Mouth Trap, a prose poetry collection by Rebbecca Brown, reviewed by Gabriel Welsch

Rebbecca Brown’s collection of prose poems is the second book from a writer whose debut was the novel They Become Her. A novelist working in prose poetry risks the damning-with-faint-praise descriptor of someone whose poetry reads like that of a prose stylist’s. Tarring these poems with that brush would be very hard to do.

The poems comprising Mouth Trap demonstrate sonic play, prosodic acrobatics, and wit both subtle and overt, sometimes in the same line. The collection in whole plays within boundaries of formalism as applied to the prose poem. Her work makes formal poetic devices and rhetorical devices almost showy, evident, and intense in what is a most captivating and impressive collection of poems.

Given the intensity of the images and form, what makes it absorbing also makes it dense. Short bursts of reading are more rewarding, since each piece reveals its surprises sometimes only on second and third reading.

The presence of literary devices and awareness of lineation is evident everywhere. In “Blitz”: “Secretly seeing the silence of seduction, finding ways of woe in the wind, knowing time will kick around the heel of his boots no matter what town.”

In “Shedding,” Brown manages enjambment in a prose line:

In the shed he works knuckles and bones saws off
half a thumb hunk high pitched whine cutting plywood.

The work asserts its values from the very start in the title of the book, a surreal play on words of a familiar phrase. Such play is a constant; in one piece, “another castle, neither clear or there.” In another, “A friend of mine pretended he didn’t know my name, as if we didn’t sling shots against the evening.”

Often the word play dances as it gropes for meaning—an effort of precise imprecision, as in “Returning”: “Where were you before you slid through your days like an empty piece of paper wavering on wind, subject to place and displacement, following the breeze of someone else’s breath, landing and relighting, relearning nothing you knew in the first place about flight … This is not a tome to grow old in.”

In the book’s central longest piece, “What I Did and Did Not Do,” the narrator is being held in a jail cell for a few days after being arrested for what appears to have been public drunkenness. The poem’s abrupt shifts of thought and expansive references marry with sonic awareness and enjambment that propels the narrative while deepening the lyric moment. It’s a neat trick of compression and expansion simultaneously—one is dazzled by the style, has to re-read to understand the story, and then in appreciating both appreciates the greater sum of the parts.

Brown’s sonic play accentuates the consequences of the prose poetry narrative. As the piece tells its story, the voice’s capacity for confusion, comfort, meaning, and destruction create a referential consciousness. As one example, the narrator riffs on how Joan Didion once described Joan Baez as being less interested in music than in “communion with her audience,” or how a lawyer at the end of the piece emphasizes sonic and conceptual confusion:

Even though I can’t see you clearly, Stella, our voices carry through. Later, the lawyer tells me it’s just like Lenin and Lennon: Love is free, free is love. Love is living, living love. When there is state there can be no freedom, but when there is freedom, there will be no state. Love is needing to be loved.

The Lenin is sandwiched by ideas Lennon.

In another longer piece, with a title that sounds like a malapropism—The Seven Little Sinsters—Brown draws seven children (think Edward Gorey meets the Garbage Pail Kids) who embody the deadly sins. Telling about the birth of gluttony, Brown writes of the mother’s realization of pregnancy: “She missed her husband’s creature bleeding.” And then “a baby boy was bellowing a day of brand new blindness.” Spoiler alert: gluttony ends up eating his mother.

The treatments of the personae are delightful and horrific: wrath was “born with a cackle made of steel.” Envy is “smudged with the pain of things.” Lust “could not help twisting as smooth as seas and just as welcoming,” and for greed, “everything she didn’t have gleamed.” Pride is “the tip of god’s tongue because his father said his father said.” Sloth “sighed one sigh into the next and sat in sorrowful stink.” In its rich evocations, startling diction and phrasing, and brilliant evocation of a very old idea, “The Seven Little Sinsters” is the highlight of a book crammed with highlights.

And that’s saying something. A long sequence of Landscapes describes the world from the vantage point of different insects and birds. In another series, one of self-portraits, the portrait objects take action and shift the reader’s perspective, making each portrait a transformation. The narrative work challenges the compressed form. For instance, in “Self Portrait in Flint:”

He liked to copy the pictures of horses from books, noting the tenseness of flanks, the tossing of manes along riverbanks. They were like flames crackling twigs into sparks, spindling away to ignite and extinguish in the flick of an eye. He looks at his work, blinking flint. How can anything happen except that which he warps with a sketch?

Again and again as I read this collection, I reconsidered the title because of the poems’ varied approaches to meaning—evasive, cumulative, referential, stylized, and lyric. Thinking of the ways poets both push and distrust language to render ideas, I considered whether language is the “mouth trap?” Does the mouth use language to trap? Or is the conflict simply how sound is stuck and trapped and made into an incomplete story or an unsatisfying meaning?

Ultimately it doesn’t matter for this collection, and it is a larger discussion anyway. But Brown’s book is of the sort that, as you put it down, you cannot stop thinking about the poems themselves or the ideas and inquiries they inspire. Mouth Trap is delightful poem by poem, is impressive as a collection, and is intriguing in what it evokes long after your first reading.

Mouth Trap, by Rebbecca Brown. Arc Pair Press, September 2018. 62 pages. $16.00, paper.

Gabriel Welsch is the author of four poetry collections, the most recent being The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books, 2013). In addition to appearing previously in Heavy Feather Review and its #NoMorePresidents site, his fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared in journals including Georgia ReviewSouthern ReviewHarvard ReviewMissouri Review, and on Verse Daily and in Ted Kooser’s column “American Life in Poetry.” He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his family, and works as Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Duquesne University.

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