Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Kevin Brown's Liturgical Days by Nina Tassi

Kevin Brown, Liturgical Calendar. Eugene, OR: RESOURCE Publications (An Imprint of Wipf and Stock ), 2014. 100 pages, paper. $14U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-1-4982-0375-3.
In his new book, Kevin Brown does not write overtly religious poems, as the title of the collection, Liturgical Calendar, and of many individual poems would suggest. His strategy is more cagey—subversive even. He situates his poems squarely in the everyday world of the present, his lines and stanzas short, images focused largely on the commonplace. Most of the pieces are written in the first person in a tone of wry or ironic humor. The language is colloquial, matter-of-fact, occasionally meditative. Thus the voice of the poet flows along in an easy rhythm, like a conversation with oneself, mulling over mundane worries, wounds suffered in childhood, or embarrassing personality flaws not usually confided to friends and relatives.
But there is more to it. Each poem, either by title or subtitle, references a sacred event or a saint, leading the reader to suppose that the poem will be literally about Ash Wednesday or St. Hilarion. But no, the poem concerns people down the street. And yet, while taking a stroll in Brown’s neighborhood, the reader is surprised into an encounter with the Christian universe—where one’s own moral life is implicated. A married couple’s ordinary supper of spaghetti, bread and wine suggests comparison with the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Brown reminds the reader that the sacred lurks just beyond the kitchen—or within it.
He invites the reader to consider the ways in which a betrayal at the supper table, seemingly confined to such a tiny space and moment, might have universal significance. It might have to do with Judas and the reason why Jesus died, something the poet wants the reader to question rather than saying it himself.
The loss of love is a major subject of Liturgical Calendar. One striking sequence considers the Easter cycle, opening with “Palm Sunday,when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem a week before his death. In this poem, a man describes retrospectively a young married couple’s happiness,  “celebrating successes/we have not yet had,” while foretelling disappointment: “ahead of us, only dusk.”  In  “Maundy Thursday,”  Jesus’s foreknowledge of betrayal is implicitly compared to a more mundane betrayal, when a husband realizes his wife will betray him,  “a future only I could foresee.”  At the end of this revelatory supper, the husband sees nothing left “but a pile of plates/in the sink, pieces/of pasta clinging/to them tenaciously.”
Is the difference in betrayals so vast as to not yield a valid comparison, or does the poet wish us to realize that betrayal is a monumental human experience?
“Good Friday” implicitly connects Christ’s crucifixion to the death of a marriage:  “Nothing left but the suffering”—small words for a large reality. “Holy Saturday” offers a poignant image of loss in a husband’s cry to his wife who has abandoned him:  “I sit in your study, the emptiness echoing like a tomb.”  Finally, “Easter Sunday” raises hope for the estranged couple, comparing  reconciliation to resurrection, in that both “are made out to be miracles.” 
In his “Notes” at the end of the book, Brown provides a liturgical or Gospel reference to every poem. Some of these notes require a little extra effort on the reader’s part—well worth it—to understand exactly what Brown was thinking as regards a Biblical passage or saintly anecdote. One such poem, “Dry Mouth,” is about loss from a “what if” perspective. A man reflects on all the times he found himself unable to communicate verbally with his wife as she wanted; the marriage might have endured if he had found the words. The Gospel reference is to Jesus curing the deaf mute, a sad admission that no miracle occurred in this case.
Brown can be openly passionate. “People Said It Was the Best Show They Had Ever Seen,” which takes place on the Fourth of July, addresses a woman who finds freedom from her husband’s  abuse only in his death. Here Brown reveals deep empathy with the woman and her suffering.
Liturgical Calendar is an accomplished work which can be enjoyed as lightly or as deeply as the reader wishes to take it.
Brown, a professor at Lee University, has published two previous books of poetry, A Lexicon of Lost Words and Exit Lines, as well as a memoir, Another Way, and a scholarly study, They Love to Tell the Stories.
Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending.