When You Don’t Have Forever: The Poetry of Daniel Brown

by D. M. Black

Daniel Brown, Taking the Occasion. Ivan R. Dee 2008. 80 pp. $22.50

Daniel Brown, What More? Orchises Press 2015. 64 pp. $14.95 (paperback)

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John Butler Yeats (father of William) once remarked that a man falls in love with a girl, not because of her beauty or virtue, but because of the way she scratches the back of her neck. He was noticing that our sympathy is touched by what is unique—by “minute particulars,” as Blake called them.

I thought of Yeats’s remark when I read the title poem of Daniel Brown’s first collection, Taking the Occasion. Here it is in its entirety:

As if her grace were not enough,
Her taking the occasion of
A trip across the kitchen floor
To lift into tiptoe-
And-pirouette: a prima mo-
Mentarily forevermore.

The poem’s narrative could hardly be simpler: Crossing the kitchen, a woman spontaneously executes a ballet turn. Such a moment is charming, of course, and critical thought, unlike Yeats, suggests we should be on guard in the presence of charm, and wary of our own too-easy emotion when charmed. We are taught to fear that we may be avoiding something that needs to be faced up to—the true complexity and harshness of human experience, perhaps, or the many subtle ironies of our misperception of the world and each other. Mere charm, we are apt to think, is slight; it belongs with the kitten video and the chocolate box.

But “Taking the Occasion” ends with a pair of words that, however playful, carry an emotional charge: “mo- / Mentarily forevermore.” The latter is bound to make us think of Poe’s “The Raven,” and both words may cause us to notice that the theme of time was already present in the poem’s title. The phrase “taking the occasion” also reminds us that we often fail to capitalize on our opportunities, and that too many such failures will summon the raven with its “Nevermore.” And it may occur to us that the poignancy of the woman’s ballet turn—accentuated by the cliff-hung ending of the fourth line, which causes the reader’s voice to match her movement by rising to a taut, almost imperceptible pause—is that of youth and grace and having only one life; and that the taking or not taking of this occasion may—who knows?—have consequences forevermore. And the poem itself, we may reflect, decidedly takes the occasion, making the most of a small moment that the poet, perhaps its sole observer, could easily have missed or made nothing of.

Well, I become laborious when I spell it out, and that is one of the pitfalls of writing about Brown’s poems, which do a lot of work without ever becoming labored. Light, graceful, witty, offhand, they have unexpected tensile strength, and it can be a surprise to realize, after reading them, how little one has read in terms of actual bulk—they convey their meaning, often, as much by tone and implication as by statement. It’s relevant that Brown’s background is in classical music—he once taught music and music theory at Cornell—and that he is the author of an impressive online work entitled Why Bach? In it, like a skilled engineer, he discusses the minute musical units out of which Bach constructed his complex machines. Brown is fascinated by technique and clearly took great pleasure in showing how, using these tiny, often unremarkable components, Bach built his lively, intricate constructions, on every scale and reaching to the summits of human emotion.

Baroque and classical music, with their blend of emotion, formality, civilized good manners, and (occasionally) humor, exert an influence on Brown’s up-to-date American idiom. Among poetic influences, Robert Frost looms largest. Brown uses his articulate, urbane New York voice to create “the sound of sense” and the effect of “intonation entangled in the syntax” very much as Frost did using the quite different voice of rural New England. Again like Frost, Brown sets out to create distinct verbal objects, poems that are self-standing, make a definite point, and have a paraphrasable meaning. Yet often the emotion they carry is ambiguous and slightly off-key, as if the wryly intelligent speaker of the poem were in touch with more complex feelings than his tone of voice allows him to quite own up to.

The longest poem in Taking the Occasion, “Love Story,” is an example. It’s about one of Brown’s teachers at Cornell, a man he calls Morrison. Narrated in a series of episodes, it presents an adolescent’s-eye view of a talented teacher, who is perceived as profound and hilarious but somehow remote. (Perhaps such a perception of teachers is less common in these egalitarian days than it was in the 1960s.) Morrison changes with the times: He stops wearing tweed and starts going about in gold chains and open-necked shirts; his wife leaves him. But his passion for, and knowledge of, “what genius did” in the realms of classical music gives him a continuing mystery and authority. His praise was not easy to gain. And then one day, when Morrison was rehearsing the choir in Carissimi’s Jephte,

We were working on its great closing
chorus of lamentation
when it came to me,
in my perch well up in the tenors,
to put an especially hard c
on the carmine in carmine dolorem.
It cracked like a rifle shot.
In its gruffness cutting
with equal ease through the whole curtain of sound,
up came his muttered “Marvelous!”

Decades later, that wonderful, unscripted moment remains magical to Brown. The story of his relationship with Morrison is described with quiet precision of language, and seemingly with perfect ironic control. Yet that instant of electrical contact between the two men, cutting through all distractions, alters the nature of the developing narrative: It ceases to be an account of someone the poet just happens to remember and becomes what its title indicates, a “love story,” a rendering of the eros between student and teacher, which may have nothing to do with overt sexuality and stems from the student’s discovery in the teacher of something that will shape the adult he is energetically, and already half-consciously, becoming.

Brown’s delight in artifice and skill, so evident in his writing on Bach, is a motive force in many of his poems. In “The Pass,” for example, he admires a Greyhound bus driver’s skill in overtaking:

Here’s where the real mastery is seen:
A signaling considerably in
Advance of the move (though not so early as
To be impeachable as premature),
A shifting to the left so gradual
You wouldn’t know it’s happening at all . . .

The outcome is a maneuver “So well subsumed within the traveling / As to be essentially inevident.” In its style as well as its subject, “The Pass” calls to mind the Latin tag ars est celare artem (the skill is to conceal the skill). The reader, reading aloud or subvocally articulating, is required to be as attentive as the driver if he is to find the necessary changes of gear and pace and generally keep the poetic show on the road without bumps or disturbance. In this passage, for example, the reader’s voice at first moves rather slowly and carefully in order to respect the iambics of “A signaling considerably in,” then accelerates in dignified fashion to catch the sudden anapaestic rush of “Advance of the move” before returning to poker-faced iambic gravitas in the parenthesis: Heaven forbid the driver should be impeached for premature signaling! Like Bach’s key changes, such quiet modulations are continually taking place and can be enjoyed even by the reader who doesn’t consciously register them.

A hallmark of Brown’s poetry, particularly noticeable in “The Pass,” is his habitual, sometimes slightly peculiar use of noun phrases. “Her taking the occasion” was an example, and “A signaling considerably in / Advance,” “A shifting to the left,” and “the traveling” are three more. A quick trawl through Brown’s poems turns up many others: “my making for the freedom,” “my never sealing up the rye / Bread,” “the going to my right,” “the lone lifting of his palm,” to name a few. The psychoanalyst Roy Schafer once suggested that psychoanalysts shouldn’t use nouns—ego, id, etc.—but speak only in verbs, because in mental space there are no “things,” everything is a happening in time. Meaningful speech is clearly impossible under this restriction, but Brown, in his use of noun phrases, takes a step toward creating a world composed wholly of verbs. His phrasings communicate a sense of event as gesture, as dance move, at once precise and evanescent. They assert the omnipresence of time and remind the reader of transience. They also (in keeping with Brown’s concern for good manners) allow space for the other, for the counter-movement and response that dance invites. In the case of “The Pass,” the driver’s maneuver is like a quiet dance move executed in relation to the moving column of traffic.

This playful, dance-like quality is also present in a different sort of Brown poem, which one might call the whimsical narrative. Paul Klee spoke of drawing as “taking a line for a walk”; in these poems, Brown takes a narrative for a walk. An example from Taking the Occasion is “Facing It,” in which Brown describes an encounter with a fellow college student, an alleged “math genius” named Eigenmeyer. Uneasy in the presence of genius, not knowing what to say, Brown is inspired by the sight of a passing skein of geese, flying in V-formation, to remember that someone once claimed that some birds can count up to eight. Stung into competition, Eigenmeyer responds with a counter-claim: Nine! But he refuses to explain (or perhaps is unable to explain) what his claim is based on. Brown is elated.

My favorite of these whimsical narratives is “Godzilla,” in What More? Apparently thinking of the 1998 movie Godzilla, Brown has the “eponymous behemoth” getting himself “seriously balled up in the bridge cables” of the Brooklyn Bridge. Reflecting sympathetically on Godzilla’s plight, which links him to “the long line of Manhattanites / who never get over to Brooklyn,” Brown launches into an extended riff, over three pages long. It starts with a meditation on the strength of the bridge’s

principal, length-running cables,
these comprised of dozens of lesser ones,
each of these spun
of the finest steel of the time,
inspected (in an age of great inspectors)
for the slightest flaw,
then gathered with its brothers into a bundle
wrapped, against the ravages
of windborne salt and water,
in a cladding of lead itself
protected by a lead-based paint
specially concocted for the purpose

and goes on to consider the impossibility, as it seems, of imagining these tremendous cables breaking. Continuing his reflections, Brown free-associates to something else he finds impossible to imagine: a swinging pendulum that comes to an absolute halt. (Perhaps, he speculates, the imagination is affected by the involuntary involvement of the eye muscles.) Putting aside his customary concern for tight form, he seems here to delight in sheer inconsequence, without ever losing his verbal precision or the mechanical curiosity (quite explicit in this poem) that caused him to probe so minutely into Bach’s procedures.

Brown’s sometimes whimsical, never-strident speaking voice can make his own seriousness “inevident,” and in certain poems in his first collection the reader senses a moral struggle taking place between an attractive, humorous, somewhat self-deprecating persona, reluctant to burden the reader with anything “heavy,” and feelings that can’t be contained within the bounds of politeness and irony. In a recent blog post, Brown discussed what is, I think, a related issue: the importance to poetry of “subject.” He used the metaphor of a golf swing:

Even the strongest hands can’t drive a ball 300 yards. The power for that comes rather from the large muscles of the legs, back, and torso, which transmit it through the levers of the arms and the hinges of the wrists to a particular dimple in the back of the ball. Without the “large muscle” of a subject, a poem can only hit so hard.

“Large muscle” points to the involvement of the whole person, the whole body of the poet, and invites us to think not only of the poet making the decisions that shape a particular poem but the larger “swing” with which, because of his personality and preoccupations, he undertakes it.

The poem Brown was discussing when he used his metaphor was George Herbert’s “The Collar,” one of the best-known religious poems in English. It exemplifies the “golf swing” beautifully. Everything in it is governed by Herbert’s religious commitment, which at the end effortlessly calms the tantrum-like outburst to which the poem has largely been given over. Even for a non-Christian, the impact of the arrival of that compelling authority is almost physical. It gives a sense of the mind’s having, so to speak, a vertical dimension: On the surface the visible current may flow one way, but underneath runs a tide that is not to be countermanded.

To convey a sense of the mind’s depth without becoming abstract or portentous is quite a challenge. Herbert does it by means of religious language, which necessarily implies that there are “more things in heaven and earth” than we notice. As a scholar of Bach, Brown must be accustomed to attuning himself to Bach’s religious feeling, and, though he calls himself an agnostic, his own imagination often moves in religious directions. An example is a short poem in Taking the Occasion, “The Birth of God.” Two primeval lovers emerge from a cave filled with joy after a night of love. As the poem begins, Brown’s laconic irony is in full play:

It happened near Lascaux
Millions of dawns ago.
For dawn it was,
Infusing radiance
And cuing avians
The way it does . . .

We are clearly in the world of traditionally witty New York: Gershwin would have loved “cuing avians.” But the lovers’ joy goes beyond what irony can capture: It fills them with gratitude. They stand “Thanking, hand in hand / Before the light.” The poem ends:

Their gratitude is truly
New beneath the duly
Erupting sun.
gratitude that so
Wants a place to go
It authors one.

This powerful ending is profoundly ambiguous. It can be taken as a continuation of the irony, an amused if sympathetic comment on the “merely subjective” origin of religious feelings. But it also leaves an opening for the deeper thoughts and feelings that religious metaphors awaken (which might in turn alert us to the limitations of irony). In an essay on Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes wrote, “It is the precision of her feeling for language, which is one department of honesty, that kept her to the painful shortcoming of her suspended judgment, and saved her from the easy further step of abstraction into philosophy or shared religion.” Brown too stops short of that step. Typically, he describes an event with humor, precision, and concision, then leaves the reader to draw (or not draw) larger implications.

What More? appeared seven years after Taking the Occasion. How to read its title? Is it a modest question (“What else do I have to say?”) or an excited one (“So what else is new?”)? At any rate, the book marks an advance. Its poems are, like their predecessors, graceful and witty, buoyed by Brown’s informal yet educated speaking voice. But now his seriousness is more evident. Something darker intrudes more often on the pleasant manner, an awareness of death or loss that Brown is (most of the time) reticent about inflicting on you directly yet refuses to deny. In “The Biggie,” he comments ironically on the importance Freud gave to the Oedipus complex. Brown can find nothing of the sort in his own memories, and the idea that as a child he wanted to sleep with his mother seems preposterous: “Have you ever seen my mother?” But then he remembers the thought that really did disturb him: the “comprehension of death.”

Such were my struggles some nights
to free myself from the tightening, pythonic
coils of the thought of it,
that I’d beat my little fist
on the wall beside my bed.
And they say sex is the biggie.

This frightening awareness of mortality links up with a striking and original theme that runs through Brown’s poems. It has to do with repetition versus uniqueness. For instance, in a tiny poem called “Conundrum” (Taking the Occasion), Brown marvels at the fact that some tunes succeed brilliantly by hitting their high note only once, whereas others “have the sense / To hammer it.” In another poem in that collection, “A Salmon Speaks of the Sea,” the salmon, having migrated from its river, lists the wonders of the ocean, exclaiming: “I ask the several / to stand for the innumerable.” That tension, between singularity and multitude, crops up repeatedly in What More? (and perhaps is even present in the title). We see it, for example, in “Designer,” in which the poet, newly dead, comes across the angel whose job it is to design snowflakes, each unique in form. It’s an interminable job, and sometimes the angel wishes he could be free of it to do one of the things other angels do—ride a sunbeam, perhaps. But

                                     something wants it
Otherwise: something I could as soon
Resist as halt a planet with my hand.
I’m talking about the way a talent has
Of having its way with you . . .

Just as we think we recognize the difficulty he’s talking about, the ambivalence that inevitably accompanies commitment, the angel tells us his real regret: Seated on his sunlit cloud, he has never encountered shade. He turns to the poet, the “former mortal,” and says:

If you have a minute, come and sit beside me
And tell me about the dark. Help me imagine
Its nightly infiltration of the heavens . . .
If needed, take forever.

There is something in this affecting poem that the reader is allowed to glimpse but that is never clearly stated. The poem juxtaposes human death with the infinite multiplicity of unique snowflakes. And the angel is burdened by his métier, his dazzling creativity that excludes him from an ordinary world of relationships and playfulness; perhaps “the dark,” which may take forever to describe, also represents the sadness that is inseparable from mortality, and that angels are spared. We sense the poet probing into depths of thought and feeling that are not easily approached in secular language but that religious metaphor gives access to.

The theme of repetition recurs in yet another form in a wonderful short poem, “On a Fly Battering a Window”:

Against a pane’s impervious
Transparency, it beats for naught.
May (if it lives) it learn from this.
Though not, lest life seem just too fraught,
Infer from this substantial scare
That glass is hidden in the air.

Brown’s kindly spontaneous wish is that the fly learn from its experience—but then it occurs to him that it might learn the wrong lesson. The possibility that in one’s life there may be invisible barriers (real or imagined) is frightening; we are glimpsing psychological deep waters. In another poem, Brown references W. B. Yeats’s description of Keats as “a schoolboy . . . / With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.” Is repetition a sort of “battering” against an invisible barrier that we will never understand or get through? Or is it more like “hammering” on some wonderful musical note that we can’t get enough of? Or does it imply a hopeless quest? Everything that matters, like every individual snowflake, is unique, and there are always more unique possibilities, stretching beyond our reach . . .

The title poem, “What More?,” attempts a different solution to the sorrows of finitude. It begins with one of Brown’s beautifully well-managed sentences, complete with gear changes:

I couldn’t have been as old as eight when my
Response to music had broadened out enough
To accommodate, along with all the love,
A thought that could be taken to imply

Some criticism: that music certainly
Did plenty of repeating, didn’t it.

Easy to imagine this cocky eight-year-old! But he grew up to love the repetitions in music, and to feel no nostalgia for notes that might stream on “To shapes and traceries forever new.” Perhaps the contained beauty of artistic form will provide a solution to the pain of finitude, allow the hunger for new experience to accept its inevitable boundaries? If so, “what more” could one ask?

The most extraordinary iteration of this theme comes in “Under the Sun,” which deserves to become a classic. The poem is uncharacteristically long, and also uncharacteristically open about its seriousness. It begins:

As with the Times when we don’t have forever to read it,
So with the world: we skim it. Nothing to be
Ashamed of there: what brilliance could begin
To parse the plenitude we’re dwelling in?
If we thumb the tome of things selectively,
Our doing so is not to our discredit.

The first sentence wittily lays out the issue: Unlike the angel, we don’t have “forever”; being limited and mortal, we cannot do justice to the “plenitude” of our reality. “What can we do, sequestered as we are / In single-windowed cells of circumstance,” except find tricks to make such acute contingency and limitation seem bearable?

The poem continues through thirteen of these ABC CBA stanzas, their form evoking a dance toward, a dance away from. The argument—by means of which the speaker tries, never quite successfully, to convince himself—is that we don’t need as much experience as we think; after all, we generalize quickly from a small number of instances, “a sample of a sample” of what life has to offer. How fortunate that is! We get to experience our lifetime as “complete”: We sample all the categories, if not all the particulars. Moreover, as Brown’s immaculate stanzas demonstrate, we are good at fitting “completeness” into whatever space is provided.

So much for the dance toward. The dance away from, hinted at by the stanza form, can be seen in the sardonic self-diminishment of the speaker’s tone:

Afforded several desert sunsets, say,
You’ll likely get their gold-and-crimson gist
Despite the multitude of them you’ve missed.
A few should be sufficient unto the day,
If day’s demise is what you’re looking at.

The self-irony is apparent, even if never wholly explicit. At the end of the poem, the dance away from becomes clearer still. We get some satisfaction, Brown suggests, from categorizing our experiences, just as we do from fitting a speech to its allotted time, but these are precarious consolations, and we know only too well why we are making such an effort to spell them out. The poem ends:

. . . If either exercise involves a crime
It’s cognizance of clock: no large infraction,
And one no mortal faults another for.

I’ll pass, then, on apologies. If I’ve
Suggested (with, I hope, due deference)
That in our lives it’s given us to see
The seeable in its entirety,
So might it be, if only in a sense,
And only one that helps us face the grave.

With this delicately balanced, self-ironizing but soberly thoughtful poem, Brown seems to have reached a lull in his persistent questioning: He has closed a chapter. But his underlying seriousness is out of the bag. The golf swing may be delicate, but there are big muscles at work behind it. I hesitated over concluding with this quotation, since it seemed wrong to end an essay on Brown’s adroit, humorous, very likeable poetry with the word “grave”; but it would also be wrong to give the impression that it isn’t, rather centrally, there.

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