A Dream Review of John Bradley’s Spontaneous Mummification, winner of the 2019 International James Tate Poetry Prize, Dublin, Ireland, forthcoming in Spring, 2020
–for Matthew Zapruder
Three hundred years ago, when the Earth was still living, I wrote a dream review of James Tate’s The Government Lake: Last Poems.
I had dreamt there that I carried Tate in his chair up the mount, strapped to my back, to look down at the teal sheen of Government Lake, shrouding its drowned 19th century village beneath. And then, after a smoke and a spell at the top, I carried him back down the same way we’d come up, though now he was strapped to my strong, thirty-something abdomen, while he used his long, mantis arms as spindle-brakes, to keep us from tumbling down the path.
At last, the shack appeared, glowing, on the twilit clearing, where Dara Wier was waiting. We all kicked back on the busted porch, on ripped-up Packard Predictor seats. And there, he read me his last poems, in manuscript, by the wick of a Coleman lamp.
But now James Tate was dead. I said to John Bradley, What was he like when you met him in Alabama? Did he have the long, mantis arms he had when he and I and the rest of us were still living? John’s answer was not audible, because the Dixie Chicks were full tilt on the jukebox, and I am hard of hearing.
We were at Sully’s Tavern, a proletarian bar, if ever there was one, where we would always meet, in DeKalb, Illinois, John’s corncob town. I would drive an hour and a half there, through the cornfields, from corncob Freeport, Illinois, to meet him, maybe once every couple months, on average, for twenty-some years. And as I was driving, and also on the way back, another hour and a half more, I would wonder to myself, sometimes, why it was always me who drove to meet him, and why he never once came to visit me, except for the two times I invited him to read in Freeport. Was there something wrong with me, was I a loser, an unwelcome guest, a self-pitying depressive, and so forth. Yes, of course I was, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
Thus went the story of my life as a minor poet, in the cornfields of northwest Illinois, to be smothered in two-hundred-foot deep ash, three hundred years hence. Oh, I loved Sully’s Tavern, in DeKalb, back then, the smell of cheap cologne mixed with spilled beer and menthol cigarettes, and Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline twining the gunmetal air.
What was that you said? I said, cupping my ear like a frail old man from some mountain holler, against the wailing of the Dixie Chicks.
I said, hollered John, That No, I don’t at all recall him having long “mantis” arms, whatever that means… What a bizarre question to ask. Are you feeling alright?
One time, long before that, maybe between ten or fifteen thousand years before, while we were still living, I met John Bradley at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. This was shortly after the two thousand year-old Ezra Pound had died, in Italy, yelling racist oaths in his chair, strapped to the strong stomach of the Vichy-informer Gertrude Stein, who died, herself, at nearly 700 years of age.
We sat next to each other, in a group, with our desks all close together, in the mid-80s, Peter Elbow style, for our professor had arranged us that way, so she could smoke a menthol cigarette and be alone, sitting atop the desk, in a skirt, with her legs casually dangling, in the manner of back then, when teaching English was easy, not that it ever stopped being so after that, until the world ended. I think her name was Barbara. Like all university Poetry professors, she looked to be about four thousand years old.
There was a strong smell of cheap cologne, and I don’t know if it came from John, who seemed surly to me on that first meeting (he looked like a Barbary pirate from the 1700s), or if it came from one of the two stylish women in our group, whose names I didn’t know and never will, though that is no one’s fault, as usual, but mine. I closed my eyes and made believe Hank Williams, in the future, was singing with Mama Carter before the world died forever, as you know it has, if you are here, dreaming that you are reading this review.
His head was transparent, like a vase of crystal from Tirana, where delicate glass was blown for the Iron Curtain trade, into the delicate, beautiful shape of the Great Leader’s cochlea, the nautilus of the tympanum. A majestic, ancient oak stood far back inside, far away, down far past the college quad, before it was to be struck by lightning and chopped up to make ladles and clogs, around the time of Srebrenica. Or at least that is what the poem said, as John softly read it, while the pronouns got confused. I could almost see Aimé Césaire, sobbing and sawing it all into proletarian pieces, inside “their” girl-boy head.
Juan (as I would coquettishly come to call him) was nodding all surly at what the ancient students said in fawning reply. And as he did, the limbs of the tree moved to and fro, causing the faces of great, unknown poets from the 15th century Balkans to appear and disappear in its leaves. Yes, I had smoked some hash that James Tate had given me, in Massachusetts, where I was born, in my other dream, long ago, which I had forgotten about for a long time, but now I am remembering. It sure was different!
Also, we were drunk. Suddenly, from across the booth at Sully’s, John took my hand and pressed it to his lips and kissed it long, like the Albanian courtier he was, when we were living, which calmed my nerves, those centuries ago. I said to no one in particular, What are we doing here, three hundred years after we have died? Three chords sounded from the smoky air and then the whole truth did, too, as in country music. The girls looked at me super strange, for what seemed like a long time.
OK, so the poems veer and swerve and enchant, crack you up and then sadden you, and so much mas… Someone new to Bradley’s work, or unaccustomed to reading poetry, might find themselves pleasantly surprised by the absence of all the usual things we expect, and perhaps dread, about contemporary American poesía. These poems, though odd and sometimes downright frightening, are completely clear, comically matter-of-fact, and incredibly easy to read, while also rewarding to releer. Some of the poems end with a real carcajada! On closer reading, the charm of the poems doesn’t fade, but a subtle sense of dread, a disintegration of the usual conventions of human behavior and relations, begins to perturbar!
There’s something unbottoned and timeless about Bradley’s versos. They seem like naughty fatrasies written by Phillipe de Remi, in 1259, only slightly more esquizofrénico! The narrators of the poem remind me of Twain’s personajes. They also have the bumbling, revealing naiveté of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Will Rogers, the innocent American man who keeps discovering he’s not so innocent después de todo! That may be, at least partially, the source of these poems’ subtle dread: they are, in their own quiet way, an allegory for the self-deluded, so-called normal American vida. (Someone might say the “so-called normal” also includes using, in a review of a white male poet, four white males in a row as illustrative examples of greatness and with no sense of self-awareness, but that’s another historia.)
Many of the poems in Spontaneous Mummification begin with a simple yet weirdly compelling first line that sets the escena:
“I was born in a box of Cheerios, inside the pantry, near the broom and the bison.”
“In Coral Gables, Florida, today, a man invented a new word for knee.”
“I breathe allegro calmo senza rigore, which means my legs rub together calmly yet riotously.”
“Jack never makes peepee or poopie, sing Georgette and Rene.”
“The President finds a book, Just and Unjust Wars, on his Oval Office desk.”
“Anne Frank squats over an open book.”
In every poem, there is a moment when reality shimmers, and the poem rockets out of something like a tenuous and hyperventilating–but still recognizable–narrative space, to cede its discursive vestments to a wild, waking dream (or pesadilla). Here, hypotactic and syntagmatic norms drop through a neural trapdoor, into a primordial strata of buried parataxis far more elemental than Kantian categories or country music lyrics, y ni decir! Though that said, some of the poems are wrenchingly sad, quite like country, actually; only in this case, the sadness sneaks up on you because of the lack of sentimental manipulation that comes antes! I don’t know if I’m making any sense. But just like Matt Zapruder, I am doing my best.
For instance, consider the opening of “For the Black Angel, Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City, Iowa,” which I asked John to read me, over the cell, in 1645, when we were once young:
You call yourself Rodina: Rodina Feldevertova: but
I know your name: it’s Before You Worried Away
Each Thumb: it’s When Misshapen Memory Is a Wing
Rinsed in the Blackened Earth. I can give you
a penny: a pen: my sweaty perambulations.
Note for instance, how relaxed the language is, as it stages fantastical propositions in the guise of simple, indexical statements: I both laughed and wept out loud when I read that, feeling something very ancient inside me. In fact, sentí tanta emoción que llamé a mi amigo, el gran poeta y ensayista Andrés Ajens en Santiago, donde reside, y aunque parcezca mentira, en una vieja casita situada en pleno terreno que en antaño era parte de las tierras latifundias del padre de Vicente Huidobro. Le dije a mi compa Ajens: Huevón, pues tenés que leer a John Bradley. El hombre es genial!
And then I laughed and wept again as the poem kept on, sending its nine-billion-year-old neutron-star colons into no one’s deaf and dumb stun or pain, and far before the little child fell, in Niger, for no reason, down a well:
You look down: away: back to where one day you’ll
lead us: to the iron cradle filled with oranges:
still warm from the forge. What was it my father
wanted to tell me: each time in the motel room
when his soft voice: broke: all I could hear was
the rustle of your wings: newspaper singeing
your fingers. I wanted to shake you: shudder
you back into silence: the iron ore before gesture.
Something, you see, that began as gently funny and sweet becomes full of pathos! And then it is deepened beyond pathos into epistemological mystery, though not that the latter can’t include the former:
You say I fallow the words wrong. I don’t know who
I’m saying: what I speak with. One day I’ll pause
before a stranger without thumbs: and then whoever
I’ve stung: however wrong: will I come undone.
I will say, and kill me if it’s a lie, that this quatrain stands among the very greatest of any stanza written in American poetry since the death of César Vallejo.
Now, the reader should be forewarned that more people die in this book than in all of Bradley’s previous work combined, and more than in any book by James Tate, I should add. In fact, the living, also, are very dead, dead as doornails, truth be told. There is a willingness to imagine bodily decay, disappearance, and the afterlife, without a speck of sentimentality or self-pity. Mundane actions and objects become symbolic, full of mysterious resonance! That has always been the strength of Bradley’s work, from his very first book under the spell of James Tate, until his last, this one, where he transcends him! In that way, the poems are existentially encouraging. Something interesting is always waiting around an esquina.
Read me another poem, I cried to John, I just love it when you do, it makes me feel so much better about myself! Even though I know you do not admire me as I do you! And so he did, in his extinct songbird voice, like sixteen-year old Kasim Omerović of Srebrenica and Emily Dickinson of Amherst, coming together on their virgin wedding bed, eternal and safe in their alabaster chambers.
And then the great Dolly Parton came on the jukebox, sighing a ballad from 16th century Wales. No more or less lost in endless time, really, than the verses of John Bradley. And I could see that almost the whole bar was crying, or trying not to.
John Bradley is the greatest living surrealist poet of the United States of America.