SPRING 2013: "Graffiti Gospel"
"The Holy Ghost is a holy gust"
Gust by Greg Alan Brownderville (Evanston, IL: Triquarterly, 2011), 124 pages, softbound. ISBN: 978-0-8101-5221-2. $16.95.
Hang on to your hymnals! With his first collection of poems, Greg Alan Brownderville, a native of Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas, and an assistant professor of English at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, channels the energy of a Holy Roller to produce an array of dazzling verse filled with cypress knees and featuring all sorts of folk-tale voodoo. Marked by rich language, a wicked sense of humor, and, at times, brilliant rhyme, this poetry is a ride.
Many of these poems offer accounts of incidents, or a bunch of them strung together. "Telephoning," a six-stanza 36-line poem with a passel of well-wrought half-rhymes, mixes electrifying fish by way of a hand-cranked telephone with being called up—and electrified—by Jesus during a baptism in the Cache River. It's the kind of conceit James Dickey once specialized in.
Religion is powerful. The eight-part poem "Lord, Make Me a Sheep" begins with the author's brother Eric pretending he has become a baa-ing creature in order to fend off "the roving prayer warriors" who have him "on their Holy Ghost Hit List." The poem's finale is a bravado recap of the first seven sections in the form of a plea to the almighty to be transformed into all manner of things, from a flying squirrel to "a swallow of Dr Pepper in a sexy woman's mouth."
The poem also introduces Brother Langston, a fiery Ozark preacher who casts out devils "like a nightclub bouncer." Brownderville devotes a number of poems to Langston, including the remarkable 23-part "Holy Ghost Man," in which he pays homage to his spiritual mentor (his gruff voice led people to say he suffered from "Pentecostal croup"). The poem features excerpts from Langston's rousing sermons, one of which features the book's title: "The Holy Ghost is a holy gust, Saints of God, hallelujah,/let it blow you smooth away!"
The 12-poem sequence titled "Becoming Hot Tamale Charlie" chronicles the adventures of Carlo Silvestrini, a resident of Sunnyside Plantation in the Arkansas Delta. Working from conversations with Italian friends from Arkansas and Paul Canonici's book The Delta Italians, Brownderville recreates the hard times of the Italian peonage system and Silvestrini's attempt to "unsnap the trap of sharecrop debt" while wooing a woman named Splendi Pretti.
Brownderville brings to light—and life—cultural aspects of America that are rarely presented in such a compelling manner. His poetry conjures the Arkansas swamp paintings of David Bates as much as it does the work of other poets. That said, you catch a bit of John Crowe Ransom in "Little Lotty Knox," and the aforementioned Dickey is a prosodic relative. With perfect pitch and a loving eye for the overlooked, this poet is off to the races.
Savoring the Sounds Full
The Tempest Prognosticator by Isobel Dixon (Cape Town, SA: Umuzi/Random House, 2011), 66 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-4152-0161-9. US$15.95.
South African born Isobel Dixon's third collection comprises forty poems, roughly half of which were commissioned for various arts-related projects in the United Kingdom where she now lives, or written to various images and events. Much describes and explores the odd and ingenious. Dr Merryweather, protagonist of the title poem, in 1850 fashioned a dozen glass bottles and tiny whalebone hammers, a device to sound a storm warning:
… a dozen leeches set to climb
their glassy prison walls, up to the narrow neck,
when in the altered atmosphere they feel
the silent signalling, their instinct's call,
and in their slimy crawl set off the bell.
History, foreign travel, politics, African wildlife and landscapes—the poems speak of an eclectic mix of "the things we've known / and sometimes rightly named" and also look with humor, and slant attention, at the familiar:
Fat yellow frog holds down the pavement's cracks,
splayed feet to keep the underworld well-plugged.
Another, dedicated to intrepid nineteenth century explorer Mary Kingsley, evokes the cacophony of an African jungle:
crickets at their vesper-hour controversy
hornbills confabulating scandal all night long
a leopard swearing at the storm
tail whipping in the forest's under-gloom
the thump, thump, thump of beaten manioc
Interspersed through these descriptive or commentary poems are a dozen or so first person poems that reveal a recalcitrant narrator's views on life and her overbearing, albeit irresistible, lover. "You think me unsurprising. Wait — / I have a thing or two to share" —are the opening lines of a sonnet that concludes, in lightly menacing mood, with the addressee being:
at first just awed by [the narrator's] muscled grace,
but then, the mind's eye's shattered glass,
the heart's revealing race, the taste of fear.
Elsewhere, with erotically lilting selection of words, this narrator recalls a mixologist whose beautifully constructed, and artfully named, cocktails:
and you named them well,
a way of slipping poetry
into the bloodstream of the girls
too subtle for the Screaming Orgasm
She addresses too, with deceptively playful rhyme and the spoken rhythms of Latin dance, a usurious lover who might (or is perhaps allowed to):
… snap this spine in two, like that,
so I am supple, pliant, bending backwards
to your fingers' click. Your acrobat.
but also offers delicious warning of comeuppance:
Did no-one tell you there's a catch to every wish?
The genie's out the bottle, boy —
I am no gold-egg goose, no sovereign-bellied fish —
I am the lone shark, love,
and now it's pay-back time.
— Moira Richards
Traveling Music by Eric Greinke (Rockford, MI: Presa Press, 2011), 81 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9800081-9-7. $11.95.
The alluring entrance to this book presents colored art depicting the flame from a jet engine engulfing a female form. Her ghostly head emerges from the top and her fleeting feet are shown running from musical notes floating in the stream, a hint of her form in it. The first poem "Brief Nudity" dwells on whether we should reveal or conceal ourselves. Greinke resolves this in his first Haiku sequence "Shadows" containing the lines:
The twister touched down
On the open-palmed field
To pick up some ghosts
Where we live is only a "Dream Home." He suggests we seize the present:
On dying, he replied
That dying, being automatic,
Required no planning.
"Isn't living also automatic?"
I asked him, & he said
It was time to eat something.
This may be an allusion to Robert Bly's "To Live" which ends with:
To live is to rush ahead eating up your own death,
like an endgate, open, hurrying into night.
Bly's influence on Greinke is apparent also in his didactic poems, prosaic descriptions redeemed with poetic wisdom, personification of inert objects, and coming to terms with death. About going beyond death, Grienke notes in "Wind":
When you are young
You travel where you like
As an old man you must follow
Where you have no desire to go.
It is on this communal level we have hope, but even that is threatened. Apocalyptic visions combine Biblical references with modern cosmology in "Dark Star":
Dark star, our lost identical twin,
Shooting mountains in our direction,
Playing Cain to our reflective Abel
Birthing invisible anti-matter
Catalyst for horrific disaster.
If we should survive the technological disasters, he envisions people of the future:
They will wake each day
In their pyramids & domes,
So unlike our present homes,
To play all day
With each other's clones.
What sort of disaster will we need? Or what demigod? Greinkie envisions in "Time Out":
I saw him coming
Through the purple clouds
His hands full of stars
Released from his prison at last
A generation behind Bly, Greinke honors his style and extends his lexicon.
— Richard Aston