Jenny Browne The Second Reason

Browne, Jenny. The Second Reason. Tampa: U of Tampa P, 2007. 85pp. $12 (paper).

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Reviewed by Yvette Neisser Moreno

Jenny Browne’s latest book, The Second Reason, opens with a quote by Fernando Pessoa: “Be plural like the universe.” Her book fulfills this daunting mission. Browne’s poems—which are highly original and defy easy categorization—take inspiration from the most surprising subjects, including a “man who gives bad directions” and a check for five dollars made out to a restaurant called “The Open Road.” Her poems also reference literary, historical and popular figures ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Cicero to Benjamin Franklin, often incorporating their quotations into the poems. Not only are many of her poems original in subject, but perhaps more importantly, her style of writing is refreshingly distinctive. Her poems open a window for readers to enter into her reflective mind, often following a trajectory that at first seems to be a random train of thought, revealing the strange leaps her mind makes from one image or word to the next, but ultimately weaves together the various images so that each one seems important to the poem’s theme.

Browne’s unusual use of syntax is often integral to her effective synthesis of ideas, as in “The Season of Horses.” The poem begins by recalling a childhood gift of a perfume with a certain “eau de equus,” then describes a diagram of a horse’s body parts, and then riffs on other associations with the word horse:

The diagram lists thirty: gannon,
withers and poll. Poll being
the perfect spot flat between

and forward of the ears.
A poll taken in this room
finds it the place
50% of readers reach first

in the season of horses.
Horse the sound of apple
in two bites. Horse slang
for heroin, horse in the vein.

Horse a vein
of the same geological
character as the rock
occurring in the wall.

So both then,
the stuff and the stuff
that holds the stuff.
Like a gift, like glue. (44-45)

Her varying of syntax involves the placing of one key word at the beginning of a sentence to show the link between one thought and the next—even if the word doesn’t exactly fit there grammatically. This key word may take the form of a noun, a conjunction or some other part of speech. In this poem, for example, the noun horse functions as a key word starting with the lines “the season of horses. / Horse the sound of apple [. . .].” Here, the word horse—without an article or a verb as would be needed grammatically—stands on its own at the beginning of the sentence to indicate that the word itself is the connection among several seemingly unrelated thoughts.

In addition, the conjunction so is used at the beginning of the last stanza to indicate the progression of thought, but without specifying which previous thought it is supposed to connect to. In this case, “So both then” reveals the speaker’s realization that the word horse refers to both the heroin itself (“the stuff”) and the vein (“the stuff / that holds the stuff). In fact, the statement “So both then” embodies Browne’s aesthetic—a refusal to let a poem go in only one direction, insisting instead on exploring multiple possible directions (as in the poem “On the Bus,” where she states, “A sign says One Way but the mind goes both”). In the last line of “The Season of Horses,” Browne brings the poem full circle, with a final metaphor that hearkens back to the gift of perfume at the beginning.

Another defining characteristic of Browne’s poetry is the combination of humor and seriousness, which can jar the reader and thus potentially make a stronger impact. For instance, in “This the Kind of Nonsense,” she begins using a series of humorous associations to define preposition, but ultimately goes on to question the wisdom of the U.S. war in Iraq:

4.

Pre-position(vt) – to deploy ships and troops to
an area of possible future conflict.

Pre-posterous(adj) – going very much against
what is thought to be sensible or reasonable,
from the Latin prae and posterus, literally
“the before coming after.”
[. . .]

6.

To a critic who once corrected his ending of a sentence with a preposition
Winston Churchill said, “This is the kind of nonsense up and which with I will not put.”
[. . .]

8.

Any head born in the late sixties still bobs
to the beat of Conjunction Junction.
Fewer remember The Busy Preposition
[…]

9.

What’s your function?
. . . most commonly placed before . . .
As in why we say a battle
for hearts and minds and not
what hearts and minds are for? (27-28)

While the poem to some extent sets the reader up to expect a commentary on war with lines like “to deploy ships and troops to / an area of possible future conflict” (#4), it is nonetheless startling to arrive at the poem’s final, dead-serious question about the purpose of war directly after the very light reference to the TV commercial “Conjunction Junction.”

Although many poems in the book are written in the train-of-thought/key-word-syntax style described earlier, Browne also employs a variety of other poetic styles, including unpunctuated poems, poems with long lines and no stanza breaks a la Philip Levine, lyrical poems in short lines, and even a pregnancy dream sequence in fourteen parts, one of which is a concrete poem shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly. In addition, the book includes numerous prose poems, another form in which Browne writes well. Her prose poems are not merely poems without line breaks or short prose written in lyrical language, but rather a third form that merges narrative and dialogue with lyrical interludes. For example, “The Day after Thanksgiving” begins with a series of reflections and ruminations about the holiday season while shopping at a mall:

Here you can buy Christmas lights stitched together like a fishing net to fling over square shrubs and haul in hand over hand empty. Every year [. . .] my father took hours to wind light around each branch and my mother needed a moustache to cover her smirk when the plug flopped from the top like the impotent flag of the Republic of Deck the Halls. Those turkey dogs are two for a dollar. (22)

The poem then takes a surprising turn—moving from the price of the most mundane grocery item to a meditation on the pricelessness of transcendence, a yearning for the spiritual element of Christmas:

How much for anything less expected, tender as the frayed fur hem of Santa’s pants fluttering as he rises from his red velvet chair and heads outside to unscrew a single bulb on every strand of those lights then follows the river south like winter. Imagine he knows all the trees, even the one that made the pages of this book and he’s out there touching each needle he can reach, slowly turning their names. (22)

Browne’s ability to move back and forth between the ordinary—both in terms of subject and diction—and the poetic insights written with stunning, vivid language and imagery is what makes these prose poems memorable and difficult to envision in any other form.

While The Second Reason touches on a wide variety of themes, the experience of becoming a mother features most prominently. Interspersed throughout the book are poems tracing this journey, from the desire to have a child, to being pregnant, to giving birth and becoming a parent. (As a mother who went through the same experience not too long ago, I deeply appreciated Browne’s reflections on the subject.) As with her poems on other subjects, she does not dwell on the obvious but rather delves into the intimate, complex thoughts that go through the mind during those early stages of parenthood. Perhaps the most powerful poem on this subject is the fourteen-part masterpiece “There Is a Slow Green River I’ve Been Living By,” in which she gives language to the indescribable experience of an individual transforming into two beings:

The water under the bridge is filled with tiny
black fish, a school of commas. They clarify

that once I waited, grew larger, multiplied
and became two. I divided, stood and walked

on a river of selves. No remainder.

In another poem about motherhood, “Lullaby,” Browne captures in vividly beautiful language the miracle and delicacy of a tiny infant. As she sings her baby to sleep, the speaker wonders, “What makes two eyes close, a small body grow / so much heavier in sleep?” and describes the intimacy of cradling her baby daughter’s delicate head as “[living] another minute on that island / of tender, pulsing between / the shifting plates of her small skull.”

In addition to motherhood, America’s war on terror (especially in Iraq) emerges as a subtext running through the book. Specifically, many poems—such as the earlier quoted “This the Kind of Nonsense”—reflect Browne’s internal struggle with the wars that the United States has been fighting over the last decade. These poems are not political. Rather, they demonstrate that as an individual, she is impacted by the reality of her country’s being at war. She moves back and forth between our experiences and perceptions of the wars from afar, and images of the war itself: Baghdad, the injured civilians, the U.S. soldiers. For example, in “The Season of Mint”—a meditation on mint tea—she writes, “What war lives [. . .] / in this transparent green sip oh pale soldier? / Enough stems to tea a small Arab nation” (9), and in “The Cheap Seats,” she imagines her former schoolmates now “thudding in the dust along the broken back roads of Basra” (12).

Although most of the poems in the collection are quite successful—and some could be described as brilliant—others do not reach Browne’s highest heights. In particular, one element of her poetry that does not always succeed is the inclusion of references to popular culture. “Insomnia” is an example of a best-case scenario, where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous lyric “And this bird you cannot change” resonates in context (and even sounds like poetry) so that readers unfamiliar with the line could still find the poem meaningful. In other words, the borrowed lyric is only one piece of a larger whole, and the poem stands on its own regardless of the reference. On the other hand, “Poetry” is a tiny poem whose sole focus is reimagining the ending of a Bruce Springsteen song (“Stolen Car”), which likely would have little meaning to a reader unfamiliar with the original song.

As in many poetry collections, there are also a few other weaker poems here and there, which either seem trivial in subject or simply not as tightly written as others. Nonetheless, I encourage readers to discover Jenny Browne: a talented poet with a distinctive voice and incisive mind.


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YVETTE NEISSER MORENO is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in The International Poetry Review, Palestine-Israel Journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her translation (with Patricia Bejarano Fisher) of South Pole/Polo Sur by Venezuelan poet María Teresa Ogliastri is forthcoming from Settlement House in 2011. She teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.