Reviewed by Amelia Heying
“Know thyself,” John Brehm says in “The Inner Life.” Sea of Faith explores what “thyself” is, and invites the reader to do the same, through a series of stories and sketches from a narrator very much in tune with Brehm's own experiences. Highly autobiographical, Sea of Faith comes from a well-published author born and raised in Nebraska and now living in Brooklyn. Both places clearly provide source material for poems such as “The Fence” and “Sound Check, Lower Manhattan,” but the interspersed among their country cousins, and other times the narrator goes deeper than the surface environment of a memory to the thoughts and emotions of it, never distinguishing mountains from skyscrapers (or needing to). The overall impression is that the reader is reading memories loosely suggested by the names of the three sections of Sea of Faith: “Wishful Thinking,” “Love Stories,” and “Falling and Rising.”
These personal conversations to which the reader is privy, however, are not necessarily the traditional explication of events or exploration into present effects of the past, or even the meaning of self. I think Brehm is closest to putting words to his broader purpose in the closing lines of “The Inner Life”:
“Know thyself.” Sure, of course,
you must. But afterwards,
the project is to make yourself
a stranger to yourself once more.
Seeking to familiarize the reader and himself with his thoughts, the narrator takes an informal, conversational tone prone to both frankness and humor. This is not to say that the book is lighthearted and fancy-free; to the contrary, there is a distinct “strangering yourself away” that runs through the poems, both in the occasionally disquieting stories or discussions of death/violence and in what I came to think of as the 'twist' at the end of most of the pieces. Though the tone can never be quite described as bitter, each poem became a version of this self-discovering/strangering cycle “where a man / can ask his one question forever / and never hear an answer.”
“[S]elf-conscious irony” is what Brehm does well. He lets his mind carry to an idea or event from his past, and he picks at the “gloss” of it, finding the unsettling, emotional, or contradictive element and forming the poem in such a way as to maximize its impact. Several poems focus on form as the main complement to effect-maximization, as in “Race,” where the lack of punctuation not only causes the reader to feel hurried and winded (as is done fairly often), but also leads to the possibility of words creating many different phrases and meanings on their own, the phrases alternately identifying with the clauses before and after them:
I can hardly think or stand up straight or give myself over to
the authorities of my heart my knees ache and everywhere
people are killing each other or themselves a favorite thing
for the mentally disturbed here in New York City to do
is push overeager morning subway watchers . . .
Other poems use a biting last line to direct the reader's attention to the important aspect of a metaphor, as in “My Emotions are Like Fish,” in which the predominant metaphor is that the narrator's emotions are like various fish. The important part about these fish is not only their physical attributes and behavioral eccentricities, but that sometimes they swim at the top of the water and
find themselves suddenly
exalted, lifted and flying
through the air, wind-filled,
expanding around them, high
above their proper element--
birdclaws sunk into their backs.
Intellectually, one knows that the only way a normal fish will be suddenly flying is if they're lifted up somehow, but the blunt phrasing of “birdclaws sunk into their backs” sharpens the idea of emotion under the malevolent control of an outsider, not at the behest of the narrator. Brehm's strategic writing and format choices effectively convey the painful demands of life outside the sea--“Sea of Faith” or otherwise.
The title poem combines most of the strongest elements from the book as a whole, though not necessarily better than in other pieces. A truly prodigal piece, “Sea of Faith” is “taught in literature, writing, and philosophy courses” (according to promotional materials) and can be found in several anthologies. The story about a frustrated high school English teacher is funny, but takes the honest and somewhat surprising turn of realizing that he envies the innocence of youth and ignorance, marveling at the ability to exist in a real Sea of Faith and
able to believe in everything, faithful
and unafraid to ask even the simplest of questions,
happy to have them simply answered.
From the rest of Sea of Faith, as in the title poem itself, the narrator seems to know he has “been betrayed,” first by himself and then by something else, perhaps the trickery of the modern world which has led him to believe that figurative language talks about “things that don't exist”--and that anyone who believes otherwise deserves to drown in a “Sea of Ignorance.”