By Daniel Brown
Orchises Press, 2015
Daniel Brown is, if his poetry is any indication, a very patient man. “I’m as open as the next guy,” he writes in “The Biggie,” a poem from his latest collection, What More?, “to the counterintuitive.” This he proves again and again, in both openness and unexpectedness. What More? begins with Brown asking an honest question, one so honest that an animating tension is introduced between the candor of the content and the art of its presentation. This tension is near constant in his poems, which have appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, Parnassus, and elsewhere. He works frequently in rhyme and traditional meter, tools associated more closely nowadays with, say, the grand historical reckonings of William Logan than with Brown’s man-on-the-street puzzlements and reflections.
But in Brown, a poem is neither the content nor the form, nor even the content-and-the-form, but the synthesis created by interaction between the two, the “capital P” Poem. This “Poem,” a cohesive unity composed of nevertheless visible, intermingling parts, functions by welcoming the reader to prod the speaker’s psyche, the exposition of which is not so much an exercise in masochistic vulnerability as a confident generosity. From “When It Happened”:
Am I unusual in remembering
Exactly when? I was verging on thirteen
When a story in a Mad magazine
Brought me to a picture of a string-
Bikinied cutie standing on a dock.
There are lots of moments like this in Brown’s poetry. His speakers—nearly always in the first person and likely named, if we asked, “Daniel Brown,”—are often guileless, exhibiting themselves as if saying, “Well, you opened up the book. It would be rude not provide.”
But the poems themselves—written by a distinct if closely related “Daniel Brown”—are not naïve at all. If you are distracted by the surface, which borders on the lascivious (I can’t help but remember the stink caused a few months ago by Craig Raine’s sexually-confessional airport poem, but, Brown evades this kind of fuss with his steadier hand and clearer vision), you will miss the delicate architecture being built up via this open confession (a mask, if one that resembles its wearer) toward a more inward-looking, almost metaphysical self-awareness. These ostensibly simple lines (their complexity given away by their elegance) do the necessary legwork to support the poem’s conclusion, which allow a previously guarded, more universal anxiety free reign. He tells us that he took a pencil to the cartoon girl, drawing in what the bikini covered up, then:
Regarded when I’d rendered—only to
Recoil from the rendering. As though
From something by a beast I didn’t know.
Suddenly, “When it Happened,” which until now seemed if not facile, then slightly thin, could be read as something like an inversion of that other supposedly-salacious poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” Where Marvell saw the sun itself obeying the order given by himself and his lover, the young Brown shrinks even from his self-generated erotic object and, by immediate extension, his own erotic impulse. It is a startling moment, in which the artifice meant to expose another becomes a means of self-exposure, and the recognition of just how opaque we are to ourselves comes flooding in not so much to the speaker, since this “beast” was encountered long ago, but to the reader. Now we can see why he was so confident in sharing the slightly ignoble: he knows what he’s doing, and where he’s taking us.
So even when he opens up like this, Brown is a strikingly calm observer, taking the world in through lenses tinted by long experience. He comes across as more or less at home in his world, though this doesn’t keep him from noticing the fineries (or absurdities) of what he has surrounded himself with. Optimism and pessimism are too simple to apply here, but Brown seems determined to see the sun, the green of his own grass or, if there’s no green, the humor in the patches of dirt. Here’s “Why I Never Applied Myself in Pool,” in its entirety:
Not that I lacked an eye entirely,
But give me an oblique enough kiss
To visualize, and my eye said, “See ya later.”
A little practice might have sharpened it,
But what was needed here was not as much
A sharper as a higher order eye,
A whole other orb altogether.
Again the word that comes to mind is determination, in this case to prove the worthwhileness of the poem’s subject. But it is that determination, palpable in every line of What More?, that belies his depth and emotional complexity. His sardonic humor, if played by an instrument less-finely tuned, might fall into mere cynicism. Instead, it has the opposite effect. The darker lines are always capped with hope, if not for himself, then for the world he inhabits—or at least New York City.
One way in which Brown proves himself a superior kind of poet, one who rewards multiple readings, is the way he turns over and again these same, or at least similar, themes and motifs. In addition to sex and hope, parenthood (which may be a combination of the previous two) is of particular importance. More exactly, he attends to childhood with specific attention to parents. This is in part because, as Brown tells us, he is not a parent. From “On Brooklyn Heights,” perhaps the most touching and also complex selection in this volume:
A father with a baby fastened on—
All right, so hung against—his chest in one
Of those… those what exactly? Seems that I
Should know, though there’s the fact that I’m a guy
Who’s never been a father…. Anyway,
A familiar scene in plain language, but there is a striking, if subtle, note of mystery. What are these pauses? The first one, between hyphens, appears as a stutter-step, a minor redress of one’s own ignorance, even glibness: not “fastened,” but “hung against”. (Brown is not a particularly symbolistic poet, but moments like these seem to beg for a direct correlative. Who is the child? Is it Brown himself? And what does it mean to not be fastened, but hung against?) The second pause, now an ellipsis, introduces a genuine lack of specific knowledge, and, what’s more, of what it would take to attain that knowledge. It’s something he should know, he tells us, but “there’s the fact,” the unavoidable fact, that he is not a father, a recognition followed by a longer ellipsis, the weightiest of the three pauses. It’s a moment he has to shake in order to continue, that demands he pause and be aware. The shudder and sigh are audible in that pause, then with the stoic, “Anyway,” he presses on, tries to talk about something else.
And he almost always succeeds in strange and surprising ways, the continuation turning out not as a diversion from the inner tumult but discernments of the world informed by these introspective detours. He continues to watch the child, “facing frontally,” observing the world around him, and Brown comes to accept the limits of what he understands, while maintaining hope that he might nevertheless find some form of closure, even redemption:
Before it’s made how one’s objection goes:
That all that stands before the infant’s eyes—
Span, spires beneath befleeced cerulean—
The infant no more sees for what it is
Than understands a word its father says.
Which doesn’t stop the father’s talk, or mean
Worlds aren’t being taken in.
Brown’s style is, in this regard, wholly dialectical. His poems do their work by maintaining alternatives, following each where they wish to go, bouncing them off one another. Sometimes it is conversational, with new possibilities being responded to, as if presented by another, unheard speaker. At other moments, such as “On Brooklyn Heights,” it is totally monological, a single voice sorting through options, tracing and retracing steps. Aiding the music and rhythm in keeping things interesting is the sense that Brown’s concerns are not products of the poem, but rather the other way around. The reading of these poems comes close to recreating to the lived experience of what animates them, so that the mask, the artifice, reveals much more than would a confession.
Brown, who published his first book—2008’s Taking the Occasion, which won the New Criterion Poetry Prize—in his late fifties, possesses a steadiness and view to the essentials younger poets simply don’t yet have the equipment to attain. If chief among that equipment is, as Hemingway said, a built-in, shock-proof bullshit detector, Brown seems to have saved up to make his own into the deluxe model. His condensed lyrics balance graciousness with a keen analytical eye, which, while never strident, is not too generous to shy away from the puffed-up, the unexamined, and, above all, the uncritically accepted. Again from “The Biggie,” a characteristically sardonic take on what is now conventional wisdom, but what was once the original thought of Freud:
I’m as open as the next guy
to the counterintuitive,
but it would take a meaner kid than I—
really a kind of hood embryo—
to want to kill my father.
Being seen in public
with so extreme a schlemiel
may have killed me, but I don’t recall
wanting to knock him off.
Least of all because (let’s give him this)
he was sleeping with my mother.
Whom I wanted to sleep with?
Have you ever seen my mother?
I’m not sure what Brown’s expertise is regarding Freud (or indeed if he has any), but that is really beside the point. What is of importance here is his humorous and humane (if slightly off color) register of dissent. In contrast to his measured plain-speaking, Brown makes the theoretical apparatus accompanying psychoanalysis appear almost silly, without surrendering to anti-intellectualism. He performs this tight-rope walk through what one comes to expect in his poems, but is nevertheless surprised by each time, which is a sudden turn from the mundane to the profound, from the jocular to the solemn. In this case, the fear of death long preceding any desire:
Such were my struggles some nights
to free myself from the tightening, pythonic
coils of the thought of it,
that I’d beat my little fist
on the wall beside my bed.
This is weighty material, and Brown carries it gracefully. But, never one to eschew the everyday, he ends by writing:
And they say sex is the biggie.
George Chapman writes in his 1595 preface to Ovid’s Banquet of Sense: “That Poetry should be as pervial as oratory and plainness her special ornament, were the plain way to barbarism.” Whether the state of poetry precipitates or merely reflects the decline of a culture is a question so complex I’m tempted to consider it above my current pay grade. Those who decry the demystification of poetry since the takeover of free verse, however, might look to Daniel Brown (among many others) for a poetry of plain-speaking that nevertheless retains the profound, the musical, even, at times, the mystical.
Brown, a lover of music (he holds a MA in Musicology from Cornell and keeps a website called Why Bach?, which has garnered praise from, among others, Alain de Botton and Harvard University Professor of Music, Christoph Wolff), might shrink from this appraisal. He may be right to do so. He certainly wouldn’t be the first, in light of the hyperborean grace of Bach, Mozart, et. al.. Poets have always reached toward the heights that music can scale as a matter of course and, though they succeed in other ways, ways that can exceed music’s ability, their poems nevertheless seem always to come up short. Here’s one of the times one comes close:
Of course one asking this would be forgiven
If his voice were short a certain urgency,
His having been conveyed repeatedly
By music to the cumulus of heaven.
Jack Hanson is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Yale University and the author of the poetry chapbook Monica Moody and Other Poems (Pen & Anvil, 2017). His poetry, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in Berfrois, Full Stop, Kenyon Review Online, The New Criterion, PN Review, Salamander, The Scofield, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere.