EILEEN TABIOS Engages
Top 40 by Brandon Brown
(Roof Books, New York, 2014)
Since I come to this book over two years after its release, I wonder: Brandon Brown is doing such good work—are we paying enough attention to him? It’s a similar response I’ve had to his other work, which says something marvelous, I think, about his poetry.
And he pleases the reader (specifically readers with an edge or salt to their sense of humor, as I know myself to be) with Top 40, a series of poems he wrote (per the book description) “through the Top 40 Pop songs on the chart of September 14, 2013. Brown’s poems track the life of song as it resounds through an organism. An organism who bathes, reads, writes, likes, fights, loves, hates, and fucks, the soundtrack never stops.”
Sounds like fun, and it is! Here’s an example from “BRUNO MARS, Treasure”:
Mars sings, “Pretty girl, pretty girl, pretty girl, you should be smiling / A girl like you should never look so blue.”
Alli tells me that men are always yelling at her in the street and telling her to smile.
This seems insane to me and it is of course insane.
I guess Bruno Mars has probably not read Gayle Rubin’s The Traffic in Women.
Rubin writes, “If it is women who are being transacted, then it is the men who give and take them who are linked, the woman being a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it.”
I do of course wish that Bruno Mars would come to Oakland, and we could get him in a radical feminist reading group at the free school.
Here’s another example from “JASON DERULO: THE OTHER SIDE”:
I believe he believes it when he sings, “We’re going all the way.”
But I wonder how literally he means it when he sings that it’s “Do or die.”
The question of a dilemma between praxis and death is the literal meaning of what we say in English when we say, “X is at stake,” the stake is that big long piece of vertical timber that English speakers traditionally bind women and the poor to and set on fire.
Which is the dark allusion of Jason Derulo singing, “Sparks fly / like the 4th of July,” the American history of corpses.
Some of my friends are really interested in the question of “stakes,” like what’s “at stake” in writing poetry and in insurrectionary activity.
They freely describe art and poetry as “low stakes,” as if some work warrants the question of life and death and some work does not so much.
Obviously this poem about Jason Derulo’s The Other Side is the Mauna Kea of high stakes poetry.
I actually think Brown should teach a workshop for academics on how not to write academic-ally though still with rigor. Brown is just fun. I’m not even sure I understand that Mauna Kea bit but I don’t really care—it’s fun and I get the drift (I think).
His interspersing of low and high gets a high from me for this low, an excerpt from “MILEY CYRUS, WE CAN’T STOP”:
To the same degree that “we won’t stop” insists on autonomy, “we can’t stop” admits bondage.
The dominant expression of this curiously uncontrollable autonomy is that the party determines and reinforces the social roles of the house.
“We run things / things don’t run we” is the way in which Miley associates what is home-ly with the economic.
Her refusal to conform to the grammatically correct “us” is a further expression of her iconoclasm, but her refusal to assimilate the pronoun into the accusative also reinforces her absolute dominance over the house.
What enervates the poems further are the occasional insertions of seemingly one-off thoughts, similar to how something pops up unexpectedly that marks stream-of-consciousness thinking—quite apt as the poet writes “through” the songs. Pop-ups, like this from the same poem:
After my bath I did a search for “Miley Cyrus birthday” as a sort of penance; I don’t recommend it.
Let me just take that one for you.
Or the reference to the dead famous poet in “KATY PERRY, ROAR,”:
The disastrous patriarchy permits her boyfriend to restrain and hush her, in the song and IRL, but when Katy roars, the addresses of this roar is obviously inferior; this becomes her poetics, like John Keats hated that Grecian Urn or whatever and told it so.
Again, such fun! But what made me pause in the middle of reading the book, and decide to write this review, are the frequent nuggets of wisdom that also permeate the poems—how Brown segues from pop matters to larger truths. For example, this line from “LADY GAGA, APPLAUSE”
When a king dies, rule does hardly, backs still bend under a different set of gilded Docs the moment his shitty lungs elapse.
made me focus on the plight of those “backs still bend”ing though the poem mostly is about the nature of applause. There’s a similar shift in my consciousness as a reader in “AVICCI, WAKE ME UP!” when more than two pages into the poem, I read
Wake Me Up! is the only song in America’s Top 40 with an exclamation point, which accentuates the imperative with urgency.
There’s also something sort of apocalyptic about it, right?
How timely, though it was written or published more than two years before this year’s U.S. Presidential elections (this review written in July 2016).
I wanted to be generous with excerpting poems as nothing can approximate their verve and wit. I end my appreciation and recommendation for Top 40 by noting, I quite appreciate the slyness of Brandon Brown who seems unable to be shallow—Pop!—even if he tried.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work: THE CONNOISSEUR OF ALLEYS was reviewed by Joey Madia for New Mystics Reviews, Book Masons and Literary Aficionado; and EXCAVATING THE FILIPINO IN ME was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza for "Filipina American Literature: Reading Recommendations" (Barbara Jane Reyes Blog). She released three books and two chaps in 2016, and is scheduled to release at least three publications in 2017. More info at http://eileenrtabios.com