Nickole Brown, Sister: A Novel-in-Verse,
Red Hen Press, 2007
A book of poems about surviving abuse has to battle a lot of clichés, not to mention a certain incredulity. Therapeutic arts, easy lyric narrative, the awkward showmanship for one's own lowest moments must all be avoided. In Sister, Nickole Brown invents a rhetorical frame that allows a woman speaker to address regrets and memories to a sister ten years younger. She also uses double entendre, and a highly imagistic sensual cataloguing to build this narrative project. These tools create a space for amped-up emotion, a marriage of the graphic and the intricate, and finally the rehabilitation of scenes from small town impoverished narratives.
Addressing the poems to a younger sister, Brown casts what might seem egregious confessionalism in lesser hands as warnings and apologies for absence. It isn't until the fourth stanza of "It is Possible He Thought" that the descriptions of toys and presents the father had bought for the speaker is gently interrupted by the appearance of the baby sister:
It is possible the year
before you were born he quit me
and I drew fourth-grade pictures
of swan necks coughing up
eggs into the womb,
that I scored an A by memorizing
test in testicle, fall in fallopian. (42)
Not mentioned again in this poem, the "you" adds an intimacy and direction to the speaker's new intellectual understanding of what sex is for, rather than viscerally, wordlessly internalizing the abusive experience of it. At times the baby sister appears in the third person rather than the second, allowing Brown to establish both intimate and perplexed, distant attitudes towards this friend/intruder where another friend/intruder has already been incorporated, frighteningly, into the psyche. The sister is "you" in a poem about keeping her out of the teenage speaker's room ("The Smell of Snake") and what happened when the baby sister ran into the same room to bang on everything with a wooden spoon ("Tintinnabulation"). Brown's speaker never truly relaxes at the thought of this sister in danger, yet foreign and kept at a distance as a means of self-protection.
Where the women of this novel are addressed in the third person, second person, and first person plural, the stepfather is kept at a remove in the third person, and his more vile activities are either met head-on, or allowed to simmer as double entendres. The abusive stepfather disappears into the basement to build model airplanes, "bluing himself with late night flickerings of television." The gerund "bluing" can make the reader imagine the man not only blue in the light the television casts, but cultivating, then denying himself pleasure from something he seems on-screen. This double meaning asks the reader, "why does he need so much pleasure?" In "One Hundred and Five Times," an argument between the mother and speaker recycles itself from we've been over this 105 times, you bring it up every chance you get, into variations such as, "he was 105 times / he was / every chance." The separation of the mother's words into a stunted, dark account of her husband's actions puts the mother's own knowledge of what happened into phrases that both avoid and make denials grotesque through collage.
In contrast to the subtler double meanings, Brown crafts earthy, visceral, organic surfaces from the expected—fetuses, ferns, lakes, mud, clitorises, penises—as well as from a lot of thrown and often artificial or manufactured objects. This teeming surface evades summary and occasionally commentary, the result being a rehabilitation of ugliness into—if not beauty—a distracted, made surface. The speaker acknowledges having been mesmerized ("It is Possible He Thought") by a lighter and lighter fluid flamethrower trick the stepfather showed her, and being "underground / with a wild barnyard kitten / that shit the couch." The Rolling Stones LP cover with the zipper, a reference to the electronic toy Speak ‘n' Spell, Mardi Gras beads, etc., conglomerate as if sealing life whole in ambergris, rather than covering over, or slowly examining the worst moments.
Brown's grotesque surfaces also imagine the father's own burden of misfortunes. In "Wasp, Bear, Abacus," we learn there was a woman he wanted to marry who was "killed in the melting fiberglass cage of his first white Corvette," and his own father used a twelve-gauge to blow a "black boy's jaw…into a confetti of buckshot and flesh." The only explanations for his behaviors are elaborated metaphors for his nature listed in the title, and the final lines of the poem in which a "you" (either the reader or the speaker) takes a hot coal from the fire, and writes on a fence that criminals are "made, not born." By not stating this as commentary, but showing the idea as acted out graffiti, Brown transforms the difficult action of objectively assessing a villain into an act not meditatively explained. Where one stops to wonder what is true and what is imagined in the poem, the speaker's dedication to the seemingly impossible facts—that a life could be so wrong and that he should be forgiven—is heartbreaking.
This book dares itself into territory Robert Rebein called the mythical and cliché'd dirty hick's. For Rebein, where Dorothy Allison succeeded in her candor and specificity, many others have failed to completely evade sentimentality: A desire to seem authentic via white trash culture can feel false. Brown tends to bring the (paradoxical) trope of the impoverished idiosyncratic to bear on an addressee, the young sister, with the goal of warning and explaining her own psychological distance. The most clarification happens not for the sister, but, it seems, for the speaker's self. If you feel that high emotion and unalienated confession is not art, as Slavoj Žižek might assert—that it cops to the System where the individual is valued for trying to be different—this book asks the question: what do you do with specific experience you never chose and from which you must try to recover? In the end, Brown blows all up into an awful beauty of size, color and sound, regards the narrative from many points in time, then warns the sister:
...you are not mercury for the mouths of fish
not a plume of smoke to lift hollow bones. Do not throw it
like a bottle from an overpass onto a speeding car, do not wait
for it to seed as you wait tentacled in sleeping beauty's hair.
Listen to me, I know how it works, simply
bury it, but bury it
("How to Forgive") (96).