Saturday, July 20, 2013

What I'm Reading: Far From Sudden

85º (heat index = 92º) ~ the heat dome touched on Arkansas but didn't really deviate us from our normal heat and humidity, our sympathies to our northern kin who aren't prepared for such assaults, heat and humidity pretty much sums up the foreseeable future here in the mid-south

Putting my money where my mouth is, this month I bought two books of poetry, one of which is Brent Goodman's Far From Sudden (Black Lawrence Press 2012).  I wrote about Brent's debut collection, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, also from Black Lawrence, here.  While Brent and I haven't spent much, if any, time together in the "real world," I feel as if we are connected, loosely via Facebook and blogging and such, and more deeply via the poems.  So, I was stunned to learn that Brent suffered a heart attack in 2009, just as I was beginning to know his poems and therefore outside the time of our poetry friendship.  While others may have come to Far From Sudden having already processed the near miss the poetry world suffered, I came to it without that knowledge; this clearly influenced the way I read the book.

Far From Sudden begins with quiet, meditative poems moving between the natural landscape and the more urban world, focused on mortality, but in a general way.  For example, in "Madison, New Year's 1999," the speaker describes:

Freezing rain. Shivering past
the tagged bus stop, walking home,
my knees two broken dinner plates,
stomach a tumble of stones, tonight
each house memorizes the inner shape
of its heart.  Every tree understands
the blood's difficult passage from this world
to the next. Trees are the slowest rivers.

The poem goes on to describe the rest of the speaker's walk home and his attempt to wrap his mind around the fragility of the body, of life.  This is indicative of the poems in the first section of the book, and the first few poems in the second section, until we hit "The Ground Left Me."  This poem opens with:

The morning I had a heart attack,
gurneyed pale and shirtless O2 mask

past my coworkers.

Suddenly, the speaker and the poet merge, and here, I had my first jolt.  Often, I am one of the loudest champions for reading contemporary poetry without assuming that the speaker is the poet.  I do this in part because too often I've had readers confuse the speakers in my poems with me, with my reality. Brent's poems, here, are clearly threaded through with the reality of his "sudden" heart attack in 2009, and the title of the collection helps point us to this, if subtly.

I read on through the book, breath catching at descriptions of medical procedures and a body slowly healing, at explorations into how a person confronts mortality with dignity and grace, or at least with honesty.  A great example of this is "What to Do With My Body," a catalog poem of directions, such as:

Slingshot my eyes back into the sun.
Unpuzzle this heart from my ribs.
Tuck my left scapula into an owl's nest.
Fashion my feet to furrow a field.

If you read my work, you know that the fourth line here is one I've underlined with emphasis, the sounds! the image! Then, the end of this poem contains a zinger that I savored over and over, and so do not want to give away.

The poems in Far From Sudden tend to be short, but they build to a greater contemplation of the human body as a fragile vessel.  With the speaker as our guide, we cannot help but contemplate what it is we are doing with this "one wild and precious life" (as Mary Oliver says).  I am relieved that Brent remains among us, doing the work.

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