Though in his judge’s citation Bin Ramke calls Brandon Rushton’s Berkshire-Prize-winning, debut collection of poems, The Air in the Air Behind It, “a book of consolations,” I would argue it is a book of desolations, written in a distinctly millennial voice. Clear-eyed, etched, and hard as granite, these poems catalog a kaleidoscopic array of characters adrift in a postmodern world that seems leached of myth and meaning. “When the people can’t make sense / they manufacture myth,” but this poet refuses to comply with the mythmaking. Rather, he lets the incomprehensible actions of our human race stand in stark relief against the page. Most of the poems are from the perspective of a distant third-person narrator who views the goings-on dispassionately, as if through the lens of a camera, or perhaps it is a disembodied camera that narrates. The outer actions of humans and their environment are presented without delving into their inner lives or motives. Even when the first-person point of view makes brief appearances, these are rarely intimate or vulnerable—rather the “I” feels like one more in a large cast of impersonal actors playing minor roles in a world gone awry. Anti-lyrical and anti-personal in tone, the voice of these poems implies that the lyric and the personal “I” have become impossible in this late degraded age of end-stage capitalism. “Innocent isn’t the word I’d use,” one poem admits.
The book begins with an epigraph by Rachel Carson, the famed author of Silent Spring, whose dire warnings are credited with launching the global environmental movement. The quote Rushton selects speaks of “zones of great turbulence and unrest,” and the first poem of the book opens with the words “In an age of emergency, experiments are always the first thing to be abandoned,” setting the stage for the book. And yet, through Rushton’s experiments with syntax, point-of-view, and voice, the reader is taken on a wild, house-of-mirrors ride through contemporary life, floating above it as if in one of the hot air balloons that reappear throughout the poems. This view also makes brief side-glances at the long context of history, both environmental and human. We are reminded that “extinction is a byproduct // of evolution,” making what is occurring in the present feel inevitable. And yet, we are also told that “mass graves are a continual sign of our malfunction,” so that we are also culpable. “It’s common knowledge: the West was won one weed killer at a time.” The perspective telescopes out to the movement of stars, then zooms in on a nomadic hunter or a television blaring a sports program.
But, for all its bleakness, there are plenty of pleasures to be found in reading this collection. The voice and craft of the poems is fresh, startling, and assured. The line breaks and formal choices deftly create a multifaceted prism of readings into each line, milking the pleasures of double entendre and creating a kind of sleight-of-hand, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, dizzying effect to many of the poems. There is a subtle, dark humor and subdued pathos as the speaker of these poems chronicles a world that has lost its way. The book is artfully assembled, circling around repeating images, characters, and themes of dissolution and disillusion.
This is a collection of sudden, surprising juxtapositions, in which enjambment is not only a strategy of the poems but a commentary on contemporary life. Not only are the lines enjambed, but the syntax in many of the poems also runs together so that there is no separation between sentences, thoughts, people, or scenes. It is all a blur, as in this section from “The Ladderless,” one of several long, multi-sectioned poems in the book:
After the runaways have smeared their faces
with plant resin and rendezvous in an abandoned
rail car the faces of the floorboard fire conjure
all kinds of stories of faulty farm equipment
and the casualties they caused a deep divide
the trail between the cabin and the boathouse
will always fork and end with two kids at summer
camp in love agreeing they have such a long time
together a bank teller and a liquor store cashier
decide the dream is not rising and dressing as
they’ve done enough already they leave to oversee
a compound in a county uninhabited up north
We find ourselves in a jumbled dystopia, approaching the sad fate we have made for ourselves as a human race, so that throughout these poems temporary flashes of beauty are quickly consumed by commercialism and entropy. “What haven’t we homogenized,” one poem asks. And, in what might have been a moment of warmth and connection, we see:
Family members joined at the dinner table
bless the food, made
of chemicals bound to break their bodies
down . . . .
There is a pervasive disenchantment and despair in these poems. “In an effort to maintain / a heightened sense // of mysteriousness, the mailman / phones himself / from an unknown number,” as if there is no real mystery to be found any longer. At the same time, the lines speak with an authoritative cadence, each statement presented as if it were just facts without interpretation. There are precious few adjectives or adverbs anywhere and virtually no use of metaphor. We are in a landscape in which signs and symbols, myths and magic, have lost their meaning and power, and what remains are the bare shapes of things and their actions. We don’t learn any specific, singular details about the mailman or any of the other varied cast of characters—the pilot, the foreman, drawbridge attendant, vendor, grocery shopper, scientists, plant manager, jogger, even the lovers. They are named by their roles as two-dimensional characters in a drama that seems fated, but whose ending they cannot see: “how long / until what we’ve been holding on to / finally gives way.” Although “We want things / to stick around. We keep forgetting it isn’t / our invitation to extend.” Instead, there is inevitability and powerlessness:
then it was clear the end
wasn’t how it was planned for
or predicted it was just the end
As the title of this collection, The Air in the Air Behind It, suggests, the poems often gesture toward an unnamable something, an emptiness, ungraspable, that we hunger for or fear or that drives our lives mysteriously: “no one exactly sure what / it meant to them / it meant so much.” But what is “it”? Is it the beyond in the poem titled “Before the Experts Mislabeled the Beyond”? Perhaps it is the fog that the speaker encounters:
I come dangerously close to some
partition, some fog I can’t stop
my want to fit inside . . . .
We will meet this fog again at the end of the book when an uncharacteristic moment of hopefulness dissolves once more:
How they all stopped and greeted each other
in the street. How the future opened up, drawn out
and long. How the people then were people.
Then nothing. Nothing then, but fog.
Rushton takes on these hard, uncertain times and the brutality and banality of daily life, “the decorative pillows / decidedly mundane.” There are moments which recall these lines from William Carlos Williams’ poem “To Elsie”: “It is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off. // No one / to witness / and adjust. No one to drive the car.” In The Air in the Air Behind It, we get these isolate flecks, these small glimmers, the daughter asleep on the couch who “wakes to the sound of the music / box her mother lost, finding it exciting / how suddenly everything stops.” Those glimmers don’t redeem the rest; they simply are. The only wonder left in this landscape is a kind of stunned bewilderment at the predicament we find ourselves in and perhaps a certain marvelous strangeness the way horror may come near to breathless awe. Overall, we the readers, and we the people, are left to make of it all what we will, this motley assortment of lives and moments collaged together in a sped-up array. As the narrator in “Ideogram of the New Civilian” confesses:
. . . anything
really to make myself believe
my motion picture mind isn’t a cowboy
casting existential questions
down a canyon until the echoes
all come back the same:
as echoes . . . .
There is a persistent, hollow, echoic ringing through these poems, a lostness that has given up on being found:
what is there in all of this: there is a lot
of sky, a good wind wobbling
the nerves of the orchard workers, a group
of girls and boys turning
their backs on the far, fading air balloons
because even wonder wears away.
And yet, in the end, there is poetry, the making of something out of all of this. The recording, selecting, crafting, assembling that, in itself, attests to some enduring impulse, perhaps in the air behind the air.
About the Reviewer
Maxima Kahn is a writer, teacher, and firekeeper who lives in the mountains in Northern California. Her first full-length collection, Fierce Aria, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020. Her work has been featured in numerous literary journals, including The Louisville Review, Wisconsin Review, Sweet, and many others, and she has twice been nominated for Best of the Net. A former teacher of creative writing at the University of California, Davis Extension, she has taught privately through her own creation, BrilliantPlayground.com, since 2004. She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Community of Writers and the Vermont Studio Center. She is also an improvisational violinist, an award-winning composer, and a dancer. www.MaximaKahn.com