Reviewer: Paul Sohar
Even while the art and the very concept of poetry are redefined among the literati every day and usually found too elusive to corral into a well-controlled enclosure, let alone forced into a cage with a tag, the very same wordsmiths keep busy teaching the craft in hundreds of classes to thousands of eager students who produce an avalanche of words in the name of poetry. As a result we have new poetry books cropping up like butterflies in May, and they all demand our attention, some of them even public notice in the form of reviews. But how can we review new poetry while the art itself is still under review, still defies standards, still keeps wiggling out of the grips of an all-encompassing, clear definition?
One answer is to see what the poet in question has to say about poetry. Does he offer a new insight to share with his potential readers? That should be a clear sign that he takes his work seriously, has a deep understanding of the art and stands ready to meet the test head on. Better yet, he’s not even aware of such a challenge to his status as a poet, he’s simply responding to, resonating with his contemporaries and their masters from the past. Such a poet is Alan Britt, whose thirteenth volume of poetry is now under scrutiny here: Lost Among the Hours. It has more than a dozen poems dedicated to other poets and a few musicians. Perhaps the most notable among them is the one bearing the simple title “Yves Bonnefoy”:
Yves Bonnefoy assumes we already know this stuff
friend, Francis Bacon, strolls the moonlight curl of a dusty
tundra of imagination. Yves shows us blood illuminated
an abandoned church. He unhinges our bones, allowing
waters of Lascaux. Yves Bonnefoy assumes we already
In this brilliant evocation of Bonnefoy’s voice, Britt gives his version of what poetry is all about; it’s “this stuff that plagues and perplexes.” It’s something we already know without knowing, and that’s where Britt comes in with his message using Bonnefoy as the messenger. (For reinforcement he brings in Francis Bacon, the British artist known for his defiantly figurative paintings featuring deformed faces and people in cages mostly with plain black field for background.) Britt did not have to stray too far from his own style for this homage; surrealist imagery peppers his own poetry and perhaps this is why he “trails blue sheep” and shows “verbs that resemble swallows.” Bonnefoy, now the elder statesman of French poetry, was in his youth very much inspired by Andre Breton, which establishes the literary genealogy of Britt’s affinity for surrealism. Buffeted by such powerful lines and such rich language, the reader cannot help but feel an immanent connection with poetry, and that state of mind itself becomes a definition for the art: just feel the words and they will set your mind dancing. The “abandoned church” is Western Civilization, now a hollow husk, filled with the lively chatter of “swallows,” a flock of conflicting individual interests and devoid of new ideas. But Britt certainly acquits himself not only as a poet but as a teacher of poetry and a chronicler of our cultural life in this postmodernist age. Or am I reading too much into the vivid metaphors of this wonderful poem? Am I spoiling it for others? Read it again, and better yet read the whole book; it has certainly earned our attention.
Tone-setting as it is, the Bonnefoy poem is only one of the many treasures awaiting the adventurous, and some of them are throwaway jewels that light up this book with their sparkles. For example, on a visit to Indiana, the poet remarks:
I find I’m tempted
These few casual lines can put the reader in the middle of a harvested cornfield in the Midwest. But my favorite passages are the bold surrealist metaphors in which the poet luxuriates:
Long before the moon dug its rhinoceros horn
These lines pack the seductive power of a dream, the sensuous state of a mind just waking up to a bright morning but with one foot still lingering in the languid bed of the night. Before moving on to other matters I must quote one more mind-joggling stanza:
Every day I devote myself
Note the separation of the image “bison clouds,” giving it a line of its own; it deserves it but doesn’t need it. The image stands out, it’s impossible to miss it. Britt rarely engages in such contemporary conceits as arbitrary line breaks, and when he does, it’s for the sake of emphasis rather than constructing a striking abstract picture on the page. Neither does he ever omit punctuation and capitals, another favorite device of mainstream poetry nowadays; his lines may sometimes become disjointed, but they’re always punctuated. His words speak for themselves, they don’t need extraneous tricks to show they’re building up to a poem.
Disjointed sentences, meticulously punctuated? The juxtaposition of unexpected images and ideas, words made to mean more than the dictionary allows, breaking a mood that has lingered long enough to make room for the opposite sentiment, these have always been in Britt’s poetic vocabulary, and so has punctuation. It doesn’t seem to be the expression of professorial crankiness or pedantry; it’s just that his language gravitates toward the particular, the specific. He names names, locations, intellectual sparring partners, even the label on his wine bottle; there’s no room for vague abstraction in his poetry already jam packed with rich metaphors in uncomfortable closeness. Maybe they need a comma or a period to keep them apart, capitals to announce a new twist to the poet’s journey of discovery in word-land, to mark a new avenue channeling those restlessly stampeding herds of phrases. In fact, punctuation and untamed imagery seem to be the two constants in Britt’s ever-evolving style. Whether they admit it or not, whether they realize it or not, most contemporary poets build their oeuvre around a public image, sometimes charitably called a poetic persona. Even celebrated—crowned—poets conform to a tried and true—saleable—image, a persona that says what is expected by their readers. And their audiences. But Britt always seems to be at odds with himself, debating and contradicting himself—even when he curses out conservatives, he seems to chastise himself for wasting valuable time on such trivia—but the overall result is that he always keeps growing as a poet.
Spoiler alert: lost among the hours refers to time spent in the company of his dog, Daphne. Another favorite prop of his life, a glass of red wine is not forgotten either. But I’d like to close with another comment of his on poetry, not a definition but something as close to it as the wise would want to venture:
… some poems layered with banal abstractions
I doubt very much that such fate will befall Alan Britt’s poems even in this age when a bumper crop of poets are busy layering their unbaked lines with more fat and more schlag than the lines can bear.