Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Sommer Browning, Good Actors


In Alice Notley’s Waltzing Matilda the narrator reads a friend’s poems, contends with the ambivalence of marriage, tends to sick children, gets hammered, makes an ass of herself, worries about making an ass of herself, reads the news, frets about money. Good god, am I describing my life or a book of poems? This book was published in 1981. I was published in 1976. (“Denver is Home to the World’s First Quiznos”)

It really is a delight to see a third poetry title by Denver poet, artist and gallery entrepreneur Sommer Browning, her Good Actors (Birds, LLC, 2022), following her collections Backup Singers (Birds, LLC, 2014) [see my review of such here] and Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC, 2011) [see my review of such here]. Good Actors is a collection of first-person narratives that work through and around the ways in which we present and perceive ourselves, offering commentary and contusions and confabulations, from the poem “To Drunk To Fuck” (possibly referencing the 1981 single of the same name by the Dead Kennedys), rife with its suggested drunk-level of typos, slurred speech and flailing, to the poem “People I’ve Gone to the Movies With,” a piece simply listing the first names of those she has presumably gone to see movies with. She writes an intimacy, articulating out private moments of connection as well as moments of foolishness, depression, isolation, single parenting and multiple definitions of freedom. She works through pop culture references, from the original Twilight Zone to Alice Notley poems to the documentary Grey Gardens, as she writes to open the brilliant “Into-an-Empty-Swimming-Pool-Diving in Love”:

I think Grey Gardens (1975) is a perfect movie. It also happens to be good. Grey Gardens is a documentary about a mother and a daughter, both defunct relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and their poverty-stricken lives in a run-down mansion called Grey Gardens. They are both named Edith, but the mother is called Big Edie and the daughter, Little Edie. There is no movie more about women than this movie. This movie is about what happens when women are permitted to become feral. What happens when women are permitted to revel in their own psychology and plumb it (plummet), free from some parts of their panopticon. I see in these women my entire life, not the details of course, but a thick layer of it: the worries and obsessions and deep connections and fluctuating esteem.

When Little Edie talks about feeling trapped at Grey Gardens, Big Edie says to her, You can’t get any freedom when you’re being supported.

Little Edie says, I think you’re not free when you’re not being supported.

Then a bit later Little Edie adds: It’s awful both ways.

I think it interesting how, as her narrative progresses, she identifies with both characters, whether in turn or simultaneously, as she does in her poem referencing early Alice Notley poems: seeing herself, at first, in Notley’s narrator, and later, in Notley’s husband, Ted Berrigan (as portrayed in Notley’s poems, at least). These are poems that claw at possibility and salvation, at losses both intimate and isolating, and how love can simultaneously rescue and fail. “I care little / For shame.” she writes, as part of the poem “The American Night is Young,” “You were happy until / You weren’t. // You are / Until you aren’t. // A lover’s mouth in your ear / Isn’t a wet willy, // It’s communication.”

A dark and ridiculous humour reminiscent of that of the work of Vancouver Dina Del Bucchia, Browning’s is a poetic shaped by perseverance and bad jokes, observations and commentary, much of which seem to focus on the simple refusal to be knocked down by anything, even down to the title of her debut. “To me,” she writes, to end the poem “Life: A Draft (Prologue),” “I’m surprised I’m still alive. // An aphorist who hates aphorisms. A self-helper who hates the self. // Every tornado begins as a cartoon dog fight. // The joke is you’re born. // That’s why they call it a delivery. // Numb nuts.” Her poems are scrappy, smart and self-aware. She seems attracted to characters relegated to side or minor characters, even within their own stories; who rebel against their own erosion or erasure, refusing to sit quietly, insisting on fighting, even flailing, against the darkness, or even their own best interests. The poems are both revealing and deflective, and there are moments where it is difficult to know if she is writing from a deeply personal space, or writing the outline around it. As the poem “Anxiety” begins: “If I write the script / You know I’d have you say, Hold these melons / in the produce aisle. // And you also know, one of us will have to / grab your crotch. / Life is like that.” Perhaps, in the end, it is all “good acting,” as the characters she references (including her narrator) are occasionally aware of how they require to present themselves, as though everything is, in fact, not actually crumbling around them.

As well, she offers a thread through the collection of commentary akin to a Greek chorus, every poem followed by another offering of “If you tell me which Twilight Zone episode you remember best, I can tell you what your problem is.” Each of these is followed by a description of another classic episode, as well as her corresponding commentary, offering exactly what the opener describes. One of mine, for example, is offered: “Your problem is: You are in conflict, because you believe in justice, but also think the world is meaningless.” The thread through the collection opens as a sequence of self-contained one-offs, but eventually move into a narrative of its own, with interesting conclusion.

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