BOOK REVIEW: No Brother, This Storm by Jack B. Bedell

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BOOK REVIEW: No Brother, This Storm by Jack B. Bedell

A word I spend a lot of time thinking about is the word​​ after.​​ 

I​​ look​​ forward to​​ a natural high that is similar to the feelings I have after attending a poetry reading—it’s a truly magical experience unlike any other for me.​​ 

I consult teaching evaluations after my students take my class to consider the success and struggle of the semester​​ and how I can better serve my students.​​ 

I meditate the influence of books after I read them to try and articulate the feelings I have through book reviews.​​ 

I think about these, and other instances, because, I think, I crave a sense of security in my life. Not just my security, but of others​​ too, friends and strangers alike. But what happens when that security is turned into chaos?

What happens after a storm touches down?

What happens after violence splits the world open?

I don’t have any real definitive answers for these questions. Still. I think about them regularly. The other day I saw a post on the internet that said something along the lines of​​ Fear and faith. These are two things you can’t see, but they direct you! Which do you choose?​​ Rather immediately, my brain thought of the line from Carmine Falcone in​​ Batman Begins​​ (2005): “You always fear what you don’t understand.” And also, a line from a friend of mine nearly ten years ago: “We fear most what we’ve already seen.” As you can tell, my brain was (and still is) conflicted. I do concede that faith and fear can direct our lives, but I believe both are seen regularly. Yet, they are​​ not always a choice we make.​​ 

As a graduate student, I read an article by Lizette Borreli of​​ Medical Daily​​ which was titled “A Bad Dream is More Than Just A Dream: The Science of Nightmares”. It​​ opened with a picture a bloodied axe and dirtied figure, near a railroad.​​ I thought of the symbolism of our​​ train of thought​​ and the act​​ cutting down​​ the trees of fear that tangle and trip us up. Once I quieted that idea, I read a line from Lauri Quinn Loewenberg:​​ “[T]he nightmare is when we are thinking about difficult issues during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and trying to sort them out. We often try to ignore our difficult issues with distractions during the day but when we are asleep and are forced to be alone in our own heads, these difficult issues will be addressed.”​​ 

I was struck by the following words:​​ distractions, forced, alone, addressed.​​ 

Of course, I know one source doesn’t confirm that we​​ see​​ fear, but this article has stayed with me because of the accessibility of the language and the brief insight into both past and present fear.​​ As such, the experiences we have, continue to influence us, and engaging​​ with them is a means of coping, which I believe is partly why I am a writer.​​ I think​​ engaging with what influences us, both positively and negatively, is a way closer to understanding. And I think we could all benefit from more, genuine understanding in our world.​​ 

I believe this correlates with fear because I find, the more I dig into things that scare me—the more skills I have to combat them. Circling back to Batman, no, I am not going to become the​​ thing that scares me.​​ At least, I don’t think so.​​ Rather, I am going to​​ try and​​ use the influence fear has had on me to be more consciously aware that I can find healthy and mature ways to get a handle of my fears, rather than my fears getting a handle on me. That, in turn, gives me tangibility that faith exists too.​​ Because the more time I spend aware of my fears, the more faith I have they can be overcome.​​ Then again, sometimes I think about a line from Paige Lewis, they write:

 listen the mention​​ 
 of silence is worse​​ 
 than the silence itself

 “Diorama of Ghosts”, originally in​​ The Adroit Journal​​ 

As the ascent of this review begins, you should probably know what you’re getting yourself into. I’m looking into Jack B. Bedell’s​​ No Brother, This Storm​​ (Mercer University Press, 2018) and this book​​ explores​​ fear, nature (human and physical), and weaves​​ narratives that lead toward faith, despite the chaos in our world.​​ 

***

Jack B. Bedell is one of those poets I recommend to friends who are looking for a stepping stone to more poetry—his work is accessible, rewarding, and steeped in keen observation for the​​ outside​​ world, as well​​ as the inner workings of what makes us human. Formerly the Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Bedell currently edits the magazine​​ Louisiana Literature, and serves as director of Louisiana Literature Press. Additionally, he is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, located in Hammond, Louisiana, which​​ sits close to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Interesting fact about Hammond, the folk band The Roches have a song titled “Hammond Song”, and in part, the lyrics read:

If you go down to Hammond​​ 
You’ll never come back
In my opinion you’re
on the wrong track
We’ll always love you but​​ 
that’s not the point.​​ 

Conversely to their lyrics, I’d happily say you are on the right track if you decide to spend time with Bedell’s poems. Blurb writer Sarah Cortez suggests that “through​​ their careful, painterly, and meditative aspects we ourselves become ‘revenant,’ that is, Bedell’s walk with us transforms us into someone who returns as transparent with meaning and hopeful beauty...”​​ Deserved praise if you ask me.​​ Bedell’s poems possess an exactness to detail that is calculated and driven home time and time again by poignant, memorable images, which provides readers with a sense of being in the poems in real time. That skill has been honed and developed with books like​​ Revenant​​ (Blue Horse Press, 2016) and​​ Bone-Hollow, True: New and Selected Poems​​ (Texas Review Press, 2013), but really shines in​​ No Brother, This Storm.​​ 

      ***​​ 

One of Jack B. Bedell’s poems that is​​ transparent with meaning​​ is “Dead Turtle”, which closes the first section of the book. The poem is a gentle elegy for a turtle which is discovered by the speaker’s daughter. I was struck by the powerful azalea imagery in the second stanza, especially considering azaleas are typically associated with softness, which this poem succeeds with, and in, its softness. Despite surrounding the turtle with azaleas, we learn “there is no other shelter to offer”—which is a line that has stayed with me, but I’m also stuck remembering the closing couplet: “In some other place, she will find/song to hold all of this, enlaced.” I feel like this poem embodies some of the core essences of Bedell’s work: softness, reverence, and remembrance.​​ 

Speaking of remembrance, I recall another poem that stayed with me in this collection: “Frissons”. The poem is written in couplets with purposeful indentation coming on the second line. The poem builds steadily with powerful images—“bruise/in the sky”, “some vacuum of light”, and “the hair will rise” until the devastating command at the end:

Follow these omens
 like compass needles

leading you some other,
  any other, place.

This poem flips that softness praised in the previous poem to a jolt, which is fitting given the title. Though frisson can be associated with excitement, there’s a nervousness to this piece, an unsteadiness despite the compass needle imagery at the end. That concept I think gives meaning to the pieces in​​ No Brotherespecially the one-after-another poems of “The Argument from Patience” and “Coastal, Aberration”, which close the second section.​​ 

The last poem I want to talk about from Bedell’s collection is from the third section and is titled “Smoke, Mirror”. It takes up two pages​​ and begins with a line from Joe Frazier that proves haunting: “When a man gets in your blood like that, you can’t never let go.”​​ ​​ The poem tracks Frazier, or “Smoking Joe” as he was known, and the famous​​ “Thrilla in the Manila” which occurred in October of 1975. The fight went fourteen rounds until Muhammad Ali won by a technical knockout decision. The poem is spread across nine stanzas and two pages and serves as a catalyst for the third section, and arguably, the book.

The poem begins talks about loyalty and love, both​​ of​​ individuals “…in some other town, raising/someone else’s children” and familial. The poem hits with an unexpected jab in stanza three, which reads:

I don’t remember eating
 or talking at all that day,
 just the expression of hate
 released by the opening bell.

Frazier was not known to mince words when it came to Ali, and neither was Ali one to apologize for his words toward Frazier. The expression “Thrilla in the Manila” came from a variation from Ali’s point of view which ended with calling Frazier “the gorilla” and taking out a black, rubber​​ gorilla to show, to quote Ali, “the way Joe Frazier looks when you hit him.” The quote is from an article by David Jones, for Daily Mail UK, written shortly after Frazier’s death and I find the article itself to grapple with what Bedell writes: “the expression of hate”.​​ 

As far as the poem, the imagery struck me, lines like “fists like rain” and Ali as a “sack of bricks…in South Carolina,” that Frazier “punished…for its uselessness.” The rain image initially hooked me because I couldn’t help but think of the weight of water as it relates to the weight we carry on, especially considering Ali’s boxing career​​ could have​​ contributed to his Parkinson’s, and Frazier’s boxing career​​ could have​​ led to a burning desire to be in control of his legacy, and not judged by the words of Ali.​​ 

When considering this poem in the scope of Bedell’s collection, I can’t help thinking about legacy and the way individuals, societies, nations collectively “move on” from the harm that besets them in some shape or fashion. The Frazier poem channels a young man’s fervor toward a man and sport, yes, but it taps into deeply into desire in a way I can’t shake. Take this line from the fifth stanza:

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ My father and I​​ 
 threw every punch with him
 and prayed for the one
 that would put Ali to ground.​​ 
  ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ ***

Side Note:​​ I grew up in a household that placed a similar sense of fervor and passion on the young men of a prestigious, Catholic school in the Midwest who know the importance of having luck on its side. Looking back on those Saturdays, and their present-ness in my life today, it​​ became​​ a sort of mythological entity.​​ I’m still​​ trying to make sense​​ of all.​​ But,​​ trust me,​​ I still celebrate every Saturday I watch Notre Dame​​ play, but as I’ve gotten older, I can’t help but think of the power and influence that desire played (and plays)​​ in that passion.​​ 

Presently, my brain is thinking about this line from Knute Rockne:​​ 

“I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.”​​ 
      ***

The second page of the poem is covered in four stanzas and makes its descent into the fight’s aftermath. The second-to-last stanza reads like this:

Then it was over. The men
 in Frazier’s corner valued life
 with a different economy
 than he did, saw tomorrow
 as better currency than a fifteenth round.
 They did not see Ali in his own corner
 slumped and ready for it to end.
 Only that it had to end.

I vividly remember reading a book by Walter Dean Myers about Muhammad Ali as a child. The book’s title is placed on the photographer-focused fist and Ali’s face is a bit fuzzy and in the background. In re-reading the book’s introduction, I’m struck by the following sentence: “In his private life, Ali is revealed to be a man of human faults and human weaknesses. I appreciate the “normal” Muhammad Ali, but I choose to write about The Greatest.”​​ 

I don’t have a similar story for a book about Joe Frazier. I can’t help wondering what that means.

Still, as writers and​​ artists and, last but not least, people, we tell stories as they correlate to our emotions—if we’re sad or lonely, we recall times of sadness or loneliness. And if we’re happy and joyful, we remember the times​​ of happiness and joy. These abstract terms influence our lives in ways deeper than I can even imagine, but through specific memory and artistic choice, the way we define legacy evolves and changes. Despite this uncertainty and change, we try and produce meaningful art that contributes meaningful discussion, whatever that might mean.​​ 

 

 

 

 

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LITSTYLE Reviwer

Stephen Furlong is a recent graduate with an M.A. in English from Southeast Missouri State University. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pine Hills Review, and Yes Poetry, among others. He also had a poem in A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault which was edited by Joanna C. Valente and published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. He can be reached at @StephenJFurlong on Twitter.

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Book Review| Books| May 2020| Poetry| Stephen Furlong
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