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While the Earth Remains: Brandon Brown’s The Four Seasons

By Dylan Byron.

Brandon Brown, The Four Seasons (Wonder, 2018)

Solvitur acris hiems, and just in time, too, for Brandon Brown’s sun-soaked The Four Seasons, an unbounded daybook in which one is tempted to say the interchange of perceiving and recollecting lives not the self but the commons.

Brown is a poet who likes a frame. In his first three books, this was supplied by the device of selecting source texts on which a kind of translation, or several, is then performed: Aeschylus’ Persae (Brown’s The Persians by Aeschylus), Catullus’ Carmina (The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus), and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (Flowering Mall). In his fourth book, Top 40, the early balance of Brown’s exceptionally lively voice and his initially somewhat canonical mien explodes into a deliciously, unreservedly topical survey of late capitalist life through popular music: forty songs, forty poems. More recently, The Good Life collects occasional poems, a structure of a moment in each.

Longer than a midwinter day, but more compact than the lifespan of the modernist long poem, a single year (May 2015 to May 2016) lends Brown’s newest book its form. Corners of the earth, winds, humanity’s ages, the zodiac’s signs, the body’s humors and, of course, the seasons—here all four.

Echoing Hegel’s Encyclopedia, Engels observes in the notes and fragments to his Dialectics of Nature:

Life and death. Already no physiology is thought scientific if it does not consider death as an essential element of life, life’s negation as being essentially contained in life itself, so that life is always thought of in relation to its necessary result, death, which is always contained in it in germ. The dialectical conception of life is nothing more than this…Living means dying.

Brandon Brown: lyric of our neoliberal nightmare, the juniper’s shade in which all life sickens and there is no song.

Since it’s summer, we think under the shade of Brown’s counter-plot of unproductivity, “Sometimes the idea of not producing or reproducing is exactly the kind of practical, benign nihilism most attractive to me.” But then art intervenes: “Other times I think of that great David Wojnarowicz graffiti, ‘The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated.’” With that classically Bay Area communitarian impetus, art moves right (you wouldn’t want to say “straight”) into friendship. It’s claimed, implicitly, for New Narrative but it could equally be Language or, if you think as I do, just Brown and his friend Bruce Boone:

Bruce and I went to SFMOMA when the Felix Gonzalez-Torres curtain was up. We walked through the beads several times, luxuriating in how they whipped us softly, little sparkly spankings. Bruce smiled behind the dangling threads and I smiled at Bruce.

Did you know Brown is six-foot-three and also an art writer? Boone’s pretty tall too, though not a straight poet and far easier to picture getting a sparkly spanking, flashing that sly, worldly grin of his. It could be parochialism, but I can’t help noticing all these gestures back towards New York art people, to say nothing of the ritual obeisance to fallen heroes of queer culture. Possibly New York art is the context where it’s easier to see the art/friend nexus as more grim necessity than glorious possibility: a problematic. As Isabelle Graw has pointed out over and over again (indeed also, in her highly productive career, convincingly exemplified), the “networking imperative” has rendered friend/contact fluid, to say the least. Can 1968-style utopias of literary community survive the more recent Boltanski-Chiapello diagnosis of friendship instrumentalized in network capitalism?

Still the seasons roll on. Strictly speaking he’s not making anything; it’s already there. You’re not going to ask me about the pathetic fallacy. Do I sound a Romanticist? At least not in English. He really does get them. I started hearing from The Four Seasons a couple of years ago. Even though its waiting list closed before I was born, Westbeth hosted the reading in a cellar. Was that Hans Haacke talking to the concierge? I thought so. He didn’t come downstairs though. Since Brown started with “Autumn,” I confess I had a completely different impression of the work. Then I had one, now three others. What are yours? “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—” Yes Keats was unmanly, the Young Poet. Have you read Wilfred Owen on the subject? Or, you know, “The youngest of the martyrs here is lain, / Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.” Yikes! But the Protestant Cemetery is as good a place for a kiss as any. You have to think Brown would be sympathetic.

Did I neglect to say there’s still plenty of Greek and Latin if you’re looking? Sometimes even if you’re not. Not to mention more recent European high culture to spare, plausibly interlaced; for every Chopin, a Kurt Cobain. If it weren’t for Brown’s brilliant demotic gusto, you could almost be excused for picturing him, mutatis mutandis, among the effete expatriate poets of yesteryear. Argyle socks on a beach. Purple in the rue de Varenne. Yannis, is that my bathrobe? A real ipse dixit: “On our walk we debated the merits of buying designer trunks. I want them of course as a mordant aesthete who shouldn’t have a credit card.” It’s okay though, no harm done and soon we’re back in the public parks of northern California.

So what kind of dandy is this? Not the queer kind, exactly, though neither were all those early ones. We needn’t devolve towards taxonomy to suggest a certain dialectical relationship. As recounted in the Columbia dissertation of feminist literary critic Ellen Moers, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm—a book gifted to me in my teens by its author’s older sister, incidentally—“The persistence of the dandy ideal explains much about the bourgeois spirit of the time.” Nor can we readily apply Baudelaire’s definition; Brown’s dandy is very often out of himself. Of affect a luxuriant field and no mere garden.

I’m thinking that in a European language Brown could perhaps have been a kind of subtle prose writer; in this English, he’s consummately a poet. Maybe one of the reasons I keep thinking about what else Brown might have been is that I’m still surprised he is at all. Even so, he shows a strong swerve in the genealogy of North American vanguard poetics. Language operates as an apparently reliable vehicle for sentiment and event. A discernible “I” (or “us”?). Traditional narrative techniques recur, albeit scattershot, bent through the days. Lineation breaks out.

Apart from its occasional, and explicitly anti-capitalist, political professions, this is done in the description of occurrences not otherwise externally marked by structural features of extreme alienation or dissidence: a heterosexual marriage; enjoyment of high California gastronomy; mundane office work, resentment of the same. The familiar and the strange.

After the April launch at Brooklyn’s Sunview Luncheonette, I was walking briskly across Msgr. McGolrick (once Winthrop Jones) Park, mere yards from an apartment of many years where even as we write one-bedroom railroads are now being listed at $3,000, and the boy I’d brought mused amiably, “what a weird guy,” and I said, “yes! yes,” encouraging this essential point. Could you overlook it? Gladly we give him Hebel’s laurel and frond. The hearing helps—that act of under truth, real.

He’s embarrassed to look like them. He’s not them, he’s us. It’s plain on the page, but he’s really a poet you need to listen to, or see, if you can. Watch him perform his gleefully abashed aporia of normalcy, and cheer. It lives in the bodily world. Obviously my attitude is not St. Paul’s. Tearing it up from inside, cyclically time for something new, he gives us that again. Actually, listening or reading we come to feel, like Goethe’s beloved, that Brown wants to have everything, to give everything. To us!

Does a good poem always leave you hungry? No. So come, let’s read and watch this sun write, rising across the coasts, dropping into the western Bay, calling us all home filled.


Dylan Byron is a poet from New York.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 9th, 2018.