Detailed Apprehension

Bobcat Country,
Brandi Homan (79pp, 9.00, Shearsman)

Give me a blue pencil, because this poet deserves one.

Brandi Homan's Bobcat Country is an engaging small collection, full of a wealth of insight about what Raymond Williams would call a very particular 'structure of feeling'--that of the complex affective life of lower-middle class girls in the American Midwest of the 1980s/90s. Many of the pieces are beautifully crafted and have an admirable density of language. It is the combination of these two things, its detailed apprehension of cultural life in a precisely and intricately felt poetic language, which makes this collection so worthwhile. Consider these lines from 'Mobile Homecoming':
      . . . Or really that I was culturally bankrupt from growing up
     in a vacuum cleaner.

     I grew up in a nice house on the good side of town with
     parents who loved me and a gun rack in the basement. . .

These pieces are chock full of the detritus of this life, the poet sometimes literally buried in the left over junk in the closet:

     . . . The prom dresses
     belonging to my sister and me, dirt coalescing in their folds.
     My red. Angie's purple. A sequin lands on my eyelash,

     To get everything out, I pile on stocking caps, Grandpa's
     hunting vest, four-odd pairs of moonboots. Mismatched
     mittens . . .

These lists of items from 'Recurring Dream House' tell us everything, or partially everything, and of course only if we were there, or partially there. They are a semiotic language based on shared experience. Four-odd pairs of moonboots open up multiple layers of meaning to those of us who lived with them too. Other readers will fill in the gaps.  None of us will get precisely to Homan's own structure of feeling, but I think it will haunt most of us.

What is particularly complex and useful about this poetry is the opportunity it gives us to think through the things poetic language can do with material life. Is there a difference between a poetic use of language and its other generic uses? Mikhail Bakhtin and his colleagues argued that the graphic and syntactic presentation of language in poetry made us aware of its strangeness, its status as language.  The Romantics celebrated its affective density. Language poetry took the position that since language itself was inextricable from material life, to radically alter it was a radical intervention in material life itself.  This works if we don't think about audience, reception and dissemination. After Modernism, explorations of the gestural density of language were largely replaced by explorations of juxtaposition, most trendily referred to as fragmentation. At times, Homan works in this tradition--Yes, it's a tradition. It's a hundred years old now.--as in 'Me and You and Everyone We Know' where the title from Miranda July tells you all you need to, and 'Drugstore Cowgirl', which celebrates its status as a cut-up. 

The really strong moments in this collection though, are the places where Homan communicates with us through play with narrative, where the poems have a surreal kind of narrative continuity, as 'Epilogue' does. Sometimes, as in 'When I Grow Up I Want To Be Natalie Dee', she uses the joke structure, to give us both a punch line and a multi-layered commentary on desire, power and the imaginary at the same time.  Homan communicates here, not pedantically or prosaically, but by using all the potential of poetic language to create what Barthes calls 'multiple points of entry' for her reader. We will never know old moonboots in the closet exactly as she did but we are invited into her texts alongside her in subtle, complex and profoundly political ways. Much of the work is located where local culture meets larger structures of ideology, meaning and material life. The closing lines to the sarcastically titled 'Reality TV Has Ruined My Childhood, I.' read:

     Kate says her Mom's been watching 'Trading Spaces,' and
     I know this is happening across the Midwest, farmhouses
     being furnished one Cost Plus World Market piece at a time.

Observations like these, which render the random pointed, make this collection particularly rich.

Which is why I wish there had been just a bit more use of the blue pencil (which these days, of course, is a metaphorical blue pencil). The collection is small, and one can't get away from the feeling that some of the weaker pieces are there because without them it would be too small to be viable. Many years ago, a photography teacher said to me, 'If you're not sure whether or not a piece belongs in your portfolio, then it doesn't.' It's a rule I try to live by. In this collection, pieces like 'A History', a less interesting prose story with line breaks added, detract from the power of the whole.  The collection is punctuated with a series of short prose-poem pieces, of which 'Drugstore Cowgirl' is one of the weaker ones. Some of these, such as 'Maternity' make beautiful use of the form, ending in small poem-sized epiphanies.  Another, 'Semantics', is one of the high points of the collection. When I read a piece like 'Thaw' however, I feel my own cynicism creeping in, and I have to wonder at the way the subject of race can still make perfectly reasonable white people descend into hackneyed metaphors. A judicious editor could have saved Homan from my derision by drawing a nice pale blue X through this poem, making it go away, and letting the strong pieces awe me all on their own. 

I have a feeling, though, that Homan will build on her strengths. I hope she doesn't lose her insight when people begin to recognise them, as I'm sure they will. We need a poet with the kind of awareness of the class politics of the American poetry community Homan displays in 'Iowa Poets'. I, for one, will be looking out for her next collection.

     Meredith Miller 2010