The effect of brief nudity depends on the context. Sometimes, it’s sensual; sometimes, it’s embarrassing; sometimes, it’s funny. No matter the context, it allows a glimpse of what is always there but seldom seen. The poems in Larry O. Dean’s Brief Nudity reveal the world as it scampers from the shower to the bedroom, as it crawls into bed after a long day, as it wakes and walks to the kitchen in the light of a television that has been on all night to make a pot of coffee before dressing. Dean divides the collection into two sections, and a definite shift of tone and subject matter occurs between them. Someone once told me that you can’t follow serious with funny, but Dean does just that and makes it work. Including vignettes about childhood travels and westward moves, along with four dramatic monologues in the voices of victims of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, the first section focuses on place and familial relationships. Dean prefaces the second section with a line from Lester Bangs: “The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.” The poems that follow engage in word play, revel in errors, and satirize the corporatization of language and the subsequent cultural bankruptcy.
In “Eldorado,” the first poem in Brief Nudity, the speaker recalls trips with his father “to [his] great aunt Lilly’s farm / in Eldorado, Illinois.” After describing an aged pastoral scene, Dean juxtaposes popular culture and nature:
At night, the cicadas buzzed
zzzzt, zzzzt, zzzzt, their mating
calls carving the dark like phaser
battles to the death on Star Trek.
At the end of the poem, the speaker stands in Lilly’s doorway, watching her sleep “under a patchwork quilt, breathing so tremulously.” Dean writes, “I had to squint and stare at the colorful / squares until I saw one move.” This touching ending shows a reversal of generational roles—the child watches over his frail great aunt—and it foreshadows the coming of a culture for which agrarian life is a kind of Eldorado. The poem serves as a point of departure, existing in stark relief with the following poem, “Sirens,” which unfurls in the alternating alarm and indifference of urban life.
With the exception of “Eldorado,” the “Loma Prieta” series provides the most emotionally rich poems in the collection. As Dean explains in the acknowledgements, “The Freeway Dead: Portraits from Oakland—A special report; 11 Whose Lives Ended as Quake Crushed I-880,” which appeared in the New York Times on October 29, 1989, inspired these dramatic monologues. Rendering the voices of Donna Marsden, Delores Ardoin Stewart, Ramzi Farid Asfour, and Petra Berumen, Dean’s poems give us something that no “special report” can: a glimpse into the subjective lives of people. The poems resurrect the victims, making them human beings again. We learn that Donna Marsden liked “painting and papering /the walls [of their Victorian], fixing furniture,” and that “fear gave [her] a thrill, / took [her] somewhere [she] didn’t know / [she] wanted to go.” Delores Ardoin Stewart liked “the right kind of men.” Ramzi Farid Asfour dreamed of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” and awoke “feeling [he] had a greater purpose / than [he] yet understood.” Petra Berumen was fascinated with teeth and what they told of who she was. These details strip away abstractions, revealing the people beneath them.
In “Blink,” a poem about halfway through the second section, Dean writes, “We live in a whirl of celebrity / newspaper headlines blubbering / over every this and that.” The poem builds into a rant—not in a bad way—about an America that “suckles / Hollywood’s teat, with its unslakeable / thirst.” The poem casts America as “a new / and improved Titantic, chasing / the ultimate luxury,” which includes among other things “priapic / erections, heads of refolliculated hair; / bodies muscled into gladiatorial grandeur.” With titles like “My Penis” and “The Angry Whopper®,” the poems in section two expose a violent, phallocentric culture in which the personal, the very body, is commercialized, and even as it flashes across any number of screens, it disappears into trademarks and trade secrets, becoming a mere medium of exchange to be exploited and with which to exploit. Dean envisions a world in which people will name their children “Splenda®,” “OPEC,” and “iTodd.” It seems that a corrupted language is a symptom of a corrupted culture. Yet Dean also seems to recognize that these corruptions open the door for the kind of linguistic innovation and play that keeps language vibrant.
“Avalanche Is Better Than None” is an anagram in which “avalanche” “[i]s better than halve a can,” “[i]s better than a naval ache,” and “[i]s better than an, ah, calve.” The following poem, “Pulp Villanelle,” is both playful and, as the title suggests, noir. The poem ends:
…The cops were dumb and shot a knowing glance.
She crossed her legs and smoothed the skirt she bought.
She’d learned the thing that girls could not be taught.
This glimpse of the-girl-next-door discloses crookedness cloaked in innocence, making her the object of disdain and affection. Throughout the collection, Dean uses sound to flesh out his subjects.
Taking its title from a phrase most often found in movie ratings, Brief Nudity doesn’t flinch from reality. It isn’t afraid of who we are. These poems watch us when we think no one is looking, and through watching, they show us ourselves.
Brief Nudity, by Larry O. Dean. Knockeven, Cliffs of Moher Co. Clare, Ireland: Salmon Poetry. 98 pages. $21.95, paper.
Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Caketrain, Double Room, The Fiddleback, Phantom Limb, and Spectrum, and his reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins Critic, Rain Taxi, and other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he teaches English.