Reviewed by Jen Tynes
Reading Dark Brandon, I am thinking, in a very unpoetic way, about sources: how we define, acknowledge, utilize and integrate them and to what end. This collection of poems is cross-listed with cinema studies; both its titles and poems make reference to films and television, and a reader will respond to these poems differently depending on their relationship to the allusions, but Downing lets us understand pretty quickly that we are off-book, off-source. The "dark" in Dark Brandon is, in part, the darkness of the screen and screening room, the ability of a program that is more ambient than focused or focusing to intimate, isolate:
"You poor, poor Jonesy." "The story
Made you want to cry, all over the French kids."
"In a fiery metropolis of woods."
Bug-eyed children make for a starry outlook branch,
And find a candy jinx made with neat rox.
Pissed, colossal checkerboard rivets. Fake!
Poems like "Johnny the Giant Killer (1950)" seem to reference and extend their "sources" in several different ways: possibly by quoting from the film directly, describing images, and summarizing plot points, but these poems also freely interpret and associate movies and the contexts (both personal and universal) of movies. Lines are crossed, and film becomes a natural element, a force akin to nighttime or conversation. Words are occasionally underlined, creating an emphasis but also possibly reading as dead links, gateways to a context from which we have been disconnected. Who owns or makes these elements is a minor but nagging question for both the author and the reader. Where is the constant by which we understand the variable? The poet tells us what he thinks and understands via his choices and correlations. Ambient language is necessarily without specific direction or particular source. The poet doesn't matter and the allusions are only part of the landscape; the reader is forced to invent a new context for the poems.
But I don’t think this book is truly ambient, certainly not without focus. The title itself includes the author's name, and the collection both begins and ends in self-consciousness. The first poem, "Joseph Campbell & The Power of Myth," begins:
In the creation, you are a creature, a motif,
One who always plays Bluebeard, but interpreting
Blame, a woman's tendency, with a spontaneity,
Like teflon, all the love thrown off
Or the priest's freak refusal to affirm life,
For heaven's sake, or an opposite's downfall,
Passive in the sight of a phantasm.
To thoughtlessness? For you and me never
We deplore the teachings of Jesus Christ.
To participate definitively, without reticence, rancor . . .
He just wasn't a human, he went on deadly diets
He wrote poetry and he was a hero.
"What do you mean, 'Poetry'?" An accord of underlines.
I promise he will have nothing to do with history.
In one of the later poems, "Philharmonik," Downing writes, "I like to use this poem on wizards. / This book is ending badly; I don't apparently / wash dishes right," and the last pages of the book include a series of poems titled "Poems." This awareness of what a poem is, should be, could be, is both funny and worthwhile but, most importantly, it reaches back into the world, becomes viable. Forrest Gump’s “accent was bad, bad like the puke of / 15 Dr. Peppers.” A poem titled “G.W.B.” faces a terrifyingly close, cropped photo of George W. Bush’s face, and it begins:
You warned our culture of the approaching Rock.
It run off to get questions ready for my black oracles.
But the joke is me being another of the walking dead:
I know there ain’t nothing I can do about female couples.
They gone into Sam Goody, doing their windshield-wiper
moves & hanging amulets.
It’s my guys are gonna respond: Mike, nuke the goddamn bread.
Track down the fuselage: nothin’ leaves the forest.
Other images in this book are equally ghastly--restaurant placemat advertisements and cartoon heads that are both familiar and strange, funny and terrifying. The author’s hand--his cropping, graffiti, doctoring--is hardly distinguishable from the original strangeness, the obscenity. That is, we need little additional focus to see these images and languages for what they are; what they are is sourceless. Sourcelessness is both a reality and a danger. The preoccupation of these poems suggests an immersion, even some love, but the author does not drop his critical eye. One poem, titled “Poems,” ends, “I was not wedded to their decisions, / I walked out on the back balcony instead . . . / & I stood out like a bulb.”Another, also titled “Poems,” reads in its entirety:
Attack, after attack
After attack, after