Escaping the End of the World
Village Books Press
Reviewer: Jared Smith
It is hard to decide in reviewing G.L. Brower’s Escaping the End of the World whether to focus first on the sheer power of the images or the reason those images are so acutely and painfully vivid. Craft and vision are here inextricably woven together, and one must speak of both to understand what a monumentally powerful and innovative work this is.
On their most basic level, these poems appear to operate similarly to those of the Confessional Poets—narrative, first-person poems that grow from the same roots as Robert Lowell’s intellectually driven reflections on the meaninglessness of life, yet combined with Theodore Roethke’s exuberant mysticism, imagery, and search for place as evidenced most prominently in “The Lost Son.” Indeed, if Brower’s poems only managed to unite the power and states of mind that those two earlier poets worked with, that would in itself be notable.
But with Brower, we are entering a terrifying world where despite the beauty and ruggedness of the landscape he so vividly captures in his lines, a dark consciousness not only tracks our lives but builds upon the struggles and failures of our past family members, sharpening its focus until it strikes inevitably at those people we love most. And then, if they escape through miraculous chance, it circles back and waits to gather them in again when least expected.
This brand of Confessional Poetry, if we still wish to call it that rather than giving it a whole new genre to better understand its impact, is based on not the concerns or failures or loves of one man, but of an extended chain of generations met with the struggles we are all engaged with in our struggle for dignity and survival. It is a Confessional Poetry of generations, not of the personal identities wrapped up in the work of such poets as Plath, or Snodgrass, or Snyder. In Brower’s world—in his vision—his life and opportunities are as tied to the freight-car hopping life his grandfather led during The Great Depression or to his polio-stricken mother’s struggles as to his own daily experiences driving the country. The social landscape lies shattered around him. And as he says in “The First Xmas, 1941”:
Everyone walked on the pieces
with bloody feet.
The Future couldn’t see its reflection.
There is a conscious malevolence evident in this ordering of the world—in this passing of unknown sins and warnings that go unheeded because their beginnings are so far in the past that one can never be prepared for them. “…on the way home: / the car’s sudden stop / on the uphill incline / of an isolated country road, / the emergency brake’s metal scrape, / my grandfather slumping / over the steering wheel / clutching his heart, / my seven years unraveled / …holding the brake / with all my childhood / as if it could stop death” (“Trail”). But it can’t, of course. The search for a Christmas tree along a hidden mountain road so long ago becomes the death of a man and the destruction of a seven year old boy. The gift of understanding is passed across two generations as quickly as that.
Perhaps that acceptance of malevolence grows in part from our growing understanding of how our lives are painted heavily by past circumstance. Certainly, background circumstance is as important to our opportunities as are our genes. These are poems that took decades to write, and they are written with the vividness of today, for the vision that shaped them all those years ago is still developing and working: “Old men in bib overalls, old hats, / sat outside under the tin awning, / … along the store front, smoking / …The women of their households, / in homemade bonnets and dresses, / shopped for the week’s groceries,” (“Wash Noah”), living today as they always lived along “traveled roads even ghosts / no longer haunt” (“Escaping the End of the World”).
Perhaps the most haunting poem from this sequence is “Intuition,” written to his late wife Kathie. This poem describes how through some unknown intuition Kathie pulled her car over to the side of the road one morning, thus avoiding death in a head-on collision with a panel truck, only to be hunted down years later and on the other side of the country by that same ghost truck, dying in a hospital bed. The poem documents the poet’s return to the hill where Kathie almost died the first time and his attempt to stop the truck and end its quest. It is a bleak and chilling poem, the full force of which can only be communicated through a full reading of the piece. It is carried forward in “La Bajada Hill,” where his wife lives forever in his mind among the barren escarpments:
I can see the long escarpment
of black, basaltic rock
stretching for miles
as I drive down
from Placitas hills
to the Rio Grande valley.
Sometimes I stop along the roadside,
on La Bajada Hill,
think I see your ashes scattered here,
still floating among flowering cholla,
And suddenly, your ashes
fall like the volcanic
dust of time.
What does one do with this vision, though? How does it strengthen one? How is one’s life ultimately enriched by the terror that emanates from dried volcanic rocks and the abyss that surrounds one? Perhaps it does not matter, except that it is good to grow our perceptions. In “For My Grandchildren, When They Find Me” Brower writes,
But if one day you are bewildered,
desperate, hopeless, wonder what my advice
might have been, I will tell you now.
Sit down, make your breathing regular,
think with the two jewelry boxes of your brain…
You have only to find out who I am, who you are,
which reflection we are of each other.
You have to see your own image
with the eyes of others…
You will know what to do.
Escaping the End of the World is the work of a master poet who has spent his lifetime studying and meditating on what life is in its various aspects—the inner world with its profound mysteries and confluences, the external world driven by forces outside our perceptions and understanding, a world beyond mass media, textbooks, and nine-to-five jobs. This is a collection that reshapes understanding of who and what we are. I highly recommend it.