Monday, February 21, 2011

What I'm Reading: A Witness in Exile

64º ~ far too warm for this early in the day at this time of year ~ storms on the horizon ~ solid gray skies ~ a breeze that smells of rain

I am thrilled to write today about my friend and fellow Arkansas MFA grad Brian Spears' first book A Witness in Exile.  It seems I've developed a bit of a pattern to reading a book of poetry.  I start with the cover and front matter, then move to the back matter and back cover, and then to the first poem.  Yes, I read from front to back, in order, the first time I read the book.  If poets and their editors spend so much time on the order of a book these days, then I'm going to find out why. 

What an honor then, to find my name among the acknowledgments among some major league poetry sluggers.  Wow.  Thanks for that, Brian.

A Witness in Exile is a book about the celebration of place and the struggle of one son with his family.  Much will be made of Brian's biography, having been raised a Jehovah's Witness, who was excommunicated from the church and thus from his biological family as well.  While the book isn't divided into sections, I definitely found the arc.  We begin steeped in the South, mostly in southern Louisiana & NOLA where Brian was raised, and then on to Florida, where Brian currently lives.  Towards the end of the place poems we get a handful from the West, which matches another part of Brian's biography, having been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford after finishing at Arkansas.  These place poems compose the first half of the book.  The second half deal with family, with Brian's relationship to his daughter, from whom he was separated by divorce, and with Brian's relationship to his father and the church. 

The first poem in the book is a prose poem titled "Pastoral" and begins in the heat and humidity of southern Louisiana with the speaker as a boy fishing in Gar Creek.  The poem ends with a sentence that sets the theme for the entire book: "The walk home is never long enough."  Here we are introduced to the fact that the speaker is uneasy with his home, his origins.  In another poem toward the beginning of the book, "One Day the Ruins of the Galleria Mall Will Shelter Armadillos," Brian expands on that theme.  He writes, "and this is what it means to be / American and lonely" and later "[We] have / no river gods to transform us into / laurel trees so we can escape the lusts / of ... never mind."  The speaker expresses, here, that we have come too far from our original myths for them to offer any hope or solace. 

Of all the place poems, "What Change Must Come" encapsulates this 21st century relationship to the land, America, and home.

Here is a bit from the poem:

The places I love most
all teeter on knife-edge:
New Orleans wants to drown
and sink into swamp.
San Francisco to slide 
and buckle into itself.
Fort Lauderdale dares the air
to whirl it down, and now,
to submerge it whole.

While I am most drawn to Brian's poems of place (and this is no surprise as that's my own focus), he handles the most closely autobiographical poems with the same deft craft and brutal honesty.  In "Lament," the speaker states, "It is not poetic, your leaving / of church and family; / it is pathetic the way you slip away."  Some of the most haunting lines in the book arrive in these poems when the speaker must reconcile his being cast out by not only the church but also his father.  It is hard to do this justice with an excerpt, but I'll leave you with this one and encourage you to read the book for the full impact.

from "Tell it slant"

Tell how you deserted faith and church
and with it family, how now you revel
in uncertainty, recoil from absolute.
Tell it slant, but tell it.  Tell it.

(PS: I love the ghosts of Dickinson and Bishop in this poem.)

Support a Poet/Poetry
Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book Today!
A Witness in Exile
Brian Spears
Louisiana Literature Press, 2011


Amy Letter said...

That "American and Lonely" line is a quote from another poet -- I forget who -- and the line is from a poem that p'd Brian off. It's meant as a criticism but I'm not sure it comes across. I think I'm going to suggest to him that in the 2nd edition (which will be an electronic edition) he footnote it or something. :)

Beautiful blog post!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for the note, Amy. Remember, I'm a naive reader! :)

Erin said...

Sandy, another thoughtful and generous look at a book of poems. Wonderful!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Erin, thanks for stopping by. If you get a chance to read this, let me know what you think.