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The Year of What Now

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Poetry
  • by: Brian Russell
  • Date Published: July 2013
  • ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-648-4
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 88pp
  • Price: $15.00
  • Review by: Kelly M. Sylvester

The poems in The Year of What Now by Brian Russell can catch an unsuspecting poetry reader off-guard, much like a sudden illness or the meeting of your future significant other. Within the opening two lines of the book’s first poem, we discover we will not be eased into this experience: “your hands were stained the urgent shade / of blood when I found you.” As readers continue, they will uncover sections of humor, as well as soft assuring language and soothing music within the poems. Every poem is written without any punctuation marks, except apostrophes. This tactic, although noticeable, doesn’t interrupt the flow or create uncertainty and confusion; instead, it makes the message clearer, helps readers directly connect with the narrator’s thoughts and share the narrator’s sensation of uncertainty. Readers are opened to accept the music of the moment with comforting sounds like “clack of keys,” repetition and rhythms like, “born from smoldering / Rome came crawling,” and unexpected rhymes like:

I’ve stopped asking every name
tagged person if you’re going to be okay I sure hope
so that’s what they say I’ve come to accept
it doesn’t do any good to expect

The moments and emotions within The Year of What Now turn as quickly and unexpectedly as reading the next line. An excellent example of this occurs in “Preface”:

we should talk about what
you want to wear
I can’t finish the sentence
I don’t want to think about it  about going
through the closet  through all the clothes
I told you you didn’t need  I know I’ll find the
black and blue dress you wore
just once  I never understood why you kept it
new year’s eve in Chicago  my god
do you remember how cold it was that year
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
warm with whiskey  the pure
happiness of being young but old
enough to know it
your tears froze in black streaks on your face no
I’m sorry how can I possibly choose
the last thing I’ll see you in

This one passage takes the reader on an emotional journey starting with a conversation no one ever wants to have, to chuckling over those little bickering moments between a loving couple, to a fond memory of their love, to a looming and unfaceable future. The range of emotions conveyed and felt within a single poem, and throughout the entire collection, speaks volumes to Russell’s ability to reach his readers. Personally, every laugh and every tear surprised me—too immersed in his words to notice they were coming. Russell’s unfiltered narrator’s perceptions speak with an admirable honesty—an observational voice void of judgment as he seeks to understand. This narrator seldom comments directly on these moments of being a witness; he simply shares with us readers the smallest details he notices and recognizes as demonstrating significant changes. Instances of this occur in “You’re Welcome”:

now that you’re not dying
faster than the rest of us you want
to spend every waking
hour outside in the very same
kind of garden you once described
as the biggest waste of time and energy
our idiot hippie neighbors ever devised
I don’t say a word

and “Our Hour of Suspense”:

I know which window is yours   I know more
than I’d like to  I’ve memorized
the channels  we watch the shows we used to hate
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                              we look forward
to our hour of suspense
two partners in a police department’s
sex crimes unit
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                              this time they’re unlocking a boy
from shackles in a maniac’s basement the boy is shaking
the mother is frantic but strangely almost impossibly calm
maybe it’s bad acting or maybe
I don’t know how it feels to
hold the one thing you love and know the worst
is over

These emotional journeys help readers identify with the narrator’s vulnerabilities, his brutal and keen awareness of how fragile and miraculous life is. These revelations don’t jump off the page and smack the reader on the head; they’re fresh and subtle, hidden in the smallest of phrases, or another quick turn in the lines. As a result, these pockets of wisdom occur in surprising ways, like in “By Now” when the narrator sees his love’s fingers twitch in her sleep—the narrator comments on how this is “one of a million things / I never noticed / when I loved you too / easily.” Russell’s debut book, which could have easily been poems about dying and cancer, transcends the disease and warms the heart with a deep appreciation and celebration of life’s smallest marvels, like when your partner’s “fingers twitch / in a syncopated rhythm.”

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Review Posted on November 01, 2013

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