Of all of the Iowa Poetry Prize winners I have read, Molly Brodak’s A Little Middle of the Night may be the most stunning, the most complete and beautiful package; every poem in the book is a gem and they all fit together to form a simple and elegant volume that I am pleased to have in my collection.
Brodak sports a voice all her own, with hints of Dickinson, Melville, and Joseph Conrad, as well as influence from visual art and artists, ontological exploration, and surrealism. On the surface of it all is the broad stroke of a world that is so peculiar it can’t be anything but real (at least as real as we think our own daily world is).
One noteworthy poem, “Joseph Conrad’s Last Novel (Which Is Comprised Entirely of Face Colors Used in His Previous Novels),” is “comprised entirely” of vibrant, provocative colors such as “Too Much Swedish Punch,” “Brick Dusty,” “of Quivering Leather,” “of Wet Hair,” and “of Crumbs.”
Much of the success of the poems comes from Brodak’s skillful, playful use of language, which draws attention to the visual and aural textures of words; for instance: “icky baby”; “my blood type is / paper white, / a trill warble, / a new leaf”; “Pleats will go on without me, sweet sucky knee-socks and lavender blubber about the mouth”; “sad at heart / at the thanks for the arrangement: jumbo mums, cheap and sharp”; and
in the nightstand:
What Business Should I Start?
Why Men Marry Some Women and Not Others
Evil Is Not Your Enemy
What Do People Do All Day
Most of this
is How To.
Here’s a book:
is Going Off.
Here’s a book:
Wake the Fuck Up.
The different vernaculars and tones bounce off of each other like rubber balls in a small room; sounds of each word and interplay between them is nearly whimsical.
Much of the charm and playfulness in A Little Middle of the Night can be attributed to double entendres (which begin even in the very title of the book): “I had on a dress from here to there”; “nothing lives sometimes”; “Distant anger clouds together”; “I met a former friend at some distance”; “They / arrange her hands, as always.”
It should already be obvious by these examples, though, that in spite of Brodak’s skillful wordplay, her poems have a serious, melancholy aura that lends a surprising counterbalance to the humor; often it seems the speakers use language and wit partially in effort to deny a more despondent and inconsolable inner condition.
The speakers in the poems are “terrified at the doctor’s // feverish touch” and planning to “make a fine suit of love and disappear.” They are running from elements outside of their control, fully aware that avoidance won’t rescue them or help them find “something better than happiness.” Nonetheless, the speakers ask questions (“What’s above / our old errors, and above those coldest places?” “Why would I close my good eye?” “Can I choose?”) in hope of finding answers, in hope of finding their way
Many of the poems are concerned with the “underneath,” what happens below/beyond our consciousness, what we are often focused on. Brodak presents us with a series of poems titled “Underneath”; “Underneath Underneath”; “Underneath at All”; and “Underneath (Side Effects),” in which the speaker(s) are obsessed with ontology and existentialism: “A Good underneath will tell you to go back. You should feel lucky when you hear this // A Private underneath will look like everyone else’s. // A Faithful underneath will be the one you dislike first.”
“Underneath (Side Effects)” gets to the core of it:
Similarly, I like “heaven forbid” but it means nothing to me. That
there is nothing underneath. That doesn’t mean the underneath
is full of me.
A small part of what I’ve seen has led me to believe this.
Including the fake things. Mostly I believe there is no me.
I’m afraid of where I will go when I’m under the anesthesia. Don’t think
belief is uninterruptible.
but it’s clear that the “underneath” is also a part of every other poem in A Little Middle of the Night, regardless of its title or content.
The book does seem to rely on a few words and/or images that appear in many of the poems: neon, stars, sky, forest (or pines), outer space, yellow, to name the most prominent; the word “underneath” also falls into this category. This repeated language can stand out and be a potential distraction because at times it seems as if the poet has used certain words as “trusty” elements, words she counts on to generate a poem. However, this characteristic is something that most – if not all – poets share, and the argument can be made that this particular kind of repetition is what holds together a fabulous book of poems, makes a book unforgettable and noteworthy. The final result in A Little Middle of the Night is that the poems do, indeed, mesh together remarkably well; the book is unforgettable, and highly noteworthy.
Although it is Brodak’s first full-length book, A Little Middle of the Night has the qualities of a book written in the middle of an accomplished poetic career; I look forward to seeing her work progress.