BOOK REVIEW

Mark Brazaitis who is an award winning short story writer as well as a fine novelist also writes poetry, and here another award winning RPCV poet, Phil Dacey, writes a review of Mark’s latest collection.

otherlanguageThe Other Language: Poems
by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala, 1991–93)
ABZ Poetry Press
2009

Reviewed by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 1963–65)

I wish Mark Brazaitis had been chosen to present the Presidential inaugural poem instead of Elizabeth Alexander, whose lackluster effort probably won few converts to poetry and disappointed most poets I know.  Brazaitis, on the other hand, would have told a story rich in character and resplendent with language that while familiar — not straining to be poetic — nevertheless rose to the level of memorable song, precisely what was needed on January 20th.  As he writes at the very end of the book: “I don’t know her nor she me. / Today this is not obstacle enough: / she sings.”  The general reader and Brazaitis don’t know each other, but that does not keep him from singing.

The Other Language exemplifies perfectly T. S. Eliot’s definition of poetry as “prose that has developed a sense of aeronautics.”  Brazaitis has an impeccable musical ear and with it as guide is able to fly far higher than poets who thrash about in contorted language but rarely get off the ground.  In poem after poem, Brazaitis brings into play his skills and experience as a novelist and short story writer, condensing onto a few pages human dramas refracted through a voice consistent in its clarity and powerful affect.  And in making doing so look easy, he is downright Horation: the art is to hide the art.

“Dona Alicia’s Story” and “Rosaura’s Story” are prime examples of Brazaitis’s quintessential strength.  The poems, both of them spoken by Guatemalan women, are acts of ventriloquism, monologues, persona poems; in one a mother tells of the loss of a son to the guerillas and in the other a wife tells of a sadistic husband she would like to lose.  Both poems confirm what Wilfred Owen knew: the poetry is in the pity.  They also confirm Brazaitis’s trust in the human voice when it speaks with urgency of what is most dear;  Wordsworth’s “sad incompetence of human speech” may have a point but the work of Brazaitis makes a deeper point, that as inadequate as the tool of language may be, it can offer an incomparable glimpse into a great range of experience otherwise outside our ken.  Indeed, its ultimate inadequacy adds its own layer of pathos.  Fortunately for us, Brazaitis is no post-modernist using language’s insufficiency as an excuse to trash it completely.

A clue to Brazaitis’s success can be found in “We Need a War,” which delivers in ironic terms a plea for peace and contains these lines:

We’ll count as wounded the soldiers
who become so enchanted with the languages
of these detested countries,
they speak them as if each word
began a poem.

Brazaitis has applied that standard to his own language, handling English with a certain wonder, feeling its freshness as if he were coming to it as an outsider.  Thus the simplest word can become strange, exotically alluring in contrast to a silenced voice.  In “I Know I Could Love You,” one of the book’s many love poems, he writes, “How much water you must have swallowed / to reach me,” lines emotionally weighted and plangent out of all proportion to the elementary diction he employs.  And in the same poem, when he repeats the title as a line by itself, we realize that behind it stands Neruda as love-poet–”I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her”–but that Brazaitis is too strong a writer to serve up warmed-over, derivative surrealism and instead persists with artistic integrity to mine his own personal vein, discovering what Valery called “the language inside the language.”  The book’s title, therefore, besides referring to a so-called foreign language also refers to the poet’s native language in its otherness.

And, finally, it’s appropriate that a book beginning with the international perspective of an American in Guatemala should end with concerns about the environment, war, and the ultimate fate of the human race.  Dinosaurs are invoked to remind us of our vulnerability, and in “Golden,” which is almost entirely interrogative, the poet contemplates environmental disaster and the end of civilization in stark and haunting terms:

…when the Antarctic Peninsula’s
Larsen B ice shelf–as large
as the island of Hawaii–collapsed…
What football game were we watching?

Indeed, Mark Brazaitis would not have had to write an inaurgual poem if he had been asked but only have had to read “Golden.”  It would have taught millions of people the power of poetry.  It would have confounded the cynics who claim poetry is written only for an in-group of other poets.  And it would have teamed up perfectly with a President who commands rhetoric not to hide the truth but to highlight and promote it.

Philip Dacey’s latest of ten books is Vertebrae Rosaries: Fifty Sonnets (Red Dragonfly Press, 2009).  His awards include a Fulbright lectureship to Yugoslavia, two National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowships, and three Pushcart prizes.  More about him appears at www.philipdacey.com.