Sunday, February 22, 2009

Poetry That Seizes the Heart and the Funny Bone in a Single Gasp: Adrian Blevins

David Orr's article in today's New York Times bemoans the lack of (identifiable) "Great Poets" in today's writing pantheon. It's worth reading; my husband Dave and I heard Donald Hall and Liam Rector say much the same thing a couple of years ago at Plymouth State University (NH). I don't buy the premise -- I think that in 25 years, there will be a handful of today's poets that are consistently held up as the finest, deepest, most rewarding to read. But our vision of that time may be fuzzy.

While we're waiting for the short list, I have to confess that for the past three nights, I've been reading in bed THE BRASS GIRL BROUHAHA by Adrian Blevins -- and I alternated laughing and nodding (which isn't easy on a heap of pillows) and saying to Dave, "This is a GREAT book of poetry."

THE BRASS GIRL BROUHAHA won the 2004 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and with it, publication by Ausable. This fall, Wesleyan will bring out the next Blevins collection -- of which I can't write at the moment, but I confess I had a sneak peek and I loved it. So I had to read Blevins's first collection.

The first two poems grabbed my attention right away -- one that actually mentioned stretchmarks, and the next one, "Life and Art," begins with "This is the main story about how I hate my father. I tell you now in case I forget / or in case the stars plunge and he dies in an alley in Greece / or while licking the mongoose bristles of his brush / or while dipping their iota hairs into the thick yellow of an egg." Wow!

But it was the third one, "The Famous Men Who Made Me," that I knew I'd never forget, with its intense opener: "While I made love in the mental hospital with a boy who had a fine-looking face / but might have been psychotic, my father taught his protégées to be risqué." I'm not kidding: It gets wilder and more graphic from here. Now, just in case I've horrified you, let me remind you (and myself) that the "I" in a poem isn't always autobiographical. And the way the reader relates to the poem doesn't declare that the reader has the same experiences being described, either.

The thing is, Blevins can paint the situations with a clear bluntness that doesn't whine, doesn't shout, just shines a calm bright light on the confusions and catastrophes of life. Whether it's how we grow up or the mixed feelings around ardently raising our kids to be full adults, Blevins names the unspeakable and in so doing, says we're not as lost as we might otherwise fear.

She takes the personal to the universal in swift strokes, as at the end of "The Famous Men Who Made Me":
...I think of male accomplishment and lechery and loneliness

as if I'm sitting on a bar stool and all around me everyone is dying
from wanting to be noticed and loved and kissed and held and praised,

which is just wishing for wishing's own senseless sake, which is just wishing
for everything we think our fathers meant for us to know we would never get.

Blevins offers stunning openings, outrageous middles, and end lines that punch: "Are you the bird you know you are and is rage your middle name?"

She also paints "women's lib" as the gritty and necessary thing that it's become, without walking away from being enmeshed in a many-gendered world. Sex in her pages is a powerful force whose direction depends entirely on who and with what knowledge it's being wielded. In "The Magnificence of Rain," she writes, "I wanted men to beg me to take them back / even if I had not abandoned them yet. I wanted them to take me for a wife / so I could decorate their cabins with myself in the kitchen baking bread // or myself nude on the couch with my hair as fierce as slaughter."

Look also for the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500, the PTSD of knowing a child who's been murdered, a long wrestling with what America is (or can be), and a hard clear look at the nature of evil -- and thus of goodness and strength.

For the next few months, this is the only Blevins collection available, so what better time to seize and enjoy it? And I'll let out one small hint for the next one: between her first book publication and her second, Blevins moved from Roanoke, Virginia, to the snowy state of Maine. Count on a fresh viewpoint -- best appreciated by savoring the one she's already presented in this winner of a first book.


Patrick said...

//She takes the personal to the universal in swift strokes, as at the end of "The Famous Men Who Made Me":

...I think of male accomplishment and lechery and loneliness...//

Always interesting to see what other readers like. Your selections didn't have the same effect on me, but then I strongly favor a different sort of poetry.

(I also will be responding to Orr's article this evening at my own blog...)

I discovered your site while posting Ron's "Vermont Poetry Newsletter" at my own site. What a great blog!

I'm glad to know about it and will be a regular. And I'll be adding you to my blogroll. My traffic has been skyrocketing. Hopefully some will come your way.


Beth Kanell said...

I'm glad that "working poets" are responding to Orr's article ... and glad to have your comment here, Patrick. I paid a visit to your blog, and it's great. Keep writing!