Reviewed by William Aarnes
Nathan Brown’s Karma Crisis: New and Selected Poems (Mezcalita Press 2012) is an accessible, easy-going collection. Typically, the speaker in the poems seems to be Brown himself. A “wayfarer,” “a flaming liberal-hippie-type,” a “Hopeful cynic,” he is dismissive of Language Poets, postmodern theory, the Southern Baptist Convention, politicians, corporations, and the overly coiffed. He is appreciative of his parents and a devoted, protective father. Although raised as a Protestant, he is partial to angels and to St. Jude. He is patriotic in the sense of opposing war but supporting soldiers. Having grown up in Norman, Oklahoma, he occasionally and perhaps with irony indulges in some of the resentments and boasts of his region. He acknowledges tears and can risk being overly sentimental. He likes to sit at his “usual table” in a coffee shop or café with a book of poems—Charles Bukowski, Wendell Berry, Pablo Neruda—and record his observations in a sketchbook.
Karma Crisis includes poems selected from three previous books and twenty-three new poems. The selection from the first collection“Hobson’s Choice,” which appears to have been Brown’s 2001 MFA thesis, comes last in the book. The poems from“Suffer the Little Voices” (2005) often focus on religious concerns. Poems selected from “Ashes over the Southwest” (also from 2005) share this religious preoccupation but, as the title suggests, this section also focuses on the speaker’s experiences in Oklahoma and its region. Placed at the book’s beginning, the new poems in the “Karma Crisis” section move through such social issues as child custody to the cost of medicine and gas to problems with the founding documents of the United States. (The reader who buys Karma Crisis expecting to read the work of a practicing Buddhist would do better to go online to the poems collected in “Tribute to Buddhist Poets” in Rattle#36 [Winter 2011].)
In some of his poems Brown worries over having “something / worth saying.” Perhaps the most telling of these is “Hobson’s Choice,” in which Brown plays with fonts and symbols to emphasize how his middle-class upbringing leaves him without the more trying experiences of others and, thus, with “NO LICENSE / to write.” Brown includes with his selection from his early work a thoughtful “Preface” by the singer/songwriter Billy Crockett that highlights the concerns of “Hobson’s Choice” by asking “what constitutes literary authority?” and “who is entitled to write?” The concern seems to have stayed with Brown. In “Why [I Write]” (from “Suffer the Little Voices”) he suggests that a justification for his poems is that someone will in the future be moved by at least one of his poems to do her own writing. In “Where I Go” (the last poem in “Ashes over the Southwest”) he sees himself writing “prophecies” that “bounce off the doors / of a dying church.” In one of his new poems, “Fellow Failures,” he says he still loves the Bible because, even though it contains stories he can see reasons for discounting, the book “helped me believe / that I had something / worth saying / as well.” And in another new poem, “Neruda’s Garden,”he laments that he lives in a country where poets are of little concern to those in power. Despite this disregard, he writes, he is at his desk “trying / to become dangerous.”
Brown is capable of clarifying observation, as seen in his deft characterizations of three student athletes in “S/U—Athlete Evaluations” and in his description of a wood carving of a crucified Jesus “on his back / on the piano” in “Renovations at the Santuario de Guadalupe.” Alert to how the Christianity practiced by his neighbors has become inauthentic, Brown can be spot on. In “Makeover” he imagines some zealots of commercialized Christianity yanking Jesus off the cross and forcing Him to preach in a megachurch; Jesus “almost smiles” when He recognizes that his telecast image is a “protestant stab at transubstantiation.”
Brown can write with effect, but even when a reader agrees with the sentiments expressed, Brown’s poems tend to be too ingratiating to generate the vitality and power he would like them to have. Too many times Brown congenially slips into the banal; for example, after recounting how a father helps his daughter tighten a drawstring on her pants, Brown ends the poem “Saviors” wondering‘how many / worlds could be saved / if more fathers / could be so dad-like.” The notion, expressed in “One Hour,” that in the Bible belt the hour before noon may be the time to “maybe catch God / on his cigarette break” is good humored but little more than playful. Brown can stumble into the folksy—“Look . . . I’m just sayin’ …”—rather than do the strenuous work of following his thoughts into dangerous, urgent prophecy. Observant as he is, Brown could address his life, his region, and his writing with more telling authority.