No Dazzled Salamanders

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This… collection offers a world where narrative, grammar, and logic all come and go, rising up familiarly for a few lines then dispersing again, something thrilling and unrecognizable in their place.

Poems from a sci-fi dreamscape, lyrics from the edge of a nonchalant apocalypse, Daniel Brenner’s June is hallucination of beauty and narrative. It warns us of a disaster, that “June is coming / Let every city hear / Every umbrella / & every ant ear,” then lulls us into its ravaged world.

June is Brenner’s second book of poetry (his first, The Stupefying Flashbulbs, was also published by Fence). Like Flashbulbs, this second collection offers a world where narrative, grammar, and logic all come and go, rising up familiarly for a few lines then dispersing again, something thrilling and unrecognizable in their place.

He lies here
Because of fertile
Seaside gardens
& klaxon
Green & add
No dazzled salamanders

We’re drawn into these poems by the briefest of stories, a recognizable character and setting, only to have them washed away by the “klaxon / Sounds” and “dazzled salamanders.” This is not, however, wordplay for the sake of wordplay (even when the rhythm and beauty of the language is enough to sustain itself, as is often the case). Instead, through the culmination of single-page poems, a grander world is built, a sustained reality explored with sensitivity and wit.

Some ideas repeat. There is a massive flood, although the specifics of it (“We know what caused the flood / But we forgot”) remain obscure. There is also a war, “a blood of a world in my war,” one with indistinct sides and an indistinct purpose. There are violent pioneers (a group the speaker joins, if only briefly) coming and going, as well as a holy type of figure, Xi An, who sometimes suggests hope. Body snatchers stalk us and salamanders constantly slither through. These motifs are politically loaded: the environmentalism of the flood, the ceaseless reality of modern warfare, the colonialism of pioneers. Yet Brenner seems to urge against any political reading, often upsetting what we might expect of those images. “I am following the flood / In my car / Take me to that green place again,” the speaker declares. “Xi An I am flying a kite / Out in the locusts.” This is a world we are not meant to parse or explicate, but to experience as is.

What we do experience is dense language, tight lines resonating with fresh beauty and sharp images. Brenner leans on internal rhymes and lines that often restrain themselves to two or three words, compacting an incredible amount of musicality into the brief poems. “Evil blood I know you are the / Night we put under / To light our wet windows,” and

How about a wall of flowers
Trees are free to go
Into rain & start chemical
Training on trains
To lean

The world of June is visually alive, even if the images are built of unfamiliarity. In the flooded reality of the poems, we are left with the flotsam and refuse of the world we knew, so “That morning we drank tea / From the skull of the mushroom princess / Like lambs.” The words, joyfully, don’t seem to do what we expect of them.

Yet, Brenner asks us to be comfortable with this uncomfortable life, one where morphine is a consistent topic and the speaker sleeps through classes on flood preparation. Perhaps this is the clearest link between the bizarro world of June and our own. “Things like good N evil / Are irrelevant,” the speaker declares. “I mean it doesn’t matter anymore / We are on the team with / Masks.” In all the talk of economic, political, environmental, and spiritual collapse, it’s unclear, sometimes, if we are on the edge of disaster or living in it already, yet we still tend to the mundane, calm and acquiescent. “Dead everywhere / War / Wanton butchery,” one poem describes before asking “Will June never come / Has June come already.” While Brenner never sets to answer the question, he does give us these eerily familiar songs, a “chorus of storms” worth returning to as “We gaze at the mountain anyway / Contemplating how good the soup was.”

T Fleischmann's Syzygy, Beauty is available from Sarabande. More from this author →