poemoftheweek poemoftheweek.com poemoftheweek.org poem of the week
Mark J. Brewin Jr.
Water was always the problem surrounding
our rancher anchored to the low-end of the acreage—
rain lurched in, ankle-deep pools filled every dip
in the road, and when shin-high floods overtook
the asphalt bulkhead my father built along
the driveway's sides, he donned his fisherman's rain suit,
shoveled sand along the edge to keep street gutters
from overflowing and making our house an island
in a slump of the farmed plain. Sitting inside
during the downpour, I placed the fact cards
of my Illustrated Wildlife Treasury end to end
on my bedroom floor—mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos;
giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus—memorized
their countries of origin, their characteristics,
organized and reorganized them, while my brother
shoved army men into the floor-vent, their plastic bits
tinging against the ducts like rocks against the tiller.
My sister argued with a toy phone. My mother
mixed kidney beans into the tomato sauce,
sliced pepperoni, made sure to give each of us
the same number of slices and took comfort
in her attention, in the fact that her separate, warring
children were in their own corners, relatively quiet
and needful of her to do the cooking. With the dinner
call, my sister and brother leapt for the table,
but I was still imagining the other side of the world—
great spotted kiwi, Apteryx haastii; highland cow,
Bos taurus. My mother tried one last time
to fetch my father, who fought the uphill battle
of rain surges washing away sand, but her voice
sunk in the white noise. She left my brother and sister
to eat their pasta e fagioli, sat beside me on the floor
with more pepperoni wedges, and asked,
"Where are you at today? How far out are you?"
Burning Down the Camper
For seven days my father scavenged the junked camper.
He deveined copper wiring from walls, took sledge hammer,
crowbar and cat's paw to kitchenette cabinets.
His shunted boot buckled doorjambs. His hands
split sewage lines and salvaged the propane stove top.
For seven days, while dismantling the rank trailer—
wrist deep in the musk of petrified mouse carcasses
and sun-cooked frog bodies, insect shells littered along sills—
he longed for the bonfire's shape: farm crates and splintered rafters,
taproots and runners for kindling. The way it would all blaze.
He tore brass knobs from drawers, screws from lumber.
And after seven days, on his weekend off
from the electric utility, he warehoused the wanted parts
in the garage loft and exchanged his scrap iron cash
for two cases of Milwaukee's Best. He piled the RV shards
in a heap—layering house trash, wire casings,
Styrofoam cooler chunks—and hollered for the family to watch
the flames from bare cable spools in the backyard. My mother,
cradling my infant brother, said no, but my sister and I
scrambled beyond the back porch and bobbled around the pit,
waved sunflower stalks like wands over the tattered flames,
chanted gibberish incantations, and with each Abracadabra!
our father would chuck empties into the glowing center.
Raking the coals with a bean stake, he stammered facts:
that the worst hell glow is not orange, but white;
that liquefied dinosaurs filled our minivan's gas tank;
that—if we wanted—we could spit on the blistering steel
and watch the dribble vanish, so long as we didn't get too close.
So, we mustered saliva, hocked as much as children could, laughed.
But our father with other plans for pleasing his audience,
stumbled from the shed, kicking sandbox toys and Wiffle Ball bats
to where we sat and promised us we would see magic.
He moved a plastic alligator closer to the heat, until
an inch away, its jaws melted, eyebrows and paws puddled
on the bare earth, and we wanted more. Wads of Sunday circulars
flared green, burning gas station coffee cups gave off a pitch smoke.
Window screens shriveled and glass panes burst.
Two-liter cola bottles, after a flash from the garden hose,
collapsed in on themselves as if ghost wrung. He used
words like vacuum and pressure. They meant nothing.
By bedtime, all that remained were more beer cans and rubble
coughing up ash, embers giving way to the match heads of stars.
A night dirge. The pucker and fizz of singed wreck.
My mother called for my sister and me to come in,
but my father—enjoying his dawdling children—yelled back
that we were just fine so long as he could stand.
Words turned to marbles in his mouth. The way he spoke
our names, a muttered hex. His guttural song
kept us awake, cursing the power plant and its graveyard shift,
as he entertained his kids with a homemade sacrifice of shrubs,
mowed grass, crumbling shed roof and front deck cross beams.
The knot and grain of stubble around his chin.
The stock and rings of work callusing his hands and fingers.
A shit camper. Hulk and debris rescued from house repairs
and fix-it jobs, good for one last thing: The mystical.
The power in anything that will burn.
When you stare into the spring storm and heat lightning,
the flashing vein of electricity, weather's dashing pulse,
you count the distance between you and each bolt the way
your father taught you as he stood at the back door—
measuring time between the spark and rumble: one
one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand.... Each beat,
a mile. Each a footstep stretching across the city
and southern part of the state. And though thunder shook
the house during those nights, though you and your sister
hid under quilts in the living room, gasped a little
with each clap, you wanted your mother to leave the blinds
open so you could watch everything. Now, this gale
hunkering down on the neighborhood, you still gaze
at the horizon, follow the show from the front porch.
Plastic lawn chairs. Beers on an end table. No blanket
to tuck under, but your brother beside you—four inches
taller, younger, left here with your sister when you moved
away to college. And where else should he be? Barely twenty,
he stubs out cigarettes on his arm and takes night classes
to be an EMT. He tells you they call him Junior
at the firehouse and gun club. You imagine your brother
bolting hoses to corner hydrants at an accident scene,
examining rifle brands at the New Italy banquet hall,
men your father knows and works with, the fire chief, engineers
at the power plant, paramedics teaching courses at the Vo-Tech-
all calling him Junior, though it's you who carries your father's
name like a birthmark, like handwriting: something built in.
You empty the can and pull another pair from the cooler.
Wind whips through the new wisteria buds while rainwater
floods the street. The roar drowns out the peepers
and conversation, so you remember the times your family
hurt each other: how you warned your sister you couldn't
grip the storm-bent screen door she crawled under
to rescue a lost ball and hooked the soft flesh of her knee
on the jagged, metal-capped corner; the way the house rang
with your parents—your father drunk and pacing the back deck,
yelling at your mother that you are his favorite child
because you were named after him, and how she said
nothing, only cried; your brother sobbing on your first semester
holiday home pleading with you to never come back because,
when you did, no one paid any attention to him. And this is how
sound tails the blinding, momentary dissection of the sky.
How frightening it rings after the real danger. How we give
each other scars. The aluminum gutter buckles
from the downpour and a heavy drip pecks at the porch railing,
holds time with your brother's foot tapping. This storm
and a few drinks is about all you two can share anymore, if you
ever shared anything. A bedroom when you were kids.
A sopping memory of indoor picnics your mother would lay out
on rainy days, your sister's hair braided by candlelight, your hands
hammering out the temper of sibling rivalry. With one quick
strike somewhere downtown, the house lamps kick off
and the rancher fills with chatter, thud of footsteps
coursing through every room, your father barking about dead
sump pumps and the basement already ankle deep.
If he's bucketing the water upstairs and out the back door,
he'll need a hand. If you get up from the chair to help,
your brother will only move to grab a fresh beer and tell you,
You can handle it. The show isn't over yet. The power will return
eventually. All the alarm clocks will reset to twelve.
-from Scrap Iron
BIO: Mark Jay Brewin Jr is a graduate of the MFA program of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cortland Review, The Missouri Review Online, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Sycamore Review, Southern Humanities Review and elsewhere. They have also won the 2010 Yellowwood Poetry Contest at the Yalobusha Review, the 2015 Iowa Sweet Corn Prize at Flyway: Journal of Environment & Writing, the 2016 Fugue Poetry Prize, as well as been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. His first book, Scrap Iron, won the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize at the University of Utah Press. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
An Interview with Mark J. Brewin Jr. by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum and Contributing-Editor Anna Knowles
Anna Knowles & Andew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your father is undeniably an intense presence in your poems, but there is a more gentle, tender presence here I'd like to talk about: your mother. The final questions, "Where are you at today? How far out are you?" are soothing, yet leave the poem feeling haunted . How do you approach your mother differently than your father in your poems?
Mark J. Brewin Jr.: The nature of both of those relationships is different, how I act/interact with my father and mother. In this case, reality begot poetic presence. My father was working shifts or side jobs for a majority of my childhood-as the first section of Scrap Iron chronicles-so it was easy for me to get a sense of my father on the page, his want to connect with his children, with me, to see him thrive and fall in these different Jersey landscapes (salvage yards, farm fields, him imagined at the power plant, and so on). To write through him, for him, or about him is a simpler task because when he was around (in the memory) or when he is present in a poem's narrative, he commands a scene, wants to be heard, wants to be remembered. His actions and reactions to his setting usually speak to his inner struggle to consider the physical world he inhabits, and the lives of those around him. My mother, however, is a quieter, softer, more complex character; she battled severe depression and migraines when I was a kid. There are motives and movements, puppet strings and heartstrings that are always being tugged at, pulled and played, on purpose-whether it's her in the memory, or me during the penning of the poem.
Scrap Iron holds several moments in which I am trying to learn and comprehend my father as a parent and human being, and to understand his presence in my life because he wasn't around very much when I was young; my mother is in the background of those memories. While my father struggled to be present for his family, my mother struggled with how and when to let my father be present, with how to give up being the only parent (the one who knew us best). She struggled with how my brother or sister or I would completely forget about her when my father was suddenly there, in the house or backyard. To write about my mother, to attempt to capture her in a poem, is to weigh a lonely girl who gave her life up and spent most of her young marriage with three children rather than her husband, against her battle to be known, to be appreciated, and to be a person (not simply a parent or guardian) that she, herself, barely knew or knows how to be. Unlike my father, I believe I approach my mother (on the page and in real life) much in the same way I approach myself (my own actions and thoughts): the smaller the gesture, the heavier the meaning. Though her presence in Scrap Iron is less frequent than my father's, in the poems where she does appear, what she does in the narratives-picking me up and carrying me into her room in "Midnight Shift", or asking about how I packed my clothes in a section of "The Island Meditations"--she does while thinking about all of those things: her entire life, her marriage, her family history, and a future she can't predict or assume anything about.
In the first untitled prelude poem, when my mother asks, "Where are you at today? How far out are you?" she is asking those questions because she is already foreseeing a future where I have grown up and moved away from her, and at the same time she is deeply concerned and worried about how I-as a child in the poem-have detached and focused on a task as serious as my father battling the storm and his own mind, and all the while she is afraid that I am isolating myself from my brother and my sister. That's the type of person she is, and that's what I work to accomplish when capturing her in a poem or approaching her in real life. It's tough work. Her presence in the book is smaller, but also richer, a more enigmatic presence that compels me not just as the writer but also as a reader. My mother is, in a sense, a haunted person, and though I don't write about her often, whenever I do it is always an uphill battle, but a worthwhile struggle, something that I don't experience when I write about my father.
AK & AMK:I am interested in how poems like "On Thunderstorms" opened another door into other groups of poems that salvage the same sense of sibling rivalry and/or familial tension. When did you first realize what kind of poems these would become? Did you find that writing any one of these poems created a spin-off effect? Was there one poem that opened the floodgates?
MB: I realized pretty early on, maybe almost immediately, what kinds of poems I was writing for my first collection. The poems, and the book as a whole, needed to set a foundation for me, for my poetic voice, to establish my authority and background. The first titled poem in the collection, "Burning Down the Camper," is the first poem in which I really had a sense of the setting to situate the poems in, and ultimately that gave me a place to unpack everything else I had been mulling over, such as other memories of my childhood. More importantly, it shaped the tone for the aural landscape, the words, phrases and images that I would later stumble and tear through. Especially when dealing with such a personal subject matter , family and home, I was frequently too close to what I was writing about, and more times than not, I was overwriting, trying to cram in too much sound or too much narrative where there wasn't room for it. Although the first draft of "Burning Down the Camper" was an awakening for me in terms of beginning to understand what kind of poems I would write, it was actually the revisions suggested to me by my graduate school peers in the workshop of that first draft that helped me to see what my strongest movements were. They helped me learn how to ratchet up the tension in a poem, and taught me to use the musicality of the language as a needle and thread, instead of as staple gun. Armed with all of these new ideas, I was able to set to work on unraveling the narrative ball that became Scrap Iron.
What really opened the floodgates, though, and helped me to envision my manuscript as a whole, what helped me decide on what stories or moments I needed to fill in Scrap Iron's overall narrative , came from a lecture by the poet Tim Shea on "place" that I was lucky enough to attend. He blew me away in his talk by explaining how a place is broken down into elements that make it three dimensional; the rituals, local occupations, specific flora and fauna, objects you can't find anywhere else, the certain sounds that all make Vineland, New Jersey, like nowhere else on the map. After that lecture, I sat down and made a web diagram, with my hometown in the middle, and branching off of it, each of my relationships, and off of them, specific memories, images, sounds, and stories that fleshed them out. It was such a remarkable way to look at something. Fuller. Realer. That's what created the spin-off effect; that's what gave these poems and this book a pulse.
AK & AMK:How do you create the dialogue of your mother and/or siblings? I'm thinking of a line your brother has in the poem "On Thunderstorms", when he says "You can handle it. The show isn't over yet". How do their voices make these poems work? Why is it important to you?
MB: Although the dialogue between any of my family members is generally true to what was actually said or would have been said in the moment of the narrative, the tone, words and conversation are ultimately driven by the landscape and setting, or my memory of it. In these poems, the space the players are occupying together resonates just as loudly as the specific character speaking to the speaker in the poems. When my mother asks, "Where are you at today? How far out are you?" she is also asking on behalf of the little rancher I grew up in, slowly surrounded by the rain, the basement filling up, wondering in the back of its mind how long I'll be there, when I'll be gone. When my brother says, "You can handle it. The show isn't over yet", he is also speaking for the storm, for the worn front porch's take on the rainy entertainment and what it has seen over the years, what it has come to understand of the relationships within our home. My sister on the phone, in one of the sections of "The Island Meditations", asks me "So tell me what it's like over there?" She is a surrogate for my Jersey farm, just as eager to hear, grasp, or imagine something it can't see at all. Her voice, her dialogue, here tone: those aren't just hers; they are also the personification of the South Jersey farm I was raised on. It's important because the purest, most genuine conversations I can have about my memory, about what I am experiencing and trying to comprehend in my life, can only be had with that landscape, the place that made me, the geographical confluence of all those things, but since I can't talk to the earth-the most I can do is be like Anteaus and gather my strength by touching that ground-I have to employ the characters of my family as mouthpieces for that place, for that landscape.
AK & AMK: As a poet, how deep and how fast do you allow yourself to dive into memory, particularly your childhood in Jersey? How does that dive help you write these poems? As a human, how do you walk away from writing poems after reeling out the deeply personal material? Do you find yourself repressing certain memories you may not want to talk about yet?
MB: I dive into my memory the way I dive into a bottle of whisky: too quickly for my own good. And I probably walk away from it (or stumble away, I should say) the same way you'd finish that bottle of whiskey: slowly, either making sure I've had every last drop, or considering why it was I went at it with such gusto.
In the case of the poems from Scrap Iron, as the book's epigraph says, "My memory is my only homeland" and thus the only place for me to begin, so I really hunkered down, dove in head first. But this wasn't always the most constructive approach. Although the poems and memories that reside in the book now really stand on their own, and I believe have a real conversation as a whole collection, there were also more B-sides, outtakes, and half-hearted fits and starts of poems than Carter's got liver pills. Turning to my recollections was wonderful, a great slag heap for me to pick from and repurpose to new ends, but for the most part it was only good for creating, starting the poems. In order to find the narrative, to edit and iron out, to have a finished piece, I had to carefully re-imagine or re-vision the history that was there. Some of the memories that these poems (and some of the poems that didn't wind up in Scrap Iron) started in were at times too tender, too specific, too odd or violent, and so it was an uphill battle to keep them pristine, true to what happened or honest to the weight of the moment. Memory is a wonderful resource, something a writer should tear into with abandon. But in the end, when a writer is revising and solidifying poems, working out the artifice, things like sound and form, she ultimately needs to be able to quickly and dutifully rewrite what happened in the way that's best for the poem, in a way that makes the poem call out and sing.
This is something I am still wrestling with in my own writing. Scrap Iron, and how it dealt with and captured my childhood in South Jersey, was a lot of emotional and poetic work. Ultimately, I am always going to be haunted, driven, pushed, tied down, and victim to (in a good way) my memory. I think that this is where my poetic strength really resides, but with that said I am also becoming more open to how and when to use memory. Creation is important, but revision is king (or queen).
There were, most definitely, a lot of things too deeply repressed or too tender for me to touch in Scrap Iron, things I am working towards capturing in poetry that I still can't get close to. I've tried for the longest time to compose poems about my own personal pitfalls, about every terrible thing I've done, my addictions and fears, but of course those bits and pieces take a lifetime to exhume. My mother is a piece of that impenetrable material I skirt around or avoid in my work. So often I can recall that as a parent she was a tremendous figure: an imaginative, caring, inventive person and a wonderful mother. But I often have a tough time reconciling that image of my mother against the image of her as a person who suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. I want to be fair to her, and honest with her. I want to paint a picture, accurate and real, but I don't want to simply be a pointing finger, or a reflection on how she could detach or pick sides, or be distant from everyone in our home. I want to be able to show her in all of her complexity as a person. She needs a whole collection or chapbook of her own. Maybe that's something for me to keep in mind.
AK & AMK: I was wondering if you could discuss your poetic process. I think it was Philip Levine who said "I write what I've been given to write". How has your work evolved from when you first started?
MB: Well, Philip Levine definitely has something there.
As far as process goes, I always seem to start my poems the same way: a word bank. My poetic chops are driven by sound, so I'll list out hundreds of words that convey the right tone, image, and feel for whatever poem I'm working on. From there I start combining the words to make phrases, which begin to give shape to the poem, the narrative. This process helps me to flesh out or invent details in the setting, dialogue, and scenery, and most importantly to ensure the rich musicality of the language. After that, I simplify everything to make sure the basics are there, that I'm not overwriting (which I naturally tend to do). Mix all this with a nickel tour through Memoryland, and I'm good and ready for a draft. Rinse, repeat, and rip up the poem until I almost can't take it anymore.
I guess I should also mention how important it is for me-in my poetic process-to take notes and to do research. I was guest lecturing in an advanced Creative Writing class the other day, and I was talking about the pocket notebook I always keep on me, how I am constantly telling myself to look up the history of postcards, or the Con-Man's Ten Commandments, or Ned Kelly's biography, or what have you, and it seemed odd to the students that I would spend many hours looking up that kind of information and doing real research. They had a tough time believing that poetry requires facts. It does! Sometimes I need to give a name to the bird chirping out on the limb, a name for the tree the bird is perched in; that requires research. And sometimes, research into my personal/historical interests invites creativity. In Scrap Iron, the poem "Standing in the Atlantic Ocean with Tesla's Pigeon" exists because I was enamored by Nikola Tesla the person--I've read numerous biographies, his autobiography, and so on. Personal interests and pursuits are just as important to my process as anything else.
AK & AMK: I'm curious: what is your next or current project?
MB: There are two projects now that may or may not come together for a second manuscript, or break fully apart and become two separate entities. The first one is a series of poems chronicling my hiking along the Camino de Santiago (or "The Way of Saint James") across the north of Spain. It's an old pilgrimage trail that ends in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, and is hundreds of miles long, and can be started in a number of different European cities. As in the poem "Pilgrimage" by Traci Brimhall, where the faithful are walking "to journey farther than [their] doubt,/ to return to [God] the way all light/ wants to return to fire rather than/ travel from it," I too (as a lapsed Irish-Catholic) originally decided to hike the Camino based in part on my religious curiosity, but also as a personal undertaking to prepare myself for marriage, to tramp alongside my fiancé, and to consider what it means to love and be loved. The two-month-long hike has since spiraled into examinations of my own cardinal points: my early religious guilt, a poetic exploration of my parents' marriage (a marriage that has endured several dramatic ups and downs), and my romantic and spiritual pitfalls. The second project is a series of "mix-tape" poems that chronicle my dating history via songs from CDs and tapes that were dubbed and shared back and forth. These poems explore how those songs were used, and the landscapes, memories and emotions that are forever linked to them. Think the novel High Fidelity meets Traci Brimhall's aubades from Rookery meets Mark Brewin. (Can you tell I've been digging me some Traci Brimhall lately?) It seems, between these two projects, that there are a lot of similarities, so I am interested to see how the two projects inform and inspire each other. Either way: there's love in the air. I can't help myself.