Sonic Sonnegrams from Out of This "Blunderfuck" Broken Easy:
A Look at Dave Brinks' The Caveat Onus
Born in 1967 and raised in New Orleans, Dave Brinks is editor of YAWP: a Journal of Art & Poetry, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press, director of 17 Poets! Literary & Performance Series, and founder of the New Orleans School for the Imagination. Since 1996 he has produced and directed workshops, readings, performances and festivals celebrating the works of poets, artists, and musicians throughout the New Orleans community. Brinks' own poetry has been published in dozens of magazines, newspapers, journals and anthologies throughout the U.S. and abroad. His works also have aired on NPR's All Things Considered and PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Brinks' latest book is The Caveat Onus: Complete Poem Cycle (Black Widow Press June 25 2009) www.blackwidowpress.com.
Review by Adam Peltz
In The Caveat Onus: Complete Poem Cycle (Black Widow Press, June 25 2009), New Orleans poet Dave Brinks has built three books and Coda, each with 52 13-line meditations called sonnegrams and including notes of guidance, each poem working from top to bottom and bottom to top, as an envelope, offering a superimposition of ideas, images, and voices, from first line to last, second line to penultimate line, and so forth. Or the poems function as a magician's bloom from the inside of a cosmic top-hat turned out. Each poem contains a central vein or "spine", the seventh line running through the collection, a river, a deluge, "a vanishing point". Each poem serves as two hexagrams within groupings of hexagrams that compose one of a number of animal-named sections in correspondence with the Mayan calendar's 13 moons. (And each poem grows punctuation not with the formal symbols of grammar, such as commas, but in their absence, committing to sound, image, meter, idea, and line breaks. From her Paris perch, Gertrude Stein believed commas were overused, anyway.) The entire work is dedicated to the poet's children Mina and Blaise, whose activities and words frequent the poems. The Caveat Onus is a welcome creation among the rubble and half-assed attempts at making art out of this broken city; Brinks' voice proves refreshing, innovative, and challenges us to do the same in our daily survival.
Of note, the books also serve as an index and offer an introduction to a number of names in contemporary poetry, a number of whom are local, and to which many of these meditations are dedicated: Anselm Hollo, Andrei Codrescu, Bernadette Mayer, Bill Lavender, Niyi Osundare, Bill Myers and Gina Ferrara , among others.
In Book One, a rich pre- and post-Katrina energy and perspective of sometimes haunted night visions, morning magnolias, and the place of the poet to deliver news, autobiography, and vision through language that takes chances. The reader quickly becomes acquainted with Brinks' sonnegram form, always one line shy of a sonnet, through which the speaker grapples with various recurring and growing day and night sights and remembrances.
As well, the form may refer to an image of what exists underneath, as Brinks explores childhood memory, love and union. He balances on the stepping-stones and songs of language where "at ["the paths"] center is a form/ of story-telling/ a kind of ceremony latin" (meditation six), "the 5am of birds" (meditation eleven), and to a legacy of existence in "ad astra" (meditation forty-eight) to the stars. The speaker examines the process of writing the book, of going through the days "my eyes have the patience of sleep" (meditation 51), and he follows his children as they play with a red wagon among what will become the wreckage and rebuilding of New Orleans. And the title of the series comes partially exposed: Of the Cave at Onus, "a voice speaks to you before entering you'll be asked to drink/from the headwaters of that loneliness" (meditation forty-six).
Continually informed by his sociological and inner environments, his dream world, and the moonlight, naturally Book Two grows autobiographical in its explicit post-Katrina content but moreover, in its speaker's struggle to make sense of "the blunderfuck," a potent Brinksian use of the slang, while following the mis-visions of "the car in front of me/ dragging an upside down cat/ and it turned out to be a plastic bag" (meditation sixty-four). The speaker retraces the wake of boats, the scum line from floodwater that "went past the eaves" (meditation eighty-one). He recalls "those who are only sleeping/ like the memory of so many/ drowned fish," and he writes to "you," to those who have lost, who are lost.
Additionally, the poems strike political at "the great talking-monkey/ that lives inside our television/ delivering his State of the Union address" (meditation sixty-one). A little later, "it's Convention Center Blvd/ there's a mother holding a newborn/ saying he barely wakes up anymore." Meanwhile, the reader hits upon coffin flies under the same sun, and tries for little moments of beauty such as in "that white plastic daisy/ Jonathan planted/ in the center of the yard" (meditation eighty-one). The moment may be even tenderer for those of us closest to the surrounding circumstances of house guts and the stink of neglected engineering turned into the death of neighbors and their city blocks. (Of note: In Beat and New York School tradition, Brinks often refers to specific real people in his poems. If I am correct, "Jonathan" is local poet and storyteller Jonathan Kline; therefore, the poem reaches a small and specific circle of folks and artists in record and in honor.)
And still, the moon rises, for, the poet's "supper is moonshine" (nice wordplay) and with his children, his wife, and his few friends - the moon remains a kind of bittersweet after-the-storm savior. Brinks writes in the Postscript: "the only significant light that New Orleans would experience after sundown came from the moon."
One challenge to the reader may be not to fixate only on the spine, the central and seventh line of each poem, but to absorb, to endure, the larger poem and expanding vision. Inevitably, when falling into the vein, another reader's challenge becomes clearly following the flow between, backwards and forwards, through the poems, the direction with which Brinks plays in his deliberate omission of punctuation and capitals for a freer flow, varied emphasis, and possibility of time and meanings.
The speaker shifts from his "sorghum" body and an "in-grown eye" to existing as "an uncooked egg dripping alive... [that] wished for the moon" and "a monkey born like all others" in Book Three. But he has gone back to what he calls "the great lie/ of biology," "a coloring book," and "fireflies at close range" (meditations one hundred and five, one hundred and six, one hundred and forty-five). The speaker seems tired, tentative, caught in the slaughtered remains of New Orleans, at the human "epidemic" with "a strange music" - resigned, almost: "love that went love that never came/ it's all over it's not over" (meditation one hundred and seven). A bitterness rises towards diners' eyes averted from the city-wide tragedy. At times, it seems the poet has written meditations in other voices, for other voices explicitly noted, such as for his wife Megan, among those, in the tenderly passionate one hundred and eighth meditation.
The speaker visits the ocean and continues to observe horizons of different colors. We remember the structure Brinks sends off. A poem does not require reading from first line to last line, the downtrodden can be upturned, and the spine can be touched and ridden, leading to hope in the stars. In a future or a beforehand we read: Among "some chemicals in the ground the disappearance of wetlands between a Hazmat suit" and perhaps in mixed company - "begin first with laughter" (meditation one hundred and thirty-four), for in a poem we discover that "maybe there's a Walt Whitman in every backyard" (meditation one hundred and eight).
Overall, to me these days, I find in meditation one hundred and three, almost right in the middle of Brinks' expansive work, one of my favorite two lines from the entire collection:
"and like every good magician / I'm just happy to get out of bed"
Within all of the spirit, the shamanic imagery and dreaminess, the numerical and animal connections, the constant moon hiding and giving its face, the energy of a pre- and busted hand of parishes, and an unavoidable surreal and honest autobiographical bend within those elements, philosophies, and realities, those two lines boil something down into an experience so human and visceral, stewing, aching. At the heart of that particular poem from where those lines surface, as a recurrent thread in opposition or compliment to the moon, remains this observation: "today it's the same sun." And that can make for one glorious and revealing moonshine hangover that is this New Orleans life.
Finally, of the night-world and water, these beautiful lines must be read out loud:
there's a whole galaxy
lit up with fireflies
where our ancestors evolve into trees
water can teach you many things
this one looks like a Chinese butterfly
(Book Three, meditation one hundred and forty-nine)
The burden of proof, of life, warns. Whether the poet "writes to kill time," (meditations four and fifty-two) and make sense out of from where we've arrived and why and what we've done to ourselves and how comets move the way they do, in part the place of the poet remains: To observe through fresh language, to cry out with interesting sound, to commune, to keep on, to plant a fake daisy beneath a faded flag, as the poet or his speaker "tears pages from a book" (meditation one hundred and fifty six). Perhaps always he does this "to please you" (meditation fifty-two). And always for you.
Adam Peltz is contributing writer to NOLAFUGEES (www.nolafugees.com), an online magazine which reports on the continuing recovery of the New Orleans community, and where this review first appeared. Peltz' own poetry has been published in Ellipsis, and he received his MFA from the University of New Orleans.
The Caveat Onus: Complete Poem Cycle, 240 pgs, paperback ISBN-13: 978-0981808840 Black Widow Press (June 25, 2009)