Book Review

In Will Harris’s Brother Poem, the lines between reality and dreamscapes blur, and readers dwell in the visages and myths an individual creates about oneself. Each poem hangs like its own word cloud in a vast, verse-filled sky. Deeply sensitive and acutely self-aware, Brother Poem carefully dissects familial complexities, difficult relationships, and love and living’s experiential crumbs.

In “Cuttlefish,” a speaker recalls an intimate relationship rife with emotional baggage. In six blocked stanzas, a careful narrative unravels, and while the relationship’s intricacies are intriguing, the speaker’s philosophical anecdotes are what fascinates. The speaker makes observations such as “Each time you forget and remember / the experience becomes truer” and “You were my brother. We were events in language.” The speaker’s interjection of these anecdotes allows the poem to transcend the personal and take root in the universal. The poem’s concluding line—“the grass grew bright. Can you hear that, Cuttlefish?”—emotionally and intellectually clinches the poem, because the rhetorical question returns readers into the speaker’s immediate experience. Thus, the poem’s sense of mystery fully forms and permeates the poem, which sets up readers for poems like “Voice Notes.”

Like “Cuttlefish,” “Voice Notes” relies on a strict block-stanza form. This compartmentalization, whether or intentional or not, creates a reinforcing structure which benefits the speaker’s narrative. Again, a sense of mystery forms, this time from the speaker’s minimalist, direct language. For example, the lines “Even if it could be names it would only be / as some token, some part-for-whole, of what” open the poem. The speaker’s reliance of words like “some,” which create an overarching sense of generalization rather than specification, establish the poem’s mysterious tone. As the poem continues, rather than relying on philosophical anecdotes, the speaker relies on more confessional ones. Everyday, perhaps mundane actions, become a defining moment: “I ate a honey bun. I wanted you to know / me, but it was easier to speak with no / intention of trying to know.” Loss, too, is inherent in “Voice Notes.” Lines like “I walked home with the / knowledge of your voice there waiting / for me” make the loss prompt and accessible. However, one cannot read the poem without noticing its focus on the importance and necessity of language, particularly the act of speaking. As the poem concludes, the speaker emphasizes:

 …I believed that when we spoke
a token would appear, a third space implied
by our voices, a plane of understanding
entered into, that we knew would stay.
I heard it. And I heard it in you speaking.

In the final line, the repetition of the phrase “I heard it” solidifies speech’s definite impact on the speaker’s memory.

“Weather and Address” returns readers to the speaker’s philosophical dwelling place. Again, language becomes the centering force in a relationship. The speaker asserts, “If I can’t reach you, let me fold these words into a better / concept of direction. I want to reclaim the horror of speech.” Writing, too, becomes an imperative act: “…When I write his name and delete it—when I write your / name and delete it—I understand the evil of speech for its / own sake.” The act of writing becomes an act of survival, an exorcism of the past, and the lines’ structure creates a cyclical, ritualistic sensation which leads readers to assertions such as “The important thing is that redemption can exist / alongside hate. We hear the wind change, stating its true direction.” Thus, for the speaker, writing not only becomes a cleansing act necessary for their survival, but it also becomes a means of self-progression and a means of embracing and accepting change.

The collection concludes with the defiant poem “Take the origin of banal.” As the lines progress, they slant from left to right:

Take the origin of banal: a
bannal-mill where tenants
carried their corn to be ground
for the benefit of the lord.

This experimental form creates a dreamlike tone, and it mimics the poem’s tonal and subjective ships. For example, the speaker subtly shifts from an objective point of view to a subjective one in which the sudden address of “you” creates a poetic shockwave. This technique is particularly emotionally and philosophically effective:

I can’t take it, and then grinding
the corn, baking it, sharing it.
I eat if you eat. Maybe it’s the
knowledge of what’s shared—.

As the poem shifts into what readers can interpret as the second stanza, which appears on a separate page, the speaker’s focus once more shifts to the necessity of writing as a means of recovery and survival. The speaker openly shares this experience:

The point of writing is to address
you. It’s so embarrassing to
talk like this. At the checkout
I forgot what I had to buy.

The line enjambment cements the emotion at this point in the stanza and also echoes the concept of grinding, established in the poem’s opening, because the enjambment creates the sense of an emotional grinding which the speaker has continually endured.

In this collection, Will Harris establishes himself as an experimental poet whose poems ask readers to find jubilation in language and the ways it brings individual together. Like L.J. Sysko’s The Daughter of Man, the poignant, personal tones in Harris’s poems make readers feel as though they are reading the speaker’s private letters, diaries, and confessions. At its core, it asks readers to consider their words, their language, and how not only they, but also those around them, may use, be affected by, or rely on what someone says to another.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.