The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, by Brent Goodman

The Brother Swimming Beneath Me cover
The best poems are quizzes built of balsa wood where every guess is an updraft. Rhyme evaporates in the mouth. The water is fresh, not salt (you can always add salt, but you can’t take it away). Lake plants are more poetic than kelp in any case. Death, lice, oysters, belly fuzz: all the great subjects. Reading The Brother Swimming Beneath Me for the second time, I am taking only mental notes, which prove to be unreliable at best. (Why the hell didn’t I buy a new pocket notebook when I was in town yesterday?)

Was it 2006 that Brent began blogging about pulling this manuscript together? Blog and manuscript shared the same title then, and the latter kept getting transfusions from the former, culminating in a series of remarkable prose poems, square as stair steps with no risers (“Spiral Course”). I remember wondering about the brother’s death, the lack of explanation as frustrating as a photo uploaded sideways for an online avatar. Well, it’s all here — and then it isn’t. (The blog isn’t mentioned in the credits, but then again, why should it be?)

There are so many responses to grief, so many rituals. In “Séance,” the dead convene to try and summon up the living. In “

,” the object is to “Reduce your life by half until it coats the back of a spoon.” In “‘Armless Iraqi Boy Bears No Grudges for U.S. Bombing,'” a sacrificial victim is made whole again by a miraculous set of substitutions: “We have replaced/ his eyes with rubble, his ears with crosshairs,/ his mouth a khaki radio”; only the right words go missing. In “[directions to my house],” the narrator’s entire adult life constitutes a kind of spell, leading to the unlocked door of his own house. (But how else would one expect to end up so deep in the woods?)

Dear religion, says the opening line, and the closing line Dear mystery, as if the whole book between them were a letter with two addressees, posted from an afterlife which exists only to issue stamps for philatelists, or from some place near the end of Wisconsin’s frozen fist where mailboxes disappear into snowbanks for weeks at a time. The book’s designers set the letter-spacing so wide that the words look as if they’re ready to dissolve, and I have to whisper them, which is not a bad thing. Sometimes they whisper back. (Does it really make sense to try and write about books this good?)

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

3 Replies to “The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, by Brent Goodman”

  1. Ok, I give in. I’m ordering it. I’ve read a number of the poems from this book singly and have been very impressed. Thanks for the review.

    1. You call this a review? I’m embarrassed by how inadequate it is. Still, if it was the last straw breaking down your resistance to ordering the book (not as easy for someone overseas, I imagine), that’s something.

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