(Book Review) Barbaric Mercies by Gaylord Brewer

By Kristina Webster Shue

Gaylord Brewer presents an eclectic mix of touching, titillating, and tortuous poems of various styles in Barbaric Mercies, a volume that overwhelms readers with the sensuous and sensual, stirring the innards with cynical wisdom, chauvinist eroticism, a stereotypically masculine attitude, and an annoying overuse of the word “sexy.”

“Ode to Leonard Cohen and Yogi Berra” is, like its title, an interestingly original piece concerning living with the prospects of aging and loss. One of the most purely poetical in the collection, it contains very few crude, barbaric, or overtly sexual references; however, it does appear to conceal a typo, though one nearly unnoticeable and possibly forgivable amid high quality lines including, “At night I think of him gone/ the presence of his absence forever/ and my dimmed memory, my shell hardened/ around larger and larger emptiness”. Even out of context, the “presence of his absence forever” is an identifiable and wholly accurate description of the unfillable void left by the loss of someone dear. Just as exceptionally recognizable is the “larger and larger emptiness,” the abyss that, despite the mental and emotional shell constructed around it, grows as each detail fades from memory. The way that one packages up memories and feelings and puts them away hoping to keep both the memories and the rememberer intact, but things inexplicably slip out of even the tightest fortresses, sometimes to affect the outside, and sometimes to go the same way as their subjects and vanish.

Further in the poem we find another well-selected image for emotion: “I fear the day commitments–/ I can’t name these, but they rattle their baby-blue shackles in my dreams–/ won’t let me travel […]”.  Commitments to shackles may not be a terribly original comparison, but the added “baby-blue” certainly is, a detail giving the whole of the phrase a much more specific meaning, a feeling of more cynicism than simply despair. Of course the shackles would be baby-blue, those unnamable, unrecognizable daily tasks and expectations that keep one from breaking out of a routine. Not obviously evil, they do not clang about and make themselves known, make their presence obvious. They tether one just out of reach of anything exceptional, jerking one back just roughly enough to imperceptibly wear one down.

From here, though, the poem loses some of its allure by adding some lines and details that are less attractive and written more plainly, not so much illustrating as listing: “won’t let me travel or luxuriate/ in leisure, wrestle the work/ required, or drink cold beer on afternoons/ fighting the lawn […]”, “I don’t anticipate with pleasure my body/ wearing at the seams, complacency/ about success and money, being so cynical/ with sex I hardly want to play”, “and “[a]t least I’ll be rich enough and famous,/ whole and wise enough that that place/ will compensate accumulated losses”. The final of these, though, is redeemed by the next few lines, “[b]ut I know this projection is romance, / my aged self peering stony and dark-eyed/ into middle distances”. Aside from clearing the speaker of the arrogance of the preceding lines, it also, unlike several earlier lines, paints a strong image: the “stony and dark-eyed” Byronic hero looking only so far as middle age when the oasis of his youthful life may start to disintegrate.

After another brief relapse into unembellished listing, we come to another few highly engaging lines: “to miss a miracle by squinting/ past it is worse than wasteful, it’s plain/ stupid” and, “I should grin like my sweet mutt/ at the bony fingers in the black robe/ smoothing the sheet”. Although both are cynical in tone and word choice, both are also striking in their paradoxical nature. Wound in the mental conundrum of awareness and the knowledge that without it, existing would be simpler, more beautiful out of the shadow of impending destruction, these illustrious lines evoke the seemingly always underlying question of whether ignorance is bliss. In a way the closing lines echo this idea: “the future, I’ve been there, / and it’s not what it used to be. It’s murder”.

Quite unlike “Ode to Leonard Cohen and Yogi Berra,” “When I Take A Walk” is nauseatingly blunt and haughty and mercifully short. The first four stanzas are rather uneventful; the only noteworthy phrase is “rugged pears.” Although it does a fair job of describing the contours of the body, “rugged” seems an impossible quality of the pear which is usually associated with the smooth stillness of a quiet still-life. The final four stanzas, though, are overflowing with the speaker’s disgusting over-confidence and bigotry. Apparently the speaker is so grand and powerful that when (presumably) he steps out to take a walk, “the sky/ staggers, the sun unfolds/ a handkerchief” and “mighty firs crack”. Not only is the natural world unable to withstand his supremacy, but “[w]omen step to the weeds”. They do not step “off the path” or “out of the way;” they are relegated to the weeds. And in the following line, “God messes himself,” which, even from a purely secular perspective, seems disrespectful. Perhaps it is purposefully so, since the capitalized “g” in “god” may communicate a certain and insincere, ingrained reverence, may exist only to eradicate any confusion with gods besides the Jewish-Christian-Muslim deity or of the poet’s own invention, to be sure that this line is viewed as an insult and this speaker as a magnificence of an incredible magnitude.  But it is apparently not enough to know his dominance by both the natural and supernatural worlds’ seemingly automatic responses; the respectfulness of such compliance must not be appreciated (no doubt that would decrease the speaker’s authority), for “the poor exposed mole, / tiny paddles/ slapping, scurries hopelessly/ for distant cover”. Clearly self-importance and image are exceedingly more important than kindness or mercy or sincere respect. The final inhumanity is in many ways the most repulsive, as such disrespect for and underlying thrill in destroying life is typical of humanity in general; and if this piece did not so clearly have a single, autonomous speaker or those few misogynist lines (or possibly with them still), it could almost be an allegory of the entire human race, but it seems doubtful this is the case. Throughout the poem, the only thing that seems to actually praise, rather than submissively bow to, the speaker are “[t]he road’s pyramids of dung/ raising golden aromas”–appropriately offensive and illogical.

“Man’s War against Depression” fills an interesting comparison with wonderfully revolting imagery. The piece opens with “[h]e gathers meat” and uses the first stanza to describe the “cold shelves [stuffed] with […] shuddering livers” like rows of Jell-O in a satanic school cafeteria. Then “[h]e cooks, cadaver incanting among cadavers, / […] while salting, always heavy-handed/ salting as the room glows in the amber of the fresh/ frying blood of the world”.  Despite all the intriguing and skillful imagery, the piece seems hinderingly ambiguous; there is far too much literal description of a seemingly arbitrary scene for readers to be able to take away much of a title-related meaning. In the preceding quotation, the secondary meaning of “salt” is frustratingly uncertain; there are many things this could represent– is it self-pity, self-loathing, the mentally constructed or facilitated obstacles that contribute to the title illness? Is it the things that meant to combat the title issue– the medications or the attitudes or the kindlier things that people so often add (heavy-handedly) to their sometimes revolting lives to prevent being swallowed by a gaping depressive hole? The supposedly positive things that the “beasts of the wood” with their “bristled snouts” and flaring nostrils–the inherent illness, wrongness, and confusion of the human race–cannot hope to keep down. Is the knowledge of the futility of trying what “[glistens in] the ancient constellations”? Though all of these pseudo-conclusions may be entirely inaccurate and absurd, the fact that the piece inspired such an amount of contemplation (along with its fantastic imagery) makes it well worth reading.

Finally, “Lean Into It” is the probably the collection’s most erotic and border-line pornographic piece, yet (or possibly “and so”) contains some of the most original and best image (and/or sense)-evoking lines. It certainly does an incredible job of illustrating the scene with the first three stanzas. “You hardly need to tilt your head,” “[c]oncerning songbirds, /sunlight retreating, don’t do a thing […] Just focus eyes, narrowly for now,” and “a sexy purring of fingertips” all paint quite a beautiful and obvious image, and do so quite well. The fourth stanza begins the increasingly obvious and, in some ways, decreasingly beautiful half of the piece. The first of these lines, however, is also the least intriguing: “You are a cold oyster locked in saltwater”. The piece might be more open to interpretation at this point if this comparison had not already been done a thousand other places in sexual literature, but the subsequent one is far more original: “You are the muscled ball of a peony, /hard with compact potential”. Despite its flagrancy and the fact that there are a number synonyms with slightly better connotations than “hard,” this description is admittedly a high quality one; and aside from its unignorable originality and legibility, a peony seems much finer a thing to be associated as than an oyster.

Most of stanzas five and six are similar in their artful sensuality, though are arguably equally moving in a slightly different interpretation. The somewhat halting quality of stanzas five and six and the lush language therein contribute a great deal to the tone of and image created by the piece. The plentiful “s/c” and “w” sounds–“glacier you woke with,” “first splintered release,” “first splash,” and “raft of ice”– induce some aural imagery as well as a certain smoothness that only adds to the already established visual image. Lines 21-23 fantastically convey and induce a feeling at least relative to the one being described: “Let the oxygen of this valley/ open you up– it will anyway– begin eroding/ that dark glacier you woke with”.  Although the ice/glacier-frigidity comparison is reasonably witty and well-executed, stanza five seems to more fittingly describe a less sexual physical sensation. The “oxygen of the valley” seems more to expand the lungs than anything else, if taken a bit more literally, and if taken more metaphorically, it erodes the “dark glacier” of emotions or the lack thereof that prevent such deeply filling breaths occurring more often.

Even with such beautifully fabricated lines and their richly illustrated images, the piece does seem to have a certain deficiency (or off-putting abundance). Aside from its somewhat unsettlingly distracting subject matter, “Lean Into It” also appears to be wrought with a misogynistic tone, making it even more disconcerting than equal-opportunity sexual poetry, more so than lesbian sexual poetry (despite its tendency to be slightly more graphic in detail). The entirety of the piece comes off as rather condescending, so patiently instructional in its tone like something meant for a child. “Start again. Don’t struggle” sounds like something one might say to a child trying to do up their coat. Similarly, stanza four (“[y]ou are a […]) sounds like a twisted from of a short self-esteem boosting speech that elementary school teachers so often give–“you’re a nice young lady; you’re a good student; you can do it.” This patronizing sentiment is paramount in the closing stanza: “Sure. Just look at you go […]”.

As an added insult, in addition to the condescending attitude exhibited toward the female character in this piece, it also seems quite conceited of the male speaker (and poet) to include the descriptions of what she is experiencing. It is both arrogant of him to do so, to make such assumption about something he is incapable of knowing, and to expect that he is prompting such grand feeling. On all fronts besides actual use of language, this piece is more offensive than more blatantly erotic poetry; it is much more provoking than provocative.

“Barbaric Mercies” is a perfectly fitting title for this volume brimming with gorgeously fashioned obscenities, a sadist dressed to the nines; if the language fails to bring readers to gasping near-faint from its beauty, the sentiments will with their atrocity.

Kristina Webster Shue is an eccentric secular agnostic earth-based spiritualist, writer, and all-around creative type currently living in Ohio where she is trying to figure out what adulthood means for someone whose regrets have left them as of yet degree-less. She will eventually finish her bachelor’s in Writing (maybe).

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