Jacob L. Cross
Review of Backup Singers by Sommer Browning
Austin, Minneapolis, New York, Raleigh: Birds LLC, 2014. 88 pp. $18.00, paper.
"Red Box," a painting by renowned eye-brow-raising extraordinaire Phillip Guston, shouts from the cover of Sommer Browning's 2014 poetry collection, Backup Singers. The painting is classic Guston iconography, featuring a gnarled, hairy red arm grasping a hammer, one tap away from driving a nail into the lid of a blood-red box. It's unapologetic and ludicrous, like the uncouth uncle at a family reunion that smokes too much around the kids. Anxiety, release, and tongue-in-cheek wit abound in unexpected hues in Guston's "Red Box," making it the perfect banner for its literary counterpart, Backup Singers.
While thematic effects tie the two works together, they don't bind them contractually by any means. Browning's poems are free, ironic, and fun in their fragmentation of narrative, in their refusal to stay put for exact interpretive staking. In other words, these songs are ticklish, and they'll knock your lights out if you get too close.
In the book's opening section, "Rue Daguerre," the third block of prose poetry captures Browning's ability to summon logic from absurdity. Or maybe absurdity from logic?
The bookseller keeps good records. It's like what the Beatles sang all along, all you need is. What isn't true are the colors of the crab nebula. What isn't possible is coprobiography, Egyptography, autophagia-suffix affixed like a tick like real money to the child cheating at Monopoly. Lyric sublimates the shunned state into perfumeries, telephony.
Browning pulls off a lot in one paragraph, a lot many poets would never be able to land without a mini-mushroom cloud. The previous sixty-one words trace a line of thought the same way an emotional arc might trace a story. With the partial Beatles quote, she robs the reader of "love," but replaces it with a darker revelation. Perhaps all you need is the need itself.
After the reader feels the absence of "love," her language raises the tension by tacking on more untruths and uncertainties. The poem climaxes with an alliterative series of similes, with a falling action elevating "lyric" following suit. Poetry's ability to render the previous uncertainties into fragrant dialogues and sensory elevation is celebrated. It is a piece that moves from a wrought darkness to a specific dawn.
What did Will Smith say after he punched the alien in Independence Day? Oh yeah. "Welcome to Earth." Section 2 of the book, "Friend," pulls the reader out of his or her seat in a similar course. The book leaps into a disorienting reflection of movement and developing relationships, both to people and to pasts. An alien perspective with a black eye, "Friend" takes this journey with visceral impact:
...Sommer, I'll get you a sweater, the me without you, and maybe this is the reason, this is the reason, my ear to the earth and its hum, the workings of a planet sound like Tom Waits dying, sound like Armstrong gasping, sound like you never bringing back a sweater...
These lines are unapologetic and real whiskey sweet, exploring the chase and the fall of their character(s). Browning accomplishes a tapestry of memory and emotion without burdensome authenticity, skirting the confessional with her honed voice. This voice is unlimited in its adept, cutting questions:
Within friendship isn't there competition? Musn't friendship grown out of capitalism, harbor its DNA, learn from its mother, live with the contagion? But how about when I show up at the bar dressed as a boy, when you send me your writing, when we dream of the screenplay, when we move Kurosawa to the porch, when we travel alone...
And on goes the series, illustrating another point of Browning's flair. Her prose poetry and free verse is very aware of its own stride, taking sentence and phrase structures and carrying them as far as they can go without becoming redundant; or past this line, turning redundancy into artifice. Scientific cold tones in one line, "You affects the frontal cortex," flows into personal language like, " You are engaged and I am married with a influence and Melissa is dead." Sharp turns refresh these poems.
Just as I am heralding Browning's muse and ability, one of the final sections of Backup Singers takes a similar pulpit. Throughout the forty-one listed points of "Multifarious Array," a long poem, Browning describes the work of an inspiration. What begins as an ode to a surreal poetic identity becomes a graceful etude full of creative expressions on the power a writer can wield.
At the carnival, her poems are the bumper cars. At the chemical plant, they're the reverbatory furnace. On Earth, they're a grand canyon collecting a river, drunken donkeys, and lost boy scouts.
Other pieces of the long poem expand upon the writer's eccentricity more than her poetry.
If you ask her how she feels or what she's thinking, she answers in percentages. 25% of her is considering the way stars mate, 15% of her is wondering what's for dinner, and the remaining 60% is turning language into a kestrel's spiral.
The placement of "Multifarious Array" is apt, for in her attempt to expand on the potency of her subject's poems, Browning inadvertently describes many of the effects and variety throughout Backup Singers. By the end of the fourth and final section, "Deep Cuts," the quirky capsule of all-around awesome may make one feel like he or she knows Browning a bit, knows a tad on how she thinks in different wavelengths.
But maybe this is just that gaudy, doomed-to-fail assumption we often make of authors at arms length or distant celebrities; i.e., "Dude, Sean Penn and I could totally share a brewski at the ballpark." Either way, Browning's Singers deals out a collective cocktail worth downing, genuine and cool after all the "multifarious" burns.
You can purchase Backup Singers here.
Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, The Alchemist Review, and elsewhere. More recently, his poems are due for release in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and half-priced sushi.