Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

Matthew Brennan: The Light of Common Day. Finishing Line Press, $12.00

 

 

Memory – as life-lived, as forgetting, as history – shines in Matthew Brennan’s The Light of Common Day. Often times it does so quite literally, for the chapbook’s twenty-six poems are filled with flames, fireworks, and photography. Yet, there is also a subtler light throughout these poems, not just in the memories and thoughts being explored, but arising from their interaction with the present. The “light of common day” is surrounded, punctured, and infiltrated by these memories, and in the process becomes something quite spectacular. Brennan’s examination of the past occurs at personal and historical levels, but always speaks to the present. He does not merely recollect, but reflects on relationships and human experience, investigating how the losses, people, and even repetition of our pasts shapes “the broken world” and makes it beautiful.

The book begins in history with “Ruins,” a tragic scene from the American Civil War. The poem’s language artfully reflects the Northern soldiers’ disregard for the present in the destruction they wreak “[w]ith cotton swabbed in booze” as they burn the city, even the church, leaving “the ruins that point to where a god has been.” The only thing left standing is a statue of Washington, belying a disregard for history as the whole of the rest of the city burns. The poem shows humans making and destroying history, and asks of its readers how their treatment of their own present and past will differ.

The second poem of the book, “Independence Day,” transitions from the national to the personal, connecting the two through motifs of American History. The reader is returned to the present, a time spent remembering and rethinking. The poem deals with personal loss, but its fireworks, “molted from their skins and merged into thin air,” are mimetic of the bombs and artillery of the first poem. With these two poems, Brennan unifies the more abstract losses of the greater world with more pungent losses at the personal level, and composes a present that is the impression of both, for the narrator as well as the reader.

The poems throughout the rest of the book maintain these themes while presenting different memories in different lights. Sometimes these memories are celebrated, other times they are regretted, and sometimes they are simply forgotten. Every time, however, they are connected back to the present in a unique and personal way, and with a lyricalness that draws the reader into the uniquely-colored mood of each poem. In “Derby Day – A Childhood Memory,” the alternating end-rhymes of “...trip / ...limp / ...hip / ...Blimp” provide a rhythm worthy of the horse-races, and the final lines return it to the ephemeral and the present: “the bird’s-eye view, / my vantage when I drink and think of you.” Brennan’s well-placed line-breaks in “Dirty” emulate the content of the poem, “...and yet her back- / and-forth rhythm’s got you so entrapped,” twice trapping the reader in that very back-and-forth. Such examples permeate Brennan’s poetry, and his use of form, particularly the sonnet, serves to further enhance the twists and connections his memories make on their way to the present.

Brennan’s final poem “The River” returns us to a larger picture of historical tragedy, juxtaposing “1258, Mesopotamia” with “2003, Iraq” in two parts. In both, we see the destruction of history, just as the “Khan’s grandson lifts / his blazing torch and day begins,” in the modern world “a mob / has charged like fire into the Library, looting / the ancient legacies of Babylon.” Yet Brennan does not lose sight of the roles of the individual in history: “a Brit named Fisk” tries to stop the mob. It is the individual who tries to preserve the history within the Library. Thus Brennan ends on a note congruent with the rest of his poems: the present is made of the past, though it often destroys it. It is telling that these scenes take place in the so-called Cradle of Civilization, and we are left to wonder if our future offers anything different, or if this is simply a part of human nature. However, as “the Tigris River, washed in light, runs its relentless waters toward the sea,” we know that the past and memory will shape the present at a personal level, and perhaps in that there is an opportunity to find the beauty in “The Broken World,” to, as Brennan puts it,

...see the ground

around us not as scars of loss,

grave yards of what will never be,

but as the body of a wife

whose husband’s worked the earth, good years

and bad...

 

 

Shawn Bodden is from St. Louis, Missouri and is currently studying English, Linguistics, and Russian as an undergraduate at Truman State University. This is his third review for GHLL.