RAPID TRANSITby Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
(City Lights Books, 2009)
Like cowgirls? Like flyboys? Like reading? Then you’ll really like Rebecca Brown. If you’re lucky, you already know about her. She’s published a dozen books since she hit the Pacific Northwest scene in the 80s and she’s won critical praise from every quarter: Newsday, the Times, the Chronicle. But she’s still underground enough that you get that luscious feeling you discovered her.
These essays mash autobiography with heritage in mischievous but poignant, painful prose. Imminently readable, unambiguously personal, and ultimately revelatory, each essay begins with a quote or two by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Brown traces the arc of our cultural identity from the original “City on the Hill” to a “suburb in the sand” (where the Beachboys lived in Hawthorne, California). Brian Wilson’s bleak childhood is juxtaposed with both Hawthorne’s and the author’s.
These high interest matrixes make for a galloping read. Coupled with an uncanny knack for finding connections, is a percussive, even mesmerizing rhythm. Information gives way to conjectural fancy. Orpheus, orifices, and Oreos are tied to ritual and sexuality in a chapter called “The Priests.”
In the last essay, Brown fuses her persona with Young Goodman Brown, identifying with her doomed doppelganger. Hawthorne’s grandfather was a Salem witch trial judge leaving a legacy of guilt.
We come from guilt—Brown lays bare our wounds and in doing so she kindles our hope for understanding.
Dina Von Zweck
The History of Words
(White Deer Books, 2009)
Dina Von Zweck is “biting down on fire” and sparks light the sky in her latest collection of poems. Gauging by her social milieu and accomplishments (20 books and plays), she’s led a fascinating life. Firsthand encounters with poets and artists dot the pages, as do reminiscences about an East Side childhood and meditations on the significance of life.
An occasional member of Warhol’s retinue, there are the “directions to fame and fortune” we expect. The Absolut Citron party at Bloomingdale’s portrays the author as a vital, sensual, and actually sensible woman who advises her friend not to shoplift.
An inventive and knowledgeable craftsperson, Von Zweck knows how to find a “Silver-washed fritillary” butterfly in Walt Whitman’s beard. In “Middlesex” she depicts a young maiden’s private parts: “Between hairless legs, the fiddlehead fern… the nub of truth.”
A musical ear also extends into shamanistic and astrological symbolism. Invoking “Diana, the Huntress” and the Archer, she aims her arrow at the marrow, the deep and juicy part of life’s mystery: “Framing eternity, targeting infinity.” She unremittingly stalks an ideal version of herself in metaphors of an “emerging and rosy, transparent goddess.”
Occasionally her scenes and conceits conflagrate into italics where they reach a higher, breathless register and the goddess’s voice takes over. “Dance into writing / dance into Absolute Zero.” Von Zweck smelts meaning to forge beauty.
The Black Automaton
(Fence Books, 2009)
Fierce and furious, Douglas Kearney comes out swinging. His various techniques ripple and shudder against one another. Whether deconstructing the “Chitlin’ Circuit” or sampling hip-hop, mining the cultural landscape or asserting a personal voice, his innovations are matched by a formal precocity.
A pugilistic pulchritude is wrung from an urban backdrop with delta roots. “I will punch a car-sized hole in the beryl of autumn.” Uncle Remus meets Disney in a suite of eight bluesy Floodsongs, as Kearney enlists swamp critters to provide uplifting eulogies and sardonic drinking ditties.
“Canal Rats’ Chantey” is a concrete poem with diagonal lines and a seething cluster of larger type balled up in the middle. Water, rather than signifying salvation, becomes a disquieting undercurrent that recalls the terrible ocean voyage of African-Americans’ ancestors and more recently the devastation of Katrina.
“SWIMCHANT FOR NIGGER MER-FOLK” resurrects the ghastly “Vermillion Ship” that brought millions. Humor and horror shuffle on deck, bound by ripped conventions. Spirituals are convulsed into piteous refrains. The “Management” posts a ludicrous note: “DO NOT BLEED IN THE SEA. THE STAINS WON’T WASH OUT.”
Versed in the warrior stance of Amiri Baraka and the neo-hoodoo lingo of Ishmael Reed, Kearney’s lyric edge is razor-fine. He’s also a librettist — the poems sing, lilt, rant and roll with a chorus of haunting voices. “& da hits keep comin’.”