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
I grew up in
a nice house on the good side of town with
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
my sister and me, dirt coalescing in their folds.
Angie's purple. A sequin lands on my eyelash,
everything out, I pile on stocking caps, Grandpa's
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
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.