Pleiades reviews Devilfish

Gaylord Brewer Devilfish. Red Hen (CDC, dist.) $12.95 (104p) ISBN 1-888996-15-3

A devilfish is one of the large rays, cousin to the manta ray and the sting ray. It is an ancient creature which evokes the image of a giant sea bat, eating what it comes across in its gliding. This is the metaphor embedded in Brewer's book: that despite the beauties of the world, there's always lurk some counteracting forces. For Gaylord Brewer, among these forces are self-deception and death. He surveys and excavates the dark places just beyond the borders of complacency, writing, as he says in "Report from the Frontier," "from the edge / of pale lands" where he studies "the horizon for what's not there."

Brewer's poems have a sense of immediacy about them. He engages readers through his consistent use of imperative verbs, his employment of second person present-tense constructions, and his reliance upon an implication of importance to which a media-raised generation has been trained to respond as in the opening poem "You Have Only What Remains,"

Raise a window to being, breathe

In January,

Feel it like smoke on the skin of

Your arms.

The appeal to the body, the world of the senses, invites the reader to participate, invokes action, as do many of the poems through Devilfish, for it is in such actions that discoveries take place, either in the interior or on the exterior. Take, for example, "Morning with Goats," one of the last poems in the book:

A big maple flutters fingers of


Still, you find your shoes and

Step forward

To embrace the day. Ah yes, this

Is the new week.

Self-deception is the undertow in many of Brewer's poems. There is a recurring sense of the world as-it-is in conflict with the world as-we-wish-it-would-be, the real life in conflict with what, in "Night of Moment," Brewer calls "that fake other life." In "The Losers' History Book," Brewer illustrates how innocence and naivety, easily equated with the Romantic life, create a utopian vision of a place where "Life in the valley was"why not say it?"beautiful":

Winters were short. We planted,

We sang, we drank

The local brew, made happy love

To our wives.

Our children grew up healthy

And knowing how to laugh.

The rural past, the provincial paradise is extolled, admired. Yet "This will be a short book," for the reader is told how, ominously, "Once, for several days, the crows were raucous. / Then silent." The self-deception in this pastoral scene lies in the gentle farmer's failure to believe that anyone else would not want to take what they have for themselves, thus, "When the Kaiser bought his guns over the mountain / we didn't have a clue." How reminiscent this scene is of the fate of any one of a number of small nations or regions gobbled up off the map of Europe during the Twentieth Century.

Death is the topic of a number of poems. At times, Brewer's view is realistic, accepting, as in "After Stealing a Gerbera Daisy from the Gravesite of an Eight-Year-Old Girl Buried Yesterday," yet he shows it stark and gram in "Fat Man Dying," with a man who dies "alone, or course, / piss stains on his pants, an empty bottle, / the telephone not ringing." Here Brewer blows up the personal narrative in which we all see ourselves surrounded by loved ones, a priest at least, someone to write down our last pithy quip; instead, when the fat man dies, no one notices and "Nobody cares less." In "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a poem about a man who dies in a car accident, Brewer presents a disappointing response to a stock vision of heaven:

It's cold here in a gown and


You can't tell sky from sea,

Everybody grinning

Like loons as they lean a harp in

Your direction.

The atmosphere is thin as clouds,

Weak as tea.

This has all the elements of a Hollywood film in which the dearly departed get to go back to earth and realize that life was pretty good after all, and thus the man in Brewer's poem can "click heels, wish for thirty minutes / earlier and a stick back table at Nick's Hot Spot," the stickiness of the table both odious yet familiar. Welcoming humanity, however has all the reptilian warmth of characters in a David Mamet play, for what the man finds at the bar is "confiding drinks, the boys in crimson suits," leaving him to ask "What did you ever do to damn yourself so?" Indeed, but which is the great damning, the disappointment of unmet expectations of the hereafter, or the sleazy, sticky, reality of the here-and-now?

Despite the darkness, readers will find wit and humor in many of the poems in Devilfish. Many poets eschew huor for the fear they might be relegated to the far-flung poetic province, light verse. Sometimes Brewer's humor is sarcastic and self-effacing, like Charles Bukowski's as in "Dead Parent Poems" when he observes how they are "nearly on par with new baby / narratives, surpass in angst dead grandparents / by a mile." At other times, he offers clever turns-of-phrase, as Billy Collins does in "Dead Man's Chest" when he muses how "Still, fifteen men / seemed excessive." At yet other times, as in "Community Prospers," when Brewer observes

Dozers, gorged and sudden

Beneath a slate

Sky. They are monsters, not symbols

Of monsters

He exhibits the dark humor and wry observation one finds in Charles Simic's best work.

Whether it is the millennial timing of this book, or Gaylord Brewer's sense of finality as another facet of the devilish, the book includes a number of poems, like "The Last," a piece recalling the last evening of the earth:

And finally the rain again"

Eponymous, perfect,

Imperturbable. Dark fell like a


Dark fell like veils. Like that, we

Were through.

In contrast to this after-the-apocalypse poem in the looking-into-the-future piece, "Greeting the Millennium Poem." Brewer expects to find the "same bleached sky," the "slippered foot / inching between bottles," the "hand on a forehead. Day One, dear God," and the Y2K media event disappeared like old news, leaving the same "bleary landscapes." But just when the reader thinks that this is another millennium poem, Brewer pulls a resonant image out of his poetic hat and offers an epiphany:

As suddenly, on the river, a single

Blue heron

Unfolds its aged awkwardness,

Talons trail the slate surface

And a slow and terrible beauty


Though Brewers millennial animal echoes the rough beast slouching from Yeats' "Second Coming," Brewer goes one better: he switches to Yeats' "Easter 1916" evoking the "terrible beauty" which transforms the world utterly. Thus, though the days go on with regularity, the symbols change, redirect, revitalize.

Devilfish, winner of the 1998 Red Hen Press Poetry Award, is an engaging, savvy, and wry book of poems. Brewer's is a voice wroth listening to, one which reminds us that despite how find the water looks, there are dangers lurking below the surface.