Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Brendan Constantine: Letters to Guns

Brendan Constantine’s Letters to Guns begins with an introduction, signed by the author, that guilelessly claims that "the average, privately owned firearm receives approximately 4.6 letters a year." His collection provides us with eight of these letters, scattered amongst vacation slide-shows from a bumbling mother ("Slide Show"), the heroic exploits of various cheeses ("Unsung Cheese"), and a series of bumper stickers for coffins ("Gravelock"). But it’s the series of letters that stands out the most. Written in the terrifically convincing voices of (among others) an army boot, a woman’s nightgown, and a grove of "flame trees," these poems are both witty and guileless, raging and horrifically sad. A Chevrolet Malibu abandoned in DC writes, after being struck by a stray bullet, that it is "returning the hole herewith and demand, / in exchange, the purple hush of a morning / that should have been." A broad sword thrums, in pitch-perfect Old English: "Black lamb, black beat, thunder of the bollocks foete! / You are born makeless ynd makeless you growe." Anything feels like it can happen in these brief letters, and quite often, it does.

But the poems in Letters to Guns are less strong when Constantine reigns in his free-wheeling voice. For instance, in "The Need to Stay", Constantine discusses the tenability of daily life in an appealingly elliptical way: "My father knew a man who died of a bee sting. / Was he allergic? I asked. / No, he said, a tightrope walker." But between each stanza, we’re given two or three digits of a countdown from ten, a device that deflates the poem’s buoyant imagination. There’s a few other places in the collection where the author’s choices feel over-determined. In "And Only Once," an otherwise luminous poem about sexuality and girlhood (thick with lines like "Every day that I was a girl, my hair caught fire / when I moved"), the sections Constantine has broken the poem into feel arbitrary and constrictive, as does the anaphoric line that ends each part. ("Twice, when I was a girl, I drank a river of iced tea / and lived" is an observation that feels more whimsical than necessary.)

Constantine’s poems are at their strongest when he strips them of their strictures and devices, allowing his bizarre, fantastic images to spill out over each other in a less determined way. "The Day the Orchard Burned" is a poem that breathlessly conflates accounts of a national disaster with the feeling of first hearing Mozart, as the speaker’s friend "[drags] behind [him] / like a piano, still humming between gasps." The poem takes place on "the day the televisions were recalled / for causing myopia, the day the virus shortened / the food chain." Setting these two bizarre situations side-by-side— probable apocalypse and the experience of first hearing The Magic Flute in an orchard fire— is a ballsy move, and it works. It’s made heartbreaking when read through the brief line the speaker gives us at the beginning: "I spent / sunrise at the feet of a dozen ladders while you / slept wherever you were sleeping then." And then the you disappears, as does the crop, and we follow the speaker to safety in a swimming pool as the "smoke play[s] over us in a wave."

Brendan Constantine
Letters to Guns
Red Hen Press, 2009