Hard Reds

Hard Reds by Brandi Homan.
Shearsman Books, 2008 (95 pages)
ISBN: 978-1-905700-81-3.

The stuff of Brandi Homan's book Hard Reds is more familiar in good songs than good poems red dresses, high heels, tomcats, bulls. The aims are likewise clear and common these poems are proud and uniquely declamatory, morally judgmental, willing to pick sides and brag about cred.

Homan is interested in origin, and trades gladly in regional designators: place names and brand names, Chicago and Texas, High Lifes, Toby Keith, coolers with radios, trucks and motorcycles. She holds these references within the logic and syntax of their own vernacular. The origin formula in turn gives rise to the restraint and tension appropriate to strict poetic form.

Homan also works with bolder and more purposeful structures than many poets publishing today: odes, lamentations, declaration, assessments. She is willing to trade the ''poet I'' for ''MC'' swagger. The grace of her project comes to prove something about these casual forms, here shot through with technical mastery.

Consider Homan's deceptively simple take, which comes forth as pure form:

How strange to be named
after alcohol and a song
about a cocktail waitress

with a good ear. What's more,
a motorcycle on my birth
announcement, a powder-

puff enduro. No wonder
I have a penchant for high
heels and cheap silver,

wear t-shirts that say
I kiss and Tell,
rings on all fingers.''
The language is too plain, dirt-easy. Choosing to say things the most obvious way keeps them live (''t-shirts that say'' could be phrased a thousand different, more 'sophisticated' ways, especially given Homan's talent for inventive language.) Homan then takes this form the description of self-in-environment, of feminine articulating, making, embodying 'her' and stretches it out into crazy bomb-language. Consider the next self-definition, 'Self-portrait in Blueshift:''

...''Hips piscine, half-
open. Mouth full

of blue darners and fugue
suspended in vitro

like secret slow
bubbles. Here, light stretches,

glossal bands doubling
me in currents.

Ink, this empyrean estuary.
Hair slicing my neck in pluvial,

iridescent threads as I walk
this floor of turquoise, soporific

ruin, this bent, bue
Homan is, here, still doing the form we saw before practically Shania Twain -- her threads as she walks are still high heels, her seeping blue is still cheap silver, but she has pushed it out into the supreme sublime of a broad and inventive language. Homan's phrases are stunners. She commands apocopes, cumbrous, aquarelle, pluvial. Her shifting textures have more in common with travel narratives or psychedelia than the basic bars and highways where she grounds them.

Other poems expand past the character of Homan's ''I'' to include an assailed romantic ''you.'' This theme likewise runs the gamut from plain and subtle rephrasings of old standards to astonishing linguistic chutes and ladders. Consider, at one end of the spectrum, ''The Empty Side of the Bed.'' It is one of the strongest poems in the book, and again, it nearly begs you to miss it:

If you must know,
when I kick you
during the night,
it's no sleep spasm.
I mean to.

I'm tired of you,
open flank,
closed prairie,
withering aster.

I'm done
with your heady
doe-eyed dream, shadow
in the shape of love's
twin: relentless rain,

a tongue that tastes
only lead. Always
a railroad crossing
with the gates down.
Homan is never pretending to be the first person to have these thoughts, as she makes evident in her wry titles: ''Another poem that means I miss him,'' ''Country Songs Always Tell Stories,'' ''On Hearing a Poem by a 12-Year Old Girl.'' Rather, she attends to the form, attempting to perfect the givens and then to push them. Hard Reds speaks beautifully of hopes and firmly of roots, and stands on its own as an steady articulation past easy vernacular assumption.

The longer poem ''Love Song for Billy Pilgrim'' takes up as its subject an instant of time, marked by an approaching train. Homan tells it as a dirge ticked through with assonance:

''The song's prelude is a girl who levitates
Four boys drink beer behind her,
brown bottles in absent-minded vibrato,
the perihelion of table and hip
a lingering pulse in the station's destination . . .''

''Anticipation licks her neck,
thick and weighted as salt,
and she begins to swell with numbers:
Five, five, five-o-five. Nine ten. Nine twenty-five.
Their laugher a bull
in the bottoms of her sixes,
a slump against her sevens.
A blackbody spectrum. . .
The poem unfolds into its own refrains, landing again and again ''in the form of a coffin,/ green and wagon-shaped.'' Looking head on, you could miss what is remarkable about this piece, but looking past it you feel the weight of its after image. Like a mourning song or haunting it is plain to sight, and the words are open, day-lit, easy to scan (pumpkins, bottles, table, schedules.... ''water and sunshine'' ... ''diamond'' and ''denture''). But the structure and the expectation of continued mirrored ''vibratto'' rhythms fills the blank space on the page that follows the poem. I am growing convinced, almost paranoid, that Homan is working with poems that don't force themselves forward in order to set our plainest words to haunting us.

Denise Dooley lives in Rogers Park, Chicago, where she works in education outreach at a science research institute. She has studied at Cambridge University, UK and University of Iowa and writes both poetry and fiction.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761