“From Extract to Artifact”: Review of Max Brett’s PANK Books poetry collection NOR DO THESE by Juliana Converse

To introduce his first book, Max Brett describes the collaborative exercise that prompted the poems in Nor Do These. He hints at a contentious and ill-fated set of relationships that ultimately ended the collaboration. But the pieces themselves are far from confessional. In fact, the observing voice in these poems is often detached, as though the speaker were hiding behind a cubicle or a clipboard. And yet while subject matter flows from biophysics to Franco-Austrian history, the poems speak to and play with each other, calling and responding in language based on light, texture, and form.

In the aforementioned introduction, we are told that the writer received two-word prompts from “a bipolar third party,” including a scientific term and a color signifier, and then wrote for 30 minutes each day for 30 days. We are also told that this “third party” was “a life partner of sorts—at least at the time of writing.” Then we learn that another person, a Colombian composer, was once a collaborator, but dropped out, along with the third party, whose relationship with this composer “troubles” the author. The details of this initial setup are so intriguing that I half expected some poems to be direct addresses to these other parties. The academic or journalistic tone in many of the poems suggests an antisocial or strictly pragmatic attitude; and yet, several poems feature intimate, visceral studies of objects and humans. This tension between tone and language produced moments of humor, disgust, sudden pleasure, and an uncanny vision of organic life.

The first term in each pairing typically references biophysics or quantum mechanics. One of the benefits of borrowing terms from these fields is their potential for double-meanings, and their representational or gestural implications if transposed into everyday language. I resisted the urge to look up unfamiliar words in the prompt until after reading the poem. While I enjoyed letting Brett’s language wash over me without this context, my research greatly rewarded the reading experience.

Some of the pieces are extended physical descriptions that draw from the word pairing, as in Day 5’s “carotenoids/blond,” wherein the accountant’s hair is “luminous, silky and strong, white-blond and falling over his shoulders,” and “the skin is fortified by a diet comprised almost entirely of carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables.”

Other terms in the prompts are woven into a daily event; for example Day 6’s “half life-taupe”: “The spiciness of the daal has no half-life, it experiences no diminishing of force or weakening.” In this piece, Brett’s use of passive voice deflects agency away from the speaker. “A bag of red lentils is washed thoroughly,” it begins, and proceeds through a recipe that quickly dips into the surreal as spices are added: “A baby-fist of hot pepper, an eyeball of coriander, brandy snifter of cumin seeds.” The poem reads like a witch’s potion recipe. This wicked concoction causes the speaker “gastrointestinal anguish, tremendous gas, and an inclination toward diet variation.” The dry wit in the speaker’s tone disrupts any sense of alienation, as if betraying coy affection.

Brett’s writing shifts form and register day to day, but most frequently his tone takes on the register of medical observer, as in Day 2’s “biofilm/melon,” in which a person referred to as SUBJECT suffers a series of histaminic symptoms affecting the sinuses. Run-on sentences and dropped articles increase the sense of anxiety accumulating through SUBJECT’s sensory experiences. 

In a particularly surreal piece,  “basal body/bone,” a cat is a conversational gynecologist paid in canned tuna. In “abiogenesis/maroon,” we follow the life cycle of a beer bottle. In “plasma/cream” a gang of hedge funders stalks a unicorn minding his own business at the bar. In “neutrino/gold,” the title is transformed into the name of the new cutting-edge runner’s shoe, and is written like ad copy. The piece “anoxic/ruby” reminds us of Brett’s journalism background, reading like a report before dipping into visceral description: “Ruby-red, strawberry pipes extended from the subsidiary plant and into the lake water, where the discharge led to a short-lived and catastrophic algae bloom, rendering the lake anoxic and killing off the local fish.” A few times, terms and colors used earlier repeat in later poems, suggesting an accumulation—perhaps of inspiration as well.

Possibly the most transcendent product of these exercises is Day 20’s “horizon/bone.” In an example of this inspiration accumulation, Brett incorporates a previous color in the description of a teenage Croatian model named Marina Matic: “raven-haired, grey-eyed, magenta-lipped, milk-skinned.” He captures the precocious professionalism of his subject and the sacrifices she makes to her art: “She had eaten a single, ethically picked royal blue blueberry in the lead-up to her walk, and had wept for hours beforehand, purposefully, knowing how thrashed it would help her to look, how consumed.” Her costume features “polished bone shards … attached so that she appeared a totemic porcupine, with the bones swinging freely, stabbing her from time to time.” Embracing absurdity, spectacle, and ending in a stunning, dream-like vision, this poem showcases Brett’s talent for transforming impressions and sensory details into the strange and miraculous.

The poems in Nor Do These immerse the reader in texture and cerebrality, and revel in a passion for language. The worlds of science, industry, and even fashion intermingle on the page, conjuring worlds that feel familiar and alien at once. Brett’s sharply observant voice borrows from a range of registers that make each piece distinct; and yet, the way he folds language from earlier poems into later ones unifies the project as a single artifact. The intentionality of the language and innovative efforts to create unity among the thirty pieces reveal an analytical and inventive mind, with a talent for visceral description and eccentric human-object interactions.

Nor Do These, by Max Brett. PANK Books, March 2019. 60 pages. $16.00, paper.

Juliana Converse’s reviews and nonfiction have been, or will be published in, Technoculture, The Compulsive Reader, Tupelo Quarterly, and Witch Craft Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in What Weekly and BlazeVOX, and she was the 1st place winner of the 2014 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Short Story Contest. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and lives in Baltimore City, Maryland.

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