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Prufer, Kevin. National Anthem. New York: Four Way Book, 2008. 82 pp. $15.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Reginald Dwayne Betts

There are poets writing who know a poem is also place, a crowded room where one can be whomever he or she desires, who understand that to be able to write a poem is a form of freedom. The publication of National Anthem shows Kevin Prufer to be this kind of writer. In this collection, the voices are myriad and unexpected: gunfire, a shopping mall, young girls in heaven, history, and the American West all speak. And yet the collection’s preoccupation is not with voices, but with the idea of nationhood—how it crumbles and how people love while it crumbles.

Beyond exhibiting freedom from constricting identity a poem can offer, Kevin Prufer’s National Anthem primarily manipulates this freedom as a means of shifting the poet’s eye away from himself onto the worlds these poems are actively creating, worlds that challenge readers to take up each disjointed moment he describes with both hands.

Split into two untitled sections, Prufer’s latest collection introduces readers to his America first. He writes in “Apocalypse,” “Around that time the city grew quiet” (3). Ostensibly, this “time” refers to the particular moment contained within the poem—a day two lovers find themselves walking amidst ruins. Yet, the slant of Prufer’s poetic eye suggests that the “time” he refers to is not particular, but a moment in which many nations find themselves, a moment when death becomes a little more commonplace and people become preoccupied with televisions, shopping malls and a past they seem to be repeating. This opening poem calls forth images of fallen empires, of crumbling democracies. However, Prufer shapes the direction of a reader’s pondering by shifting the narrative throughout the collection. Titles that announce pending doom are love poems where lovers sweep ash from province streets. In “The Moon Is Burning,” Prufer relies on an unnamed speaker to narrate a moment of disaster. Though the moon burns and ash fills the streets of the unnamed province, the disaster is not the speaker’s preoccupation. In the final moments, the speaker pronounces “I waited for your letter from the city,/ but it never came.” Prufer offers a world that isn’t simple or simply indicted.

Throughout the first section, Rome and America are linked via a subtle association that highlights the importance of the sequencing this collection. Early on, Prufer presents a trilogy of poems about America: “We Wanted to Find America,” “A History of the American West,” and “National Anthem.” Here, he begins a narrative approach that pervades most of the book. In “We Wanted to Find America,” one of the more direct narratives, the speaker is literally and figuratively displaced, riding along a stretch of highway in a truck. It begins, “We wanted to find America through the gasps of snow that fell like last century’s angels—/ And the starving horses, their shanks brittled over with ice” (5). Here, as in many other poems, Prufer works with a long line. The speaker hints at spiritual falling as well as a physical breakdown with these starving horses in many ways symbolic of America’s identity as a frontier nation. And yet, as the poem yokes concerns of spirituality to the colonial past. Prufer incorporates the present through quotidian details. Familiar places are mentioned—Super 8, the Waffle House, the Motel 6, the thing—yet the America that the speaker is looking for remains elusive. In the end, only a moment of questioning remains as the couple walks the street, the speaker noting, “the office towers bending down to us as if they’d cup us in their/ hands and warm us,/ as if they’d lift us from the street before we froze” (6).

Throughout the collection surfaces a sense of displacement and of searching for meaning, as well as an interrogation of what it means to be American. That is what “A History of the American West” offers, and it is ultimately what the title poem, “National Anthem,” offers with its talk of shopping malls and the narrator’s hearing “the nation speak through the accumulation of the  suburbs” (12). As Prufer explores the areas where Rome and America intersect, he always ends up overhearing the lives of others. “The Pastor” begins with the lovely admission: “I was a long pew of lonely men,” (7) then seamlessly weaves together a story of a moment of prayer and one of a moment of execution. The result is narrative but not “narrative”—an argument against the disconnectedness of activity within this nation. The speaker pulls a death scene that happens outside the church into the moment of his kneeling in worship, and the two conflate eerily, as if to say when Rome falls, everything and everyone falls with it: “Someone put a rifle in his mouth/ and the pastor said, Amen./ The bell crashed through the tower” (8).

National Anthem suggests that the story of Rome’s fall was about more than the death of Caesar. In turning away from a narrative model that is personal, Prufer highlights the unnamed figures in his work. At times, this is accomplished subtlety. Reading “The Means Boys,” one may see how a narrative about trouble-making kids in town becomes a way for the speaker to reminisce about how their presence was necessary, given that in their absence “the lot is always empty” and the speaker is left to pass by and “miss the flash/ when they opened their mouths to laugh” (75).

Even with the empathetic eye, the speaker in these poems remains somewhat removed. Prufer consistently turns away from the “I” to generate his material. This results a in distance in his poems that may be difficult to span. Prufer avoids naming names and, in fact, only two poems, “The Excavation of the Children of the Czar” and “The Party by the Lake” contain proper nouns. This absence is prominent in sequence of poems framed as letters titled, “The Enormous Parachute.” National Anthem features a series of speakers who live alone in an imagined world. Is this rejection of specificity meant to distance the poet from the poem in a way that precludes him from being thought of as speaker in the “I” poems? If so, then the issue with Prufer’s approach is that it seems overly concerned with not choosing sides in a battle contrived in the minds of critics and poets. He writes as if every word is refuting the use of the personal “I” or, more precisely, the personal “eye.” As a result, not only does he avoid appearing as the voice in the poems, but the speakers he enlists refuse to announce themselves as anything more than such. Yet, there is a real world that writers embody, a world peopled by the heartbeats and cries of human beings that have names. In its strongest moments, Prufer’s National Anthem reaches for that common and visceral humanity, but this excellent collection is, unfortunately, weighed down by the poet’s turning away from a fearless particularization of the lives and events that he feels worthy of being sung.

Maybe this distance in fact fills our world and leaves so many people in Prufer’s collection traveling—riding in trucks and cars along highways searching for something never quite named in the poems. And maybe the unnamed thing many of them seem to search for is an audience for their story. Thus Prufer’s National Anthem may be about the disappearance of people and the death that drove them away. In Prufer’s Rome, Caesar isn’t spared the carnage of the fall by death. He is there witnessing the stories, just as we are. These poems are about the way lives struggle against the movement of a society towards destruction, towards the accumulation of “dead embers/ over [our] eyes” (43). While these poems run away from a certain kind linear storytelling, they present a series of narratives—such as the confronting of cities burned to ashes in “The Moon Is Burning” or the realization of who wonder soldiers “who would save [them]” in “Those Who Could Not Flee”-that capture stories disjointed by the traumas.

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REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS was recently awarded the 2009 Beatrice Hawley Award for his manuscript Shahid Reads His Own Palm, which will be published in May 2010. A Cave Canem fellow, his poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review and Poet Lore among others. Along with being awarded the Holden Fellowship from MFA program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Betts is a Breadloaf Writer’s Conference scholarship recipient and a graduate of Prince George’s Community College in Largo, MD and the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. In August 2009 his memoir, A Question of Freedom, will be published by Avery/Penguin. Betts is also a POST NO ILLS editorial intern.