Review: FAR FROM SUDDEN by Brent Goodman
Review by JOSH ENGLISH
Brent Goodman’s second book Far From Sudden is broken up into four sections: “Gravity,” “Telemetry,” “Eventually,” and “Trajectory.” It is worth noting that each section-title is a form of measurement and that, besides “telemetry,” they are also demotic terms we use to qualify or describe patterns of our lives. Goodman here is measuring the shape and dissonance of living. When he is handling difficulties and conflicts, Goodman is painfully precise, as I’ll describe later. He is equally invested in the immeasurable elements, such as memory, love and the spirit. These moments of speculative spirituality are often as metaphorically surprising as the surrealism of Middle Eastern poets like Darwish or Amichai, combining incongruous elements that extend the mystery of the subject under scrutiny rather than isolate or describe it. In an early poem, “Glass Painting with Sun,” Goodman dispenses with the personal and studies one of Kandinsky’s stained glass pieces with sensory details of accomplished clarity, as in the lines: “across the empty rose trellis // the transparent sound of water.” This perception extends into the metaphorical, elaborating the searching quality of viewing art, without specifying what object the search pursues:
Imagine the thousand echoing room
beneath the surface of the lake –
a single wooden boat
sways in the harbor, testing
each door with its heavy key.
Intimate and rigorous, the poems of Far From Sudden are often like listening to a smarter and more aware friend come to the limits of description, and continue further.
Goodman’s book chronicles a familiar pattern: a young adult in the city with a mediocre job, frustrated and longing for change, then into the happiness of adulthood and the growth of spiritual curiosity, the satisfaction and work of a developed, committed relationship, all marked by the abrupt (if not “sudden”) rupture of medical emergency. Many of the experiences are recognizable, even common (there’s a waiting-in-line-at-the-DMV poem and a car wreck poem in there), and the language is often lush but serviceable. So why are these poems so damn pleasurable? Generally, the verse forms develop from the narrative lyric, with frequent surrealistic wisdom and illogic, on to the tight, controlled poems of “Telemetry,” that are all made up of five couplets a piece, employing fragmentary parataxis: “Not afraid of that. Continuous. / The part of me already over // there is witness but willing to wait / for the cast party. We’re not quite done / with all this fun nothing,” (“All This Fun Nothing”), marked, as in this quoted section, by cleverly suggestive enjambment (“part of me already over // there…” and, “not quite done / with…” in a poem set in a hospital after a near fatal emergency), and also a haiku-like brevity (“One of the cats dies and I’m the dad // who postponed the vet appointment. Two / doors open,” [“What Happens Next”]). The next section, “Eventually,” is a grab bag of verse forms, sometimes employing a straight-up, consistent surrealism, with poem openings like, “I exchange lives with my dream self…” (“A Dream You Don’t Remember Remembers You”) and “Slingshot my eyes back into the sun,” (“What To Do With My Body”), spatial fragmentation, with lines or whole stanzas scattered around the page, anaphora and probably a lot more, finishing with the gestural pieces of the final section. It’s difficult to catalogue all the techniques Goodman employs, not just because he is such a skillfully subtle practitioner (he is), but because his content is so interesting. But didn’t I just say the settings of the poems are pedestrian? I think Goodman goes beyond the stock praise we read in blurbs, that he makes the everyday magical. Goodman leaps from the everyday into the content of living, and for him, the many compromises and ruptures and silences of the everyday are pieces of… something. But it’s a very big Something. His poems are more concerned with searching than with construction.
The central action of Far From Sudden is a heart attack, the subject of most of the second section “Telemetry.” Apparently now living in a rural setting (he had to be air-lifted to the nearest big hospital), the speaker of these poems describes his trauma with a starkness and vulnerability that is both admirable and difficult to read. The poem “The Ground Left Me,” examines the event, beginning with the lines, “This morning I had a heart attack, / gurneyed pale and shirtless O2 mask / past my coworkers,” with arrestingly exact details, such as, “they thread the stent in twenty minutes // from groin to heart.” It closes with the line “And I’m there too,” as if the drama and great luck of survival outweighs identity. The poem has the surge of details and panic of recent memory, and indeed it is the only dated poem, suggesting that it was written a day or so after the trauma. But his admirable felicity to precise documentation doesn’t mean this is a daybook of medical occasion.
The speaker who recalled the occurrences of the first section, detailing frustrated city life, as I mentioned above, is also the speaker of “Telemetry.” Whereas the preceding section, “Gravity,” dealt with memory and the desire for both a fullness of and a rupture with the self, we see the same speaker experience actual fullness (this is a much more confident, as well as a happier man) and actual rupture, in the form of physical trauma. “Gravity” and “Telemetry” complement each other with their mutual investment in disunity. Where the speaker of “Gravity” examined a younger self and his spiritual and emotional fracture, exploring the curious discord inherent in remembering (and misremembering) one’s past self as a ghost of the present self, the same speaker must now experience the disunity of the body’s failure in an otherwise healthy life.
The next two sections are also complimentary pairs. The poems of both sections are generally non-traditional in appearance on the page, and they both treat death and recovery as intimates. As with the previous section-pairing, the first of the pair, “Eventually,” establishes a general time frame (a little before and a little after the heart attack, I’m guessing). These are poems of emotional, if not always physical, security. They are poems of domestic happiness, as in the poem, “I Used to Think I Was Only One Person”: “When asked for our address / we might insist we live more like trees / than tenants.” And poems searching for a broader identity, as in “One Nation Under Me,” which is about a trip to the National Archives, “to learn / what makes my family history fathomless or / miraculous,” as well as a mediation on God’s divination. And just as with the last pair, the second section of this pair is written in a consistent form. But this time that regular form is not number of lines per stanza or number of stanzas, but formlessness.
“Trajectory,” is one scrambled poem entitled “The Sky Behind Us.” It’s a collage-like smattering of short lines across 16 pages, disorganized and cumulative as notes, jotted down by one whose isolation is interrupted by the flight of a bird through the window and a ringing phone. It isn’t difficult to imagine Goodman, convalescing at home, scribbling this section. The impressionistic pieces of this poem progress in a steady spiritual development that is rooted in the natural world. It’s curious that these pieces, so loose and sensory, are the most located. On one page, we find the riddle of the past and the memory-constructed self in the form of a wish that, “[w]hen our path reflects / the sky behind us / may we fly right / through ourselves.” This poem looks out the window and questions the relevance of a single self.
If these sections were all collected on a single page as a more uniform poem, the epigraphic nature of these pieces would lose the isolation that enhances our attention to them. Slowness and carefulness is the object of this section. Also, these pieces do not combine into a final, epiphanic conclusion. By separating chunks of the poem, they remain pieces, contributing non-intuitively to an unfinished whole. Goodman reminds us that breakage, even of the plaster of survival, is a continuation and not an end. He is a poet of endless searching, as the final page reminds us:
three doves on a power line:
one facing, one away –
Where is the third bird?