(Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2019)
In Phantom Signs, Philip Brady writes about poetry and death, basketball and music, academia, Achebe, Adorno, Agamemnon, and another two-hundred or so names that he goes on to list in alphabetical order, but presently, I have no intention to discuss any of them. I want to talk about the fact that Phantom Signs is somehow considered a memoir. The essays included are insane, nonsensical, and make you want to throw the book out of the window, because he has to be lying…he just has to be. In the essay “Face,” Brady starts off by saying: “Kirk Nesset has no face.” Now, surely this is metaphorical (and hilarious, reminiscent of “The Red-Haired Man”) but it makes the reader wonder what is and isn’t allowed in the realm of so-called “memoir.” This isn’t the only example, and as a matter of fact, in comparison to a majority of the essays, my usage of “Face” in relation to Brady’s ability to walk the tightrope between truth and fiction was rather lackluster. Before the book even begins, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to all of the false claims that the author makes — written, of course, by none other than Brady himself. The piece is called “We the Undersigned,” and reads as follows: “7. Joyce and Shelley never waitressed in an Irish bar. The author’s wife, while possessing selkie-like tendencies, is not now, nor has ever been trans-species; nor is the Greek professor (unsigned to avoid scandal) a sea nymph. All this is bollox.”
And if it wasn’t made clear, I’m all for it.
There are so many flashes of beauty in the collection, and some of my favorite occur when Brady illumes the (typically) unnoticed work that goes into publishing a book. Let me preface by saying that this, indeed, is not made up: the author really is the executive director and co-founder of Etruscan Press, “a non-profit literary press working to produce and promote books that nurture the dialogue among genres, cultures, and voices.” So, when he reveals the secrets that editors keep, it comes from a place of undisputed validity:
10. We don’t care about writers, only about books. 9. Writers don’t make books. They make stories, poems, plays, and memoirs. We make books. 8. To the editor, the whole work appears in the first line, like DNA.
He also goes on to say that “It’s a myth that dead writers do better. As a publisher with four deceased writers on my list, I can assure you that dying is a bad career move — unless your death makes a splash, and if you can splash, why not live?”
I’m thrilled to mention that the idea of dying is quite prevalent throughout, which I think mostly stems from the fact that Brady actually did die. In 2010, following a heart attack, he underwent coronary triple bypass surgery. He says, “What I learned about being dead: No heart hovers near. There is no white light or if there is it doesn’t appear until you trespass beyond memory. No familial voices. No hell. Time is not titrated to an instant. There is no instant.” After asking, “What will become of me?” Brady responds to himself:
10. I will die without knowing I’ve died. 9. I will die but these words will live. 8. I will live and no one will know. 7. I will live on the brink of dying. 6. I will crack open death. 5. The Poet will read this. 4. Everything will happen all at once.
Even in this bleakness, he finds a way to make it seem somewhat… joyous: “I will die but these words will live.
Phantom Signs does a spectacular job finding balance between the ugly and elegant. In “This Poem is Illegal” he cites Luis Valdez’s Mayan-inspired poem “In Lak’ech,” which, in Arizona, is exactly as the title of the essay proclaims. The poem reads:
Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.
By referencing this piece, not only does Brady incorporate yet more wonder, more grace to the book, he illustrates just how behind the times some minds and areas are, and in pointing this out, adds a layer of greater-than-memoir-ness, of “this whole thing, whatever it is, is much larger than a poem, or an essay, a book, or even a (dead) body.” It’s an injection of reality, and absolutely stunning.
Of all of the essays, I’m drawn closest to “Kith & Kin.” In it, Brady hits his head and wakes up in the hospital with a concussion. The doctor tells him that he thinks his “hypofalsus has been compromised…” the part of the brain that “processes short-term secondhand experience.” Now, Google says that no such word exists, but true or false, I’ll let this fall into the imaginary category of in-betweenhood. Brady goes on to mull over life without a hypofalsus: “There would be no gun-lobby. No right-to-lifers. No killer cops or provosts. Everybody composts. Poetry pays. And there are only two races: kith and kin.” He describes kith as a race composed of people that he knows (both dead and alive), and kin as everyone else. Also, it should be noted that kin can be welcomed into kith, if they choose to step forward. I love this concept. Imagine if the world worked this way… Better or worse, God knows, but funny to explore.
With that being said, if I had to criticize Brady on one thing, it would be his stepping into the race/police brutality/Black Lives Matter discussion. At the beginning of the essay “Are Lives Matter?” he says: “Outside this essay, I am a middle-class white male, living in the rust belt of Ohio. I am sixty years old, with no particular credentials to address the issues that choke my Facebook feed.” This is usually a good place to stop.
Aside from that, Phantom Signs is a very enjoyable read with hints of Ross Gay, Anne Carson, and William Finnegan. It’s bound to appeal to anyone interested in music (specifically Celtic), Homer, and the question of how to live after you’ve died.
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Cody Lee is a writer from Chicago, IL. You can read more of his reviews on NewPages.
You can purchase Phantom Signs here.