Friday, July 15, 2011

A Witness in Exile: Poems by Brian Spears

A Witness in Exile: Poems
by Brian Spears

In my continuing quest to read more poetry, and also to offer continued support for The Rumpus, I purchased Brian Spears' collection A Witness in Exile. Spears is the poetry section editor for the site, and I have always enjoyed the way in which he includes so many different voices and styles there. I'd read a couple of his poems featured on other sites, and they seemed in line with the poetry I enjoy most often. His work is warm, introspective, and clear. I knew I would enjoy the book when I read "According to Studies" on page 2.

(I hope he doesn't mind if I share it with you in whole right now. If you like the poem, I encourage you to purchase the entire book.)

According to Studies

I will die.

I may lose my mind first

I may have a genetic marker for obesity which can make
it difficult to maintain a healthy weight which can lead to
sleep apnea or diabetes or high blood pressure all of which
can cause deprivation of oxygen to the brain which can
lead to early onset of senility in many cases

I will continue to diet and exercise

I may be susceptible to Alzheimer's disease since it
apparently runs on my father's side of the family

I will continue to do crossword puzzles daily since keeping
the mind sharp is one way of reducing the effects of
plaques and tangles

I may become less effective as a thinker because of the
effects of information overload and too many distractions
multitasking which no one really does anyway though
we think we do and we become frustrated and lose our
ability to concentrate and remember what we were doing
just moments before and did I take my Vitamin B today
11 new tweets who's online is the mail here the damn ice
cream truck is back I'm going to check the mail

I will take a walk in the park this afternoon and enjoy the
breeze and the hawks and the ballers and the conversation
and burning the calories from the biscuits and gravy I had
for breakfast and the lemon cream cake I had for lunch

I will look closely at any scientific breakthrough which
involves downloading my brain into a cyborg body at some
future point

I will die some day but I am interested in whatever can put
that day off for as long as possible

I do not want to go mad first but if I do, I would like it to
happen while my consciousness is housed inside a cyborg

I do not know if the crossword puzzles are helping much

I've mentioned elsewhere — though not here, I don't think — that I have chronic fatigue syndrome. In addition to being excessively and unrelentingly tired all the time, the condition also involves muscle aches and a state which is termed "brain fog." Some days, it's like having a horrible flu. Other days, it's like a mid-range hangover, minus the puking. And other times, I exist as though being suddenly awoken and asked a question like, "Quick! After kingdom and phylum, how do you group together living organisms?" …. Wait, what? Who are you? Why are you in my house?

Reading this poem made me laugh in a sad, knowing way. "Did I take my Vitamin B today?" is a thought I have daily. There are a lot of pills involved to get me moving in the morning, in addition to three cups of coffee. So far, I've resisted the urge to go all old lady about it and get one of those days of the week pill dispensers.

Spears considers his mortality and the mortality of entire locales throughout many of the poems. Written around the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he talks about the long-term effects of the disaster on coastal states, particularly his home state of Louisiana and his residence (up until recently) in Florida.

Florida and the American South has turned into an unintentional theme in my reading as of late, and having visited the state many times, I can "see" the words quite well. I keep mentioning "humidity" as a component to writing about Florida, and Spears captures that heavy, semi-tropical air so well.

No diving rods needed here,
this land where water fills in
a child's shallow footprint,
where mold grows thick
as Augustine's grass, water
which will drown us all
one day.

--from "Florida"

With discussion of cities that will one day fall away into the water, the abandonment of buildings, and witnessing changes through travel, Spears writes a lot about impermanence. He wavers between sadness for and acceptance of the changes, a process which mimics his struggles with faith.

Raised as a Jehovah's Witness and having "spent his life entrenched at prayer," Spears eventually found no comfort in his given religion, and his stepping away from the church involved stepping away from his family as well.

The elder's son's expected to
be like his father, tall and able.
The elder's son is tired of hearing
he has potential.

The elder's son woke up one day,
found he was married, had a job,
two kids, a wife, some bills, but no
belief in God.

The elder's son has left the church,
doesn't preach from door to door.
The elder doesn't talk to his
son anymore.

— from "The Elder's Son"

That disconnect, the "exile" in the collection's title, permeates every poem, and there is an incredible loneliness, even when he is traveling with his second now-wife across the country and enjoying what he finds in poems like "US Route 50" and "Canyon."

Spears poetry is more accessible for me, and I do not mean that as a backhanded compliment. More "serious" poetry readers might call it laziness, but I don't enjoy struggling in order to understand a poem. When I read, well, anything, really, I want to feel something — empathy, happiness, enlightenment, heart-stabbing truth — that is not confusion. I don't want to have to keep trying different angles of entry until I slide into understanding. For that reason, I enjoyed A Witness in Exile moreso than I did Otherwise Elsewhere by David Rivard, the last collection of poetry I read. It's not that I didn't enjoy Rivard's book, but it was a certainly more of a challenge to read. Some readers want that challenge, yes, but I am not always in the mood for it.

A Witness in Exile flows beautifully from poem to poem, and the result is cohesive instead of haphazardly assembled. For anyone looking to expand their poetry reading, Brian Spears is an excellent poet with whom to start.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.


  1. I totally agree with you on that one. "More "serious" poetry readers might call it laziness, but I don't enjoy struggling in order to understand a poem."

  2. Thanks! And it's good to see you reading/commenting on here.