Wanting Light and Buying Hammers

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Even the hardest books ultimately cohere, it’s just a matter of whether their internal logic will eventually open up and allow you entrance. Lily Brown’s Rust or Go Missing is such a book.

1) A chef I hated and worked for talked about risotto once and said risotto had to be, almost above all else, toothsome. It’s a useful word, as is mouthfeel, which arises occasionally when one’s reading literature on wine. This is the first worthy thing to mention about Lily Brown’s Rust or Go Missing: there’s sound in here that makes your mouth come alive, or should. For instance+at random:

They’re nudes this way.
Lithe-limbed hard bodies,
of confident cockatiel,
of fearless sparrow.

(“Dirty Movie”)


Stagnant communions roll us tight with worry.
Steam engines have no unconscious
so they do what comes. What comes naturally
with us is in hiding, is just hiding.

Wanting light and buying hammers.

(“The Return of Radical Innocence”)

2) Those books which demand such a close reading it’s some days a toss-up as to whether they ultimately cohere or not? Not that: even the hardest books ultimately cohere, it’s just a matter of whether their internal logic will eventually open up and allow you entrance. Lily Brown’s Rust or Go Missing is such a book. That may sound like a criticism, and to some degree it is: we all know Stevens’ line about the poem resisting intelligence almost successfully; that almost, as any reader knows, can be dauntingly wide.

For instance: the book’s first poem’s first lines:

Backpedaling for Statements

She says the book can’t feel the smart
of tumble and hit. But here, in the office,
window cases mini-landscape. Window cut
by brown rulers, run through and across
the grass. Now a world—impression
of groundcover and tree with sunlight.

I didn’t read that poem first—like any number of page-flippers, I got Rust and flipped through right from the start, pecking my way through. Note pecking.

3) There are birds absolutely everywhere in Rust. Here’s one vote for the best poem with a bird in it:

Smaller Gulls Before

I want the tree a mile up to shake
its blond leaves to the pavement.

From my plot I think it odd that birds
don’t shit on us more often.
We’re right here ruining the sand.

I too further the obesity of gulls.
For years I’ve let them steal
my sandwiches and sealing wax.

That with which we stamp our selves
we stamp with our selves.
Sink of emblem in that wax.
Lies that swap stories with heart.

For whatever arch difficulty Brown can occasionally present with (and I should note that I really, really didn’t find my way into this book for awhile, and so now, even though I like it quite a bit, it took so much time and effort to find my way to Enjoyment Road that there might be a trace of bitter in how this all comes across; it’s not sincere), she can write hands-down glorious poetry. See above. The things she does best and most often are here: the radical shifting of the poem as it moves from whatever the reader might’ve originally suspected it was “about” to what it’s fundamentally doing or being about, the whiplash speed of casual chat and a sort of stuffiness (wondering abour birds shitting on us vs. the archaicism of sealing wax), the layers of self-hood examined and considered.

For real, though: this book is really, really good, and it may take you a long while to see or feel that fact, but it really is pretty incredible.

4) Plus aside from birds, trees. Those two nouns of course connect because one lives in the other, and that’s fine, however Brown ends up using each for how they shift, how their natures are defined by shifting—a tree having and then losing and then not having leaves, say. This transitory aspect is the gold seam Brown works best, I’ll here contend: she parses the tiny, minute differences between similar-ish things and blows your mind in the process.


I don’t miss out on what
I miss. You were right
about the future, a feeling
attached to now. Here,
my trick: accompaniment.
Trade the images for new stock.
You, lagging between too-close
and too-far. First I was alone,
waiting. Then I was alone,

This may be the most devastating poem of the book, and it’s hands-down my favorite, but regardless of that, you should note the immense talent at work within it, which talent a) leaves unclear who the title’s “Knower” is, b) has such ease with language as to make the first sentence a clever almost-joke, and c) is willing to parse the, what, emotional adjectives freighted onto a statement of physical actuality (alone, waiting vs. alone, alone). Note that there’s something borderline precious in this poem, yet the poem hugely blasts pass any preciousness: there’s something deeply sad and sincere at work here, and what you’ll likely discover as you make your way through Rust or Go Missing is that what at times can come across as exceptionally overthought/wrought stuff can, in fact, be seen as ways to avoid the sentimentality that can otherwise threaten poetry.

5) I Name

something something,
to understand. A
temporary piece.
Thought, images
repeat. I skim
for feeling, no
literal intent.

This was the poem of Brown’s that made me finally come fully into the book and take part. A few pages before this poem, she ends another poem with “Uncertainty’s a tattoo / not in my skin.” The difficulty of that phrase, and of the idea that animates and lights up “I Name,” is that in each there’s no clarity offered (necessarily) about what is: the reader says, okay, so “uncertainty’s a tattoo / not in” Brown’s skin—so where is it? Or: okay, she’s skimming for feeling—but how to square the desire for more than skimming, how to square the desire to have?

This is how Brown shines, I think, though it’s a difficult shine, and the work she’s asking from her reader is significant (but absolutely 100% asked in good faith). Rust or Go Missing is a mind attempting to make moves toward meaning on the page, and the reader’s best bet is to find comfort in the attempting—which, yes, can be thin, can, some days, be not enough. Most days, however, with deep enough breaths and the sort of patience that good poetry demands, most readers should be just fine making careful, glad way through Brown’s stellar debut.

Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →