Friends Read Friends’ Poems #5: Glenn Shaheen on Brian Russell’s “Awash”
Editorial Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts in which poets offer a reading of a favorite poem by a poet friend. Glenn Shaheen is the author of Predatory (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). He lives in Michigan, where he edits the journal NANO Fiction. His work has appeared in Everyday Genius, Artifice, Ploughshares, The New Republic, and elsewhere. Brian Russell’s poems have appeared in Bat City Review, Epoch, LIT, Mid-American Review, and Quarterly West. He lives in Chicago. His book, The Year Of What Now, won this year’s Bakeless Prize, and is forthcoming from Graywolf in 2012.
by Brian Russell
The unthinkable prospect
Of a world in which I am left
To my own devices
Which are few and as soon
As the batteries die useless
First order of business
I draw a map in the sand and
Mark where I stand as the capital
Of civilization within me the
Detailed blueprints of the pyramids
And the concept of zero
Beyond me the finite frontier
The many miles of undeveloped
Shoreline with spectacular views of a
Sea filled with intricately depicted
Monsters I have a lot to do before
I introduce the new world
To art and astronomy and industry
Medicine and technology
Ethics politics democracy
By a show of hands we shall elect
Which tree to burn in the first fire.
A Few Notes about Brian Russell’s “Awash”
by Glenn Shaheen
I’m never exactly sure what it is I look for in a poem – the act of reading is pleasurable, yes, but most of my favorite poems create a state of intense emotional displeasure. They’re not pain parades or pity parties, that’s as boring as affirmations. Poetry that succeeds for me engages in a balancing act of tone – misery against elation, suffering against orgasm – but the scales always tip a little toward the frowny face. In a great poem leaving the reader in a state of discomfort makes the poem linger. It troubles the reader in a way that forces them to wrestle with it for a long time. It’s maybe a bit mean, to willfully subject readers to an array of hurt, but nobody ever said poets were nice people! (Of course, pain and hurt in writing is mitigated because the act of writing itself is an immensely hopeful gesture).
In Brian Russell’s manuscript/soon-to-be-book The Year Of What Now, we are party to the speaker’s panic as his lover is terminally ill. He’s unraveling, he wanders the sterile halls of a labyrinthine hospital and he’s got us by the ankle and won’t let us go. Grammatical units haze into each other like days in a hospital room, and the book is relentless and heartbreaking. In “Awash,” the speaker meditates on the idea of a potential rebirth. The rebirth, of course, is a result of an imagined death, but all rebirths come out of some kind of death. The born again Christian is reborn out of the death of a particular mode of thought, just as a new atheist is born out of the death of another particular mode of thought. Here, the lover is imagined to have died (and that’s a little solace we all take sometimes, imagining awful scenarios when family and friends die so we can pull ourselves back out into a reality where they yet live) and the speaker constructs a world where he is left alone, completely (in as real a sense as any emotion is real), like that Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith in the bank vault. It’s depressing, yes, but also fun – a world that can be created from scratch, with all of the foibles of society/individualism making their appearances, right up to and including self-destruction, the most crushing and hilarious of all of them. I mean, that we even have the capability of self destruction is farcical enough, but that it seems almost necessary to us, even to the speaker when he is imagining the creation of a new world, makes it all the more riotous. Maybe that’s some of that tenuous tonal balancing act I was talking about earlier, something Brian does so well in this poem, and all throughout The Year Of What Now.