Abby E. Murray
I’ve been thinking about outsider perspectives a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I consider myself on the fringes of several communities—literary, academic, military. Maybe it’s because, right now, so much art is cultivating a wider understanding of what it means to sing from within the heart of chaos and from its furthest edge. Either way, I’m paying attention to what it means to hear voices from beyond my usual haunts.
I suppose it was fate, then, that brought a copy of Aaron Brown’s Acacia Road across my desk. He has two poems in the current issue of Collateral, “Abecedarian” and “In a parallel universe”. Both reveal a deft handling of form—a strength we see in Acacia Road, page after page. In this new release, the ghazal works beside the elegy, the narrative beside the sequential and patterned couplets. Only after I finished the book did I realize its unpredictable form progression was something I appreciated. Because the music changed from poem to poem, my ear was trained to keep going, keep wanting to hear more.
The book is written in three parts and begins with poems that reach into the reader’s consciousness like a sunrise, which is to say they awaken the senses. We meet the subjects of Brown’s first poems over coffee “syrup-sweet, sludge-thick so that it burns the throat”, or sharing “a bowl of assir, like honey / the guava nectar so cold”, in the midst of songs that rise from workers’ throats or sand becoming mud becoming water after drought. We must wake up to take in the stories around us, to remember where Brown has located us, often in Africa:
…the tin door rattling with every gust of dust
as the cows come into town—we heard them call out
their arrival, the gentle rumble of their hooves on sand,
the close coming of each one down the street and into the houses
of neighbors, to the same corner of yard where they spend
every night, where a bowl of hay waits by the tether pole,
for slow chewing through the hours.
As readers, we follow the speaker from country to country as memories flood toward us from Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, France, Italy, cities and villages and the faintest of maps. Brown is Texas born, grew up in Chad, has travelled the world. One feels the sand in their fingernails after reading his collection. This is the perspective of a white man growing up in Africa, witnessing love, family, disease, loss, war, and the language that manifests his carrying those experiences.
In the second section of Acacia Road, in “Coming of Age” specifically, we hear the speaker swept up by the unfamiliar when he witnesses a protest gaining momentum around him, then reflects on a parallel memory from childhood:
when I stood as a boy in Florence and watched a train
of Hare Krishnas come through, an undulating wave
of shaved heads and faces glossed serene—
men and women beating the drum, men and women
dancing and joining their voices in deep-hearted song,
and I could only watch and ask Who are they? as their music
flooded the street and took minutes more to face
as they passed down. I felt the tug to join them, to dance
with abandon as the crowd looked on, but I didn’t.
There is a sense of reservation in the speaker’s presence throughout these poems, which seems to support the intensity of observation and preservation of detail. The speaker geographically comes and goes while reflecting on the absence and return of those around him. We are on the fringes of it all, looking in: civil war, uncertainty, flight, quiet moments: “a kind of / silence the pause between / one cup of tea & the next.”
“I don’t know anything about suffering” is perhaps the strongest, most significant poem in the collection. Here, the speaker makes an admission on his own behalf while showing the brutality of loss in excruciating detail, addressing a woman directly: “as if every dead and dying thing was / under your control // and you could make the clouds drop rain and breathe life / into a brittle carcass by the roadside”. Here, a mother loses children born and unborn, loses her husband, is forced to pummel her life into a field, and the poem sprawls bare on the page. I’m loathe to give away the details of this poem because you need to read it full stop; a small taste is not enough.
This poem, for me, becomes the centerpiece to Brown’s focus on life through suffering, and the title situates us all as readers who should not—cannot—look away. I cannot forget the intimacy of this poem, placing the speaker and subject so closely together and yet unbearably far apart.
And yet the poems continue, relentless. In Part III, “Ceremonial” solidifies the sentiment felt in “I don’t know anything about suffering” by questioning our desire to name what we witness: “Tell me, // how can I even begin // to think of names?” This part of the poem ends there (it has three parts within it) and it feels natural, relatable, yet so crucial that the poem continues. I once heard poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha say poetry is the act of naming, and this comes to mind here. If poetry is the act of naming, and we are struck by names, amazed or muted, even briefly, what does this say about our endurance as poets? It says we need an endless supply. We need strength and attention. We must keep going.
“Ghazal” showers us in the shattering clang of shells and bullets, followed by the smoke produced on burning bricks. The poem is tagged by the 2008 battle of N’Djamena, when Chadian rebels rose up against president Idriss Deby, who seized power in 1990. Each moment keeps us grounded in the now.
Acacia Road is a collection I want to return to and hold my ear against. I swear, you can hear the silence violence brings about, splintering. It’s a beginning I want to encourage.
Abby Murray is the editor and chief of Collateral.