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Review: All Bird: Brandi George’s The Nameless
Review of The Nameless, by Brandi George. Kernpunkt Press, August 2023, 199 pages, $18.00 Review by James Brock.
The late Dean Young famously instructs poets, “We are making birds not birdcages,” in The Art of Recklessness, expressing a gravity-defying Warner Brothers Cartoons ethos and New York School surrealism. Young committed to those ideas since his days as a graduate student (and one year as a nursing student) at Indiana University, some forty years ago. His ideas about recklessness broaden the scope of poetry, embracing creative processes that are truly disruptive, chaotic, comedic, and thrilling. (Anne Carson, Thylias Moss, and Denise Duhamel were busy with their own poetic larcenies those days as well.)
Meanwhile, there lived a punk-goth farm girl, haling from Ovid, Michigan, with living visitations from faery tale creatures and Old Testament demons; a Lady Gaga little monster who survived exorcisms and sexual abuse and suicide; a love-wrecked and love-worn lovechild of Walt Whitman and Thumbelina; and, eventually, a professor and Ashtanga practitioner. She would write unlikely long books of poetry, improbably to have them published. And that poet, Brandi George, has now gifted us with an incredibly demanding, rewarding, pleasurable, harrowing, and funny book of poetry, The Nameless. It is a monumental book that is all bird.
Part bildungsroman, part memoir, part enfevered vision, part nature study of fungi, and so, so much more, The Nameless is also the work of a serious, careful versifier, one whose mastery of iambic meter is as light and feathery as hydrae. It is also a book that runs some 200 pages, a visionary accomplishment published by Kernpunkt Press—a press that must be praised for its faith in the most unlikely.
Structurally, The Nameless operates ostensibly as a memoir, divided into two sections, and subdivided into short, individual chapters. And while one is to distrust the autobiographical in poetry as being merely factual, clearly the effort here by George is to construct a poetic record of her life. The speaker in her book is self-identified as “We”—and while that first appears to be a nod toward a gender-neutral self-naming, the “we” who speaks is a dissembling of voices, polyphonic, amorphous, and morphing. This expansive idea of self, certainly Whitman-like, finds its operative metaphor in the mushroom, in fungi. Yes, inside the pleats of the cap of a mushroom are ungendered spores, where 10,000 individuals can fit on a pinhead, and a single fungus constitutes the largest organism on earth, covering an expanse of over four square miles.
George’s “We” constitutes a self that is wracked with auditory and visual hallucinations, an identity we might consider as post-structurally fractured or profoundly schizophrenic, but one that becomes a representation of the poet, a being who is something of a receiver, without the usual filters, who hears the language of air and death in everything and who must then sing.
The book begins with death, where We, as a child, is the victim of sexual molestation—her parents instruct her to forget it—and, from that moment, death’s spores enter We’s body:
so now when we completely forget it Happened the Thing forms a fairy ring inside our body Now Death lives inside us
Invariably, then, Death attends, embodies, and accompanies We through the book—a fact of her life that she has long been taught to ignore and deny. And, of course, in Ovid, death is everywhere, within and without, but with the promise of change and metamorphosis. For We, this means enduring an exorcism at her parents’ behest, the parents convinced their adolescent daughter is possessed by demons. They burn her poems. The irony, it seems, is that We is indeed possessed, but by Death in all its recombinant manifestations.
The book chapters are often prefaced by George’s brilliantly fractured tales of Thumbelina dying a new death with each iteration. We clearly identifies with Thumbelina—the strangest of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—whose queer desires and chaotic imaginings are continually corrected by her elders. George’s Thumbelina is “genderless, many-faced, guiltless, green, and as mysterious as twilight,” a runaway spirit who meets death recklessly, fully, casually, and intentionally.
And in this large book, there are abundant touchstones for We beyond Thumbelina: Kurt Cobain, tarot cards, success and the po-biz, and even animal husbandry. This is a poet’s memoir, after all, a testimony of the empathetic spirit, and here, with death living inside her, We’s empathy is almost debilitating. She feels too much (and this seems to be her chief sin, at least by her family’s reckoning). For instance, We recounts her work at a dairy farm, where her job is to separate the male calves from the female calves, after which the baby bulls will be sold for veal:
back in the barn we try to console the new calf name him Bocephus after Hank but without his mother he’s petrified trembling we hold him to our chest like a child his grief is so deep we can feel it glacial nothing will ever absolve us of this
As much as We disassociates herself from her family, from middle-America banality, and from the grind of capitalism, she is inescapably complicit. Where others in her family and community routinely deny responsibility, she feels it keenly—it is the death in her. The poet’s task, it seems, is to receive everything, to name it, to own it.
Even so, much of the book is doomful, doleful love poetry, a tribute to We’s beloved Annette, an equally wild spirit (and later to We’s husband Michael, who co-authors several poems in the book). Here, the poetry is tender:
In the backyard we practice flipping our hair She-Ra mermaid rock star it’s our thing hair then eyes then will we ever be beautiful? our longing for beauty is crush of petals down our shirt leaves under our feet dandelion heads on the sidewalk sunburn like a hand
So, amid all the chaos, the disorientation of hallucinations, and the broken wheel that is the self, George’s reckless poetry continually finds its purchase in these fleeting moments. This unguarded work seems the very product of Muriel Rukeyser’s question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life?” The world that Brandi George has split open contains all the invisible names of death, all the fecund beauty we long for, and a billion seeds that will germinate from the dead.