Exit Lines by Kevin Brown
Reviewed by Martin Abramson
Plain View Press
Soft Cover, 101 pages
Link to Purchase
Striking cover art by Danielle Lesperance is our entrance to Exit Lines, poems by Kevin Brown. The poems can be roughly divided into two major categories: religion and lost love. As a follower of no religion, I often wonder that the great religious poetry of Donne, Hopkins and Eliot moves me so deeply. Of course it’s great poetry. But perhaps there’s some innate wish to believe in all of us. At any rate, I was strongly affected by Brown’s evocations of faith.
In “The End is Near”, Mr. Brown speculates that the homeless man, the pimp, the prostitute, the street-corner prophet and the schizophrenic who sees holy visions, might be actual harbingers of heaven. But we’ll never know because we have “mangled the mystery of God”. Forms of this mangling are cited.
“Fortune Telling” describes the various ways we seek to know the future: astrology, therapists, tea leaves. “And/while we arm wrestle/ with our destiny, today/ has us pinned to the mat”. While our Elijah’s and Isaiah’s are consigned to the desert
…Those who have ears to
hear have turned up the volume of the TV,
claiming to want to know the state of affairs,
but it is only the glow they wish to see.
In “The Church of Divine Reality, Inc,” the writer asks who is financially responsible for all the damage done by religious fanatics. “Someone has to take responsibility/ for God, after all; it’s not like/ we want him running wild”.
In “The Saint of Lost Things”, the poet yearns for the innocent pleasure he once took in small things like “the baseball signed by Carl Yastrzemski”… when he did not fear…
the tomorrows, which wait for me
like a second-rate bill collector
who would rather break my knee
than see me pay off my debts.”
The powerful “Begging for Blessings” contrasts the minor favors he might ask of God, such as clearing a traffic jam so he can get home early, with prayers for cancer cures or for dead children; where people “face God with/ their fists, stare down the divine,/ and dare him…while I wheedle and whine”.
“Memory Lapse” reminds us how in foxholes or in falling planes, we turn to God; but on the days when “we’re skimming the/ surface of life”, the days “between horror/ and hallelujah”, we forget Him.
“Entertaining Angels” has the speaker wondering what to serve angels: popcorn? hors d’oeuvres? And what sort of movies would they like to watch: “perhaps they/ like Bergman”. When they leave, assuring him ominously that they’ll return, the speaker doesn’t get it. He thinks “next time/ I’ll be ready. I’ll even have dessert”.
“After Effects” is a slightly undecided work that says some interesting things about Lazarus and pointlessly compares him with Jesus in terms of after-death experience.
“I Forgot To Ask About the Checkout Time:” strikes me as an ingot of burning truth. Especially the last two lines.
And it was at that point, in the
midst of my tirade, that
He reminded me that life is
like a cheap motel:
you get the basic necessities, if
you’re lucky, some of which may
not work and none of which
will be clean; you’ll share
the space with creatures
you would prefer
not to have any contact with;
and your wake-up call
when you least expect it.
And anything else you want,
you’ll have to pay dearly for.
Brown generates considerable voltage in “Seeing the Light” when he tells us:
sears saints as easily as
it does devils; its
radiance rips apart the
lives of the lovely and
the losers alike. We
would be better served
if, instead of hoarding
we spent our seasons
staring at the sun.
Some of the secular poems edge toward the didactic and some of the religious poems lean towards sermonizing e.g. “The Last Sunset” or “Soul Searching”. “Moot Point” contains the just plain silly stanza:
Can I not even leave a
message for the messiah,
or is the call waiting
out of order?
“Serving Grace”, on the other hand, is an excellent poem and a good example of the extended metaphor style that we find in the ‘lost love’ poems. It sees God as a cook, the waiters as clergymen “mumbling about their/tips” and the customers as petulant children who do not deserve the steak they have and who “forget that there are those who/ have never seen a steak”.
“The International Forgiveness Institute” is the scene of an earthly interview that captures the speaker’s rush to authenticate his moral innocence as it crashes into heaven’s adamantine beaurocracy, where the interviewer keeps asking, “Why? Why? Why? Why?” And he feels that he will be “answering/ her questions for the rest of my life”.
There are echoes of T.S. Eliot in the last stanza of “Day One” and in “Garbage Day”, Mr. Brown paraphrases Dylan Thomas as he claims that the discarding of our gods and prophets “separates us from our/ minds and hearts” and that “…the divine/ conflict rages, rages against/ the dying of their lives”.
“In Search Of” is a Zen-like poem that contrasts holy suffering with ineffectual attempts at humor:
Getting through the fiery
furnace is easy, but what
good is a religion that won’t
help you do the dishes?
“A Second Chance, Of Sorts” is a truism and “Alternative History” is naively ironic. “Salvation” is as subtle as a barker’s sales pitch. But “We Are All Savages” delves into the flesh of life to come up with a philosophically significant revelation. After posing a list of vicious and sinful acts people commit, Mr. Brown concludes that our real guilt is not in the evil things we do “but because we have our reasons for doing so”. Anyone who can come up with insights like that is well worth our time.
While “Habits of the Heart” seems too easy; its companion piece, “A Vocabulary of Faith”, strikes a deeply authentic note in describing a woman who finds her salvation in a warm coat, her grace in a serving of pie and her “Amen” in her bed of castaway clothes.
Formally, Mr. Brown employs short sentences with occasional rhymes and a preference for dactylic meter. They are loosely set out in blank verse with enjambment deployed freely throughout.
The sequence of ‘lost love’ poems begins with “Left Standing At the Alter”, a tribute to the callow, superficial groom who gets shoved aside at the last minute when the true hero claims his bride. There’s the implication that ‘jilted John’ may have really loved the girl and that his pain, like ours, “…continues long past/ the last box of popcorn and/ the exit of the cleaning crew”.
Most of these poems are built around extended metaphors. “The Dictionary of Failed Relationships” uses a reference book that, in the end, “could never define/ the complexity of our love”.
“Diagramming Won’t Help This Situation” centers on the rules of grammar.
Newspaper form provides the analogy for “Bury the Lead”.
Falling is the metaphor for “Lover’s Leap At Rock City”.
Interesting uses of negation are employed in “Not What It Seems”, “Not For Nostalgia’s Sake”, and “Cupid’s Pockets Aren’t That Deep”.
The title poem uses the theater metaphor with the usual “missed cues, unspoken lines”. But the parallel effort, “No Exit, Stage Left Or Right”, is more successful; instead of just ‘skulking away’ as in “Exit Lines”, he ends up standing on a
darkling stage with nothing
but a crumpled playbill and
bad reviews to show for my life.
“Equal to Zero” applies mathematical terms to the defeat of the relationship.
“Eco-Friendly” begins as a circus act and ends in a trash heap after the author’s figurative “two and a half somersault/ with a twist” leaves him “lying flat on my face/ at the bottom/ of the/ big/ top”.
Other examples use “Method Acting”and “Molecular Biology” to provide the frameworks. The problem with the extended metaphor is that it resembles a conceit…a puzzle, where the reader becomes an ally of the poet as both search for terms that justify the analogy. And more often than not, the original passion is lost in the word play.
Other ‘lost love’ poems rehearse the history of the relationship, or recall certain poignant moments or reflect on the meaning of their failure… sometimes with sorrow, sometimes anger, sometimes resignation. All the stages of mourning are here and the author’s pain bleeds through the most contrived pieces. Mr. Brown is a moving writer and no one can doubt his agony, but we can wish for a mode of expression that transcends and masters it more effectively.
Reviewed by Martin Abramson.