Alan Britt, Gunpowder for Single-ball Poems, Concrete Mist Press, York, Pennsylvania 2020, ISBN-13: 978-1-7344409-0-4, 111 pages
Alan Britt is a colleague as editor of the Loch Raven Review. He is also a well-known poet on the world stage of poetry. He has 18 published books to his credit, including Gunpowder for Single-ball Poems, which is his latest. He and his work have been lauded internationally. He teaches at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. His knowledge of poets, both living and dead, and their poetry is extensive. The back cover of his latest book describes Britt as “a poet of experimentation and diversity, and also a humanitarian poet who embraces social justice that includes dignity for fellow humans, animals and the environment.”
I’m writing this book review as a fairly well-read ordinary reader who struggles to write poetry himself, loves reading and getting emotionally and intellectually excited by it. I think most people who read the review of a book of poetry share that basic general enthusiasm. If you are American, you have been educated in the tradition of Whitman, Dickinson, perhaps Wallace Stevens, certainly Frost, aware or not, definitely in the tradition of William Carlos Williams. Perhaps you are familiar with masters of traditional form and sensibilities like Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Marilyn Hacker, Anthony Hecht. John Ashbery may puzzle you, though you may like his work. Paul Celan, Yves Bonnefoy, Ingeborg Bachmann, Federico Garcia Lorca may be names that you have encountered, but you have read them, if you have read them, in translation. However, their work’s glow, if not the freshness of their accomplishments, is receding as the 20th century sinks into history. John Donne, John Milton, Gabriela Mistral, Anna Akhmatova, e.e. cumming’s poetry will continue to radiate its inspiration, though time piles atop their work, and then there are the books of newly published poetry by writers from South America, Africa, India, not to mention those of the ancient traditions from Asia with which the average American poetry enthusiast is mostly unfamiliar.
Why make a short, though hopefully suggestive list, of these poets? Because Alan Britt is familiar with them and their traditions. They are a background for his journey into sculpting his own individual expression of his impressions and natural emotional response to the world he encounters in both life and the arts. Maybe it would be easier to quickly place Britt’s creative energy if we use an analogy to painting. Though his work could be said to be representational, it also has the qualities of abstract art, as much as the comparison can be maintained with both the similarity and the inherent differences between language and the graphic arts of paintbrush, charcoal, hammer and chisel allow.
Because Britt’s work is a product of and a challenge to all the average reader has learned in his or her own travel through school, this particular book of poetry is both accessible and puzzling. Why? Britt is at home with nonlinear thinking and expression. Most of the literate people in the English-speaking world today are not.
Contrary to the usual method of reading a book by starting at page one, I urge first time readers of Britt’s poetry to begin at Section 5, which is an interview of Alan Britt by Alok Mishra for Ashvamegh…The Literary Flight (India). Doing this gives a little grounding. Then, take the plunge into the first poem “Scissors, Paper, Rock.” Here is the Poem:
Scissors, paper, rock.
How curious that lowly paper
could cover rock
which is busy crushing scissors?
cultivate such flimsy faith.
Scissors, paper, rock.
Come to think of it,
The current oil crisis
could be attributed to three unwisemen from the West.
And the crisis before that
and the one before that.
While women, children, and dead grandmothers wash the blue,
the terrible blue,
the blue of adolescents devouring themselves,
the blue of poets lighting gunpowder for single-ball poems,
the blue of moths circling the neon-lit basement
of a suburban ranch house
in Reisterstown, Maryland, tonight,
plus the blue of morning glories
covering the bare shoulders
of this our final ecstatic hour
At first glance, this poem may seem digressive, but only if you slip off the poet’s imaginative leaps—-leaps of metaphor, leaps of consciousness. The first leap is the comparison of the childhood game with religious myth. The game is also like a ritual. It is a repeated action, perhaps like making the Sign of the Cross, or a Buddhist or Hindu gesture. The poem doesn’t say that explicitly, but invites the reader to make his/her own nonlinear leap of imagination in their interpretation.
Stanza 5 leaps to mention of a Mid-East, though global, oil crisis. What oil crisis? It could be a reference to one of the many that have occurred over the years. The important thing is a generic oil and economic crisis, which most readers understand generally. Poetry is not an academic or scientific treatise, not a mere bit of denotation and description. Poetry’s meaning should vibrate in the reader as if the reader were a tuning fork. The religious reference is kept in this leap of thought. It is like an echo, a string that attaches and joins religious belief with the secular beliefs of politics and economics. “three unwisemen from the West” turns the Christmas story on its head in a witty, satiric way.
The last stanza of the poem is dominated by the word “blue.” It is used six times in 11 lines. What it describes changes with each message. The best way for the average reader to approach a stanza like this is to look up the standard meanings that “blue” symbolizes. Few will have trouble knowing what “the blue of adolescents devouring themselves” means. How about that first line: “while women, children, and dead grandmothers wash the blue,”? One interpretation is that women, children, grandmothers (or the memory of them and what they did) soften the “blue” of the masculine, of the world of workday jeans, blue collars—- rough and tumble, pick-a-fight world of macho men. Women with their nurturing instincts and children with their vulnerability and instinctual appeal civilize the brute men can become in politics, economics, power struggles. The blue of poets? It could be the blue sky of imagination, a calm, a lot of possibilities. Poets can also be depressed. The language does not limit the readers to a simple descriptive denotation.
The phrase “gunpowder for single-ball poems” is important because it is the title of the book. I get the picture of loading and firing a musket. “single-ball”? A lyric that is trying to capture or bag a momentary lyrical impression or insight into living reality? It may mean something else. Nonlinear thinking opens up reality and interpretation, and does not limit it to a prescribed track of thought. “the blue of moths” may mean a desperation felt, anthropomorphizing moths, as they keep circling an enclosed basement. They want to get out, but they are also in a frenzy of excitation by the neon lights. Perhaps “blue” is a descriptive term here. The poet notices their physical presence. They get the poet’s attention. They are fascinating, and a bit annoying too. Perhaps the poet sees his own predicament with life and writing. He is dazzled by his own neon-lit observations and imagination. “the blue of morning glories?” Descriptive, yes, but also the beauty is enhanced naturally by the name of the flower itself. In these final lines of the poem a new meaning and reality bloom. The poet is with his lover. Perhaps she has a tattoo of blue morning glories on the skin of her shoulders. Yes, in one way that is a stretch, but it is possible. Nonlinear thinking is about possibility. The supposed couple could be, probably, are in bed, awake and ecstatic after making love, of being together, but it is the final hour of such intimacy. I interpreted it to mean that the awakening day temporarily interrupts them. There will be a tonight and a tomorrow, but also that word “final” could be more ominous. Both scenarios exist.
One final observation about this poem. The last stanza is like a game of Scissors, Paper, Rock. Each use of the word “blue” is like the game’s gesture. Who is playing? The poet and the readers. There is much more to explore in the poem. It could be interesting to discuss the progression of the images of a childhood game into religious myth, into geo-economic politics, then into the very personal observation of his house and on to the wonderful but not necessarily idyllic relationship with his love—after all it is interrupted by the world’s demands.
This new book by Alan Britt has over 90 pages of very diverse poetry. He has a very conversational and, for the most part, quiet rhetorical style. At times the stepping stones through particular poems may be submerged or slippery. “The 4th of July” opens rather mysteriously:
We scrambled after the paddleboat
like Mallard ducklings
trailing our cinnamon goddess.
A couple of bureaucratic
But floating coronets
oozing our DNA?
Similar to Laudanum?………………..
The poem progresses to many other places and thoughts, but I’m mostly lost. It could mean that the poet was in Barcelona on a July 4th of some undetermined year. Perhaps he missed a paddleboat ride. I’m picturing the boat like a Mississippi Paddleboat, but it could be one of those Baltimore Inner Harbor two-person Paddle Boats. Perhaps the poet and/or narrator got out of the boat into a shallow lake, and the boat started drifting away. Cinnamon goddess? A mother Mallard? “cinnamon” is an interesting adjective. The spice? The color? A spicy brown-skinned alluring woman? A lot of possibilities, but I haven’t pinned it down to any particular denotation for the image. Except for a private reminiscence, it seems an odd way to open a poem titled “The 4 th of July.”
I’m not sure about the coronets, which are similar to crowns, but differentiated, a different species of the same genus of object. There are Barcelona cornets—-notice the spelling—which are, roughly, cone-shaped wine glasses. Cornets are also musical instruments. Music could float above Barcelona. Coronets, the crown-like objects, could float on heraldic flags above the city of Barcelona. Does the poem have something to do with the coronation of Don Carlos? The “oozing our DNA” is puzzling.
A much happier outcome for me as a reader occurred in my reading of “Tango in Reisterstown.” Beneath the title is written “(after Julia Zenko).” She is an Argentinian singer. There are Youtube videos of her singing the song, Yo soy Maria mentioned in the poem. The song is worth experiencing yourself, and then read the poem that interprets the poet’s experience. Britt writes a surreal flow of images that hang together in a nonlinear but consistent way. There are words that the average reader may have to look up—like “bandoneon.” It is worth it in the age of the internet and cellphones to take the extra few seconds. There is a second part to the poem that takes place in a café in Paris. Is it an imaginative scene or a description from life or a movie? The only fact that matters is the way the poem performs in the imagination.
Each poem in Alan Britt’s book is an individual adventure. The poetry often requires the reader to meet him half-way as he has cultivated the art of nonlinear thinking way beyond most readers, and he is a man of international acquaintance, more than the average American. He can also, by a brief mention, open worlds to the poetry lover. Who is Shuntaro Tanikawa? Check him out on the internet.
Much more could be said about Britt’s poetry, but I’m going to close with a short poem that taps into the poet’s talent with no mystery but revelation:
A symbolic sip of wine goes down
past the irritable esophagus
who tries to evangelize
his way out of the situation
by blessing people
with flicks of water
from the taps
crowding their way
to Sunday worship.
© Alan Britt and Dan Cuddy
Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, Welter, Bhubaneswar Review, the Twisted Vine Literary Journal, the Pangolin Review.