November Read of the Month: “Don’t Try,” by Nathan Brown and Jon Dee Graham

Reviewed by William Bernhardt

Though many contemporary poets pen wonderful work, this is not an age characterized by innovation. The free verse/blank verse modern poem looks much the same from one page to the next. Consequently, when a couple of artists jointly produce something genuinely innovative, we should all sit up and notice.

John Dee Graham

John Dee Graham

This is just such a book.

Don’t Try is a collaboration and communion between two talents, Nathan Brown and Jon Dee Graham. Brown is the author of twelve books, most of them poetry, and a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma. Graham is a musician, a major figure in the Austin singer-songwriter scene. They might, at first glance, seem an unlikely duo. But the result is something splendid.

Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown

Most of the poems in this book take the form of a responsive reading. They start with a title extracted from the work of Charles Bukowski. Both authors provide their own riffs on the topic, typically alternating thoughts in an artful manner. Brown’s comments appear in Garamond font, while Graham’s are in Courier New. The lines tend to be brief, and both authors avoid capital letters, recalling e.e. cummings. The interaction and exchange are easy to follow and rarely fail to intrigue. Occasionally, Brown and Graham deliver separate poems using the same title, most memorably in “I didn’t recite them Shelley” and “men often crawl.” The book concludes with both writers contributing, in a line recalling the film Pirates of the Caribbean, “A few rules for the starving artist that are really more just guidelines.”

Some of the poems reflect upon the work of the artists who preceded them. After the title “I see Hemingway cleaning his gun,” Brown writes, “I see Virginia Woolf / loading her pockets / with rocks,” while Graham offers, “I see Kurt Cobain / in the guesthouse / with an idea and a Mossberg, / both borrowed / from Papa.” The title of the poem “this is not a poem” is taken from Bukowski, but unavoidably suggests Magritte’s famous painting, “this is not a pipe.” The difference, of course, is that Magritte’s work is a painting, not a pipe, while Brown and Graham’s poem still appears to be a poem. But they argue otherwise. Brown writes, “this is a mouse growling / gouging out the cat’s eye,” while Graham suggests, “this is a trash-tree / that has outgrown all / the trees with names.”

As you might expect from an acclaimed songwriter, Graham’s lines tend to be direct, in-your-face, and occasionally profane. Brown’s voice is subtler, perhaps more refined, as you might expect from an accomplished poet. But even given these broad generalizations, the authors can surprise. Graham occasionally manifests a sudden flash of insight, as in the poem, “eunuchs are more exact,” where he writes, “if you really / want to know / how much a thing / actually costs, then / ask someone who has / already paid.” Similarly, Brown can make the reader gasp with a sudden flash of recognition, as in “old age arrives on schedule,” where he conjures, “it hangs things, uninvited, / in the back bedroom closet / wanting to make quite clear / it is not going to leave.”

That both authors take so much from Bukowski, the so-called “laureate of American lowlife,” is perhaps not entirely startling. All three are concerned with similar themes: writing itself, relationships with women, the life of the common American, the charisma of the renegade. But in this book, Brown and Graham chart new territory and perhaps suggest new directions poetry could take in the future to attract new readers and explore new territory. The book may have the past in its peripheral vision, but the line of sight is focused squarely on the future. If you think you’ve read it all before, this book suggests that you haven’t.

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