The Four Seasons
Paperback, 150 pages
Reviewed by Chris Tysh
In the “Winter” section of Brandon Brown’s latest publication, The Four Seasons (Wonder, 2018), the speaker is waylaid from an errand to buy fixings for mimosas, when he inexplicably finds himself not in the aisles of Whole Foods but in the land of the dead. Alone with no Beatrice, heavenly light, celestial spheres or bars on his phone to guide his soul, his brain scrambles and doubles back on itself. But his doubts are put to rest when he hears, “Yeah, we’re dead motherfucker.” That settles it. Within the paradisiacal commons, the poet noshes on tartines de pâté, “mussels, fries, poutine,” and observes Kurt Cobain, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, C. D. Wright as they stroll about or take a smoke.
Star-struck and bewildered, he meets the gaze of Stacy who hips him to the general economy in use. She calls it “reciprocal generosity,” a premise that refers to sharing as music. Instead of the Bataillean accursed share, irrecuperable and catastrophic, there is a give-and-take, a dynamic pulse, from heart to hand, mouth to ear, an intuitive cadence without counting. I would argue that it’s this very measure and poetic principle that guides Brown’s writing; it throbs with a continuous coming-and-going between self and other, public and private, high and low, quotation and authorship, which notions of donor/receiver collapse in a strangely intimate mode. The sumptuous conviviality that Brown dreams up around the banquet table can be read as an exemplar of writing’s alignment with community.
Such a level of poesis links the banalities of the quotidian with attention to the social space wherein writing takes place. The fantastical topos of Paradiso folds up along the real and collective sites of an American landscape. From swimming holes on the Yuba, to a National Park on Big Sur, to the Kansas City of the speaker’s youth, to Minneapolis, where “five Black Lives Matter protesters were shot by white supremacists in bullet-proof vests,” Brown says yes to staking out a path that does not simply unroll around the individual subject. His “I” shuns the normative constraints of the autobiographical self by placing it in relation, in traffic, in transit, a socio-political turnstile that broadens his reach.
A crucial aspect of Brown’s text, one that captivates with its joie de vivre, hinges on a carnivalesque lens through which the poet filters the body and its boundless passions. The corporeal enters the poem like a string quartet: bladder, teeth, asshole, knees, all playing their minor fugues, erotic and elemental: “When my bowels move I think I really am a trained animal just squatting on a litter box in my best blue suit.”
With its long rapturous menus (reminiscent of Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe), Four Seasons lets loose a comic, anarchic energy that skews any potential high-mindedness that might attach to the conceptual frame of this collection: “The regular manure of the present moment” flowers into a life.
The result of this liberatory stance is a humor that leavens the language and lends it a quasi-hallucinatory, absurdist vision. We are transported to “a field of hedge crickets with AK-47s,” or else “a flock of pissed pheasants with switchblades,” or an early Kansas City memory of feeding Hostess cupcakes to a band of possums. Whether it’s the stoned shenanigans of teenage punks or millennials’ death phantasms, there’s something here that crackles and echoes our trances.
His latest text composed between May 1, 2015 and May 1, 2016 is divided into four parts delving into the titular seasons and the art they inspire. With a diaristic impulse à la Frank O’Hara, the book crashes against the law of the genre and poetry’s identification with an ostensible lyric form. Its building blocks look like prose stanzas yet read lyrically, a space made sonic by a palpable insistence on matching sound to meaning like, “deep wet pond now just crust.” The Keatsian line, “and full-grown lambs bleat from hilly bourn,” that Brown plucks again and again with such glee, rings out its five iambs like a lucky charm in a dice cup. Meanwhile, without foregrounding one mode of expression over another, the text aligns memoir, exegesis, orphic song, class consciousness, meta references and a dizzying range of cultural codes that all touch at once. These terraced adjacencies make, “[t]his poem is all sweetness, light, crazy glue and carpeted meadows, everyone I’ve loved.”
Another aspect of Brown’s praxis signals the presence of erudition: its breadth, wit and bombshell bolt from the blue. From classics to botany, from philosophy to poetics, from art to critical theory, Four Seasons is spiked with knowledge that presents the speaker as a poet-savant, somewhere between griot and stand-up comic. One minute he explains a pre-Socratic philosopher’s take on “glaukos colored eyes,” and the next, gives a leftist critique of Jean-François Millet’s painting, L’homme à la houe.
The Four Seasons acknowledges its anti-capitalist, pro-labor position by not obfuscating the material conditions and social means of production, unlike Hollywood cinema which tends to present individuals through leisure. As a participant in Occupy Oakland, Brown brings his writing a sense of self wedged in class struggle and issues of livelihood. But he avoids the agitprop accents of engagé art, on one hand, and the phony ardor of the gauche caviar, on the other. He prefers a language that informs and critiques the logic of capital:
You know I bet Henry James really did think “summer afternoon” were the two most beautiful words in English. He never spent any of them in a windowless cardboard cell with a flatulent middle manager crafting demands as to how I should organize office supplies, refreshing Twitter with a long, permanent wince, in mid-August when it’s belly button hot outside, so golden, so ‘”summer.”
And yet one radical way to understand Brown’s class consciousness is to read his life-affirming ethos as the expression of a collective dream for a better world. Why shouldn’t the proletariat have access to what’s best in life?
“My poem is in favor of revolution, Bob’s Burgers, laziness, roasted pumpkin, time travel, and the fume of poppies. It is against bosses dominion corn laws and certain kinds of synthetic corn.”
Thus “the cloud tornado in the middle of a martini” is a signifier of the munificent potential Brown’s language enacts for us in the here and now.
In the final analysis, the series performs writing as community where people read each other’s works, go to literary events, memorials and parties. Some elements circulate and repeat, others chip away at established patterns, and nothing is extrinsic to witnessing a life. This poetic paradigm, seductive beyond measure, is a sheer delight.
Poet and playwright Chris Tysh, is the author of several collections of poetry and drama. Her latest publications are Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic (Les Figues, 2013); Molloy: The Flip Side (BlazeVox, 2012) and Night Scales: A Fable for Klara K (United Artists, 2010).
She is on the creative writing faculty at Wayne State University. Her play, Night Scales, a Fable for Klara K was produced at the Studio Theatre in Detroit under the direction of Aku Kadogo in 2010. She holds fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Kresge Foundation. Her latest project, Hotel des Archives, featuring verse “transcreations” from the French novels of Beckett, Genet and Duras is forthcoming from Station Hill Press, November 2018.