Why I Chose Jenny Browne’s Dear Stranger for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


Juggling is difficult. Balancing is difficult. Juggling while balancing is very difficult. Perhaps this is part of the reason why writing good poems is often so very difficult. Perhaps this is part of the reason why encountering a good poem is such a wonderful thing. Good poems require the poet to keep more than one dream aloft at a time. Good poems require the poet to straddle the line between reality and what might be. “Metaphors have to touch in at least three different places, and two of them have to be in the real world,” said Elizabeth Bishop. I tell creative writing student that a good narrative is usually actually at least three narratives manipulated so the wonder of each depends on the presence of the others. Good poems require the poet to balance the weight of many ideas. Good poems handle these difficult feats so deftly you don’t see the hand of the poet at work. This book, Dear Stranger, is full of very good poems.

Consider Jenny Browne’s curse, “To the Man Who Stole the Trees We Planted in Memory of My Brother-in-Law Who Killed Himself Earlier in the Spring.” A good curse simultaneously calls upon the most venerated sources of love (God, a mother, God’s mother) and the most feared sources of wrath (God, a mother, God’s mother). Browne does the same in a poem that is both harrowing and full of love.

Dear StrangerOr consider the poem, “The Deceased Hope the Farm Remains in the Family for Generations” which begins, “So ended the obituary./ So begin again with a parable.” Browne proceeds, in this seven-part poem, which has sections within the sections, lessons within lessons, dreams within dreams.

Or consider her poem, “Auscultation (or a Year After His Death, I find What My Father Underlined in his Textbook on Listening to the Human Heart”) which, aside from the title, apparently contains no language of Browne’s own and which manages to simultaneously tell the story of human biology and the story of human longing:

…The farther the sound has
to travel

through the chest wall

the fainter the sound will be.

Here she manages to manipulate found language (and what else does a poet have to work with in the end?) towards several purposes. She juggles and balances and renders beauty and heartache all at the same time.

I got lost in these poems. I mean that as a compliment. I would read along and find myself traveling a different stream than the poem’s beginning led me to believe I would travel, and I did not mind the surprises. In fact, I relished them. This is a rich book of intense subject matter. There are stories of a life, yes, but they are not treated as anecdotes, little quips with no resonance. The power of these poems comes from the attention Browne pays to resonance. From the very first poem, “The Multiple States of Matter,” I suspected <em>Dear Stranger</em> would be a wonderful book. By this, I mean I predicated the book would be full of wonder. And, dear stranger, it has proven to be so.

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017). She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009), co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology (Persea, 2009), and served as assistant editor on Gathering Ground: Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006). She is the poetry editor for Orion magazine. Dungy's work has appeared in Best American Poetry, 100 Best African American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Essays, the Pushcart Anthology and more than 30 other anthologies, plus dozens of print and online venues including Poetry, American Poetry Review, VQR, Literary Hub, Paris Review, and Poets.org. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Colorado Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award Nominations, and fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter (and down the street from her parents, who followed her this time around). Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. More from this author →