Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

The Caveat Onus: Meditations

By Dave Brinks

Reviewed By Anis Shivani

Buy this book

Dave Brinks started writing these poems in December 2004, less than a year before Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, yet the arrival and aftermath of the flood are utterly absorbed in his cycle, his form vast enough to comprehend that great calamity. We have been waiting for something like this since John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. The persona in these meditations—thirteen poems of thirteen lines each in thirteen sections, adding up to 169 poems in all—is of a citizen of a lost republic neither blowing his agonies out of proportion, nor falsely deprecating himself. It is as symmetrical a being as we imagine our most sensible poets to be. Madness, if that was the preoccupation in Berryman, has here become transmuted to anti-prophecy—prophecy never having been the summa of fluid identity.

To meditate means to exercise the mind in contemplation. The difficulty with American poetry of the last four decades has been that the mind has refused to take in a whole picture of things. It is susceptible to fragmentation, one-sidedness, single-mindedness, obsession, compulsion, unreliable subjectivity, disconnection. Much of language poetry can be read as the mind’s admission of its inability to meditate, since language and its materials are not in synchronicity.

Brinks opens up (or closes down?) a different kind of gap. He explains that “each meditation should function loosely as a hexagram, actually two hexagrams (the first six lines and the last six lines); thus leaving the middle line (the seventh line) to serve as a kind of spine, or as…an axis mundi, the center of a sphere, with a line moving through that point in space, in both directions.” Additionally, he conceives his thirteen-line “sonnegrams” as moving in this direction: “first line—last line; second line—second to last line; third line—third to last line; and so on, moving inward, until one reaches the final line, which is the seventh line.” Whereas the sonnet is a form of argument, with thesis, antithesis, and perhaps synthesis, Brinks’s meditations move in circles, yearning to seek the center, which we can see shifting before our eyes, but which we know for certain is there.

We don’t need to know Brinks’s design to appreciate the poems, but scrutiny of any of the poems bears out the clarity of his intentions. Take poem 46:

the cave at onus
is actually a place
I've been there many times
it's kind of like the poor man's
oracle at Delphi
a voice speaks to you
from oblivion
whose mouths are zero-shaped
and all in the key of blue
before entering you'll be asked to drink
from the headwaters of that loneliness
where silence becomes a song
ending with the mind of an owl

“From oblivion,” the seventh line, would be the spine, above and below which two hexagrammatic spheres rotate inwardly, aiming for the core. The caveat onus (the warning against blame?) becomes concrete, centralized, as opposed to escaping insight. If one tries Brinks’s first line-last line etc. operation on this poem, and then reads the poem straight through, the difference is undetectable. This is a different metaphysics of the self than in John Ashbery’s breakthrough early work. Brinks addresses himself to Ted Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, Jerome Rothenberg, David Shapiro, Bernadette Mayer, and John Cage, but his rococo symbolism calls upon the sanity of an Epicurus or Montaigne. If some of the poets Brinks is influenced by seem caught in a perpetual mental asylum, Brinks’s city (New Orleans) is the asylum extending outward to the far reaches without ever fully succeeding in colonizing the human core.

To illuminate this further, consider poem 53:

I am the aesthetic mirror of bad taste
my mind is made up of birdseed & sorghum
I have a penitent anger
which is well-manicured and egged on
in the frying pan I become
my rococo self
I prefer embolisms to metaphor
at the cosmic bazaar I exchange trinkets
with symbolists for self-pity
I have luxurious uses for anything
taken at random
this question rarely depends
on the definition of love
today the paper writes the tree

Brinks’s surrealism has a rationality about it that lets us distance ourselves from the traps of language. It is a significant move, distancing him from, say, Charles Simic, whom we think of as a poet gloomily in love with terror. Brinks’s meditations consider whether there is a way out of the morass of absurdist self-consciousness (which language poetry makes a fetish of) without descending to triviality (such as domestic narrative represents).

The flood poses a huge challenge to the last man, as in poem 96:

it's been eight months since we evacuated
the purpose of meaning is useless
if you consider it in reverse
as one does with dreams
we're making up the words as we go along
the trees are newly painted
spouting branches over uninhabited playgrounds
dear sacred members of the bla bla church
I've traveled across impossible waters
it's not late August
Megan's adding mulch to the flowerbed
my mind is made up of birdseed & sorghum
I never know which way the day is blessed

The first and last lines point to a dichotomy that has been so fully established, in twenty-first-century American man, that the mild term “irony” no longer applies. The meditation refuses the comfort of dreams, and doesn’t make of quotidian activity a remarkable quotient of meaning. Note the repetition of the second-to-last line, an operation that proliferates in the later poems, reinforcing the idea of circularity, inwardness, a closing down of something we don’t quite understand (and are perhaps not meant to).

After the flood, the reckoning, the resumption of meditation as an act of communal insight; hence poem 142:

O litterateurs O immortelles
O emporiums of dissected nirvanas
is there something left over from your walking
your moon is cold
and packed for travel like a souvenir
even your stomach digests itself
I should wear sunglasses & plastic gloves
as I lay out your tongue & entrails
and bury them certain fathoms in the sky
let it form a new constellation
I'll even pretend this moment
doesn't have a name
the acedia of the scribe is a sad trope
O American poesy you disappoint me

Meditation always requires self-containment; so-called literary engagement feeds on its own corpse, though Brinks points to something beyond self-cannibalism. This poem knowingly flirts with the risk of being no more than the sum of its parts, and it is here that Brinks’s long cycle, by connecting each of the poem’s lines to what has gone before and what is yet to come, makes of it a phase, rather than a stoppage, compelling us to demand less of it in emotional punch than in an isolated poem. Brinks makes brilliant use of the emotional overflow of the cyclical form; each poem simultaneously compresses and decompresses upon reading, standing as an eternal question mark.

Roundedness accelerates toward the end as line repetitions multiply: “what’s your neighborhood look like”; “O emporiums of dissected nirvanas / as ghosted as I am”; “there are no medium-sized emotions”; “my mind feels like a piece of furniture”; “I sing the colostrum the body epileptic”; “everything happens once many times”; “infinity x 1 = ZZZzzzz”; “the evening Buddha flickers and reappears’; “my vocabulary did this to me” (a reference to Jack Spicer). In the twelfth section, rabbit, entire poems speak to each other like strangers acting as neighbors (or vice versa) in the aftermath of the storm (which deceptively appears as a one-time event). The effect is not so much epiphany toward language’s arbitrariness, as the language poets strive for, but toward the situatedness of the embodied self. It can’t get away from itself; and why would we want it to? It remains the one worthwhile subject for poetry.

Not coincidentally, poem 162, the single outright poem of prophecy—a Jeremiad in the old-fashioned meaning of the word—occurs in the coda, and as an afterthought. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound formulated their personal myths to anchor their poetry, giving it allusive substance. Brinks’s resort to the I Ching and Mayan mythology, which he seems to have made his own, similarly challenges us to seek the basis of origins, to rely on intuition and light, not the dark walls that have been sold as windows to the outside. This is a prime candidate to be one of the more durable long poems of our time.

Anis Shivani's debut book, Anatolia and Other Stories, has recently been released by Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books. He is finishing a novel, The Slums of Karachi, and a book of criticism, The New Enemies of Promise. New work appears in Southwest Review, Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Iowa Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere.