All of Us Reticent, Here, Together by Stephen Brockwell

Jul 24, 2017

The cover says Brockwell’s All of Us Reticent, Here, Together will turn around family, detritus, and the everyday of modern technology. What we aren’t told of is the detritus of family, the quotidian life of mourning, and truth’s turning through technology. Brockwell opens the collection gesturing to loss in “Lost Things,” but losses are caught in the imagination as everyday beauties that only find value in memory: what we didn’t notice when it was here. The immediate turn is then to Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, signalling hybridity, life in the interstices of exigencies, and liminality as themes that will recur across the collection, most poignantly the liminal space between life and death or the personal and the world.

These ideas prod us to read the aching family memories that alternate between death and life. There is a mother in the present tense that is all the more painful for following after mother in the past. A translucent grandmother appears with suffering and blood with the grandfather excised, sous rature. The legacies of a toxic masculinity hide as well, from the “Biography of the Translucent Grandmother” to “Reply to Cruel Words from Dr. Schott” on the facing page:

On this calm November evening,
anniversary of my mother’s death,
under a full moon veiled like a bride—
or, as I imagine a bride to be— (17)

that become in the following poem

The impression of my wife’s body
on the mattress. (18)

and finally in a eulogy

as the adolescent girl is discomfited
by her great uncle’s undisguised lears

as you, Fred, trembled with regret
when I told your wife about Francine,
as all of us are reticent, here, together. (19)

This reticence is the unspoken of the collection. Our “here” is the life lived looking backwards to recognize only after loss while avoiding looking forward, most specifically to the anthropocene’s death as a mirror of individual deaths, entangled with social constructions of masculinity, race, nationalism, and other masks.

It is hard not to suspect gestures to Eliot and Pound in “Constructing An Addition On The Old House” as gestures to predecessors. It turns though from the textual detritus of poetry shed from living to the mother, again in the present tense, to finally close with the future of the poet’s death. It makes, however, his future death part of a series from ancestors looking forward to the daughter.

At the mid-point, the thanatological focus shifts to neoliberal capitalism, although it was there all along:

Families in vast slums will break
this memory down for rare earth
metals at pennies to the pound. (34)

This recognition of the distal impacts of quotidian life and unthinking choices in the pairing of capitalism and ecological destruction surfaces repeatedly. It is most visceral in “Bacon Production On An Industrial Scale.” The violence of daily life is intimately wrapped around death and the family – bacon now echoes across the family breakfasts of the collection. It’s impossible for the reader to separate the nauseating “Black pigs stanched in vast sties / from here to California” and “Abattoirs the size of Boeing factories. / I can’t bring myself to describe the effluent” from its closing

I protested, “Of course I believe in data, big data,
all of it,” to a sow with her nose in the trough. (46)

The greater cut is the cleaving together of the sow ignoring slaughter and the undescribed effluent. At points the text is literally sous rature, struck-through, marking language’s insufficiency, as in “Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.” But the same passage doubles insufficiency with silence, just like the unspoken tensions in the family drama. The insufficiency censors, showing what cannot be said, such as bigotries, and what has been wilfully lost, such as the suffering brutes of our daily bacon in breakfasts that render precious family memories after loss.

Brockwell juxtaposes poems strikingly. “Biography Of My Father’s Last Breath” follows “Eleven Sentences About Nothing In Particular.” The tension is between this nothing and the father’s unheard words—both are nothing in very different ways. This leads into a four-poem sequence, “Four Truths,” that speak the paternal truths of the state, a longing for truth, and finally the refusal of truth that embraces silences and censors. To reiterate it, language then falls apart in “Biography Of The Letterpress Father.” Parental death shows language’s insufficiency as its type, ink, and paper spill to avoid the confession “into this grey biography of his adulterous heart” (63). It returns again in “White Sweater, Black Dog” with the burning of Coleridge, Larkin, Musgrave, Atwood, and Browning.

Ancestors and consequence, however, cannot be avoided. Even if language is insufficient and painful memories are excised, Brockwell reminds readers that nothing ever goes away. All these family intimacies that call out to the lyrical (even while troubling whatever this speaking subject may be) fall apart when they reach the world of the anthropocene. The ethical call is “Lost Causes” in which the matter is not futility or impossibility, such as the struggle against climate change, but rather the forgotten origins and erasures: causes to which we do not attend or from which we wilfully distract ourselves. The biting insinuation is that erasure is less a recognition than a shame-driven dodge. It breaks the logic of cause and effect in a gleefully postmodern abolition of teleology:

Turn the key in the ignition; floor it.
Not an inch of Florida beach will disappear. (64)

This closes where it can only close. By restoring those bonds between ancestors and children, bringing them together across time, even while reticent, with the poet here in the world with the “hope to be mistaken for soil by seedling pines” (87) for a final line, he echoes his mother’s ashes, “Maybe she could fertilize a few sprigs” (79). This is a collection to read in a single sitting.

All Of Us Reticent, Here, Together
by Stephen Brockwell
Toronto, ON: Mansfield Press, 2016
93 pp., $17.00 paper
ISBN 978-1-77126-129-6

James Gifford teaches English and Humanities. He is equally active in opera and early music.

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