Taking the Occasion by Daniel Brown. Ivan R. Dee, 2008.
Reviewed By: John Foy
In a market flooded with poetry, and so much of it so poorly made, you need a reason to pick up a new book. Why waste time? Well, there are a few good reasons to look into Daniel Brown’s book, Taking the Occasion. His poems have at least three things going for them. They don’t parade in front of you trying to impress you as Poems, they are self-deprecating, and they come across as relaxed and spontaneous. The best don’t even sound like poems. But they are. And they aren’t really relaxed at all. On closer look, they’re wound as tight as a Marine with an unsheathed Bowie knife. Another thing a reader notices right away is that Brown’s poems have subjects-they are about something, which will make him unpopular in certain quarters. Furthermore, he makes no special claims for his language or for his poet’s perception of the world. He draws his water from the village well and drinks unceremoniously from the same tin cup as the rest of us.
[private]The first lines of the opening poem, “Missing It,” could almost be the beginning of a joke. Like an efficient overture, they introduce the book’s casual tone. But quickly you realize that this isn’t a joke. Without drifting far from the familiar, the poem leads you into something disorienting and resonant:
The thing about the old one about
The tree in the forest and nobody’s around
And how it falls maybe with a sound,
Maybe not, is you throw the part out
About what there isn’t or there is,
And the part of it that haunts is still there.
Still there in that the happening, the clear
Crashing there, still encompasses
Everyone condemned to missing it
By being out of the immediate
Vicinity. Out of it the way
You’re out of all vicinities but one
All the time-excepting when you’ve gone
Out of all vicinities to stay.
This warrants a double-take. You’ve gone from the unpromising adage about the sound a tree makes when it falls in the woods to a conclusion about isolation and numinous events occurring beyond us. Like Breughel’s Icarus falling out of the sky, there are things that happen whether we are there to see them or not. And it’s likely we won’t be there because, as the poem says, we are doomed to always being only in our own “vicinity,” condemned to missing what’s beyond us until we are gone for good, “gone / out of all vicinities to stay.” All of this is said with a dime-store lexicon made up of the simple, dull words that Yeats favored, but Brown gets the most out of them. The final iambic phrase is unassuming in its plainness-but how much pressure it puts on the final word! “Stay” is a threadbare word, generally meaning to remain, and here it stands near the slightly fancier word “vicinity,” but suddenly, because of its syntactical placement and its context, it has to carry the huge meaning of going away forever. By putting rhetorical pressure on simple words for maximum effect, Brown manages to say things that sound not like poems but like things said in real conversations that actually matter. Except that he says them in well-crafted sonnets.
Most poetry read in public is tedious, either because it is blighted by the Poet’s Disease (portentous and self-important) or because it is verbose and inconsequential. Brown’s poetry is neither. It is well suited to public readings. The unpremeditated quality of the language is what makes it so. In its register and rhythm, it’s the style of speech used by a person in a room talking with other people. So much so that I wager you could recite some of these poems to a friend in a crowded subway and not feel embarrassed. That’s how natural they feel on the voice. It’s a pleasure to hear his poems read out loud-one I’m happy to have had.
His poems do well in public because Brown has the timing of a good comic, who, like the poet, has to use exactly the right words at exactly the right time. And both have to speak in an idiom that partakes of the language we use every day. Brown respects this common ground and doesn’t shy away from the comical. The humor in his work catches you off guard and lulls you into thinking that you’re listening to a loose anecdote told by a friend. But the seemingly baggy, comfortable language masks a rigorous adherence to form.
The sonnet “At Ease,” both humorous and deadly serious, is put together with the precision of a Swiss clock, though it never betrays the difficulty that must have gone into its making. Its unforced phrasing is at ease within the matrix of lines and sentences, showing no distortion from the pressures of the sonnet form.
It’s only a theory, and only a theory’s what
It’ll probably remain, but were I ever
To get involved with somebody a lot
Taller than me, her being so would deliver
The two of us from the tension that attends
On the woman’s being only a little taller.
No point in my attempting to make amends
For so great a differential (after all, her
Chin is at the level of my pate)
By some technique-say, straightening up-or other;
A futile effort she’d reciprocate
By slouching? Wearing flats? Why even bother?
What is there for a pair so disparate
In something but to be at ease with it?
The presentation is plain, the tone warm, the delivery comic. But what he’s saying is serious: finding a way of being at ease with the discordant. In life as in the art of expressing thoughts, parts are often at odds, but this poem, in its evenly sustained logic, implies that differences can be accepted and brought into balance through clear, orderly expression. The disparities he speaks of are softened by the perfect fit between his language and his subject matter. This poem shows how Brown has internalized the “sentence sounds” that Frost famously recommended.
If the poem “At Ease” is a veiled ars poetica, “The Pass” is an overt comment on what the artist tries to do. What does Brown select as his point of comparison? A bullfighter? A soprano? A jazz pianist? He chooses a Greyhound bus driver, one who executes a pass on the open highway “With the smooth perfection a professional / Alone commands.” It’s enough to make Phillip Levine green with envy. It should-Brown is a better poet because, like a genuine workman, he understands his tools and uses all of them. As the bus sails at speed into the left lane to pass a car, Brown admires a “shifting to the left so gradual / You wouldn’t know it’s happening at all . . .” and goes on:
. . . A maneuver as a whole,
This pass of his, that doesn’t read as one
In the sense of seeming a discrete event;
That rather strikes the traveler as a thing
So well subsumed within the traveling
As to be essentially inevident.
Perhaps the word “subsumed” is a key to understanding Brown’s art. The formal artifice, like his iambic pentameter here, is not like a stencil or an encrustation. You often can’t feel that it’s there. It is so completely subsumed within the speaking “as to be essentially inevident.” It controls and inflects the speaking, but the two are in such balance that you never see the guy-lines go taut.
Many of Brown’s poems are grounded in Christian ideas and iconography. This is not surprising because he is a classically trained musician and composer schooled in the Western tradition, which is essentially Christian. Whether it’s prayer, Ockham’s Razor, St. Catherine, or the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, he’s on familiar ground. He manages big themes about God, suffering and mortality by going small and relying on brevity and understatement, which he applies like a scalpel.
In “The Birth of God,” two proto homo sapiens emerge at dawn (“a her and him, / though maybe not”) from a cave near the ones at Lascaux, having made love during the night:
. . . The pair
Has borne the bliss they share
Out into the bright.
Where silently they stand
Thanking, hand in hand
Before the light.
Their gratitude is truly
New beneath the duly
A gratitude that so
Wants a place to go
It authors one.
Brown’s method is to draw large conclusions from fleeting instances of perception, using common language that is lovingly, carefully arranged by a musician and a smart man. It’s fair to say that there is something Larkinesque in his intelligible, unadorned, funny-sad work, though he is surely more sanguine than Larkin, as in the poem above, and below. Here is a bare, stripped-down poem about Joseph:
As Seen at the Uffizi
An audience of shepherds
Looks on adoringly
As Mary gently bounces
The babe upon her knee.
To Mary’s side stands Joseph.
He isn’t looking on.
To judge from his expression
He’s wishing he were gone
Well up into the mountains
That rim the little town
To dwell amongst the shepherds
Till things have settled down.
The understatement is just right. We know things will never settle down-they haven’t for two millennia. The locked-in regularity of the trimeter creates a playful, comic effect, inviting us to envision Joseph as an unwilling father wanting to escape to the den. However, there are serious implications in imagining that Joseph may have wanted to run away. The poignancy of this is signaled as the voice wobbles at the start of line 9, where the steady metric beat is broken and becomes momentarily tremulous in the spondee that begins the line: “Well up into the mountains . . .” It’s a sonically nuanced moment created entirely through metric variation. At that moment, the poem breaks out of its cartoonish simplicity to take the breath away and suggest that there’s really a lot at stake here.
“Among the Better Blessings” is a short poem on physical decline. It relies again on understatement, but there is also a logical twist that is simple but counter-intuitive, proposing that being aware of your own deliquescence is actually a blessing.
Among the better blessings there’s
The blessedness of knowing
That vision, skin, body, brain
Have all started going.
For how it is with death is how
It is with anything:
Easier to accept when it’s
This poem, without any ornamentation but some simple rhymes, reminds one of Larkin in its bleak compression and simplicity. It exerts minimal effort in commenting on something profound. Brown is good at being affable and charitable, but he is also good when he goes on the attack. Here he comes with the Bowie knife:
Epitaph for Deconstruction
A puff of wind that really shouldn’t
Have blown so many so far astray-
And yet not anyone who wouldn’t
Have come to nothing anyway.
Just a quick in-and-out of the blade-the coup de grâce. Yvor Winters is surely smiling in his grave. One of Brown’s virtues is that he knows not to go on too long. He can, though, write longer, narrative poems, like “Facing It” and “Love Story,” which is slightly more than five pages long. These longer poems use variable line lengths but are still governed by formal, structural requirements. They show that he can sustain a tight, interesting story line without going flabby. If this book has a fault, it is perhaps that Brown has not allowed himself the luxury of longer poems. Clearly, he can do it. Considering the craftsman that he is, it could just be a question of finding time to write longer poems well. That’s what to look for in the future. The poems of his current mode tend to be shorter, unified poems that are rhetorically whole. There’s no wandering off, no dreamy effusions, no taking his eye off the target.
A significant biographical fact is that Brown lives and works outside of academia and the MFA circuit. He is not constrained by those environments. With no one to cater to there, and no professional need to chloroform his work with fashionable theories, all that’s left is to buckle down and focus on the basics. His poems are essentially human poems. They are meant not to confound or mystify or impress but to say things well and be understood. He makes it look easy. This little book of poems is worth more-it says more and teaches more, by example-than a hundred buckets of theory.[/private]