Review | And So, by Joel Brouwer
| Four Way, 2009
“The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his possibilities,” wrote Susan Sontag while thinking about E.M. Cioran. Thoroughly up-to-date—meaning cut off from the future and removed from the past—a poet is stranded in the present, just like everybody else. But since the poet cares most about making a poem (“an emotionally disturbing structure made of words”—X.J. Kennedy), and since words are his medium, he feels the pinch, caught between the language of living a decent life (“please pass the salt” or “wanna go to the movies?”) and the explanations of that life by news anchors and expert witnesses. The saltshaker is almost always too heavy an object to lift into the imagination, and the Sunday supplement stains both the palm and the mind with a toxic petroleum derivative. So the poet cultivates both an aversion to power asserted through language and an urge to wield that power more tellingly. We have spent the past hundred years thrashing the underbrush to drive our motives into the open, but what did we gain? And so, we come to Joel Brouwer’s And So, his third book.
Brouwer’s materials are situational. His scenarios are described as if at the very moment they become visible, before any conclusions may be drawn—but the characters within them seem to have been living in this condition for hours, days, or longer. Although the poems’ microplots entail social situations, they cancel or disregard the potential for shared values or acts that may be performed together to create a third way.
After a morning of work in separate rooms
she said she was going to the municipal pool
and he said he would walk along the river
for a while before they met back for their lunch
of tomatoes and cheese. But in fact she went
to the lobby of the Hôtel du Panthéon
to read the Herald Tribune and drink a cup
of the Irish tea she liked and he to
the little church of St. Médard. A couple
old women in housedresses knelt in the first pews.
He sat in the back, with the drunks or alone.
And at lunch she said terrible, the lanes
were filled with kids from the elementary school
or terrific, I had it to myself. And he said
a barge full of oyster shells. Then quiet sex
with the curtains drawn against the chemistry
students conducting their experiments in the building
across the street. Incremental triumphs
of exactitude and necessity. In the evenings
they liked to fire champagne corks at the vast
darkened laboratory windows. Imagining the mice
startling in their cages, imagining catastrophe.
Turning back to their tumors with relief.
And So is also a laboratory, conducting a single experiment over and over: people uncaged into circumstance. The poems read like “incremental triumphs / of exactitude and necessity,” since the details are nuanced and unexpected, and the absence of reflective pause suggests essential speech, utterance as narrative.
The man and woman in “Lesser Evils” diverge from the sacred path of their pairing to separate profane detours, in search of—what? Perhaps nothing or simply relief. In telling their story, what has the speaker been looking for? Like his characters, he is not looking for anything (he, too, is committing the “lesser” violation of loitering) but he is looking at everything. Still, everyone is keeping secrets, a reflex action when one’s cage gets rattled. Pulling the strings on the humans and mice, Brouwer’s speaker voices a suspiciously obsessive interest in his subjects—an obsession we may share because the tense, lustful, or aimless behavior of his characters seems familiar in its strangeness.
“Fish or Like Fish,” a poem about husband and wife amicably proceeding through divorce proceedings, begins, “He startled to see a statue of blind / justice really did loom over the courtroom. But / remained determined to scorn symbolism.” Metaphor and symbol strike terror in Brouwer’s people and get roughed up by the poet. In “Peripeteia in a Soggy Snapshot, Featuring Lines by Ashbery and Pronoun Confusion,” a marriage dissolves: “They would be obliged to return / those charming napkin rings. Their other selves / consoled that after all no one was real- / ly ever not already in some sense / simulacra, cf., eg., Plotinus.” It amounts to “tons of trouble with representation.” (These people remind me of grad students who get in a lather over “reification” and “teleological thinking” but don’t know how to apologize.)
In “Synthesis and Destruction” another couple “step into their stock roles” to prepare a meal: “she to stove / and he to the cutting board. What did that / symbolize, synthesis and destruction?” Brouwer’s characters, either trying too hard to pry meaning out of the visible or refusing the gesture, end up in the same place. In “‘Marines Help in Effort to Stop Flow of Volcano,’” “A farmer whose house lay in the lava’s path set his table / with bread and wine as he left. An appeasement, he said. Some hours / later when lava filled the dooryard an olive tree shook for / a moment in fear then spit a jet of yellow sparks and burned.” So much for the power of symbols. The quality of experience is preordained as in “A Rehearsal” where “the world is dramatic but not tragic.”
Brouwer’s strategic challenge is deciding if and how to reveal his attitude, while maintaining fidelity to the startling flat beauty of a narrative surface. Divided loyalties may create confused effects: Are his speakers smug omniscients or engrossed sportscasters with a home-team bias? Do they point ironic fingers through the stories to hint at what is hidden, or do they encounter the same blockages as their subjects? Brouwer uses this wavering, if that’s what it is, to tweak the reader. John Berger wrote, “All art is meaningless to those for whom life itself is only a spectacle.” The crucial word is “only.” Brouwer’s world may be primarily dramatic, but he is capable of masterfully including what Roland Barthes called the “punctum” in a photograph, the essential detail that pricks the viewer in such a way that a hidden element leaks out but cannot be fully understood.
“And the Ship Sails On,” another detached male-female interaction (“transacting their magnificent business / with the usual equanimity”), ends with “a faint click as the woman sets her ring / on the cool white lip of the sink.” There is a similar scenario in “The Other Half’s Dark” in which the man takes the puppy for a walk: “A silver balloon caught / in the pecan’s branches catches headlights / from the avenue and flashes back half / its message—Happy—” Brouwer isn’t saying, with slathered irony, that he knows the people aren’t happy but they don’t. On the contrary, the intrusive message of the balloon is the issue for those who want their lives (and their poems) to be free of mediation—elusive goal at best, perhaps an illusion, but the desire has the upper hand. The poem is utterly free to say so, enacting a detached verbal dexterity. Occasionally the poet unrolls lines that force the reader to ask if he’s kidding: “We subsist on scattered / moments of joy and faith. Between them / our choices are patience or despair.” Brouwer just barely gets away with such confusion.
Fortunately, he relies more on loopy cross-references to generate context. In “The Library at Alexandria,” a man separated from his wife dates a Serbian librarian who lives near the zoo. He sits in her bathtub and ruminates about history and legend:
When the Caliph kicked the Romans out
of Egypt, he reasoned the library’s scrolls either confirmed
the Koran and so were superfluous or crossed it and so
were heretical. And so and so. And so what? And so, legend says,
ordered them burned. And so, legends says, the flames heated
the city’s baths for weeks. And so history gets written
to prove the legend is ridiculous.
Brouwer’s “and so and so” is the comic heir of Wallace Stevens’s “azaleas and so on / . . . azaleas and so on” in “The Man on the Dump.” The way we deal with the actual is to imagine it, to become the solitary owners of our own provisional stories. Stevens’s woman sings of the sea and thus creates the sea. In “The Library at Alexandria,” Brouwer’s librarian “trailed her pale fingers through / the tepid water and so his cock bobbed around like a cork. / She addressed it sometimes as Caesar and sometimes as stupid.”
Joel Brouwer’s poetry examines and questions the visible by speaking to and through the gaps in its own understanding—with a dark, comedic affection for the necessity of its arbitrary renditions. His language billows into story, then deflates into murmur. He puts it succinctly in “In the Miracle Cross Garden, Prattville, Alabama”: “Already masters of our narratives / and their every potential variation, / volition, and violation. Which is / to say in love.”