Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Iceman Cometh: A Response to Joel Brouwer

In a recent post on "Avoiding the Muse," C. Dale Young questioned the utility of poetry reviews. I second the question after reading Joel Brouwer's ice-axing of Roy Jacobstein's A Form of Optimism (Northeastern University Press, 2006); a review that appears in this morning's New York Times Book Review.

Writing a short notice in an omnibus review titled "Poetry Chronicle," Brouwer pulls out his tool and makes quick work of Jacobstein's left temple. Brouwer writes:

"How many full blown road-to-Damascus revelations can we expect to have per-lifetime? Perhaps it is not unreasonable to hope for one or two? Like so many contemporary poets, Jacobstein lays claim to that many per page: his epiphanies arrive as predictably as the 5:15 bus at the end of each poem's workday, ready to take us home to a comfortable lesson."

After citing three examples from Jacobstein's book that Brouwer claims (without particular reference to the texts of the poems) establish his point, Brower tosses the author a bone--though how Jacobstein might gnaw on it with so much metal in his skull remains problematic. Brouwer continues:

"...[W]hen he does kick off the sensible shoes of the 'anecdote + reflection = insight' school, [Jacobstein] shows himself capable of some truly fresh and vivid writing."

No examples, of course, are offered by the critic.

It isn't clear what Brouwer has against epiphanal moments in poetry. To claim (as Brouwer does) that they "pander" to the poetry audience by "repeating back to them what they already believe to be true" is to postulate what remains to be proven-- about epiphanies, about belief and about audience response. It might be noted that many entirely reasonable people are not persuaded of the authenticity of Paul's experience as he approached the capital of Syria. It may be that Brouwer himself has never written to a moment of genuine insight, but it is his criticism, not his poetry, that concerns me.

No, the problem is that Brouwer is flat-ass wrong about this book, and proves himself a very poor reader of Jacobstein's poetry in the process of writing the review.

Brouwer writes, "In 'The Dog Races in Florida' we learn that though our loved ones die, we must go on living." Is that what the poem is about? Here is the evidence. Judge for yourself whether Brouwer has come anywhere near an accurate reading of the poem:


He can't stop thinking
of his mother, contorted
in her last bed, her voice

Running to empty, able
only to repeat A point, I need
a better point,
and unbidden,

he flashes to the dog track
in Florida, the loudspeaker
growling over its own static

Here comes Swifty--and they're off!:
a mass of yelping greyhounds
chasing that tiny tin rabbit

trailing the black Buick coupe.
Around and around the tamped
dirt the pack strains. Anyone

would have bet the dogs
had learned by now no matter
how fast they run, Swifty runs

faster. Then the point breaks
clear: They know and run anyway.*

I read the poem as an original (and nearly cynical) comment on the futility of life; a suggestion that many of us will choose to go on living in futility no matter how unwise that choice is. I do not read it as a sentimental comment about anyone's mother, as a sweet insight about the "Great Chain of Life" metaphor, or whatever it is that Brouwer claims the poem to be.

In similar--no, in even more annoying fashion, Brouwer has misread the poem "Sighting" as "[Informing us] that there have been occasions in history when people were persecuted based on their ethnic identities, and that this is wrong"** and the poem "Spastic," which I read as a self-indictment by the speaker of the poem, not as moral instruction about the handicapped.

Brouwer's rhetorical claim that Jacobstein delivers epiphanies at the rate of two-per-page may have been intended as hyperbole; Brouwer is such a poor reader, it is difficult to be sure. In any event, the more general charge is not borne out by the evidence--the texts of the poems themselves. Brouwer cites three of Jabobstein's poems to make his case. I will offer six, almost randomly chosen--"almost" because I want you to read a cross-section of this remarkable book. Read the title poem, read "Peach Time, Nepal," read "Jewel Case," "Discovery," Depth of Field" and the long, stunning sequence "Mosaic: Istanbul" and ask yourself whether Brouwer has treated Jacobstein's work fairly. It is one thing for Brouwer to dislike the literary epiphany, that is his privilege. It is quite another to accuse a poet (on scant evidence) of tepidness, or of mannerisms that do not appear in the poems.

As for the book--as must be obvious, I love this book. But don't believe me about what an important collection Roy Jacobstein has assembled. This is what David Kirby says, from the back cover of A Form of Optimism:

"If poets were athletes, Roy Jacobstein's specialty would be the triple jump, that graceful, hysterical combination of running and leaping that can take a competitor fifty feet or more. Look at a poem like 'The Mystery and Melancholy of the Street,' for example, in which he sails all the way from Pago Pago to Argentina to Billie Holiday to Benjamin Franklin in just a few lines. And when the intern treating his busted clavicle says 'hoops,' he thinks of the little girl in Giorgio di Chirico's famous painting, rolling her hoop into the ominous shade. And out again: not in the painting, but in Jacobstein's mind, so agile and richly imaginative that his every glance amounts, as the title of this collection says, to a form of optimism."


* My apologies that the version of Jacobstein's "The Dog Races in Florida" which appears on "Sonnets at 4 A.M." does not reflect that the lines of the tercets are progressively indented thoroughout the poem. I can make the poem appear in proper form in my draft, but cannot make it properly appear in the "published" format.

**Even under the space pressure of a 233-word (my count) micro-review, it is difficult to imagine a more snide, yawning dismissal of the horrors of racism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, problems that Roy Jacobstein, as a physician working in international public health, deals with on a regular basis. Inserting "Yada, yada, yada" would have only raised Brouwer's word count to 236.

It is odd that Brouwer makes no mention of Jacobstein's profession. Perhaps the reviewer, an academic, is unaware of Jacobstein's day job. Setting aside the content of the poems themselves, Brouwer would not have had to look far to inform himself. This is part of what Lucia Perillo, who judged the 2006 Morse Prize, wrote in her Introduction to A Form of Optimism:

"As a poet and doctor engaged in the field of public health, Roy Jacobstein observes the world--OK, witnesses--from a singularly important vantage. He has the rare authority to say of the AIDS crisis in Africa: 'We found the needs many / But let us not talk about that, / as the people do not.' And when the rental car rolls on (actually, Jacobstein rides in a 'project vehicle'), he dwells not on the obvious and complicated politics of the virus but instead on the details that skitter away from the temptations of propaganda."

Oh yes, the Morse Prize. Did I mention that A Form of Optimism won the 2006 Samuel French Morse Prize in Poetry? Brouwer doesn't say a thing about the prize. Why not?


Blogger BRENT GOODMAN said...

I agree that reviews like Joel Brouwers "ice-axing" read more as academic jockying for the reviewer's status than to helping a potential reader discover - or avoid - a new writer. Now, Joel and I were good friends in Madison, WI before we lost touch a few years back, and he is really a mild-mandered, generous soul in person. But I'm afraid his "reviewer" personae is why some like C. Dale Young and yourself (and myself?) question the utility of poetry reviews - especially in a mass market circulation like NYT.

3:34 PM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...


Thank you for your comment. I've never met Brouwer, though I have read his poems in the journals and I'm ordering his books--if I take someone on, I like to have ammunition; or rather, a factual basis for an opinion.

Life is too short for the way certain critics--I am thinking of people like William Logan--choose to spend their time.

I've read your blog before and admire it. Once I figure out how to do links--as must be obvious, I really have no idea WHAT I am doing--I will set one up with you.

Greg Rappleye

8:46 PM  

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