by Nickole Brown
Red Hen Press, 2007
TCR Bookstore Price: $14.78
Buy this book
through our Amazon.com-affiliated bookstore
and support The Cortland Review.
From the beginning, even in the prefacing poem to Nickole Brown's first collection of poetry,
the author is aware that the book's project is fraught with risks. Such risks include traps of self indulgence, of sensationalism, and perhaps most problematic, the trap of a writer's failure to admit and explore her own implication in the story she unfolds. It's still fair to admit, generally, that the poetry of our period continues to be informed by a thrust of confessionalism that, although it has been with us for decades (as have complaints against it), arose in the late fifties via the likes of Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and Sexton. Let's not forget, after all, as our Foucault reminds us, that "[s]ince the Middle Ages at least, Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth . . . ," and it remains so today. Though we must be waryas an increasing number of critics and reviewers seem not to beof conflating the "I" of a poeman artificial speaker in any casewith the poet herself, publicity copy from Red Hen Press that accompanied my review copy of the collection makes clear that the reader is indeed meant to understand these poems as prompted by Brown's own specific experience, and so it is appropriate to discuss them on these terms.
That said, Brown largely manages to avoid the aforementioned pitfalls of the confessional mode in several ways, foremost among them in the fact that the poetry is infused not only with the expected rage, but also with moments of self-doubt, an admittance of the speaker's own jealousies, misdeeds, short-comings and implication in the subject matter. In the poem "It Is Possible He Thought," the speaker's repetition of the title throughout removes the poem from the realm of the confessionala space where privacy and anonymity are possibleto that of the court room, where the accused are ostensibly innocent until proven otherwise, and each intimate detail is publically scrutinized:
It is possible the year before
you were born he quit me
and I drew fourth-grade pictures
of swan necks coughing up
eggs into the womb,
that I scored an A by memorizing
test in testicle, fall in fallopian,
saw public to be one slender letter away
from curling in his rank and humid dark.
The judge here, of coursea role assigned her throughout the collectionis the sister the speaker has left behind. However, the sister here is in fact only a creation, a character, and the antagonist of these poems is less the abandoned sister or badly flawed parents than it is the speaker's own confused guilt at havingat least in her mindreneged on her sisterly duties, on a pact that ideally transcends other obligations. This constitutes the tension of the book, and questions concerning the speaker's own complicity, finally, supersede all others. The final judgment here is self-judgment.
While both mother and step-father take their deserved punches, Brown is careful to maintain their humanity. It would be far too easy to demonize the stepfather for his transgressions, yet "In Winter," a poem that may remind one of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," even allows him a measure of sympathy: "In winter, it is all / fried bologna: there is no / work, and when there is, / he works / so hard he can pop / open the skin of his knuckles / by making a fist."
More might be said of confession here, its limits and ramifications, of the step-father's complicated role as sinner/priest/authority figure, of whether or not confession has any value beyond whatever modest comfort absolution might offer, etc.; instead, I'll turn to an aspect of the collection that interests me more, and that is accounting for the many instances of pretending that permeate the narrative and insist themselves into our understanding of these poems.
Many behaviorists believe it true that hypothetical and counter-factual thoughtand even engagement with artshould be considered acts of pretense. In his essay "Seriously Considering Play," Lloyd P. Rieber defines a "microworld" as "a small, but complete, version of some domain of interest," and he goes on to explain that they may, like a child's sandbox, be "natural," or else be "artificially constructed." For our purposes, a poem, or a poetic sequence, might be seen as a constructed microworld. To understand what happens in a microworld requires a quick visit to the learning theories of Jean Piaget, specifically the ideas of "epistemic conflict" (the "ongoing cognitive 'balancing act' by each individual" as we strive for order in a constantly shifting world), "self-reflection" ("an individual's deliberate attempt at assessing and understanding a given situation"), and "self-regulation." "Either the conflict is resolved as fitting an established mental structure (i.e. assimilation), or a new structure is formed (i.e. accommodation)" (Rieber).
The narrator of the poems that comprise the microworld that is Sister is self-consciously engaged in the process of epistemic conflict; as the speaker attempts to get on with the life she hasfor better or worsechosen, in an effort to achieve a sense of order, she must return to the unresolved issues of her past. But the narrator also wishes for her sisteror at least for the sister she has created in these poemsto participate in this organization. "Pretend I know you," are Brown's first words in "Riddle, Riddle, Marie," "Pretend in a deep pool / I always find you first following the familiar / Marco-Polo of your voice." But the speaker does not "know" her sister: "Few memories / of you, nothing to say about // you learning to roll over or sit up / or crawl, and by the time you toddled / down the hall to reach my door / it was locked, shut with a finger- / smashing slam and a sign barred / with exclamation points that read / Private Get Out." Her quest to "find" her is possible only through self-reflection that is based on imagination and pretense.
The individual sections of the long poem, "What I Did," are interspersed throughtout the sequence and provide moments of confession, of the "real," and these moments engage with moments where self-conscious pretense stands in for the unknowable or unthinkable. How confession and pretending (re)construct autobiography and to what it all leads is at the heart of this extraordinarily poised and consistent first effort, and it is a task best left to the individual reader because, as Brown reveals in "Know the Sound when You Hear It," "My point is this: you grow up, read the facts, / but rarely can you be sure."