January Poetry Pick: Natural Causes

natural causesThe elegy is a poem of mourning. When I teach the elegy, I tell my students that this poem can mourn any kind of loss: a person, a time, an event, or something more abstract, like happiness or innocence. In Brian Brodeur’s most recent collection, Natural Causes, he explores loss in its many shapes and forms, focusing on the fragility of what we hold most dear (forgive the cliché).

Brodeur opens his collection with his title poem, “Natural Causes” where a narrator describes a loss that occurs while at his first job at Sunrise Acres.  The poem starts innocently, enough.  Indeed, the narrative is humorous, with the narrator visiting a patient named Miss Ahearn who shares apricot brandy in a Dixie cup and actually slips him the tongue after inviting him for a kiss.  Still, the poem turns more serious when Miss Ahearn dies, and the narrator visits her body, explaining the last moment with her, “I kneeled beside her then, let myself stare/as I touched her hand, surprised it was still warm.” Later, this same narrator leaves this job, explaining, “It’s always seemed to me a kind of hell:/to be remembered, yes, but only in fragments/a stranger recollects.”

This opening poem readily prepares the reader for the work that follows. Most poems are narratives focusing on loss in one aspect or another.  These narratives are told through different personas and thus take on different voices. Sometimes, we read about narrators who are watching  the world.   For instance, in “The Boy Without Arms” the narrator observes a boy maneuvering society with “his sleeves cut off, his hands dangling/directly from his shoulders, stiff unfinished.”  In another poem, “On Suffering”  a narrator hears a story on NPR about a Tutsi woman who is attacked and raped, and after being stabbed in the abdomen, gives birth to a baby who dies when attacked by wild dogs.

Still, in other poems, the narrator is an active part of loss. The anchor poem in this collection (and my personal favorite) is “When Everyone I Loved Was Still Alive.”  The title suggests a poem of lyrical musings, but instead, what the reader gets is a personal narrative, where the narrator tells of a single childhood memory of finding a dead Canadian goose and bringing it home to his mother, hoping she would have the power to fix it.  Instead, alarmed by the germs from the dead bird, she buries the carcass and “drew a scalding bath” to rid her young son from “goose-rot.”  A few days later, the narrator explains, he digs up the bird, “shocked to see its body/flat and black, its wings and waddled feet/a mass of feathers I couldn’t get untangled.”  The poem ends with a question that certainly goes beyond the story found in this poem: “Why couldn’t I leave the goose carcass in peace/let it rest there on its bed of sunken cattails/where it chose to lie, if the goose could choose.”

For those who want to read more of Natural Causes, take a look at its page located at Autumn House Press.  And if you have never checked out Brodeur’s blog, How a Poem Happens, you should visit his site here.

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