No Other Paradise
by Kurt Brown
Red Hen Press, 2010
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What becomes a poem most: nouns or verbs? The legacy of Modernism, from whose dream we have still not fully emerged, suggests that when a poem looks in the mirror, what it sees is a creature for whom verbs hold pride of place. This opinion belongs to the greatly under-examined fealty of this part of speech to the lure of dynamism. On this view, the verb is the dynamo of the poem, and the whole unfolds at the behest of these energetic facilitators. But there is another tradition. Brodsky, in an early poem, tried to tie it to John Donne ("Big Elegy for John Donne"), in which the dream of Donne is a dream of things raining down and rolling in, like Frost's apples. Brodsky's poem was self-serving, to the extent that John Donne's poems, as Camille Paglia's title Break, Blow, Burn suggests, aligns the Metaphysical maestro more easily in the verb camp. Brodsky would have made a better case had he invoked Whitman, that Homeric-sized cataloger of things, for whom things were the stuff of the poem, and democracy itself sat atop and astride this stuff, this res republica, like a kindly dragon guarding his horde. But he didn't like Whitman, and thereby hangs a tale. The poetry that sets about, not directly to interpret, but to acquire real estate in the phenomenal world seeks to take a census in the hopes of conferring citizenship, of mapping zones of commonality. The strongest poems of Kurt Brown's No Other Paradise, including the long title poem, belong to this tradition.
At bottom, this mode, which prefers the thing to the action, also hopes that patterns will emerge that support the notionmore of a wishthat in spite of the lateness of the day and the knowingness of our colleagues, the world as we live it stands capable of hanging together in some meaningful way, that it isn't just rampantly insignificant all the way downwhich would make us day laborers in Babel. However, it occurs to the poet that it may be that this hanging together, if it indeed is seen to come about, comes about courtesy of the poem itself. That is, the poem is that by which the world hangs together, and the very thought is as fright-inspiring as it is embarrassing. Poets have tried to avoid the conclusion, so dear to postmodernists, that it's all a construction. But when their very means start to point to that conclusion, to the point where (as Brodsky reappears to drolly remark in another poem) "the sea, madam, is someone's speech," the thing is to declare that Babel is Rome,and we know what to do when we're there. Mallarmé, who never to my knowledge traveled to Rome, did; likewise Robert Lowell, who did (and left the characteristic powder burn of his poems as proof). Kurt Brown, who has Fortune to thank that he has another game, does not naturally emerge from this tradition, but he winds up there, and he is poet enough and Mensch enough to embrace what his art turned up and to accept its implications:
not the realm of spirit but the meta-physical
Plato's world of imperfections the cracked and worn
and misbegotten heaven's junk but where we
breathe and love the body's fractured paradise
not the shadow but the rock not the image
but the bone when the dead long this is what they long
for thronging to the known like flies
not our dreams but the destination of our dreams
not the word but the implication of the word
("The Known World")
Quite right. Brown doesn't get tripped up in the verbal fetishism that awaits poets keen on word acquisition because it's the metaphysical, not the physical, wherein the mojo resides. We may make a big fuss about the materiality of it all, including the alphabet, but if you think that you have done a day's work expending your expressive treasure in pointing up the fact, then Nadezhda Mandelstam, who committed the whole of her husband's work to memory, would like to have a word with you.
In "Fire Sermon, 1950," the speaker remembers the rote consolations and credos of a Lutheran upbringing, and perhaps it's the time, so near the end of the War, that widens the always-in-play nature of irony between the intended divinity of the words and nature's quizzical contrasts:
This is the Lord's house he said
and suddenly a synod of crows collected in the tree outside
gabbling louder than our prayers.
The surprising "synod" substitutes for, without replacing, the standard and, as everybody knows, wonderfully poetic "murder" of crows, which in its turn puts us in mind of the bishops,wherever they arewho congregate in the name of this noun. In other words, this poem goes about its own testifying by coopting the expected sacred and switching it with the deflationary mundane. Even their "gabbling" discourse seems, as it swells, to exceed the reach of prayers. Which is not to say that the poet has been unhappy with his spiritual training, but this poem, even as it whets the knife, finds a connection between what Luther might have done had he been alive in 1950 and what is traditionally beyond the pale of Protestantismand by extension, human gestures in the direction of the holy:
Luther wrote by the small flame of a candle.
For us, the holocaust had just ended, though we'd heard
about those prophets sauntering through a furnace
Glory in excelsis! we sang. Halleluiah!
The problem for the modern is the increasing inability to specify the "sacred" in the increasing face of the profaneand its sometimes deputy, the mundane. Is the profane, then, to be somehow incorporated within the fabric of the holy? Does the inability to specify and commit, to lapse into a standoff, mean that in time one will come to resemble the other, to wear the look of the other? The poem thus ends,
and we sang halleluiah! halleluiah!
while around us real mountains filled with crows
black as ministers in their robes.
The doubling in the fine poem "Fire Sermon, 1950" is not surprising. It's not that Brown is some kind of conscious stylistic dualist. It's rather that his poems frequently draw attention to contrasting poles. For instance, in "Knowledge and Ignorance," he works the difference between presence and absence as a function of time in a way that skirts hackneyed attempts at this old dichotomy:
language circles itself looking for a way out
Since these comings and goings approach, draw even, and supersede each other in the temporal continuum, what earlier eggheads would have called, simply, durationand understood as a medium, Brown also understands as a stress test, in the old-fashioned sense of durance. Hence to live is to live in durance, to endure. There is a literary consequence too. Instead of the starting and stopping of sentences with their conventions of caps and periods, Brown prefers the less over-determined eddy of phrases, and many of the poems in the collection are a matter of phrasing, as the excerpt above suggests.
a way of expressing what it can't
after the passing of a jet silence can also be heard
that only the jet's passing makes evident
and knowledge stands forth out of ignorance
like a soft cliff which the blue waves at its base eat away
Likewise, in "Baloney," a meditation on authenticity, the poem proceeds as a flow that contrasts artificiality, perhaps a gloss on our belief in artifice, with the incessant stream of what bears us away. The representation of these ice floes (or are they more like particles in a cloud chamber?), seem to be headed toward some objective reality, only to be found wanting in offices of realism against the indifferent whatever:
things do work out though not in the way we planned
and illusion is a shore towards which we drift
abandoning the real our little boats made of aluminum
and plastic breasting the dark uncompromising waves
Several poems here seem to take this test ("Mortal Message," "Counting the Faces," "Somebody Else," "River") and bear a stylistic similarity. It may be said that Brown understands drifting to describe our situation better than setting out or driving toward. This fact alone would align him with the naturalism that haunts many contemporary poets, except that his is happy to resolve itself in the music of the poem, at least to resolve itself in the détente of forces, the little (us) and the big (it) through the maintenance of linguistic balancing, of language's ability equally to "map" wayward thoughts as well as catastrophic closures (and disclosures).
Behind all this, of course, is a meditation on mortality and what we might call mortality's careerthe discontinuity of form that forces us to become relational. Which immediately makes one wonder: is there anything left to be said on this subject? To which an answer begins to insinuate itself: what occasion is freed of it? The closure of the mortal works within the realm of duration, the medium in which it finds itself (and finding itself equals finding itself mortal). Thus the question of identity takes hold:
the mill workers see it hands bleached with chemicals
heads humming like precise machines
the scholar the fireman the ex-con
we all know what's going to happen it's so plain
and yet we rush past
For a poet of Kurt Brown's distinction, identity is about the fullness of the noun, and in that sense, he is an Adamic poet for whom naming is a poet's "work":
To lift the tongue, to shape the vowels
the way a mason shapes a brick
gasket, nozzle, spindle, plate
to grasp each word, then stack it
end to end with other words
using grammar as our grout
to weld our thoughts and bind them into place;
to rise each morning
numb with sleep, and climb the scaffold,
coffee streaming from a mug
O this is work, bloody work
mainspring, chisel, turnbuckle, bolt
Attempts to elevate the "nominal" are widespread among versifiers, as if poems were improved by channeling Rilke's "house, bridge, fountain, gate" mantra. Brown, however, betrays no indebtedness so nakedly, which suggests that his thoughts have marinated in a private blend a long time and therefore bear something of his mark (to mix a metaphor). They are meditative without the largo of classical meditation. Indeed, one of the things that marks these poems as original is the sense of motion, of oscillation and vibration, that accompanies the meditative unfolding.
The poem that will mark the memories of most readers, I suspect, is the title poem. Weighing in at 16 thick blocks of text, it is a poem that combines the inventory duty of Whitman with the picture compression of Crane, by way of Lorca's picaresque. The journey through the city, which becomes a pilgrimage in ordinary, also can't escape side-swiping Milton and Eliot (poets reconciled in another paradise) to say nothing of the expansive O'Hara and his polar opposite, Dante of the closed system. If God is your Best Idea, then Paradise is your Best Place. Hence we know before our eye even lands on the first line that every paradise to which we are capable is lost. And yet!as Jarrell would interjectit is precisely ours and so we would have No Other Paradise In Brown's terms,
we wake to our own reality
purely imagined the ghost-life of money war
history's fractured narrative we had a paradise
it was around here somewhere
The poem builds by amassing the things of the city, and these blocks begin to resemble, beyond Crane and O'Hara, beyond Kinnell's Avenue C, the musical blocks of a John Adams, discrete chromatic wholes held together by a single visionor ear:
o sigh-flanked city crux of origins locus of souls
we wake to our own reality just now and always
train wreck widow's cry the murderous indictment
banks of light-shot ineffable turrets rise the tide whelms
There is something of a postmodern heroism here in the attempt to make the quotidian stand in place of what used to be the eternal. Whitman showed the way, but his register is not Brown's. Instead, there is the love of affiliation, invulnerable to irony, and no other magic than the here-and-now need be considered.
who can tell his life from this rabble of announcements
from Sin City "Open for Lunch" Kotz Bros. Welding
Raju & Sons 24-hour Tow HairHealth Inc. Nic's Locks
and Hindleman's Smoke Shop from no other paradise but here
It's a terrific poem, rigorously posed, but lovingly and deftly executed. No Other Paradise takes the measure of, and bests, Jack Gilbert's similarly titled Refusing Heaven in sweep and feeling. This book widens and rewards with each re-reading and will, it is fair to say, move Kurt Brown more than a few steps up the Parnassian slope.