Kurt Brown's Future Ship
Red Hen Press 2007; Paper; 84 pages; $17.85
by Marion Brown
As a teacher, Kurt Brown insists on clarity, which he stunningly delivers in his new book of poems, Future Ship. In an introductory poem that serves as an ars poetica, the poet characterizes his work, literally the marks of a child
the story I've begun,
a child's wild scripture,
uminated ("Mountain Pond")
The title poem, "Future Ship," follows, defining the enterprise in unrelenting lines:
The deeper we move into the future, the more we
disappear into the past,
that ghost ship
manned by family and friends, whole neighborhoods,
or hunks of them like waxen combs broken off ....
The blinking eye, like a camera shutter, brings back dead-end kids or an aunt the poet "hardly knew" who has died across country and "enters my head, lies with me an hour in the dark." Throughout, the camera eye captures unlooked-at faces and brings them home.
Part I ends with another ars poetica, unusually plain-spoken, called "What Poems Say": "All poems say one thing: death is coming." The ship is identified with its human cargo, "its one note: throbbing like an organ." Its destination has been spoken out loud by our demystifying poet. Here is what we were doing as we moved into the future imperceptibly as on a huge liner that makes speed and will pass. We leave the dock decked out in dark suits.
Long lines or short, Brown tells a good story, often in a gritty setting, some in the smoky air of bars and one in the thick, choking atmosphere of the painting room in a small factory before OSHA stepped in ("lung-coating miasmas of lacquer and oil."). His descriptions indicate class, educated or working, cared for or neglected. Though the poems are grounded in a man's point of view, the poet imagines with tact the appeal of "the taint of danger" in "Tatooed Girls" — "who you/ belong to ...matters most, who claims your vagrant heart" — like a rock lyric, but the unexpected "vagrant" is intriguing.
"White Collar Crime" is central, literally and emotionally. In lines that suggest Brown's "flattery" "Of C.K. Williams" in his chapbook Sincerest Flatteries, "White Collar Crime," concerns an attack. Here, however, the poet is the attacker, not the accosted. Most poignantly, the action not only threatens but produces a crime instigated by the reprehensible acquaintance, "friend" for short. This friend sets the poet up and is at the poet's side up to the instant, then disappears when he attacks, a psychologically and morally compelling account of evil, outside you until it is you.
The poems of Future Ship are deeply American. Though I like to say I do not know what that means, I know American when I see it, which I do in the mixture of work, rock 'n' roll, road trips, cars inhabited or parked outside hotels, bar scenes with a down-and-out football pro or just your ordinary has-beens, and the settings, Texas, Montana, Appalachia. You feel Brown's comprehensive reach in "8mm," which catalogues everything Americans captured with their once ubiquitous movie cameras. And in "America 1968," Brown's meditation on the Vietnam War. Maybe it's also American that the poet not articulate what the war meant to him. Although "nattily dressed" Easter celebrants contrast with "flesh... in ribbons," I miss the consciousness of that, admittedly, numbing time. I suspect Brown has more to say than he does in this poem about not speaking. What one finds in most of Future Ship is a poet who wants to notice, acknowledge and comprehend it all.
Going back way past C.K. Williams, I also hear the long line of Whitman and his profoundest concerns: "What is a man anyhow? What am I? And what are you?" These questions from Leaves of Grass could be the rationale for Brown's portraits of random characters of his growing up, his gathering-in of folks, a catalogue of Americans updated from Whitman's. Brown renders them with that affection.
Humor and wit are everywhere, but not the whimsicality of, say, "At the Retirement Home for Slang" in Brown's earlier More Things in Heaven and Earth. This Kurt Brown offers sobriety to confront life's trouble in language taken from life but artfully heightened. "Serious" opens the final part with a self-portrait in stanzas that are snapshots of moments, stanzas composed of seemingly endless lines, the prosody of "White Collar Crime." The poet regrets having used "humor as a shield." Now he confronts despair in an image of forebears in concentration camps who circle like figures in a kermess painted by Breughel, madly driven to dance, "trees around them black as clotted blood."
In the arresting final stanzas, which take place in a bar, a falling away of self through "a conviction of failure so pervasive and acute it caused a fissure/in the wall of self-pity" leads to an unbearable apprehension of human suffering. The concept is so heavy even the extended poetic line can hardly bear it. At the end, the poet declares "my irrepressible foolishness" "a gauge, an unfailing measure of how very serious I really am."
Future Ship is dedicated to Alwin Robert Brown, the poet's father, and three poems written for and about him reward close reading. "Goodnight, Texas," a road trip through the Panhandle, "this cowboy's dream of heaven" turns out to be a recovery mission. The ironic declaration "we've found each other" offers slim comfort in the desolation of "far from home." By economic means, Brown packs the enormity of loss between father and son, "never close," though now united on "calcified earth." "The Race" takes off when the middle-aged father senses ridicule in the boy's attitude toward his father's body. The son's attitude modulates tragically in "Diabetes," one of the final poems. Brown indeed achieves seriousness in confronting his father's
both legs amputated , surprisingly gone. Already there
were bruises on his arms,
that presaged more corruption....
Trying to get past the useless body to fathom the "hidden life" "a life that's hidden even from the person living it," the poet goes on to wonder if "memories could feed" on the "carrion" body. The final image does liberate the father, appropriately for a former master of a merchant ship: "little anchors on his tie floating freely on a field of blue."
So imagery, characters and story pull together in a place navigated by ships and cars. Well, maybe three portraits in a row of guys in their cars is one too many. (Still, I learned "suicide knob" and much besides.) Future Ship is a book to read, and reread, with close attention and with pleasure.
Marion Brown writes stories and poems. Born on Long Island, she has lived with her husband and children in New York City and Brussels, Belgium. Now she divides her time between the Adirondack Mountains and Westchester County, New York, where she volunteers as a Master Gardener. She studied English literature at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University and has taught composition and worked on Wall Street.