by Brent Goodman
Black Lawrence Press 2009
Reviewed by Rick Marlatt
“There is no afterlife.”
Brent Goodman’s debut collection breathes a brilliant fuse of flashback, spirituality, and honest inspection of the universe. Throughout The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, Goodman achieves surprising breakthroughs in consciousness, all the time tending subject matter that could not be more difficult. While mending the wounds inflicted by a brother’s tragic death, Goodman articulates poignant and evocative images with graceful humility and pinpoint precision. Comprised of three structurally and thematically distinct sections, Goodman’s work also showcases marvelous versatility. He beckons readers into his balance of desperation and tranquility, and notes, “I’ve left the door unlocked.”
Key early pieces such as “Séance” and “Improvisation” (from the book’s opening section, “Narrowly Missing the Moon”) hint at the questions of fate, destiny, life, and death that the poet directly confronts as the collection progresses. The first poem, “Another Prayer Poem,” sets the tone beautifully with brave investigations of faith, grief, and hope, and begins with truly memorable lines:
Dear religion, there is no afterlife.
I hope you don’t mind me saying this.
When you say heaven on earth
I think: the dead read minds.
When you say dust to dust
I say: this body is a riverbed.
Goodman’s direct plunge into the impetus of his poetics engages the reader in a way that is linguistically forceful, yet audibly subtle, and the contrast in images is clearly effective. The use of italics commands heightened attention to not only the poignancy of the language, but also reflects the disparate voices and emotionality behind the words.:
Will the congregation please
recite what this wall of stained glass
is trying to tell you? Dear Buddha,
I’ve been knocking from the inside.
As the poem continues, Goodman injects interrogation into the flow, recharging an already energized momentum. Goodman’s interfaith references provide a universality to his poetry that keeps his lines from ever approaching predictable didacticism:
Heaven is not an ecosystem.
when I dream my brother visits me
it is my brother looking at his reflection
through my eyes, my sleeping tongue.
When we die we turn inside out
and call this turning a tunnel made of light.
Goodman concludes the piece with equally powerful connections between faith and reason, ending with a realization that transcends distress or euphoria, and lends great dignity to living and dying and the intellect’s ability to put these into perspective. Goodman employs beautiful couplets with consistent line length, rendering a lucid quest for the reader.
The middle section, “Evaporation,” is anchored by sweeping, emotional pieces of picturesque memoir (“Maier,” and “Moving Past”) and centers its focus exclusively on the emotional and spiritual reaction to the brother’s death. In the brief, but powerful piece, “Mayfly,” Goodman combines personal loss with the natural environment to produce stirring images:
Lake fly hatching
dulls the evening air.
Two summers before
my brother’s diagnosis.
to his oddly lit room—
The light he left on
darkened by a swarm.
Goodman displays the powers of memory in this haiku-like snapshot of awareness. This poem serves as a microcosm for the entire collection, in that Goodman demonstrates tremendous skill and innovation with his relationship to the mysterious, a vision that seems enhanced by a familiarity with loss and the undying urge to embrace life for what it is.
“Spiral Course,” the collection’s third and final section, untwists itself from the intense focus on specific stimuli and reaches toward larger perceptions and understandings. While many of Goodman’s movements and images are founded in the dark realms of tragedy, what we come away with as readers is an unwavering sense of hope. In “Famous Last Words,” Goodman begins,
I don’t want to die with a quote bit under my tongue. I don’t
want my last words to be I love you or a distant hug goodbye.
Give me the courage to write my last line in time to revise it.
Here we see a poet devoted to the journey of defining his own unique, intense relationship with the universe. Though we constantly find ourselves lurking through the dark spaces of Goodman’s often nightmarish lines, we are conscious of a constant movement toward the light. This unwavering sense of hope is exemplified by lighter, quirky pieces late in the collection including “Science Fiction,” “Bad Birthday,” and “How Was Your Weekend?”
What Goodman brings is the power to tread through the gloom. In a larger sense, Goodman demonstrates the power of poetry to heal life’s most visible scars. Goodman’s work offers not an escape from the tragedies of life, but rather, a unique sensibility with which to contend with those experiences and to respond to them with invention. As readers, we are witness to the poet’s miraculous reckoning between past and present, as well as the power of Goodman’s versatility in form and the immediacy of his images. And we are dismissed at the book’s conclusion with the uncanny feeling of experiencing our own release. Ghostly and emotionally stunning, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me exemplifies Goodman’s remarkable poetic gesture, and ought to signal the genesis of a valuable body of work.