101 pp., Aldrich Press
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.