“Babel’s Moon” by Brandon Som

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In the 2000 Chinese film, In the Mood for Love, an ancient story is shared that portends to secrets: if you have a burning secret, you must take it to the top a mountain. There, you are to bore a hole in a tree, whisper your message into that hole as though it were an ear invented only for this moment, and then bury the hole with mud. The film carries the lyric weight of this anecdote through to the end, the thought remaining yet again that the mind is one big haven of secrets, to which we are granted—if any at all—limited access. There is something about Brandon Som’s chapbook Babel’s Moon that bears a similar conceit. The poems are occupied by elegies of his grandfather, a butcher and a romantic; or else they ruminate on identity, Chinese traditions, and as the title flagrantly announces, language itself.

Chapbooks aren’t often this fluidly grafted. More than not, poems within a
chapbook make some sense together, insofar as the poems sine qua non belong to a particular speaker in a particular space. However, with the poems in Babel’s Moon, the through-line is never in doubt: the struggle to obtain the self blooms with a certainty of images. A loose knot in the tie of his grandfather’s funeral clothes becomes a swallowed bird; in searching for the bird’s nest sought for its infamous broth properties in China, the speaker instead pulls out a fob pocketwatch; the horizon transforms into “our own inarticulate selves,” the enormity of which we can hold in our hands if we dare. The landscape is bound to Som’s articulated anxieties, anxieties that come to life through the tiny theater of legends near and far from the speaker. If not legend, we encounter pathos through the exact necessity of viscera, as is the case with the third poem in the collection, “If St. Augustine Were a Butcher Like My Grandfather”:

He would walk into the meat locker
where the side of a steer hung
from chains—the red meats separated
by white fats, lucent as candle
wax—and begin sharpening, cleaver
to rod, getting the blade down
to the fine edge where steel tapers
into nothing and so can tend to

As is the case with any good ars poetica, this opening scene is quite literal. The task is to sharpen the tools, to open the animal perfectly for its new function. There are a number of moments where the strange violence of Som’s literal world bears a strong lens to that of his figurative, but in this tableau vivant between man and meat, a complicated elegy vibrates. The dead grandfather who in the living world tended to slaughtered flesh his whole life, who would “wipe his bloodwet hands and add / to the apron more of his fingerprints,” is captured in loving detail. Even after the moment where he “moved just behind the ribs / for the steaks he’d flense of gristle / and membrane, pausing at times / to push back, with his wrist, his wire- / rimmed glasses that continually slipped,” a solitary scene alien to most, what’s important in these details is the cinematic way in which he’d push up his glasses still in a gesture wholly familiar. The unsaid glistens like the hooked flanks, as if the grandfather were whispering Som’s lineage into the slits of meat.

This narrative aside, however, Som is a lyricist espoused to an irresistible diction. He introduces us to the chapbook with a titular nod, writing “Of Babel’s moon, I have notes.” In the opening line, he is self-consciously plain, dismissive almost, of the invented phrase he must now inhabit. And very quickly (the next sentence), he lays down stakes: “It was a marked card. It lit a chandelier out of an acacia. The trowel glinted with it. … A soldier stood letting his horse drink well water from his helmet. The moon trembled there.” Poets, especially lyric poets, obsess with the pronoun “it,” its object identity able to transmute realms as it relates to an ethos; it enables the poet to communicate her searching and reach into her wilderness of choice. The extraordinary poet, Joanna Klink, demonstrates this motif especially well in her poem “Poetry” when she writes “It left in the wind, it returned in the air. / I opened wide my door to it,” and again later, “It gave every reason, / declared itself broken, gathered into / a cracked leather satchel its alarm clock / and books.” The moon no doubt evinces the poet’s findings in that wilderness, but in contemporary poetry, the moon too “declares itself broken.” In fact, we might as well go ahead and say that in titling any poem “Moon” you might as well just call it “Poetry.” When we read the title, Babel’s Moon, it isn’t just that we are faced with yet another crippling iteration of moon and strife in poetry—the moon here must be its own desiccated version in ruins. Its broken permeability becomes an identity for which Som must now name and distinguish himself, as the heavenward Tower of Babel inevitably crumbled to bear the new cacophony of so many scattered languages.

To name and identify that which is so utterly trite in context to poetry must ultimately bring about something fresh if the poetry is to be any good. Som, by and large, accomplishes this. His range of imagination is as strikingly logical as it is improbable. Take the opening lines of the poem, “Ocotillo,” which borrows its name from a desert plant also called “coachwhip”:

Torch and coachwhip: one to see by,

one to lead with. Even so, the branches

seemed to suture some wound between

the land and sky directly behind them,

their splay the long hair of my mother

as she jumped, feet-first, into the summer

pool for her night swim—their Nauhtl name

extinguishing in the gathering dusk.

The leaps are inventive, but never estranged. The mention of the ancient Central Mexican language Nahutl fits in with the linguistic notion of the dissolving tower, just as one meditation on the name of the ocotillo plant, coachwhip, fraternizes with a more literal presence of coachwhip. The memory of his mother serves as a lynchpin for the poem’s fascination with its own linguistic identity. Som can write with such perfect symmetry it almost feels too easy, as when closing this poem he concludes,

like the wet footprints of my mother—

small, dark birds the heat will gather

from flagstone steps, while past the fence

and root-tethered, these harps of rebar

pizzicato, play out two kinds of forgetting:

one consumed by desire, one released from it.

Som, when faced with linear storytelling, capably delivers from good and trained faculties. Where he fails, and it isn’t failure per se, is when the narrative thread is removed and we are left with boneless animal protein instead of his meat-hooked steers. The poem, “Sugimoto,” a series of short lyric poems based on the series Seascapes by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, suffers a lack of clarity rare to the emotional strength and self-certitude of so many poems in Babel’s Moon. The atmospheric nature evoked by Sugimoto’s art tends to adumbrate the verse’s lyric prowess, a common risk involved in ekphrastic exercises. Take the fourth poem in the series (all of which stand untitled):

Underground disorients us
From above which explains why
We’ve forgotten so much of heaven.
A subway car sounds like you
Searching the silverware
For a tablespoon, while tunnels turn
The windows of a train to mirrors
Because the opaque, in its refusing
Of the light, affords us reflection.

The first three lines, when parsed, don’t really mean much, though they do their share of emoting. We are in a kind of seascape for much of these poems, and here, in an effort to vary the settings, we encounter modernity in a way that should be a point of intrigue, but simply isn’t, however taken we are by a train sounding like the ghostly clatter of silverware. Certain assertions intermixed with abstraction are particularly irksome after so much concrete storytelling, as above with his mysterious knowledge of heaven and later, when Som declares, “Awe occurs / When we can’t measure certain / Distances.” The confidence in expression becomes difficult to accept amid these inchoate glimpses into the scene.

Though this nine-part section falls flat, the remaining poems redeem much of the above criticism. The poem, “My Grandfather in the Lemon Orchard,” is rich with Som’s signature interest in language, using the natural world again to finger along the seams of a Stevensian darkness. You’ll recall in “Ocotillo” this movement of the trees suturing the sky; and again this image returns in this five-part poem when it says in the second section “When he kisses her in the lemon orchard / the stars come out to stitch a wound.”

The sky so preoccupies Som that in his aphoristic efforts to moralize it, one can’t
help but appreciate his simultaneous participation in the Poet’s classic trope, a ritual even. In context to his Chinese background, this makes perfect sense. We are asked to meditate on a nature that is quickly becoming a memory. The objective correlative on longing and desire is clearest when Som has complete control over that emotional intelligence, with lines like “this ladder, this man, a robin alight / with grub unlaced in its mouth” (“My Grandfather in the Lemon Orchard”) and “The sky will go away despite the trees thrashing and the smoke giving chase from the chimneys” (“Noche Buena”). The chapbook ends again on a lunary note, the emotional complexity conveyed yet again through an Audubon-like catalogue of birds, and it is in this moment where we understand a ritual has been performed. In Som’s lush nature, the hole in the tree fills with mud even before Som can conclude, “The blood-colored leaf, once over the heart, was thought to increase circulation. Ingested, it was believed to reduce fever. You might, however, place it in the pages of a breviary beside a favorite psalm.” Som, in his selective silence, has pushed his darkness into his objects and animals, leaving the reader with mischief and pleasure in a dwindling nature. Som is ready for the world to see further into his wilderness, if chapbooks are any reflection of great collections to come.

Natalie Eilbert is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press's 2016 Poetry Prize, as well as the poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from POETRY, Granta, The Jewish Current, the New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review. She lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. More from this author →