Thursday, October 14, 2004

NEW! Review of Lee Ann Brown

The Sleep that Changed Everything by Lee Ann Brown. Wesleyan, $15.95.

Reviewed by Heidi Lynn Staples

Alienated from our land and often enough our loved ones, in the aftermath of two world wars and a terrifying spate of morally corrupt military operations, in the face of desertification and a mass extinction, ours is an elegiac age. And perhaps that partly explains why the poetic themes of loss and death gong out in ever-increasing volumes of carefully cast gloom and dispassionate portent. It’s the rare poet who offers more than a restatement of what we already know--that is, these is damn sad times ya’ll. Delightfully, voluptuously, vibratorally, Lee Ann Brown offers wild joy, extreme abandon, “higher powered” enthusiasm, and “fly-by shooting” exhiliration in the face of ex nihilo--and it’s not merely in its theme of redemption, but in its language, its open-endedness, its shape-shifting and voice throwing, its embrace of contingency, ordinariness, and community that The Sleep that Changed Everything is a powerfully life-affirming book.

“Insufflation,” “Estivation,” “Vibratory Odes,” “Devastation,” and “Inflorescence” are the sections into which this abundant 175-page volume is organized, and this evocation of florid spring frames poems that are dedicated mostly to a member of Brown’s circle--familia letter or familia genome--who has died, which marriage between life and death foregrounds Brown’s general appreciation for the generative process entire. Brown writes in a burgeoning variety of forms, including acrostic, ballad, blues, encyclopedia entry, free for awe, sonnet, and villanelle; and her stance as a speaker varies from the straightforward overheard outpourer, particularly touching in poems Brown has written from her grandmother’s bedside, to the decentered subject of a language-driven poem, especially striking in her homage acrostics, to explicitly persona-based work, like the ballad of Susan Smith (that disturbed woman from Brown's homestate of South Carolina who looked "so innocent and white," drove her children into the lake, swam herself to safety, and then accused a "Black Man, Black Man" of the crime--not one of my favorite efforts in The Sleep due to the didactic overtones, but an interesting example of Brown's project to reinvigorate poetry as a medium to express a shared rather than a lonely-as-a-cloud experience). That identity remains unfixed, mutable, permeable, and transitory is an insight explored thematically and formally by Brown here and in her first book, Polyverse, and it remains a governing principle; however, whereas previously she reveled in the lovely cerulean violets brought forth by the erotic--Polyverse was ripe with fecund association, sensational slipperiness, and a theme of a sexuality by turns penetrating and absorbing--in this book, she delves into the low-lying cruelest violence brought forth by eros:
 ... a hard
Its ground shifts

Time goes on

We're still
              it takes courage
                    to face, to fact it
without dread

Readers of Polyverse will find that book’s frolicking romp-a-day speaker changed, deepened, and shaken in the face and fact of dead, but they will not find her less aflame with ardor. Brown’s is a worldview that, at least as it’s expressed in her poetry, embraces ephemerality. Subsequently, her writing choices facilitate acceptance of a random universe and the individual personality’s final insignificance; many of her lines and even whole poems are what the hard-liners (who exhort that writing ‘good lines’ must forever entail ‘hard work’) might call 'throw away'--she lightly blips and slips, as in the above “to face, to fact it” or in another poem, “Amo / Amas / Amat.” She writes slight acrostics, most dedicated to a poetic mentor, like this one for Hannah Weiner:



She states bare and deeply unpoetic daily occurences: “Greenwich Avenue & Jane / ‘Burritos’ hot pink / Only me and my mind / Snow is falling on the Avenue.” She rhymes in a meandering arbitrary manner: “watch the turn of yonder screw / We sacked the city, Feverfew.” She samples sentimental lyrics like the following written by Joni Mitchell (famously performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young): “We are stardust / We are golden.”

One might be inclined to say that’s not the real deal. But seen as examples of meditative practice in which a person accepts mistake, chance, and “The particle waves in your firmament,” the poems in The Sleep that Changed Everything can be said to throw a way for the willing reader to journey from clinging to the immortal monument to embracing the mortal moment, and, by an insistence upon appreciation of the right now and a casual stance toward the right know-how, to illuminate the “No Blame Chaos Form complete.” Brown lights this unsettling plight of ours that we call being; she goes by the grace of humor, assuring us that “Cruel behavior’s handiwork--undone-- / All phenomenon O Lord--can laugh.” Hear! Har!

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