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Guest Review: 'Crownfeathers and Effigies'

Crownfeathers and Effigies, a new collection of poetry by Jerry Bradley, reviewed by Katherine Hoerth.

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November 6, 2014
 
 
Crownfeathers and Effigies. Jerry Bradley. Lamar University Press. March 2014. $15.00.
 
 
Review by Katherine Hoerth
 
Recently, The Los Angeles Review of Books published a “Poets’ Roundtable on Person and Persona.” In the introduction, Lynn Melnick says the Confessionalist ”I” in poetry rose and fell, and “now poets who write in this vein—women, it seems, more than men—are viewed through a movie-of-the-week lens.” Still, she suggests, the “I” may be getting a “new embrace,” and in the conversation that follows, different voices wonder if this lens is a liability or if it offers an edginess that draws readers in.
 
Jerry Bradley’s latest book, Crownfeathers and Effigies, provides a contemporary take on this debate.  His poems take us through the experiences of a middle-aged divorcé as he observes the worlds around him fall apart, with wry humor and a musicality that only the craftiest of poets achieve. The author creates a gendered-male voice that explores the power of persona poetry, interrogating the personal and the universal, mixing them in a way that blurs boundaries between private and planetary tragedies that we all might face.
 
The collection opens with perhaps its strongest poem, “Primer,” which sets the tone, exploring the speaker’s tiny personal loss: “In third grade I fell in love with the teacher,” the first line confesses, Miss Heusinger, who eventually married and moved away before the end of the school year. “That is how a heart learns to break … then / life repeats itself,” the speaker reflects, telling the story of how, probably, Miss Heusinger’s life has been as dissatisfying as his own, yet filled with the beauty of the everyday.
 
This mixture of despair and hope fills these pages in interesting ways, and as readers we’re always made privy to the speaker’s innermost feelings. In the poem “Running with Scissors” we experience that edge of loss and longing as the speaker describes a love affair in which he believes that “this time, one woman is all you need.” We get all the details, from the warmth of their skin touching to the feeling of breath, which makes the ending all the more difficult: “It is a strange race – / to you and then away – shaky with danger, / as both of us circle the whetted edge of pain.”
 
But intimate details need context, and it’s hard to care about them without some sense of a bigger picture. Throughout the book, Bradley provides this, too.  The poem “Last Ride Down” takes the reader on a ride down the Devil’s Highway, U.S Route 666, re-numbered 461. “The Devil, they say, is in the design / but there’s no room for him in Utah,” the poem opens, tapping into communal fears of the end of days, describing a landscape that’s almost post-apocalyptic with an “auto graveyard opposite the Church of Christ” and a “Ute pottery shop and casino” where “three 6’s still pay 30-to-1 / just like any three of a kind.” The road gets “repaved with good intentions,” though the fear and paranoia associated with it remains. The poem ends aptly, putting everything into perspective: “In South America, the butterfly flaps its wings / and prays to have nothing to do with us.” This poem relates the speaker’s personal fear of failure, the end he’s been taught to expect, our own sometimes irrational fears, and how we’re led only to see ruin in the midst of beauty.
 
Other poems reflect on how the world and the speaker’s relationships fall apart in the same manner. The poem “Geography Lesson” describes a child drawing a map of the world: “He began by erasing the oceans from the map. / He had no blue, so he filled the seas with land,” setting the premise of a world out of balance, set up for disaster with “penciled in ghost towns,” “unnamed metropolises,” and “mountain ranges where goats grazed butterfly-laden hills.”  The poem shifts with the break of a stanza: “There was yellow in the box, so he drew the sun;  / he couldn’t tell how things would go wrong.” The poem ends by connecting to the book’s arc of loss and longing with a particularly powerful image of the moon:
 
 
It hung lost overhead like the lovers below
Who bared their teeth in a warning smile
And wept when no serenades were sung. 
 
 
Another, slightly more light-hearted, example of this delicate balance is the poem “Continental Drift,” which compares the breaking up of Pangaea to the speaker’s divorce. “I was ordered out,” he narrates, carrying boxes to the car. “I bit my lip, tasting withheld blood / and the savor of a new country being formed.” The last stanza closes with a touch of humor, poking fun at the gravity of the situation:
 
 
When with the last armload she added, “I hope you die
A slow, miserable death,” my silence broke
Like a new coastline, one with a vast mainland
And a shimmering bay. “So now,” I said, “you want me to stay?”
 
 
As a reader, I was drawn in, not put-off, by the collection’s edginess, its specificity, and how it manages to make the pain of a divorce feel like...not quite the end of the world, but a breaking off, a starting over, a new, though terrifying, beginning. Crownfeathers and Effigies is a book that brings our universal fears—the great fears of dying, of being alone, of meeting the end—down to the dust of the everyday.  The voice feels authentic and transcendent, gritty and poetic, personal and universal, making it a great example of the power of the contemporary “I.” 
 
***
 
Katherine Hoerth is the author of two poetry collections, The Garden Uprooted (Slough Press, 2012), and Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots (also from Lamar University Press, 2014). Her work has been published in journals such as Pleiades, Rattle, and Front Porch. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas Pan American. Visit her online here.
 

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