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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas from Black Lawrence Press (2013). Black Lawrence will also bring out Not Alone with My Dancing: Essays and Reviews next year.

Kurt Brown: An Appreciation

Readers of Kurt Brown's last volume, Time-Bound, will note how many poems ride along boundaries dividing what we already have and what we have already made familiar from what we have no access to. The poem knows, so to speak, what follows the last line and the last period. It is where that poem didn't reach, whether that was a matter of formally declining to disturb the silence or simply conceding its mystery. Kurt Brown's poems are "liminal," a word I learned in graduate school (and wish I could have left it there), and because they are so, they are aware of what they are not saying (and some take the opportunity to point this out) or cannot say, and in the course of hinting of this awareness, in effect say it—or something to the effect. It is, as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance would say, a most intriguing paradox. As Brown puts it "in The Hierophant of Hartford," his encomium to Wallace Stevens, "The objective world and the mind are separate, but one.// On points of paradox his poems danced." That Brown was drawn to boundaries and to the paradoxes that seem to destablilize fate seems all the more prescient in light of his sudden death last summer: "language circles itself looking for a way out/ a way of expressing what it can't." ("Knowledge and Ignorance")

Now with the posthumous compendium that is I've Come This Far to Say Hello: Poems Selected and New, we see the lifelong themes that rolled into place, the topoi and threaded interests, the islanded satisfactions of love, the delights that are proper to any man. The handsome, valedictory volume opens with "Cartology," a relatively straightforward but nevertheless telling piece that signals Brown's bias for a system of sense-making borders and grids, figures that seem, in their inevitable distortions, to leave geographic reference behind, in favor of imaginary destinations that have their own beauty as symbol:

                                    I love to run

      my fingers over blank provinces,
      those white quadrants the mind cannot
      enter, waiting for the birth of the first
      animal and the new flowers . . .

One is reminded right away of Bishop's "The Map," where a more painterly eye is drawn to the cartographer's colors than to the boundary lines (he was looking for intelligibility, which is to say, circumscribed knowledge; she was looking for home). Poets are so much more intelligent than we give them credit for. I would hope that Kurt Brown's passing would not encourage a too-hasty summation of his accomplishments, as his seemingly late publications would suggest might be the case. In our moment, poets are punished with indifference or condescension for the congeniality of their verses, as if the equilibrium of the poem—where that occurs—bespoke a talent insufficiently hooked up with the negativity of the poet's time. That negativity provided much of the contrastive mood in his penultimate book, No Other Paradise, what I take to be the high-water mark of his career. And yet it was, as he put it, "Such a bright thing/ to come from that dark water, that cold sea."

Kurt Brown was rather one of those poets who come along so perfectly attuned to the bias and feeling of the time (including the time of poetry) that his poems seem to be a kind of bellwether. Jane Kenyon was such a poet, as was, as is, in a more self-conscious way, Stephen Dunn—who wrote an insightful and affectionate preface to Brown's selected. Thomas Lux and Dorianne Laux are two more from the same cloth (he offers an homage to Lux in his spot-on impersonations of poet-friends in Sincerest Flatteries [2007]). His very Americanness, you might say, set him apart, though you would be hard put to find a poem that merely traveled on the charm of its cowlick.

In my review of No Other Paradise, I called attention to Brown's bias for naming and then for holding nouns to account. It was, I said, his version of elevating the nominal over the agency of verbs, as if verbs were not the linguistic darlings we know they are, animating and ordering the page, telling nouns how high to jump. But first there must be stuff, and also at the end of the day, as Whitman knew. And so it is understandable that inventory precedes consciousness, in a sense, and also of its finer version, awareness, followed by its more mammalian cousin, acknowledgment.

While Brown trades on the Boomer vibe, and his poems reflect both a realistic and attractively authentic discourse filled with the things, events, and telling personal stories from a representative life, he was also a seeker, encountering— yet skirting—death, including the dead-ends distributed impartially throughout the field of our endeavors:

      All poems say one thing: death is coming.
      Why else do they spruce you up,
      pale disheveled corpse—wizened, shy?

                                    ("What Poems Say")

As he says in "Knowledge and Ignorance," "language circles itself looking for a way out/ of expressing what it can't." It was Robert Creeley who remarked that he didn't write about what he knew, but rather wrote about what he didn't know. Brown comes up from the same muddle, where the life-and-death questions—the issues of time and feeling, of wonder and disappointment—unfurl and meet even the accommodated man, be he ambling along in his tennis shoes or feeling mortality's breath rising and falling in unison with intimacy:

      How often have you made love to someone
      because the Angel of Death passed by your door
      throwing an icy shadow over your life—
      just to let you know He's still there
      in case you forgot...

                                    ("Return of the Prodigals")

In Isaiah Berlin's familiar distinction, Brown was a hedgehog, that is, a creature who hugged to the One Big Thing he knew, but at the same time, he was a poet who was capable, in fact driven, to develop a dissident relationship, a push-back, to that knowledge:

      why not speak of what we know
      instead of dangling      always     above the ineffable

      on the opposite side     no address     no message

      what matters is that we have been here at all

      so they say      but what does the wind say

      after the men are gone     blowing through those empty cables

The ineffable, that staple of Romantic ideology, is offered to us in a number of flavors. For ages, it was unreconstituted nature, the physical makeup unreasoning and more often than not, unreasonable to our growing sense of purpose. In Protestant culture, it came to seem a way of designating, perhaps rationalizing, the silence of God. For Wittgenstein, it was that which cannot be said (and as Frank Ramsey remarked, if you can't say it you can't whistle it, either). For Rorty, following Marx, its unsayableness was so much the case, that he dismissed it as not worth the effort to try. Or for that matter, whistle. But Simon Critchley, by way of introducing a new generation to Jacob Bronowski's '70s TV series Civilization, sees the same ineffable as "uncertainty," a moment that enjoins us to acknowledge our humility before the fact that certainty isn't ours. Following up this roll of questers is Charles Wright, who approaches the verbally inexpressible this way: "Vision [...] is a mystic concept. Vision is close to wordlessness. One uses certain kinds of images to escape or transcend language. Like pointing a finger." And this is where Brown comes in.

                                                   But soon
      even he falls silent, until silence itself resounds
      more durable than any word.

                                       ("At the Retirement Home for Slang")

He is being wise who calls it merely practical. The mystery of the ordinary is the genius of the American poet: that old-time ineffable—about which the poet always writes (or points a finger) discloses not only itself, but the nouns that give it such shape as we can encounter it. You can call it knock-down, démodé, discount, hackneyed, whatever, but I'm talking not only about all the stuff that extends into space, but also what's invisible: memories, fantasies, dreams, "the past," subjectivity itself. Considering the nesting rituals of bluebirds, he comes close to referencing James Wright's bluebird jumping up and down, for whom the branch did not break, but unlike Wright, he demurs. Sister Bernetta Quinn, the Modernist scholar and poet, once told me vis-a-vis the poem, that "the branch was Christ. Jim didn't know that—but it was." You wonder what Brown would have made of such an assertion. Just as in Wright's poem, the circumstance refuses to exaggerate the hangover (call it the drag of the quotidian) just to curry favor with what Wittgenstein forbade us to speak. The fact is, life itself inclines us not to go on suicide missions in search of certainty, but to settle. The fact doesn't make the poet any less the seeker:

      I wouldn't call it the tree of Paradise,
      but it looks pretty good to her. I wouldn't say
      she was practical, or wise.
      I'm only telling you this to let you know
      what happens, sometimes,
      in a world we often look down on.
      And they're not fools. They know
      what they want, gathering what they can
      to fly into the face of their longing.


We can go deeper into Brown's poems than you might imagine at first read because the familiarity of place and personnel quickly impresses us as fitting material for a poem. But Brown doesn't stick the reader with one perspective, one party line, nor does he push insight, without finding that the edges come curling back:

      A man spends his whole life fishing in himself
      for something grand. It's like some lost lunker, big enough
      to break all records. But he's only heard rumors, myths,
      vague promises of wonder. He's only felt the shadow
      of something enormous darken his life. Or has he?


It would be a fallacy to read the poet's own death into his poems in any way other than his thematic discontinuities. Still, we read I've Come This Far to Say Hello: Poems Selected and New with intimations of prescience. Perhaps that's just the thing, after all, that can't be said, for not always, but in so many ways in poems peculiar to the most national of our bards (and I'm thinking here of poets as different as Stevens and Dickinson—both of whom are referenced here), death is that ineffable—not the silence of God, but the silence of the human: "All poems say the same thing: kiss your loved ones; say goodbye." ("What Poems Say")

And yet discontinuity dreams itself into being—or nonbeing. It's a good lesson for the American inside the living person; it takes the exceptionalism down a notch. But not without the dusty, nostalgic poof when absence directs its conductor's wand to presence and plays presence in all the registers of that word.

Only an American poet, I think, could have found in the antics of our homegrown Miles Gloriosus, the TV wrestler, such a celestial pantomime (in Stevens' phrase) as this:

                                                        For God
      has found them, sister, unannounced,
      and wrenched their bodies from
      their souls. And he has thrown them
      for a loop, knocked the breath
      out of their lungs, left them flattened

                                               and amazed.

                                     ("The Sitters")

I have omitted all that is specific and concrete in what I had hoped is a real, but what I fear is merely a glancing, appreciation of Kurt Brown's work. Let me sum up by saying I would like to read him in fifty years, to see how well he carried forward the truth about us. But by then, we will have joined him and settled once and for all the questions regarding the significance of that terra incognita that loomed where he was headed and into the face of that longing we seemed never to be without.


Thomas Lux

Thomas Lux
At the Blue Gates


Charles Simic

Charles Simic


Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn
On Kurt Brown...