By Luci Brown
Finishing Line Press, 2015
26 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Michael Albright
Robert Lowell said, “Yet why not say what happened?” That’s what Luci Brown does in this heartbreaking, yet luminous debut chapbook of poems. Using direct, evocative language, she traces the journey of a young girl’s world turned upside-down, through a bewildering childhood and adolescence, and into a tentative adulthood she’s not sure how to inhabit.
The collection proceeds mostly in chronological order. Brown sets the pace with the very first poem, “Ace Fencing Company,” in which a young girl is looking through a chain link fence:
…I see her
standing on the tracks. A woman hazy
in the distance because I’m too young
to recall the freckles on her nose
or how short she kept her nails.
The devastating last line, spoken by the girl’s father, “Come on, we have a funeral to get to” puts us on notice that this is not an idyllic tale of childhood.
A few poems later in “On Being a Golden Retriever,” we hear the story of the girl’s tenth birthday party, and the bizarre and cruel encounter with her father’s “new girlfriend,”
took me in the back bedroom.
Your mother was a dog.
A dog? Velvet fur, a happy
The poem finishes with:
A dog is with you when you cook,
clean, play, sleep. A dog. Does she
know what she is saying?
If my mother was a bitch,
then what does that make you?
She is learning that the world is not always kind, but also building a self that’s willing to think and stand up for herself.
The poems in “Home Brew” are built from loss and longing: loss of a young girl’s mother to cancer (“My Mother’s Nipples,” “Einstein’s Bees”), fear of losing her father to a new wife (“Not Ms. Janet,” “On Being a Golden Retriever”), loss of home (“The Night My House Burned”), loss of a brother to mental illness (“I Lost My Brother in Somewhere in 1990,” “Tampering with Property”), and finally, the loss of a young marriage (“Of Another Nature I Did Not Know,” “Oak Trees”). In the haunting, elegiac “Einstein’s Bees,” Brown’s speaker sees her mother in a dream, swarmed by bees:
A buzz so loud I couldn’t feel
my fingernails break off below the quick.
She blew one to me and asked
me to eat it.
In “Judy Bloom Never Wrote About Widowed Fathers,” there is the loss of girlhood, the fear and shame of her coming of age. She laments her continuing alienation from her father:
Each time that thickened gel poured
out I begged God to make me a boy.
Maybe then my father would talk
Luci Brown’s craft is sly and deceptively simple. Though devoid of verbal pyrotechnics, there is a budding master at work here. Each word in each poem is carefully chosen, not just for overt meaning, but for the subtle shadings as well. Careful attention is given to line breaks and enjambments, “narcissistic/type of catastrophe,” ” beyond the mainstream /attention deficit,” “in the diner. People /aren’t looking,” and “queen. I didn’t want/them.” Brown is able to create a second level of meaning to the eye, ear, and heart that the reader may perceive only subliminally. In “Ace Fencing Company,” the lines “or how short she kept her nails. Father rests his hand on my bony shoulder,” the “nails. Father rests” enjambment can bring up thoughts of “coffin nails,” or nails through hands. The dual imagery of “Father,” and the word “rests” further the themes of death, loss, and the possibility of redemption.
A quartet of poems near the end of the book, “Bodies and Puzzles,” “Huggable,” “Of Another Nature I Did Not,” and “Oak Trees,” address falling in love, marriage and divorce. In “Bodies and Puzzles,”
My hand traces the birthmark on his
shoulder. A tanned splotch mimicking
the one on my back. Joshua says
it’s because we’re all made as puzzle
pieces. He says our birthmarks
are what connect us.
And in “Oak Trees,”
Joshua is standing in the woods
at a distance but it’s a muffled version of him.
… Not Joshua but charcoal ash formed together in the shape
of Joshua. Burning like a wildfire.
It’s in the series of title poems that the girl, then woman, declares herself. In a culture where comfort and community are found in both churches and bars, where alcohol is used as both salve and sacrament, she eschews it almost every time, as if to say, “No, I need to feel all of this.” She’s learned this brew is just as bitter as the “Home Brew,” she grew up in, and knows she’s had enough of that taste. This could be her manifesto, and by the last poem, she emerges, if not triumphant, at least unbroken:
My father sits
beside me, slides
a tiny plastic cup
of beer my way.
I tell him it tastes
like our mother’s
“Home Brew’s” stark snapshots of love and loss, confusion and self-discovery demand to be read and heard, and then read and heard again. Luci Brown doesn’t spare us anything; she tells us the truth.