(Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014)
Many of the poems in Erika Jo Brown’s debut collection, I’m Your Huckleberry, are “traditional” love poems written to the speaker’s beloved. But Brown’s poems are also love poems to language (not the language but all language) and by extension, love poems for the world that gives rise to language. The primary symptom of this love is Brown’s obsession with diction.
The first half of I’m Your Huckleberry uses alliteration, like sounds, and alphabetical arrangement to create a rhyme-like web that the emotional syntax of the work resounds within. In the book’s first poem, “Captain Snugz Rides Again,” Brown uses alphabetical arrangement as a catalyst to move the poem forward. For example, the words “capers,” “capillary,” “schnitzel,” and “schnauzer” all appear in the same two lines. Taken to the extreme, this insistence on wordplay would lead to artlessness, or at best, a poem whose surface texture is limited to absurdity. Thankfully, this poet knows better. Among the wordplay of this poem, one finds such bald-faced lines as “I love you more every day, not less / and this concerns me.” The poet employs a bit of internal rhyme (“germaine” echoing “floodplain”) before closing with alternating images of the weather: “sometimes / it’s cloudy, sometimes luminous.” What is consistently rewarding about this work is that while it uses diction and the alphabet to propel the poem, it’s not afraid to break from those patterns into more surprising, sometimes epiphanic passages.
Ours is the age of abundant, perhaps endless information, much of it unnecessary for physical survival. We live in an era of overwhelmingness, near the pinnacle of what could be self-absorption, or maybe just genetic vanity. The Internet digests world culture in an instant and sends it back at us in strange, alarming forms. Likewise, Brown’s poetry borrows freely and with confidence from the swirl of culture, language, and vocabulary. Beyond the post-post-modern, these are ultra-modern poems of the information age.
Most identifiable amidst all of the cultural and linguistic clutter that these poems probe is the emotion of love. Not the saccharine version sealed tight in Hallmark envelops and exchanged by lovers every February, and also not the corn-fed romantic drama of so-called reality television, but the real animal of love: the whole of compassion and the whole of frustration, the exact midway between patience and anger, hope and despair, longing and fulfillment, agony and bliss. A hard ball to field as an artist, perhaps the finest of lines to be walked, and these poems walk it with a nearly arrogant grace. Erika Jo Brown makes the love poem look easy but also reinvents it in the process. “Dear One” begins with the brutally honest and laugh-out-loud self-aware lines: “I would like to express my affection for you / by talking about myself.”
The allowance to let sound drive the details and even energy (read plot) of these poems feels similar to how rhyme and repetition function, first as aids to memorization, then as formal challenges for poets to fulfill, although Brown’s sonic impulses and insistences achieve their effect in more freeform patterns. In “French New Wave Cinema,” Brown uses Godard’s name to generate the poem’s initial direction: “Go / dart,” she says, “to the heart of my beloved. / Tell him we mythologize each / other when we’re apart.” From there, the poem runs down a nearly preposterous list of associative word choices: gonads, gondola, goulash, gorgonzola, garbanzos, etc. The result of all this sonic obsessiveness is a sense of false ease—the poems feel loose and ecstatically associational, maybe even fully improvised in their twists and turns—but it’s clear that poems like “French New Wave Cinema” have been thought out and revised with extreme care, a good thing to see in a poet’s first book.
Just when the reader might feel the poet is in danger of failing to sustain our interest through diction and puns over the span of the collection, Brown makes some interesting forays into various subject matters, such as the poem “Some Men Know About Pathos,” an out-of-left-field quasi-confessional poem with a more subtle reliance on soundplay than anything that comes before, and perhaps not accidentally arriving at a more dynamic conclusion than any previous poem: “If only we had just / information to go on! I know how to kick- / start a tractor, how to weld with a torch / and how to love some men.”
Reading a book of poems start to finish is like watching the weather. Some books offer very little change, allowing subtleties to accrue over long stretches. Other books show more violent shifting—storms, clouds, sun, snow, changes in sky color, events. “Skins” opens with a metaphor of language and body, asserting that “Language is a skin we exchange sonically.” By extending the metaphor through a list of skin-related images, Brown arrives where “Hives splay across thighs like a meteor shower; language is a glittering assault, destroying its own evidence.” As the book unfolds, Brown’s language-driven approach grows to include environmental (as in “Field Guide to Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers” and “Shellfish”) as well as the sacred (“Hail, No”).
Brown has wisely chosen to use her strategies of inspiration and arrangement in a way that remains flexibly organic, and the resulting poems are buoyant and memorable. The whole book brims with variety, a quality unified by the poet’s reliance on soundplay, and on anticipating (and thwarting) the expectations of her readership.
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Daniel Rzicznek is the author of two poetry collections, Divination Machine and Neck of the World, and three chapbooks, Nag Champa in the Rain, Vine River Hermitage, and Cloud Tablets. Also coeditor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, Rzicznek teaches writing at Bowling Green State University.