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Whence It All Began
Once, when there was only one word for people, and it was the same word as for the earth, I was human, with a body for a body, skin for skin, teeth for teeth, and hair. Hair everywhere. After I left a place where I had slept, hair grew from the soil. But I was not afraid of Hair, just of the things Hair wanted me to do. Hair told me to climb to the top of a hollow tree and jump. Hair told me that I would fly—all the vibrating little hairs vibrating, carrying me on the wind. Hair told me to make love with my cousin the poplar. I knew this was wrong, to make the trees have children. They would walk the land day and night on two legs saying, “Am I a tree? Am I a human? Am I a human tree?”
So I tore out my hair. I tore it out in handfuls. I threw it on the ground. I sprinkled salt on it. Hair growled. Hair wept. Hair promised never to flagellate Hair with my hair. I stood there, looking at Hair dying in the grass. I knew Hair spole lies. Hair would never change because Hair was Hair. I ran away. Hair fould me again. But only some of Hair could tolerate me. The rest burned when it tried to root in me, leaving upon my skin scars the shape of crescent moons. Now I am naked, nearly nearly naked, Hair hiding in my armpit and groin and crotch. And they ask me, those last survivors of Hair, what I cannot ever know--”Are you hair? Are you human? Are you human hair?”
Parable of Wood and Hole
I was born in a watery hole in the woods, although my mother claims it was an island of woods surrounded by water. My father is napping in front of the Vikings game right now, so he’s unavailable for consultation. Not that he’d recall. The knee would be a terrible place to give birth from, what with the hard shell and the constant bending and occasional kneeling.
Just yesterday I knelt when trying to expel a lumpy bump of air caught in my throat, another bad place to birth from. A baby born from the knee would constantly cry to go outside and worm its way up a tree, and then cry to be lowered down, and then cry to be hoisted up for the wind to tease. Some sharks prefer tea and honey to blood, and some give birth to feathers.
After a few hours, the knee aches and shakes, and pretty soon little blue-gray bugs start coming our and there’s a war going on in a country where homes resemble garages. Some of these garage-homes hide weapons made from broken electric can openers and discarded typewriters. The enemy knows that to break the back you attack the knee, thus the waterous holes in the trees.
Parable of the White House Replica
I can still remember the day a cloud of ammonia covered the White House and I was called in to pull the President out of the bathtub. I eat a boiled egg and an unboiled egg each day to heighten my balance. It must be difficult to have to walk through the White House naked, even if they let you keep on your socks and shoes. I couldn’t find anyone in the presidential bathtub, nothing except the mannequin leg once worn by Martha Washington.
It was a good thing they had a spare copy of the President down the basement. All they had to do was send a few volts through him and he was waving his hand and signing his name to everything within reach. Sometimes I add a dash of powdered reindeer antlers to my eggs. Then I start singing “Don’t Fence Me In.” You can still see some of the presidential signature, if you look carefully, behind my right ear. Sort of looks like it says Killallamoeba.
Then the President’s wife, or someone dressed like her, snuck in without paying to see the exhibit of the broccoli replica of the White House. It was no bigger than the harp used by Henry Kissenger when he played “Who Do You Love?” with Bo Diddley. Sometimes I eat just the boiled egg, but I make sure I eat a raw eggs within the next forty-eight hours. I never wash behind my ears. I can’t bear to erase our disappearing American history.
-from You Don't Know What You Don't Know
BIO: John Bradley grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts; Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; Massapequa and Lynbrook, New York; and Wayzata, Minnesota. He received his MA from Colorado State University and his MFA from Bowling Green State University. His book Love-In-Idleness, a collection of persona poems set in Fascist Italy, won the Washington Prize. More recent books include Add Musk Here, Terrestrial Music, and War on Words. He has received an Illinois Arts Council grant and a previous NEA Fellowship in Poetry. He has been teaching writing at Northern Illinois University since 1992. He lives in DeKalb, Illinois, with his wife, Jana, and cat, Luna.
What We Mean When We Say Hair, a Review of John Bradley’s You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know by Susan Azar Porterfield
Nothing could be truer: we can’t know what we don’t know, certainly. Which makes the title of John Bradley’s book, appropriated from a quotation by John Negroponte, Ambassador to Iraq and Director of National Intelligence under Bush, both absurd as well as profound. Same could be said of the prose poems housed in this 2009 prize-winning volume of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition.
Of course, nothing is really absurd here, except perhaps our expectation of what poetry is and does or our assumptions about order and the slicing and dicing of language into discrete chunks. Bradley, whose work in draft form I’ve had occasion to see, reminds us of how ironical the cuts can be. “Whence It All Began,” for example, storytells an idyllic time before all this faddle by taking us to a place we’ve never been.
Once, when there was only one word for people, and it was the same word as for/the earth, I was human, with a body for a body, skin for skin, teeth for teeth, and/hair. Hair everywhere. (3)
As we will come to know, Hair, as usual, causes trouble, commanding that the speaker mate with its “cousin the poplar” (3). And there we are, acknowledging the fate of division, though not its fatality. Bradley doesn’t bemoan a lost, cosmic oneness. He images a scenario that’s just as feasible as some Edenic paradise, except that his is playful and contains Hair as wildcard, But here’s the deal—there doesn’t seem to be any godhead to guide us. All the tough questions, we have to answer ourselves: “Are you hair?/Are you human? Are you human hair?” (3).
We can’t know, of course, because we don’t know. This is where parable comes in handy, and they abound in this book. In “Parable of Wood and Hole,” for instance, we’re told a tale about a miraculous birth, one with many of the tags we’ve come to expect. There’s the virginal birth (“My father is napping in front of the Vikings/game right now, so he’s unavailable for consultation. Not that he’d recall.”); there’s the difficult and unusual birth itself (“I was born in a watery hole in the woods, although my mother claims it was an/island of woods surrounded by water.”) (7).
Wise to the ways of parable, we know that what we’re being told stands in for something that we’re not being told. Why not just reveal outright the lesson we’re supposed to get? Because intuition trumps reason. Because analogy claims kinship with absolutely everything. Because poetry, no matter how much it physically resembles prose, is still poetry. When the speaker claims that the “knee would be a terrible place to give birth from” and that he “knelt when trying to expel a lumpy bump of air caught” in his throat, “another bad place to birth from,” he may be suggesting the difficulty of prayer or of sermon, of original thought or of poetry itself (7). What I find intriguing, however, is how parable, because it’s indirect, supposes that its readers or listeners will give birth too, in other words, that we will create narrative even when, logically, it doesn’t seem to exist.
Other parables here pick up on the difficulties of making meaning or of connecting with anyone. Language is slippery, and not only that, it’s dangerous. In “Parable of the Pony Syndrome,” the speaker catches himself committing a verbal blunder. Trouble is, in this Twilight Zone world, what he thinks is an inexcusable slip turns out to be the norm.
“Pony,” I say to my mother, and then stop, horrified. How could I call my own mother
“Pony?” I can’t apologize, as I don’t want to draw attention to my faux pas.
“The sun is a byproduct of honey,” I tell her, “and thus you and I will get sticky
if we stay in the sun too long.”
“Is something wrong, Pony?” she asks. “Tell your Pony.” (13)
If the world is really just one big mash-up, then these words—pony, mother, son—which the poem suggests may really be interchangeable, have little else to do than to get us to differentiate. Thus are cities built, books written, wars fought. That’s on the big-picture level. On the small-picture level, what turns out to be the speaker’s apparently unnecessary sensitivity to language as well as his politeness distance him. Does language bring us together? No. It’s negotiation, a game: “Well,” she said. “I’ll let you, just this once, shave my legs, but under one condition./You wear your white Teddy-Roosevelt-visiting-the-site-of-the-Panama –Canal suit . . .” (“Parable of the Twisted Tangle” 20)
This view of language, that it conceals more than reveals, that it separates rather than unites, may elucidate not only Bradley’s post-modernist delight in parable but also his appreciation of the prose poem form, its essential criminality, its assimilation of dream. InField Guide to Prose Poetry, Bradley recognizes the “subversiveness” of this form, calling his pieces “small bricks,” (to be thrown?). The form appeals as well, he says, because it offers a “pathway into the subconscious” in ways that more traditional, lineated pieces can’t. In them, for Bradley, much “of the dream” gets left out. The prose poem, on the other hand, depends upon sentence rather than line, because the sentence can better “retain, or perhaps recreate, the dream world” (147).
I think I hear Baudelaire singing in the absinthe café. Or maybe it’s Bachelard. Consider the parallels between Bradley’s comments about the dream world and Bachelard’s idea in The Poetics of Space that the dream world is necessary for the creation of poetry. In order to write, he says, the poet must have a place in which he can safely and quietly dream, an “immense cosmic house,” where “winds radiate from its center.” Such a house, the philosopher says, “allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house” (51). Houses and poems and rooms and bricks. Baudelaire, in “The Double Room” from his collection of prose poems Paris Spleen, writes of a “room that is like a dream.” Is he speaking of an actual room, or of the poem itself, or of both? It gets confusing. And, at the end of his essay in the Field Guide, Bradley says that a prose poem is a “safe house for the lost, absurd, and scarily humorous” (149). This Symbolist paternity appears to have generated the Hair of Bradley’s hair.
Thus, we can now name, categorize, biopsy from the body-poetry a piece like “Crown,” the final one in this collection. The dream this time recounts a ceremony in which the speaker is being honored with a crown of hair. Turns out, the hair is his own. But the hair has a flaw. “Was this an insult? A mistake? A joke?” the speaker wonders (75). In this carnival house of fun, the answer is yes.
An Interview with John Bradley by Nicelle Davis at Lowbrow Press
Nicelle Davis: I have heard many great poets refer to the experience of writing as calling down light; this makes your title (Trancelumination) seem incredibly appropriate for a poetry collection. Why do you think light is associated with poetry?
John Bradley: What would happen if we referred to it as calling down the darkness? It would make us rethink the entire experience of writing. Maybe change the way we write. Scare away some folks. Cause international blackouts. And maybe attract more readers to creative works? I came up with the title when I was playing with the word “translation.” A friend of mine says all writing is translation, and I think he’s right. I was thinking of the act of translating as one where you have to go into a trance, and once there you eventually arrive at a state of lumination—darkness afire. I’m not sure why we’re so drawn to light as an image. Perhaps we’re all like moths, and think of the real stuff—the writing that scares us, haunts us, sears us—as a kind of fire. It can illuminate our lives and our fears, show us why we love what we love and why we hate what we hate. But it can also burn and scar. And it’s because it can do both—illuminate and possibly get out of control and do harm—that we’re attracted to honest, fearless writing, and why we call writing calling down the light.
ND: I love how you use metonymy as though it were metaphor in the first section of your book. How did you come up with this fresh approach to language?
JB: I feel like the blues singer who has to ask his audience to explain to him his song: “Won’t somebody tell me what ‘ditty wah ditty means’?” When I’m hot in pursuit of the rabbit racing down the poetry trail, I’m honestly not thinking of metonymy, or synecdoche, or any technique. I just want to catch the rabbit—though it all too often escapes. When I was creating the aphorisms in Trancelumination, I was exploring this odd form which I first encountered in the early seventies when I came upon a used copy of Voices: Aphorisms, by Antonio Porchia, translated by W. S. Merwin. Porchia first made me realize that the aphorism has poetic qualities. Here’s a little sample of Porchia: “Beyond my body my veins are invisible.” As a writer of prose poems, I began to wonder: What was the relationship between the prose poem and the aphorism? If you took a prose poem apart, would you find aphorisms? If you assembled aphorisms, could you build a prose poem? That’s one of areas that I’m exploring in Trancelumination.
ND: In Trancelumination, you make reference to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. How have the French poets influenced your work?
JB: One of my first writing courses was with the poet Michael Dennis Browne. This was many centuries ago, back when you hammered out words on a piece of paper with a metal machine that could double as an anchor. One night Michael brought in Apollinaire’s amazing poem “Zone,” which opens: “You are weary at last of this ancient world.” The poem felt unlike anything I had ever seen, and made me feel as if I were in floating in a bodiless state above the world, at once placeless and capable of inhabiting any place. That poem still astounds me.
French poetry, in particular French Surrealist poetry, opened possibilities for me as a young poet that I never knew existed. Lautréamont, Artaud, Breton, Desnos, Eluard, Péret, Michaux, Char, Daumal, Arp, Mansour. I can still remember carrying around Michael Benedikit’s The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, with the Magritte painting on the gray cover. Surrealism, in all its all forms, written and visual, assemblage and collage, has had a huge impact on me. Or perhaps I should say that only surrealism can express what I’ve experienced. I can still remember sitting on a passenger train in Mexico and watching a young woman in red high heels step off the train in the middle of the desert. I watched her stride between some roaming chickens—red stiletto heels and desert chickens. Only surrealism could ever capture such a moment.
ND: Why is it so easy to believe fortune cookies tell truths?
JB: I’d been admiring the fortune cookie poem by Frank O’Hara and wanted to try creating some fortunes. It’s addictive. Another way to answer the question might be to ask: Why is it so hard to believe poems? I know I sound like a barbarian, someone who despises poetry. I don’t. But I think for many people, way too many people, poetry simply cannot convey truths to them. For many it’s pompous and cryptic and makes them feel stupid. It requires a secret password--at least that’s what they’ve been taught. So maybe fortunes, which are a kind of dessert, a treat at the end of a meal, non-essential but fun, something that we don’t really expect anything from, maybe these little slips of paper with anonymous wisps of prose inside can let us believe they contain wisdom because we don’t expect truths from them. We read them wanting to laugh. And if we don’t find them funny, we add “in bed” at the end of the line to make them absurd. I think the tongue-in-cheek quality of the form is what makes it truthful.
ND: What is a fork? What is a spoon? How do their differences help define the world? Can the world find aphorisms in their kitchen drawers?
I’ve always loved spoons. Whatever that means. Yes, aphorisms can be found everywhere. I grew up hearing my mother’s aphorisms. I find them in the newspaper, especially letters to the editor and online comments to a posting. I find them in the cat box every morning, when I clean it. I find them in the bottom of my pockets, and sometimes in my sock drawer. If they go stale, they’re hard to swallow and can cause internal bleeding. Last night I was on the phone speaking to some friends. They were about to go on a trip and couldn’t find the compass they had just bought. One of my friends asked, “How do you find a compass without a compass?” Now that’s a great aphorism!
ND: Do you find that when the limitations of language are challenged, words begin to accumulate meaning(s)? Are words like clouds?
JB: I adore that last question! Yes, words are always changing, just like clouds. Their meanings constantly shift and change, both denotatively and connotatively, with the weather. We pronounce words differently, depending if we’re stressed or in a hurry or eating. And we hear new meanings depending on how they’re said. They even change with what comes before and after them. And they might even change depending on who says them, and where, and when. Then there are our accidents, typos, and misspeakings, which produce hilarious and profound insights into language. A student was writing me about her syntax, and referred to it as her sin tax! Yes, our lingual sins are sorely taxed. So even when we’re not aware we’re doing it, we’re challenging the limitations of language, all of us, each time we try to translate what we want to say into words.
ND: I would love to teach your book. How would you prefer that students first encounter your words? (Would you like students to have the pleasure of literary theory maps to guide them, or would you have them encounter the poems with the shock of joy that lives in your poems?)
JB: That’s the greatest compliment you can give a writer—that you’d like to teach his or her book. A million thanks. I’m the sort of reader who skips the introduction or forward or preface or whatever falls before the actual book and come back to the opening only after I’ve read the author’s words. It’s not that I’m worried that the intro might give the ending away. I just prefer to encounter the work first, by itself, and see what I make of it. Then I’m curious what the introducer or critic has to say, and I’m in a better position to evaluate this person’s biases. I’d prefer for readers to read my book first, discuss it, and see what ideas and theories grow out of their reading. Not everyone listens to the wishes of the writer, though. If Max Brod had listened to Kafka’s instructions to burn all his writings after he died, we’d be missing some wondrous literature.
ND: Section VII of you book is amazing--a play of famous speakers taken out of context to form all new contexts with their (seemingly random) placement on the page. How random do you think our understanding of the world is? How does it benefit us to question how assumptions forge our ideas about language and communication?
JB: Your choice of the word play is a good one! I’m really playing really around here, playing with personas, with voice, and ordering. I
sometimes cut all my lines into separate slips of paper—like fortunes. Then I mix them up, draw them one at a time, and re-order the poem based on the random ordering. I must admit that randomness often does a better job than I do. This little game teaches me that I need to challenge my own assumptions about everything. If I can find a better “ordering” of lines, find a wisdom in the “logic” of randomness, then I need to be more open, more aware. But a lot of writers incorporate randomness into their process. I carry around a piece of scrap paper in my pocket and copy down observations, scraps of overheard words, phrases, and images. Anything and everything. I later try to incorporate these scraps into my poems, using them as parts for a collage, or sometimes as guides to a poem I had no idea I would write. I suspect many other writers do this.
ND: Your book ends with the image of unraveling. How did you decide to end on this equally devastating and liberating visual?
JB: I think every book offers an author’s view of the world, of language, of a way to bind the chaos into some sort of order. So it seemed fitting at the end of Trancelumination to unravel what I’ve bound up. I’m also passing on the joys of raveling to the reader. Now it’s your turn. How do you want to do it? How have you done it in the past? Do you want to try a new way?