The Green of Sunset

Image of The Green of Sunset
Release Date: 
June 16, 2014
Moon Tide Press
Reviewed by: 

“The consciousness implicit in these poems resembles that of Baudelaire’s urban flaneur or city dweller musing on the life of his city and the world beyond it. It also reminds us of later American poets’ use of the form to craft a particularly American brand of verse and language.”

John Brantingham’s fine collection of prose poetry, The Green of Sunset, published by Moon Tide Press and released at the end of 2013, raises questions of genre while encouraging us to examine the nature of poetry.

We are not generally driven to inquire why a book of sonnets or other formed verse has taken the form it does, but trust that the poet has drawn from the well of tradition the form that best fits those particular poems.

But in the case of prose poetry that is not always the case. Though the form has been around since at least the 19th century, it is still a marked enough divergence from the usual that we may stop to ask what these works are and how they meet the definition of poetry.

We ask ourselves whether poetry is defined mainly by the position of its words on the page, generally cut into lines according to the meter, meaning, and breath, or by something else.

Mr. Brantingham’s poems may appear as blocks of prose with line lengths limited only by the physical dimension of the pages, but they arise out of the tradition of poetry as surely as does any sonnet.

The consciousness implicit in these poems resembles that of Baudelaire’s urban flaneur or city dweller musing on the life of his city and the world beyond it. It also reminds us of later American poets’ use of the form to craft a particularly American brand of verse and language.

In addition, like other lyric poems, these remain intently focused on a single given moment in place or time related by a single point of view. Indeed, they foster a warm and intimate connection with that persona, who ponders the big questions and attempts to inhabit the minds of those around him, an act of empathy we emulate.

Yet paradoxically the book focuses not only on the impulse to comprehend others, to attempt a mind-meld of some kind with people very different from ourselves, but on the continual failure of such efforts.

The book is divided into two sections, the first exploring the writer’s personal world and the second attempting an imaginative leap into history, both personal and cultural.

The collection opens with the title poem, “The Green of Sunset,” in which Brantingham experiences what seems to be a moment of communion with his unborn son, musing on the child’s future life and advising that future self:

“If you ever become bitter, remember that there was a moment today when we all watched you dance your orange juice dance and listened to your orange juice heart and though you cannot remember it, you heard your father’s voice through the thin flap of your mother’s stomach as he said, ‘My beautiful child, I love you, I love you, I love you.’”

The moment gains resonance by the fact, which we soon learn, that the child in question was never born, and thus, that the future life never came to be, something that makes the attempt all that much more poignant.

This poem sets forth the motif of attempted acts of communication and connection that never quite reach their mark on which other poems in the collection elaborate.

Take for example “Apology to Madeline,” a post-lapsarian note to the speaker’s first sexual partner. This first effort at connection has been an abject failure, resulting in “the end of everything, and all we had been to ourselves,” rather than the hoped-for union.

In the poem “Lightning Storm,” Brantingham enlarges on this insight, remarking that  “sometimes we don’t get anything that we wanted—sometimes we just get that dash of knowledge that ruins the whole thing.”

The effort to understand lies at the heart of all that is human, and it is thus something that this poet, who is by profession and by nature a teacher, heartily embraces. Yet he acknowledges its frequent and perhaps inevitable failures.

His poems about art and the experience of viewing it with others may capture this paradox most fully, as in “The British Museum,” where the speaker eyes a fellow museum-goer, musing

“His Los Angeles is my London, and we’re standing here in front of the Hokusai, looking into a beautiful Japanese past, one of drama and nature, and of course, what we miss is that Hokusai was painting a wave that capsized fishing boats, that destroyed crops, that flooded Japan.”

Brantingham reflects here on the certainty that even art cannot bring about the kind of connection we desire. We are fated to misread, misunderstand, misconstrue those works of art and each other.

Yet if art cannot accomplish what we hope, it still has qualities to recommend it, chiefly the ability to connect us to our own deepest selves. The poem “Investigating Turner in the Tate Gallery” records just such an experience, when the speaker takes his students to the Tate Gallery. Remembering his own first encounter with these works at the museum, he notes,

“And this, I know today, is what is happening to so many of my students right now in front of Turner. They‘re not seeing Turner and his art so much as they’re beginning to see themselves. For the first time in their lives, they’re seeing themselves not as they’ve been told to see themselves, but as they actually are.”

This sort of refracted connection—the speaker seeing others experience what he himself has experienced in the past—may be the closest we get to psychic union, and it is the act of viewing or making art that makes it possible.

The second half of the book builds on the themes and insights of the first.

Note for instance “Parley With the Barbarians,” where the speaker describes the war games he played as a child, indications of a universal strain of barbarism common to all human beings, and “Brotherhood,” where he penetrates “the brotherhood of molecules and atoms” to claim connection with “people and dogs and trees and coyotes and even birds.”

What direct knowledge cannot accomplish, imagination can attain, at least provisionally, and even the end of the world merits a child’s celebration (“The Late-August Weather Report in Los Angeles”).

Through the magic of art Brantingham can share his great-grandfather’s consciousness, conjure up alternative universes and lives, and revel in the act of communication—even if it does not always have the desired effect.

It is rare that one can read a book of poems in a couple of big gulps, but the accessibility of these works makes that a possibility and a pleasure.

Brantingham is to be commended for these poems' blend of emotional power and intelligence, play and serious themes.