Presently a Beast, by Gay Brewer
M. A. Roberts
Presently a Beast.|
Coreopsis Books, 1996.
67 pages, $8.95 (paperback).
I don't usually think of boxing after reading a book of poems. But upon completing Gay Brewer's Presently a Beast, I find myself recalling 1974, when, as a kid, I watched Mohammed Ali knock out George Foreman in eight rounds. I'm that taken by these poems. I was only seven years old but remember vividly Ali's dancing, his playfulness, and most of all his exacting punches, replete with power and knee-buckling persuasion. I was a huge fan of Ali, of his craft in the ring, of his rhymes of challenge outside of it. Although you'll not find rhymes to chant in Brewer's book, you will discover a host of challenges. I make the unlikely comparison between Ali and Brewer not out of haste, but after long thought and in all sincerity; I do it in hopes of conveying to you some semblance of how Gay Brewer approaches the world, and how he poetically writes about it. That is, aggressively, unflinchingly, with fluidity and cadence, with playfulness and craft. Brewer's poems are hammered "out with fire and patience" ("Coin of the Latter Realm"), persistent in their probing the tough mask of civility, always sniffing out the beast that lurks behind our well prepared lives. That is what makes Presently a Beast interesting—the thrill of the hunt, the element of surprise (like Ali's left then right after a smooth dance around his opponent). In voice, Brewer is direct and clear, but don't let that dissuade you from reading again and again. Many poems in this collection immediately expose the beast for what or who he or she is, while others are clothed in a wool of irony. Sometimes, the beast you expected to find horrifying turns out to be angelic.
The beast is not always hard to find. Perhaps he or she resides just next door or down the street, as in "The Dark Man Moves In." There is a great irony to this poem. The dark man challenges the community he moves into with ebon remarks that "'We have lost the right to love'"; he refuses to complete the welcome wagon's questionnaire and hangs up on them when they call. Ending the poem with a devouring statement—"These coals are ready. Let us eat"—the dark man at first appears to be the "beast." But what about the gossiping neighbors, the judgmental school principal? There is a struggle here, between the individual and the community, between love and hate.
But the more interesting poems in Presently a Beast are those that prick the facades of real monsters like Mussolini. With "The End of Mussolini," we witness the craft of poetry at its best. In this eerie poem, Brewer takes the first punch by telling us how we feel: "That photograph haunts you." That simple declaration entices us into Brewer's well planned attack. "Not this one, the March on Rome," he says. "And not the other, in Rome again, / an open car with Hitler." By the third stanza, we desperately want to know what haunts us! What do we find? Or rather, what does Brewer reveal? "a small photo in the back. Mussolini and his mistress hanging upside down, executed." That doesn't work, you may say to yourself, but read on:
Turned bottom up, however, the two float
in a motionless reach for ascent.
Stillness pervades. His face sliced by
white and black as if candle lit.
The patches of light no longer eyes.
Put the book away, while you can.
This is not politics; this is about perception; this is about transformations. Consider the craft: You see how the poet teases us for a while before allowing the beast of perception to devour? Well planned. Well crafted. I could read poems like this one all day and never lose interest.
Beasts that reside outside of ourselves are always easier to spot. It's those that take refuge among the self that are hard to find and most difficult to face. Do not allow the poet's use of the third person, found in roughly a quarter of the poems, to lead you away from concluding that these poems express a profound and real experience endured by the poet himself. I am sure "The Dark Man" is more biographical than I have allowed it to be, but other poems in Presently a Breast conceal the poet less convincingly. Let us take, for example, "Awaking," a short poem of discovery.
It begins with consumption—"Sudden darkness"—and ends with the speaker awakening a desire to devour the "sleeping woman" (mentioned earlier as merely a "covered body"), the house they occupy, and the "night itself." Conveyed through curtailed lines, we too, at the poem's end, feel a sense of frustration, feel for a succinct but potent moment that predatory desire to devour, with the appetite of a beast, the prison we so earnestly pay homage to. In this poem, the relationship between man and woman has become, at least for one partner, a catalyst for the "Sudden darkness" that debilitates, that arrests the heart and releases something more primal and violent. Such an experience—experiencing the beast inside the man —can only be transferred to us convincingly by one who has endured such a puissant feeling. There are other poems that focus on man realizing the beast inside himself. "After Scoring 16 Out of 18 on the 'Traits of a Sociopath'" is one that comes to mind; it is indeed a fine poem. But before concluding, I should mention "Beast," if only because it refers to the book's title. Here, Brewer departs from his "darkness" and "fire" to have a bit of animal fun: "you undress, and man and dog, / beast and beast, run naked in / houses, howling, shaking rafters. / Together down the river slope / where girls and old couples stare / in disgusted awe at two / made lopers, wonderfully dumb, / without politics or premises . . ." It is good to read a poem that celebrates folly and freedom, especially among this collection where the dark, yet truthful spirit of Robinson Jeffers seems to hover.
It may be important to note also that the two poems I just discussed appear side by side midway through the collection. A good decision. If one opens Presently a Beast more than three times, these two pages are bound to leap out. I'm looking at the pages now, and I notice the titles side by side read: Awaking Beast. Enough said.
Before putting this review to rest, I should say something about Brewer's tone, his voice. It's an aspect of his writing that attracts me. Doing away with the "poetic voice" (echoes of W. C. Williams), this poet speaks to us honestly and precisely. Plenty of times, I've been reading through his poems and for a slight moment slipped out of the act of reading into the act of listening. I like poems with music. And music often times gives a reader a desire to listen. Brewer seldom uses this poetic tactic, if it can be called that, but still manages to get our attention. His voice and tone are direct and clear, hardly ever obscure or unbridled. He makes you want to listen. That in itself is a huge accomplishment. Control is in his voice as well. Even the short passages I cited above attest to that. The controlled voice, however, is not used to dominate, but to establish a course, a path which is necessary for us to follow if we desire to see.
Many of the poems in Presently a Beast are written like directions. Example: in "Killing a Zombie," the speaker gives clear direction on how to complete the mission at hand. Almost every line begins without an article, without a subject. Verbs leap from this poem, insisting that direction be followed in a certain, careful way. The zombie is anything that doesn't have the "decency to know" it's dead—A relationship? The past? Either way, Brewer tells us there is always a process, a direction, whether writing poems, living a life, or killing a zombie.
Almost every poem in Presently a Beast hits its mark, and the poet completes the difficult task with amazing economy. Of the sixty-some poems, the majority were previously published by an array of different poetry reviews. For almost a decade, Brewer has been publishing in journals throughout the U.S. and is perfecting what I call an Aggressive Poetics, which is rooted in Carver, Bukowski and most recently Steven Dobyns. Perhaps that is why I chose Ali as a comparison. Then again it might have something to do with the fact that both men hail from Louisville, Kentucky.
The Blue Grass state has long breed excellence in basketball and horses, to these fields we can now add poetry.