Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Tender in the Age of Fury by Brandon Pitts (Released by Mosaic Press, 2016)
How do we deal with history? How do humans assess it and keep it in their thoughts, or remove it from their thoughts, as they move through their daily life? How do artists appropriate stories and images from the most ancient and the most recent histories? Tender in the Age of Fury is a strong example of how to actively answer these questions. Brandon Pitts provides in this book 35 poems across 4 sections, which hone in on the immediate and not so immediate pasts, and for the most part, these poems are insightful, honest, and thorough examinations of cultures that came before us, and the lessons they carry, and how the themes and power of those visions are still relevant today.
in the shadows of my sanity
where neurons fire static
and the mystical storm is wet with distortions
the sun had just set
on the final millennium
(from “The Apocalypse of Weeks: Vision the First” on page 35)
After roughly a third of the book was behind me, I asked, roughly, what might necessitate writing through the eyes of the indentured and the guttural in the Americana heart of the last few centuries? “Legba: The Prophesy of the Coming Mannish Child” explores through allegory and symbolism (to use Pitts’s own words) early folk spirituality of the continent. These poems are filled with characters unique and forgettable: from witches to everyday individuals to the faces of the monstrous unknowns. These characters are presented in rather scattered verse, lines that cross the pages representative of work, mystery, and a lack of fluidity—ultimately geographically relevant and evocative of communication and life “back then”—an effect which sucks the reader in, as through a warp of time, or mystical vision.
she sang songs about the old times
in that far off land
(from “Delilah Went Cold” on page 6)
The ritual of reading poetry and learning through reaches greater relevance here with the contexts of each of the poems. From potion-making to observations of the decay of the flesh, the descriptions within this first section are marvelous and fantastical, yet feel contemporary and fresh. Like Cormac McCarthy or Tom Waits, the images crafted here by Pitts are the shadow of a sense of Americana often dominated by major political events. In a way, Pitts brings forward smaller stories and has done an excellent job of re-envisioning histories through a more precise lens.
and the came
walking up the knoll
a lone sheep
who turned to the people and said:
while you were shopping
these men of means took control of your mind
(from “The Apocalypse of Weeks: Vision the Fifth” on page 42)
Derived from the culture jamming techniques used by African American slaves, the second section in the book, “The Apocryphon,” explores an appropriation and re-use of apocalyptic religious scripture. Not being well-learned in anything biblical, I went into this section with a certain fear. What could I possibly take from this area? Though Pitts does not explain every story as presented in his poems, which arguably could have helped or detracted from his unique creations, I did not find the lack of footnote or explicit subtext a derailing. In fact, the broadness of the works, and their immediacy (Pitts merges the dusty biblical storytelling with contemporary references) piqued curiosity and greater inspection. The largest swath of success from this style arose through the intersection of vocabularies:
Let them ignore the ringtone
as the cellphone vibrates across the table
like a planchette spelling out doom
I will take pleasure in the storm
(from “Nimrod” on page 50)
Relatively shorter are the two sections following: “The Carbon Age: Poems: 2011-2014” and “The Labours of Spartacus Baptist.” Though the poems in the former of the two sections by no means fall out of line in tone and craft, I did wonder why they were included in the book. Oddly and wonderfully, including a section as short as only a handful of works brings about questions related to the form of contemporary poetry collections. Whereas the expectation is for an equal divide between sections in these books, Pitts follows his own interest with this inclusion of the miscellaneous. Ultimately this section serves the reader well, and allows for a look at Pitts as a wide-ranging author, the poet who has the capacity to look at themes in brief and succinct concentrations.
See Spartacus Baptist standing at the baptismal font
on the shores of the Rivers Commerce
washing sings from the brows of the toilers
(from “The Labours of Spartacus Baptist: Labour of the Third” on page 90)
The closing section of Pitts’s book is an homage to Bernie Sanders, utilizing the name Spartacus Baptist for yet another allegorical reappropriation. Sanders presented as champion, as both gladiator but also reverent leader is what I took from this set of two poems, the first seven sub-sections, and the latter one sub-section. Once again, I found my fear based on an ignorance of history and context; ultimately, however, Pitts has provided a strong set of poems that crystallize the idea of Sanders as a strong and enduring individual through an older, epic style of storytelling. For those who feel oppressed by the way systematic media presents the qualities of political candidates and the political spectrum generally, these poems will be a strong alternative approach to thinking about symbolic heroes such as Sanders.
Tender in the Age of Fury is a book that is delightful and telling. There are so many distinct and fresh images throughout that regardless of the context, the poems represent incredible journeys and are fascinating opportunities to be included in new and old histories. How this book fits with the larger milieu of Pitts’s work is curious. As a conceptual artist, Pitts carries a capability to look forward very specific, awe-inducing works. Where will he evolve requires us to turn around and look toward the future.
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