about poetry that occur throughout the book. In “poetry is music painted in black” we have the lines “[poetry] is fragrance emanating from image / constructed out of arbitrary significations / that are enabled by the elimination of artificial / dichotomies between logic and imagination…” The language of academic discourse here, again delivered via the one image/thought/grammatical chunk per line, tends to make the line breaks feel arbitrary and non-musical, poem as definition rather than poem as question or meditation. Adherence to such rigid lineation is especially puzzling in an author who cites the influences of Wordsworth and Hardy and Milton in his poems.
In Drew: Poems from Blue Water, Robert Gray has a heartbreaking and universal story to tell. And the book is rewarding when read as a history of the narrator’s love for and loss of his brother. I’m not convinced, though, that poetry is the medium best suited for this telling. Jan 2010
Russ Kesler’s collection of poems, A Small Fire, was published in 2001.