Exit Pursued by a Bear
By Gaylord Brewer (Cherry Grove, 110 pp., $17)
Barely into middle age, Gaylord Brewer has already published over 500 poems, including six chapbooks and four full-length collections. His work has been featured in anthologies as important and diverse as American Diaspora: Poetry of Exile; Clockpunchers: Poetry of the American Workplace; and Vespers: Religion and Spirituality in Contemporary American Poetry. He counts among his loyal readers many of his generation's finest poets, including Virgil Suarez, Dana Gioia, William Greenway and Barbra Hamby. An English professor at Middle Tennessee State University, where he also edits the literary journal Poems and Plays, Brewer is, by any account, a wildly successful poet.
His newest release, Exit Pursued by a Bear (the title refers to a stage direction in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale), will do nothing to diminish his stature. Filled with his usual wry wit and a kind of deadpan uneasiness, Exit continues Brewer's take on the dark side of a seemingly bright world. "Surviving the Good Times," concludes:
My eyes have cleared. I haven't seen
his well in years. No choice but to wait
for some saner madness. Dark winter bliss.
Storm song. The gorgeous glare of hips
distorted in the dance. Hunting season.
It would be a great distortion to label Brewer a dark poet, however. It's undeniably true that a certain nihilism lurks beyond the surface of several of these poems, but there is also a profound lack of outright cynicism. While his narrators rarely forget their ultimate fate, they are blessed with insight enough to admire the exquisite properties of the very waters that drown them. In the poem "Monday Morning," for example, the speaker is an old man alone, isolated in a run-down apartment. Prior to his isolation, he had clearly lived a sensual life. Now, when he is old and "freed from all burden of significance," he locates the essence of that sensuality:
No dog today will sniff with recognition,
paw my sleeve with mud or unfurl a silly tongue,
and, best of all, no woman anywhere
throw a door wide as I approach, call my name
or otherwise destroy my luxurious longing.
This subversion of the expected viewpoint is typical of Brewer. He simply imagines things from peculiar perspectives. The narrator of "Terminex," for example, is a cockroach who has "learned to keep my palpus shut, / scurry back to a world quiet and small." In "Mama," it's the narrator-husband who does the scrubbing for his fisherwoman wife, who "tells me of an icy / current caressing her hips...." And in "A Better Jesus," the poet imagines Jesus not as a "mournful, long-lashed wallflower," but as one who "recognizes blood on his hands":
This Jesus loves this life above
all others, for there be no others, and when,
like you, like me, he rubs tired bones,
their ridges announce a testament of remorse
and glory, sing an answer, a father's curse, years
too brief. And the voice he hears is Legion.
Brewer's work is usually about more than what meets the eye, but it is always and foremost about the things of this world. While the structures of his poems are ordinary enoughgenerally short narratives, often lyricalhis storytellers are less ordinary and their perceptions of their surroundings less ordinary still. Brewer is a singular talent, and the 60 poems in this newest collection are his best work to date.
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