Reviewed by Scott F. Parker
In his foreword to Walking the Dog's Shadow, Tony Hoagland writes that the poems of Deborah Brown's debut collection "make thinking look easy." As this assessment and the title itself suggest, these poems are full of ideas; they pursue not so much things as the impressions things have left on the speaker in a lifetime full of memories.
Brown's speaker is mature and wise, fully stocked with experiences to recount and reconsider. These remembrances and reflections lead to abstraction, as in "Proof": "Where 'duck' meant / a domesticated aquatic, not a sniper's bullet about to deafen / your ear. When did the innocent part of the country become one / with the rest of the violent world?" But proof is always secondary to experience, and abstraction must be earned; once earned, it might grant one the privilege to view history from a remove, as when the speaker discusses "racism's latest masquerade / in the flag."
Of course, the mind's impulse to create stories ("Narro, narrare, drifts overhead"; "I read how the brain is structured / to make us believe, or want to") and to compress information for meaning means details are squeezed from memory. Sometimes those details are withheld, as in "Don't Ask," when soldiers "knew what could be said after dinner sixty-five years later, / stories scrubbed clean of blood and pain," leading the speaker to wonder, "How do you know what you've left out of any story you tell?"
Brown's poems are sharply attuned to absence: things missing, words unspoken. Many of the recurring images here focus on what's not present: in the title poem the speaker doesn't walk a dog but a dog's shadow, in another poem the moon "plans to move off course," has been driven "away from home," and has deserted the sky. The attention to absence/presence is summed up neatly in "On Not Knowing Your Father": "I am trying to imagine the pain of a phantom / limb, but the pain I imagine is a phantom, too."
Little in this world is real, and what is might be made unreal at any moment: "how could there / be a whole and happy life...when we have no idea when / antimatter might say enough's enough and take over / and turn us all into -- nots?" The appeal to physics reappears in "The Graviton," where we discover just how fragile our existence is:
It's bad enough
not being able to find good fish and chips,
or true love, or an immigration policy
everyone agrees on. But the graviton
has to exist, since everything else exists,
more or less, so the argument goes.
And so, we infer, we must stick with what is real. These are big, empirical poems that tell us to pay close attention. The book's section titles are an instruction set for how to read the poems: "Don't Ask"; "Listen"; "Read Between the Lines." Brown's speaker hovers around the familiar, and if you ask you will already be looking in the wrong direction and miss the turn toward the unfamiliar. Instead, listen to everything she says -- and to everything she doesn't say. It's only in learning to pay attention to what's here and what's not that we can go along with the wisdom of the speaker: "In the middle / of the night, the sky lowers towards me. / It has a mind of its own, / but no secrets from anyone listening."
Books mentioned in this post