The debut of Greg Brownderville’s Gust leaves little doubt that the South is still the most innovative and diverse linguistic and cultural region of the country. Part soothsayer, part omniscient narrator, part flirt, Brownderville wields a deft hand, casting an intoxicating spell with these poems that rise from the waters of the Arkansas Delta to both baptize and bewitch.
How many times did I read “unbiblical cords” as umbilical cords? That’s how this collection starts off, as intimate as the cords that are clipped when we are born, and still somehow keep us tethered to a certain place and memory. The first section, “Press In,” an imperative, urges us to become acquainted with those intimacies of childhood narratives and fears–“in the beginning/was poetry. Then God invented death.” Moving from the “unbiblical” to the biblical, we are introduced to Brother Langston, who performs river baptisms, in which the speaker “felt my blood ignite/and shivered as I rose electrified.” And there is Sister Lou and Sister Law, who both color poems with their vocal presence. The poems shift from Christian pleas to nights with Voudou men and prayers to Papa Legba. Brownderville winds through these Voudou swamps and rivers of baptismal rites by way of the biographical, reminding us that truth is stranger than fiction, and that humor through the diverse narratives lightens some of the hefty themes like redemption, religion and death. Gust ushers in a new vernacular, a southern soliloquy that rattles and stomps with a musical backbone. My favorite poem of this section is the longer “Make Me a Sheep,” through which I was wiping away tears of happiness, and sadness, particularly at the image of Eric, Greg’s brother, bleating like a sheep in the middle of church service when a “firm, vibrating hand/gripped the back of Eric’s head like a gearshift.” What choice did he have but to answer the prayer of Joe Paul James and his “creepy, weepy falsetto,/’Make him a sheep, Lowered, make him a sheeeeeeeep.’ Or the erotic image of young Greg beneath the pews at the intersection of sexual tension and guilt–
I rubbed the hard
swirls of gum stuck above me
as if caressing nipples
tuning into wild she-cries.
I closed my dreaming eyes.
Bathsheba came in ripples
to ride me, rev me, love me.
It’s the last section, though, that set my heart on fire like the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It starts out, “Lord make me a flying squirrel/ or a flying Holy Roller.” The list of requests is beautiful, innocent, and, of course, poetic. After all, “Lord, there’s a bunch of things I want to be.” This is a poem that inspires poems, not that a prayer and a poem are all that different. This is where this collection of poems gains power and depth–it rides the precipitous edge of those great Passions, and calls back what is holy in its many forms. I want to write my own list to the Lord, and ask for things, too. Like Brownderville, maybe I will ask to be made “a swallow of Dr. Pepper in a sexy woman’s mouth,” or, simply, “If you please, Lord,/ make me a sheep.”
“The Wild Yonder Blues,” the second section, has poems that employ the dzaimbwa meter of the Shona tradition of Zimbabwean poetry. The themes wander through corn fields and tornadoes, still exploring the reaches and limits of the spiritual life. The turns of humor and surprise in the images had me laughing out loud at lines like, “his mustache like a soft brown fuzzy worm sleeping on his lip,” or, “he’s there/with vanilla home run/in a sugar-cone glove.” The theme of mystery is prevalent, ending in a poem by the same name:
A scientist says to me, “I thrive on knowing.”
For twenty years he’s researched one scant slice
of brain. I get it. Granddaddy’s been hoeing
one garden plot for even longer. It’s nice
to know a passage of the world by heart.
From Om to Amen, sacred books agree,
the world is words.
It’s the final two lines of the poem–“Everything that shatters, everything that scatters,/everything that matters is a mystery”–that embodies the world of words, those mysterious nether depths of language and experience that the poets are constantly trying to translate, trying to get closer to, trying to uncover.
The narrative qualities of “Becoming Hot Tamale Charlie” are consistent and notable, but it’s the final part of this collection where I find myself found in a jook joint that smells like muscadines, corn whiskey, and rusted RC Cola cans with music set against the wooden steps, the kick drum, buzzing with mosquitoes and guitar and heart strings. Here, the tone is more like the first section: familial, contemporary. Where the first section was set more in the dramatics of an earlier time, this last part conveys a more present tense. The music takes over, driving rhythms through poems like the blues, or a hymn. The war in Iraq raises its dirty head, Brother Jack Langston comes back to the beginning, and romantic love with a Czech girl is part “white magic” and “backward, bedward” for Brother Greg. Undertones of nostalgia prevail, for boyhood before “war seduced,” for farm land where now rises WalMart, for Razorback football game scores announced by Brother Langston during church services. Violence, too, interrupts the narrative reality, questioning redemption and God’s motives. In “Terror,” the heart is no longer a romantic device, the heart becomes an agent of war:
Heart like a bomb
strapped to your chest and ticking,
walk into the world.
Is this the image of a suicide bomber? Or an American soldier? Or instructions to a poet? The simple language and short form of this poem convey many diverse images in its Haiku-like command. The three lines of “Terror,” set amongst the beauties of Brownderville’s longer poems, punctuates with a force that stops you on the page to consider your own heart.
Brownderville’s poems, in the kudzu-cool shade behind “an orgy of sycamore limbs,” push the boundaries and definitions of love and sin, passion and forgiveness, God and the Devil. Worldly and wise, these poems intersect at beauty and the guilt of beauty, where a poet separates the two through language like a firecracker that “dropped a little plastic paratrooper” . . . “magnificently mine–like burning words/I’d aimed at heaven, come back as a poem.”