Book Review

Robert Strong

Joel Brouwer
Four Way Books 2003 ($14.95)

It is a strange fact that prose poetry, in eschewing traditional verse forms, often inspires more debate on form than ‘poetry’ does. Joel Brouwer’s Centuries steps directly into this paradox by claiming for itself the freedom of prose and the constriction of a unique (almost Oulipian) poetic form; that is, every poem in this collection is exactly one hundred words.

The constraint Brouwer has placed on himself is an exact one. Within such strict bounds, there are two poles the writer might strive toward: a mathematical compliance to the container, a precise gilding of the box one is contained within; or, a wild flying against those constraints via an expansive minstreling that allows the box to exist well beyond its bounds. The greatest feat would be some combination of these two poles, wherein the reader is launched out of, and then landed perfectly back upon, one hundred words, a ‘space-shot,’ which acknowledges its intrinsic limitations by the very act of defying them. However you cut it, this form relies heavily on the textual surface of language to inspire and provoke the pure powers of imagination.

Lyn Hejinian writes in The Language of Inquiry that she has pursued the ‘sentence’ for something

that was maximally enjambed, because I felt things to be under the pressure of abutment, contingency, and contiguity and hence constantly susceptible to change. One had to think quickly if one were to catch the ideas—the relationships—between things, and prose generally has greater velocity than poetry.

[It is an] aphoristic mode—a mode of complete but heterogeneous thoughts. Various statements may seem succinct. Perhaps they are the result of compression, as if all the parts of a syllogism were condensed into a single excessive logical moment, but one with explosive properties. The language is also elliptical, inhabiting gaps but exhibiting gaps within itself also.1

We sometimes hear the complaint that young poets’ work “might as well be prose poems.” Good, I say, if this indicates a contemporary tendency toward maximum enjambment, abutment, contingency, contiguity, aphorism, syllogism, and ellipticism. Brouwer, certainly, puts these tools to use.
His sentences are, actually, too elliptical to remain aphorisms—“A bird’s nest warns that desire obeys only itself” – but their aphoristic tendencies accumulate into what we might call fables:

A bird’s nest warns that desire obeys only itself. Twine says shame. You love her, but you love yourself more? Wrap a magnet in newspaper. Abalone means We must resign ourselves to fate; paintbrushes There is much I cannot understand. Cotton is astonishment. And if you know you must speak, but not how or where to begin? Amaryllis.

This piece becomes a fable of starting to say, a fable of recreating a language in which objects like magnets, abalone, and cotton become more than simply signs for some ‘thing’ in reality, but expand to mean something outside the simply referential. The sounds he hauls into each poem to translate language—into language—gather strength in almost every piece in the collection. Brouwer’s ear for musicality in language is wonderful (and not responsible for counting words): “When everything else has drifted to sleep, the recluse and his penis sip brandy and reminisce.” Meaning slips through the cracks in the ‘centuries’ and the sounds that seem almost to precede meaning.

Of Brouwer’s poetic skill, Andrei Codrescu blurbs that it can “work as missiles, pastries, or treasure chests.” Missiles would never be so contained, ‘pastries’ is just Codrescu NPR-talk—but treasure chests we do have. Brouwer is musical and imaginative. We look into these wrought and sized boxes to see worthy, and sometimes priceless, treasures—but shut the lids, shake them up, reopen them and you’ll have the same worthy stuff. One discerns no inherent concern for the construction inside the box, which often amounts to wonderful disjunction and logical disorder. Brouwer builds his tension from tone and in ideas. Application, an epistolary piece, stands alone in working with itself by ending necessarily at word one-hundred with “Respectfully,”—restricted from signing itself, and, therefore, forced to acknowledge its own construction.

More often, however, one is not left with a sense of what might have been left out (or even stretched to). Take the second sentence of Wedding:

My mother will come back in the end.

Which leads us to the last sentence:

My mother.

What occurs on the way, however, is unrelated. Here is the next to last sentence:

I chopped out my mouth but nights I still hear it, down at the dump telling stories to the eggshells.

The poem makes a promise and then keeps it. The promise is to arrive, but how and why remains a welcome uncertainty.

Of course, the elliptical structure does require certain gaps. In prose fiction, these leaps have a certain responsibility to the next sentence; in poetry, the line allows this for more freedom, while providing many possible landing-spots down the page. Hejinian writes that both

lines and sentences make a demand for other lines or sentences, linkages, but they do so in different ways and according to different syntactic and logical operations. Sentences may incorporate articulation of this kind within themselves, whereas principle articulation occurs between lines rather than inside them. Meanwhile, the conceptual space between sentences is greater than that between lines, so that the effort to achieve linkage between sentences may have to be greater.2

Brouwer’s leaps across conceptual space are sometimes only that—leaps into nowhere, without linkage. This seems to be the greatest danger in writing prose poems: a form that refuses the landing place of lines while freeing itself from the stricter responsibilities to sentence relationships. Dean Young is a poet who comes to mind (and a poet who, some say, is actually writing prose poems) for making ridiculous leaps that always manage to land with stunning acuity and a relevant bizarreness. Brouwer, at times, succumbs to the thrill of the leap alone, as in the poem, Demonstration:

A man was dancing with a flag, a woman was screaming at a flag, the flags were introduced, hit it off, walked off together holding hands. The man and woman shrugged and caught a cab.

Brouwer—whose other work I’ve come across has been in verse and has exhibited wonderfully realized imagination—is, at times, forced to introduce and dispense with entire concepts and characters. This ‘leaving off,’ however, is again a welcome indeterminacy, albeit a haunting one, as he suggests himself at the end of the poem: “And later we slept in the sheets we’d waved at the cameras, our convictions flaking off in brittle red splinters.”

Under such compressed circumstances, any disconnect is no small matter. The ‘condensed syllogism’ of a sentence and the ‘conceptual space’ between sentences are far from contradictory. The syllogism (A=B=C; A=C), when complete, makes the elliptical leap from A to C, leaving out B. No matter that the conceptual space between sentences may exist primarily because of the endstops of period and capital letter, or because of our expository educations—if the syllogisms do not work, they will not survive their compression intact and in-line. Across a distance of conceptual space, the prose reader’s eye may allow for some sloppy imagination, confident it may be explained later—the poetry reader, however, is reading with Hejinian’s velocity (imagine the mental equivalent of squinting at an abstract painting) and hearing the problems. This is doubly true when the 100th word is always in sight.

But these speed bumps need not be ‘problems’— they are, in fact, the tensions available for the prose poet to exploit. Their enactment is key to the effect of the work, as Gertrude Stein has suggested:

Prose is the balance the emotional balance that makes the reality of paragraphs and the unemotional balance that makes the reality of sentences and having realized completely realized that sentences are not emotional while paragraphs are, prose can be the essential balance that is made inside something that combines the sentence and the paragraph.3

Hejinian writes similarly that “[b]ecause whatever is going to happen with sentences does so inside them, sentences offer possibilities for enormous interior complexity at numerous contextual levels.”

Thus we arrive at a representative sentence from Brouwer, the opening of Ignorance: “The authors you haven’t read are cooking over campfires in your back yard.” Grammatically and syntactically, this is no different than writing: “The leaves you haven’t raked are sitting on grass in your backyard.” The difference being that Brouwer’s choices are maybe wild and kooky—and a semantic disruption—which suggests that the one place where “enormous interior complexity at numerous contextual levels” may exist is between the ‘leaves’ and the ‘authors’ in your backyard. It is immediately clear from Brouwer’s writing that he is intelligent, well read, and certainly self-conscious about every impulse and gesture. And, if his complexity is between what we would consider ‘normal’ and ‘quirky,’ then the reader may be overcome with the desire to read these pieces as extended metaphors. For example, in the same poem, Ignorance, he follows the line quoted about with this: “They’ve pitched tents and dug a well.” This does not add interior complexity to the previous sentence, but it does add detail to what is already established—authors in your backyard (not leaves), the personification of unread texts—and, ultimately, an extended metaphor for your own ignorance. The self-recrimination is exercised for a total of 100 words – a “century” in language.

The fable, in Brouwer’s hands, becomes a sort of three-dimensional metaphor, a treasure chest, indeed, that can explain the subtler or rococo possibilities of the cardboard box. We know that it’s a cardboard box or ‘ignorance’ because the title of every poem tells us so. That is, the titles explicitly indicate the actual topic – sometimes ironically, but more often not. Some readers may enjoy being told what they are about to read about—I find it an unfortunately limiting force against the work’s potential. Brouwer’s more expansive passages and language can exhibit wonderful unfoldings—but “Sorry,” the titles say, “that is an incorrect reading.” In the end, some poems produce the feeling of having read an exercise journal—of a fluid writer with a gifted ear—but exercises nonetheless. This isn’t necessarily a complaint. Who is not fascinated and educated by the exercises of a talented writer? We find excellent things, like the poem Michigan:

Smoke a pack of Kools in the dunes. Then he’ll push your hand down his swimsuit. Hold the damp cold there. Smell alewives. Then he’ll do you, and that’s it. Back to the campground. No talking. Coppertone, hamburgers, Frisbee. Suggest a walk on the pier to see if the fish are biting, though you couldn’t care less. Too small, son. We’re throwing them back. Good soldier-talk to remember for later, when someone’s older brother wants payback for the rum and the storm’s chasing boats to harbor like a dog after rabbits. Fish biting, kid? Too small. They’re throwing them back.

Michigan shows what Brouwer is capable of in the best of this collection: a cinematic crispness and visual indirection, an acute eye for American scene-ism, and ‘quicksand’ shifts of voice and authority. We get the distinct and disconcerting impression of so much crucial detail forced out: leaving the dysfunction that thrives in and demands silence, also demands that the fable stop at 100 words—or else—now go to your room. And not another word out of you.



1: “A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking,” in The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.

2: “Line,” in The Language of Inquiry.

3: “Poetry and Grammar,” in Gertrude Stein: Writings 1932-1946.