I first approached Brian Russell’s debut collection The Year of What Now with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Winner of the 2012 Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize for Poetry, these poems ask the reader to confront the terrifying prospects of cancer, to stand at the speaker’s wife’s hospital bed and “kiss the fevered foreheads of the damned.” However, the “damned” are not alone, as Russell is quick to note, “… we are each our own culture/ alive with the virus that’s waiting to unmake us” (“The Year of What Now”).
This principle of entropy is central to the collection’s philosophy and at times borders on bleak positivism as in this passage from the ironically titled “The Higher Order:”
remarkable absolutely remarkable
the life cycles of some
parasites the brain the so called
crowning achievement of nature
they use it against us for instance
the single cell beings that find
their way into rats into their brains
their instincts and erase
their fear of cats in fact
the smell attracts them it’s sickening
the inefficiency of it and hard for us
to understand ….
“All of us” means all of us: men, women, children, pets, the flowers that adorn our last days, down to the “smallest form of life/on earth” that in our unmaking “mindlessly thrives.” Reversing the Classical notion of a “Great Chain of Being” (scala naturae) in which all things in the universe are hierarchically ordered from God at the apex of creation, to man, to the beasts he holds in dominion, Russell presses us to abandon our romantic mythologies and consider a world indifferent to suffering at best, and one which eerily excels at it inflicting it. Survival becomes a matter of lottery,
… a testament
… to the faith in the impulsive
unknown who seemed to revel in choosing
you but not you
you but not you
and as the reader moves through the collection’s four parts, the narrative of survival shifts from the failing health of the speaker’s wife, to the deterioration of their marriage, and finally to the collapse of the tribal bonds that hold us together as communities and nations.
It’s these shifts in the currents of loss that lend Russell’s poems a well earned tragic profundity. For rather than relying on the pathos of the terminally ill, the reader is challenged to see life and death as a rhyme echoing across natural and human history. “What ever happened/to the Mayans,” a little girl asks in “Belongings,” “we are alive we are everywhere,” the poem’s tour guide responds. And as if to clarify, the poem guides us out of this memory and into the present where a “a cleaning woman I don’t recognize enters/ the room and says excuse me and slips past/ to change the sheets for the bed’s next resident.”
Formally, The Year of What Now enacts the same process of erosion that the poems thematically express. Moving between tercets, couplets, and stanzas of irregular length and shape, each poem appears painfully excavated, distressed with fragments of thought and gaps of white space within the lines themselves. Yet as these lacunae underscore the collection’s insistence on ruin, the speaker’s fluid narratives juxtapose and complicate the sense of resignation. This is not easy, these poems say, but neither is the truth: neither pointless nor convenient to human desires for meaning. A mystery – part of which our bodies embody – terrible and beautiful. In the end, as Russell writes in “The History of Right Now,”
… there’s me and
there’s you miracles in our own right coming up
with our own reasons for being here
our best excuses …
Brave, deeply moving, this book is a quiet revelation that will stir in you your own “reasons for being here.”
The Year of What Now is available from Graywolf Press
Anthony Cirilo is a poet, translator, and MFA candidate at Rutgers-Newark where he teaches composition.