Read This: The Brother Swimming Beneath Me by Brent Goodman
Brent Goodman's debut collection, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me ($14, Black Lawrence Press), is surely going to be in my top three of 2009. Reading poems from this collection over the last couple of years in various magazines, journals and at his blog, did not prepare me for the power of the book as a whole. This collection has a nearly perfect narrative arc. Every poem falls into place, ebbs and flows seamlessly to the next and from section to section as Goodman elegantly, tenderly and heartbreakingly details his older brother's death from cancer.
I had planned to read The Brother Swimming Beneath Me in one sitting, but after the devastating second section, I had to stop and compose myself. The stand out poem in this collection is the long centerpiece, "Maier," his brother Mark's Hebrew name. The printed poem is seven pages long, the stanzas alternately cascading down the pages in short bursts of words or in tight prose. "Maier" -- or any of the poems -- could have easily moved into mawkish, self-indulgent handwringing, but that never happens. The poems are lyrical and beautiful even in the face of a death.
As the narrative builds toward Mark's passing, we see glimpses of Goodman's religious upbringing, his coming out of the closet to his conservative father (How dramatic my coming out, tears blurring my eyes. Father puts his fork down. My mother feigns surprise.), and his own near death at age four from blood poisoning, a precursor to Mark's demise (This was my small death, one which would eventually swallow him entirely.)
In the poem "Evaporation," Goodman recounts how his brother might have been stricken with cancer, admitting that this explanation has become a "religion," but not gospel (Grief begins with how, not why). Mark has dropped out of high school and is working in a pressure gauge factory, when he accidentally ingests freon. He came home ghost-faced, went to bed. Dreamt he swallowed sky until his blood turned to wind.
The third section of the collection is a series of short, experimental prose poems, which are in stark contrast to the poems that came before. Mark disappears from the narrative, yet he always seems to be fluttering around the edges: an errant birthday balloon bobbing against a ceiling, a missing pet, spaceships and seagulls silently hovering. And then, in "[behind]", a memory of shooting squirrels and spying on a girl swimming brings Mark's memory back in one deft line: Behind my brother I turn to shadow.
Debut collections this good are few and far between. The Brother Swimming Beneath Me is an unforgettable, cathartic read.
Dear religion, there is no afterlife.
I hope you don't mind me saying this.
When you say heaven on earth
I think: the dead read minds.
When you think dust to dust
I say: this body is a riverbed.
Will the congregation please
recite what this wall of stained glass
is trying to tell you? Dear Buddha,
I've been knocking from the inside.
Heaven is not an ecosystem.
When I dream my brother visits me
it is my brother looking at his reflection
through my eyes, my sleeping tongue.
When we die we turn inside out and call
this turning a tunnel made of light.