Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Book Review: Jeff Newberry's Brackish

Jeff Newberry
101 pp., Aldrich Press
ISBN: 978-0615705637

Opening up Jeff Newberry’s first book of poems, Brackish, is a daunting task if all you are looking for is a casual glance at contemporary poetry.  Newberry both draws you into the biography of a young boy and that of a small, factory town seemingly on the verge of collapse.  It is the poet’s ability to demonstrate how he draws on the peculiarity of family and ride the fine line between sorrow and acceptance which makes this collection of poetry work, and in working, the thing which allows us to see far more than we thought possible.

The book opens with a section of poems which defines both place and character—that of the narrator.  In this first section, titled ‘His Father’s Son,’ Newberry lays out for the reader what it is to come of age in a small Florida community past its prime.  Here there is no Southern, Capote-like reminiscence, no nostalgia for a bygone age.  These first poems set the stage for an unflinching look at the world as it really was.  Take the opening lines to “The Butcher’s Son”:

The Butcher’s son stays out late
because the butcher’s dead—

five years tonight.

There is no softening, no holding back.  The world is alive and moves on, with or without us.  This section also provides a series of portraits of the father which defy easy explanation.  They contradict in the best way poems can by being both specific to the narrator’s world and yet immediately recognizable to the reader.

After establishing a presence in the first section, most poets would transition to other themes and other venues, but Jeff, in his later sections, takes on the difficult task of  staying with the same ideas and themes of his first section, reinforcing in the reader’s mind how important place can be in the development of the individual psyche.  Here is where Jeff Newberry shines for me as a poet.  He writes poetry in such a way I almost immediately forget he is a poet writing poetry.  I start reading and his poems become a natural, vibrant part of the whole. I forget about the technical aspects of poetry and I am swept up into the moment of reading for the sake of reading. 

Newberry’s poems take on a narrative quality in the later sections of his book, and begin to weave tales and stories, of which I can only hope some are true and others are complete fabrications.  Drawing on the power of Richard Hugo, Newberry begins to write poems for specific places and towns, helping us to define another generic part of the map we make of the world.  At the center of this new map is the poet’s home town, Port St. Joe, but we are audience to many other specific places.  The book ends with a section called, ‘Autobiography,’ and if we are to believe any of it, we must accept everything.  There is no middle ground for this, our journey into the world Brackish creates.  Take these beautiful lines from this last section about coming home:

Each time I crest the Apalachicola
causeway, bay oysters sing
in a blistered hymn, promise

me if I plunge my palms
deep into the surf, edge fingers
down deep through sand & scallop,

I’ll find a pearl left just for me.

It’s the beguiling song of nostalgia which always comes up short.  Even while singing of his home and early life, Newberry is compelled to reveal the empty promises of those places we have left.  The reader knows of such promises already, and knows there are no easy answers.  In this, the poet adds to our understanding.

You should go buy Brackish.  It is a lovely book and deserves your patronage.

Book Review: Collin Kelley's Render

Collin Kelley
76 pp., Sibling Rivalry Press
ISBN: 978-1-937420-34-5

Collin Kelley’s latest collection, Render, is a masterful stroke of both political and socially relevant poems, where the poet uses his own life as a pop-culture touchstone for his generation’s most meaningful, shared experiences.  Among the plethora of significant events hit upon in this book are: First love, parents, infidelity, nostalgia, the movies, sexual icons of puberty, post-puberty, and the inherent confusion which lies within. And while I would say most people will find something to love within these pages, this book speaks directly to anyone who is part of the generation born between the late 1960’s up through 1974.   One poem after another breaks through the barrier of fuzzy memory and brings the reader immediately into the world of the poet.  Each poem strengthens its grip upon the reader and will not let go.  These poems will stay with you long after you have finished the book.

Collin Kelley is a genius when it comes to confession.  He teases you with brilliant titles and amazing opening lines.  Once he has you hooked, he delivers sucker punches and body blows like a prize fighter.  What is amazing is even after you are dumbstruck by a series of poems, your first instinct will be to read another poem, and another. 

Using the disillusion (and seeming dissolution) of the American Family, Collin Kelly presents a world so many of us from his generation know all too well.  We are the Post Atomic Age children, born of parents who participated or did not participate in the counter-culture of the 1960’s.  We are the first artificial, non-organic generation, and Kelley drives that point home by exposing the hidden narrative of his own family in some strange quiet crisis.

It’s difficult for me to choose any one poem to demonstrate the building of this narrative.  I can tell you there are no weak poems here, no filler.  Each and every poem is essential and I cannot imagine the book any other way than how Collin has constructed it.  Each poem captures with exacting precision not only the poet’s memory, the thing he must share, but the details of the world at large, making each accessible in the best way possible.  I do not mean accessible as in simple, because there will never be anything simple about Collin’s poetry.  No, accessible in the way everyone can relate to the stories he tells, because we all have memories tied to the events Collin ties his memories to. 

When Collin talks about his summer at the movies while his mother is having an affair, I immediately remember my adolescent movie experiences, but also the dysfunction of my own parents’ marriage.  When he talks about the Bicentennial in his poem, “Freedom Train,” it’s his details which jar a thousand memories loose from my past, causing me to wonder why I have lost so many.  When Collin talks about his early sexual encounters, especially with those boys who feel shame for their behavior, I am reminded of my own fumbled experiences early in my adolescence.

Collin Kelley succeeds with his poems because he is willing to face the truth of his past, confront the seeds which were sewn, resulting in the person he is today.  He succeeds because he does this when so many of us are too afraid to do these things for ourselves.  But even more so, Render is a tremendous book because it does not condemn in its confession.  It lays out the reality of the world without trying to make anyone feel guilty for their past.  It allows us to take from it and only wants us to share.