April Bernard’s Brawl & Jag is poetry-collection-as-book-length-staring-contest. Unflinchingly direct yet self-aware and full of voluptuous, image-rich language, the poems in her fifth collection are commanding and consequential in a way that feels like an act of generosity rather than posturing. It’s a lean and lacerating collection, saturated with the violence and vileness of human actions but also with gratitude for the sweet experience that dilutes the bitter. In the collection’s stock-taking lyrical meditations and forbidding persona poems, wide-ranging historical reference provides context for personal history, a tactic that emphasizes the capriciousness of fate and affirms the importance of the lyrical moment. In the full-blooded embodiments of the persona poems and personal lyrics, Bernard deftly renders the warped motivations and earnest desires of human nature. Whether speaking in the voice of a woman reflecting on a savage childhood winter in czarist Russia (“Liliya in Omchak”), a baleful sixteenth-century queen (“Bloody Mary”), a fanatical German filmmaker (“Werner Herzog in the Amazon”), or a voice more nearly her own, the way Bernard sets down the rhythms of speech convinces.
Although you could probably sequence a pile of Bernard’s new poems with a leaf blower and get a pretty good result, Brawl & Jag’s subtle arrangement contributes greatly to its success, adding resonance to the wit and pathos of the collection. Divided into two sections whose content loosely corresponds with the book’s bifurcated title, the considered arguments of Brawl & Jag’s sobering first section give way to the more explicitly lyrical and elegiac poems of the second.
In the collection’s provocative opener, “Anger,” Bernard shows a remarkable ability to resuscitate the righteous fire of her speaker’s former anger. In the six stanzas that make up the first of the poem’s three sections, the speaker recounts still-simmering moments of autobiographical acrimony. Coursing with attitude but also circumspect regarding her own complicities, the speaker’s catalogue of professional flameouts, familial grudge-making, home invasions, and sexual violation, creates an unsettling yet potent character study:
When in a farmhouse kitchen that smelled
of old rinds and wet cigarette butts
I hoisted the shotgun to my shoulder
and aimed but did not fire it at the man
who had just taken my virginity like a snack,
with my collusion, but still—
When I sat in a conference room
in an inquisition
at “the newspaper of record,”
across from the one slurping his pipe,
the one arching her eyebrow,
and I felt the heat like a wet brand in my chest,
repaid insult for insult and left their fancy job
like a squashed bug on the floor—
The way each stanza swells with riling action and detail before impotently breaking off is an inspired formal choice. At each stanza’s end, Bernard strands the reader, leaves them holding in mind the white-hot particulars of each occasion. And what particulars they are. From the likening of lost virginity to a callously devoured snack in the first stanza to the way the inquisitors in the second are characterized by their pipe slurping and brow arching, Bernard expresses her speaker’s vitriol full-force. Not until the poem’s second section does the reader get an inkling that it’s actually about chutzpah revisited rather than trauma overcome. Upending expectation and offering boldness without disclaimer is a hallmark of Bernard’s style in Brawl & Jag. Though it’s not a tendency that devolves into campy theatrics, there’s a definite awareness of the poem as performance space. Beneath the astute formal considerations and craft, there’s a writer who finds something delectable about the opportunity to shock. In her poems, gallows humor might fade into tender lyricism—or she might leave you hanging.
Among the many vivifying aspects of Bernard’s craft, her talent as a colorist and maker of indelible images stands out. Her speakers are engrossed and engaged observers of the world around them, drawn back to the world they push against by the “sluice of sweet delight” running through it. Neither bloodless aesthetes nor affected barb-hurlers, Bernard’s speakers are recognizable and complex. The images in Brawl & Jag are given heft, texture, distinctive coloration, and are imbued with suggestive power that reveals temperament and creates atmosphere. Even in a poem like “These Men with Their Beautiful Eyes,” which consists solely of images, Bernard manages to craft a narrative through association, relying on carefully layered details and motifs which reveal the speaker’s priorities. For instance, in the poem’s opening lines, we learn the speaker is not only attracted to beautiful eyes but “Also flowerpots with their perfect abrasions, / in two colors, foggy cerulean and tarnished canary—.” While the suggestion of fog and birds helps to ground the image in a specific place, the speaker’s focus on the flowerpots’ abrasions and tarnish establishes the poem’s initial link between romance and physical harm. By degrees this link is brought to the fore, as violence-laced images accrue: “Voluptuous fruit in the wire basket, taking / soft bruises from the wire—.” With each carefully rendered image—including this bit of masochism from the produce aisle—a new facet of the speaker’s persona emerges. In another standout from the collection, “Comet,” Bernard mixes allusion and metaphor into her description of the “Della Robbia-blue, / eft-orange, and sulphur” comet seen from a garden terrace. In one colorful stroke, Bernard fortifies the poem’s classical tone with reference to the renaissance artist and captures the lizard-like shape, color, and zip of the fiery comet by likening it to an eft. While lucid description is a virtue in its own right, Bernard’s highly developed sense for the connection between a poem’s images and its rhetoric convincingly ground her speakers’ scrutiny and bristling candor.
The technical facility and imagination with which Bernard pursues each concept’s realization rarely deserts her. Whether troweling on appositives to forestall revelation or ingeniously breaking a poem’s established rhythms, Bernard shows an unfaltering awareness of the tension between a poem’s form and its content. In “City-Born,” Bernard takes such awareness back to the cradle, considering how our senses first grab hold of the world and begin to form the allegiances we call our nature:
A vision, the first you see as a baby
grappling with the cutting away of the veil,
the letting in of the almost-hurt that is light—
Or the first words you hear as a halo of sound,
sheep or traffic baaing, an orchestral greeting.
Light and sound together creep in
to the cradle, around the corners of buildings,
and the city owns you.
The poem’s use of second-person provides a different vantage point for Bernard’s speculation about what this initiation into the world’s hectoring ambiance is like. This awakening to the senses is enacted in the slow reveal of the poem’s end-stopped opening lines. Only when the sensual world begins to tighten its grip and creep into the crib does the caesura and enjambment take hold—the lines tiptoe until they kidnap. In a collection of such wide-ranging subject matter, such adaptations of Bernard’s style transfix.
The masterful scene-setting and persuasive power of the lyrics in Brawl & Jag often stem from Bernard’s exacting diction and economical way of relating the dynamics of a scene. For instance, in the sweeping establishing shot of the poem, “Lisbon, 1989,” Bernard’s speaker’s description moves steadily from exterior chaos to interior confrontation and its aftermath:
The new year lurched
on a clamor of horns
trash cans and firecrackers
rising up from the harbor
over the windowsills
into a hotel room where
civility had just died.
Next day we went for lunch
to a pricey restaurant
filled with leftover Nazis
and I was sick in the ladies’ room
where the walls were zebra skins
and the vanity stools mothed-up
leopard. So I left alone
In this opening stanza Bernard does away with smooth transition, abruptly yoking together the splenetic exchange in the hotel room with the next day’s presumably hungover and humbling fallout. The result is tension that genuinely oppresses. The poem is saturated with chilly dread as Bernard’s speaker recalls “leftover Nazis” lounging like superannuated bratwurst in the “pricey restaurant” where the bathrooms were upholstered with animal skins. Such charged imagery and pointed diction, in addition to the deliberate pacing of the poem’s disclosures, create the claustrophobic atmosphere from which the speaker ultimately flees:
[. . .] So I left alone
for a walk, drank a cold
espresso in a cold café
and reckoned my losses
in the face of lowering rain.
At a bookstore I opened a book
of poems: a few tender lines
about the emerald sea, memory
bringing a smell of salt and roses—
before the words swam back into
The espresso and café may be cold, but the gentle, recuperative actions of the second stanza produce an intimate and melancholy tone. Bernard so indelibly renders the frayed nerves of her speaker, that the warmth gleaned from the few lines of poetry read in a Portuguese bookstore feels genuinely transporting. Whether its her elegant personification of the rain or the use of rhyme and line break to emphasize the speaker’s flash of comprehension, the elements of Bernard’s poem join together so seamlessly that such a culmination feels instinctual.
Since Bernard settles into no signature style or form, pat comparisons to other poets are difficult to make. Several poems such as “Carnival,” “Blood Argument,” “Intercessionary,” and others, with their mixture of sensuality, psychic drama, primal logic, and surreal juxtaposition, have a Lorcaesque cast to them or call to mind the poetry of Merwin circa The Lice. “The Hyrtl Skulls,” Bernard’s enigmatic poem considering a medical history museum’s display of 139 skulls harvested in 19th century Europe and Africa, marries a procedural tone with an elliptical approach. Standing before the glass cases at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, Bernard’s speaker studies the skulls of these men, along with the spare details that make up what she deems their “life in paraphrase.” Into the speaker’s meditation, the biblical story of the Samaritan woman at the well intrudes:
Jesus met the woman at the well.
Jesus said, Where, where is your husband?
The woman said, I have no husband.
Jesus said, Woman, you have five husbands.
And the one you live with now
is not your own. The woman said, This man—
Some skulls are white, others a delicate mottled
golden brown. Most lack teeth. They look polished,
but that may be a trick of the light. Or maybe
the acid solution that burned off the flesh
of the suicide, the hanged man, the hapless drunk
and all the others was just caustic enough—
just caustic enough to singe the skull bones
to that comely golden brown, like the fake old vellum
of a fake old globe in a catalogue of fake things
you can buy. Here’s another:
Slovak (Southern Carpathians) Olek Kubin, age 38,
Calvinist, Suicide by hanging.
Disassociating the horrific misfortunes of the suicide or drunk from the aesthetic pleasure of the skulls as well-lit museum objects says nothing good about our relationship with history. However, in drawing an association between the husbands of the biblical story and the skulls of the museum display, the speaker betrays something about her own romantic history, a betrayal which infuses the poem with its piercing empathy. The poem seems to be about consecrating or commemorating those encounters that simultaneously arouse our fear and sympathy for the anonymous casualties we’ll all become, but it’s also about the need for salvation. In this poem and others, Bernard brings such evocative elements into close proximity, increasing the vibrancy of each. Elements which coalesce even if their connection remains difficult to reconcile. Few contemporary poets are so articulate about our primitive urges or possess the daring to leap from the top rung of their intellect’s ladder.
In Brawl & Jag Bernard even manages to air out that musty crawl space called appropriation. Her reframing of an excerpt from one of Samuel Johnson’s Rambler essays in “Found Sonnet: Samuel Johnson,” as well as her distillation of a Werner Herzog monologue from Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams in the poem, “Werner Herzog in the Amazon,” are two of the collection’s highlights. In “Werner Herzog in the Amazon,” Bernard machetes away some of the original monologue’s extraneous undergrowth without losing the insistent cadences of Herzog’s delivery. Her unfussy yet propulsive lineation captures Herzog in full-on Kurtz mode and thick German accent, unleashing his monologue about the predatory power of the jungle to thwart human endeavors, in particular, he and his crew’s attempts to finish filming Fitzcaraldo:
It’s a land that God, if he exists, has created
in anger. Take a close look
at what’s around us: overwhelming and collective murder.
And we, in comparison to the articulate vileness
of all this jungle,
we only sound like a badly pronounced
and half-finished sentence
out of a stupid suburban novel.
We have to become humble
in front of this overwhelming misery and
overwhelming growth and overwhelming
lack of order. Here
even the stars in the sky
look like a mess.
Ironically, it may not be Bernard’s own words but Herzog’s final words about the darkly enthralling Amazon which best encapsulate the resolve and romanticism at the heart of Brawl & Jag’s darkness: “It is not that I hate it— / I love it, but I love it / against my better judgement.” Engorged as it is with atrocity and incident, raw beauty and prodigious variety, Brawl & Jag is like that Amazon—formidable and seductive.