Back in April, I had the good fortune to attend this year’s annual joint conference of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association. This conference is a perennial favorite of mine, thanks in part to my association with Jerry Bradley, who chairs the creative writing area of the conference, but I hadn’t been able to attend the past few years because I was living overseas. When I moved back to the States this spring, I timed my arrival to coincide with the conference so I wouldn’t miss out.
When I attended Jerry Bradley’s poetry reading at the conference, I discovered he’d just published a new collection of poems, The Importance of Elsewhere. This was wonderful news, because I very much enjoyed his first collection, Simple Versions of Disaster. And at PCA/ACA, he read several of the new poems from this collection, many of which were excellent, so by the end of the panel I was eager to buy a copy.
It turns out that The Importance of Elsewhere is something of a mixed bag. Some of the poems feel a bit thin, and the punchline closers for each section come off as trite, maybe even childish. The title of one poem sets up a joke about “The Difference Between Real Life and TV”: the one-line poem that answers is simply “I have a tv.” Cue the soft chuckles and groans.
But that’s just one side of Jerry Bradley, the social fun-lover who just can’t help himself. It’s as though, having led us through a selection of deeply moving or philosophically challenging poems, he is afraid to leave us pondering or distressed and wants to lighten the mood in each section closer. And who can blame him? Because the rest of the book is powerful. In all, I’d say about two-thirds of these poems are really good; of those, probably half are great, and several just flat-out floored me. “I Never Think of My Father” is a brilliant opener:
I never think of my father as old either.
Dead at sixty-two, he was smileless
long before the hospital, durably stern
and disapproving as if he suspected everyone
had been pissing off the porch.
I want to hear nothing but silence,
and plenty of it, he scolded all my youth.
He has likely had his fill of it now.
The book is divided into four thematic sections, and much of this first section follows the punchy, pained brilliance of its opening poem. In fact, the whole book seems to be about pain, or cynicism, or yearning. In “What I Did Last Year,” for example, Bradley describes the delusions of tourists, both foolish and painfully nostalgic:
For them the Ohio is just a bookmark
a black nightdress, an enormous taxi
whose speeding engine conceals
that everything is farther away
than it once was
He also seems to have particular issues with religion, as so many poets are wont to have: In “The Voodoo Museum at Lent,” he writes that “All gods wear masks in wet climates.” In “Visit to a Church,” he opens with “Deaf as a stone, quartz is a kind of saint” and later asks “Which gods are honest and which ones false [. . .] What if we cannot choose?” In “Disbelief,” he cautions us about the warning signs on winding highways: “For all our stalling and despite the reassuring stripes / they stand to remind that most roads / remain dark.”
But there are quiet moments in many of the poems that belie Bradley’s inner searching, his belief in spite of himself that there are answers out there, even if he doesn’t know where to find them, or that love is possible, even if it is dark and dangerous and unexpected. This is perhaps best expressed in his poem “Calling in the Dark,” about the songs of crickets in the nighttime:
though every song is about death
even two notes may warm
a dream or burst into fire
and put things right
Ultimately, this seems to speak for the collection as a whole, as it raises so many questions and complaints yet continues to try and ignite the flame, to “put things right.”
Overall, this collection carries a lot of weight for so slim a volume, and it easily stands alongside Bradley’s excellent first collection.
For more on what I’m currently reading, check out my Bookshelf.