Book Review

Brent Goodman, Far From Sudden, Black Lawrence, 2013

by Richard Swanson

The word “flashy,” might pop into mind when you first have Brent Goodman’s new work in hand. Or maybe “highly attractive” is a better way of putting it.  The folks at Black Lawrence Press have done a masterful design with his book, no doubt inspired by Goodman’s far-ranging but subtle imagination.

Goodman’s talent for provocative titles pops up immediately. Skimming “Far from Sudden’s” table of contents, we can’t help being hooked: “Hearses Are the New Black,” “There’s a Lot of Loneliness in Dutch Poetry,” “This Morning I Woke with a New Twin,” and—ready for this?—“Jonathon Edwards Channeling Albert Einstein to the Wrong Family During an Unaired Taping of Crossing Over.”

“Modernist” might seem a convenient word for this material, except that most of “Far from Sudden” is traditionally grounded, a book rooted in the author’s life story and daily insights. Goodman effortlessly and affectionately infuses his Jewish, gay, recovered-hippie backgrounds into these pages. His writing showcases his command of conventional prosody.  

Goodman had a serious heart attack in 2009, and one of the best poems in the collection is about his perilous survival that day.

The Ground Left Me

This morning I had a heart attack,
gurneyed pale and shirtless 02 mask

past my coworkers. I was crying
when I told you Something’s very wrong

and you squeezed both my numbing hands
before calling help. Inside MedFlight

the ground left me. Touching down Wausau
they thread the stent in twenty minutes

from groin to heart.  You and my parents
hugging in my room.  And I’m there too.

I love the deliberately chaotic syntax, which conveys panic, in this work’s opening, and the disjointed grammar in its middle, which captures the narrator’s physical and mental dislocation.  Plus, the poem’s final line has terrific understatement—a medicated survivor’s grateful but stupefied wonder over how this life-threatening event started and ended.

There’s sly richness in many of these poems, for example, in the beginning of “Rhinelander”: Took three weeks just to get the cork out/of that stubborn Three Blind Mice Merlot/. Tonight I invent new tools because/the smartest monkey wins. . . .”  This offbeat drollery threads it way through the book’s pages, and Goodman has a knack for teasing out one-liners, like an old-pro comedian, even in this love poem excerpt:

I like the smell of bacon. And you,
sharing my cologne after shower.

I have to confess that in the book’s last section, the free-association, quasi-scientific probes in some of the far-ranging poems just whizzed by me, but younger readers will probably glom onto them. Even if not totally successful, works like these, I think, have to be encouraged as gateways to an artist’s expanded development.    

By the way, at the end of that same last section of “Far from Sudden” are some very short, present-time—hardly “modernist”—poems that loop the reader back to Goodman’s quieter side: 

Try to imagine
how your house might resemble
more sky.

The cordless phone swallows
each collect call
from the Wisconsin Correctional Institute.  

Your neighbors draw
their curtains.

You don’t own
any curtains.

Fine little bagatelles, these haiku-like things. Just more of the pleasure in this excellent collection.

Richard Swanson is the author of two collections Men in the Nude in Socks and Not Quite Eden and a chapbook Paparazzi Moments, from Fireweed Press. A frequent reviewer for Verse Wisconsin, he is also the Secretary of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.