Poetry and the Art of Danger
George Bradley’s fourth book of poems, Some Assembly Required, is not for a timid poetry reader. It is filled with surreal images and dense, rhythmically ordered lines peppered with words that would send even the most erudite reader scampering for a dictionary. His work, as the title implies, requires close reading and thought, and it is for this reason that I doubt his work will ever be brought to a large audience.
Although he is not exactly a major poetry figure and despite his work’s dense, nearly impenetrable nature (or perhaps because of it) it wins prizes. His first book, Terms to be Met, was chosen by James Merrill for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize. Since the publication of that book in 1985, he has collected the Witter Brynner Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Peter I. B. Laven Award from the Academy of American Poets, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ingram-Merrill Foundation.
To be sure, his work feels anachronistic (and at times affected), harkening from an older time when formal poems and archaic diction reigned supreme. Who else but George Bradley would dare use a phrase such as “which for the nonce” without looking around for a volley of tomatoes? Who else but Bradley would dare use a noun like “naïf” and keep a straight face?
What makes this book unique, though, is the permeable sense of danger. It is as though there are images roiling about in primordial muck-just waiting for some voice to wrench them out of the formless darkness and press them into shape. Bradley, ever a lover of form, is just the poet to do it.
In the title poem of this collection, for instance, there is a double voice that alternates between stanzas. In the odd numbered stanzas, the poem’s speaker is standing in line at the local SuperSave commenting on the banal face of popular culture leering from the covers of magazines. In the even numbered stanzas, there is another voice altogether, which seems to be located in some other time and place that is decidedly more primal and sinister:
Standing in line at the SuperSave, it all falls
Into place, Princess Di and the aliens and diet
Tips from outer space, King Tut and King Elvis,
Out of the subfusc air, the rank urgency of dusk
Among the heavy odors of differing dungs,
Acrid signatures of urine, the bold perfume of musk . . .
The poem consistently alternates between these two voices as it progresses, and because there is no white space, a sense of insidiousness creeps into the text. Again and again in his poetry there is an awareness of age and a subtext of danger. It surfaces in the very first poem, “The Aerie”, in which the speaker recounts climbing a windmill as a child and being startled by raptors, whose cries are used to startle prey from hiding. It shows up later, in “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” when he takes the indefinite noun “they” and ascribes it to “callow refugees” and “nonchalant tacticians” and closes with a “fire/ And animal glitter of one another’s eyes”, leaving just enough ambiguity that “they” could mean just about any group of people other than ourselves.
Despite his preference for high diction, his poems have a feeling of shapeliness and invention, of being able to move, faultlessly, across great spans of time, and in and out of characters and themes. One moment we focus on the King Nabu-Kudurri-Usur (Nebuchadnezzar) going mad and the next we are catapulted into the strange, alchemic world of “Spagyric”. Bradley is a man in love with words, the syllabic sound of them slapping into one another, and his ideas are large and grandiose. His themes are a perfect match for his forms.
It is almost a relief, then, when we are given the more human poems in the section “A Year in New England”, where Bradley writes about the guilt of killing a mouse or the sound of snow falling onto his house. Indeed, because there is a great deal of condescension (or at least hints of it) throughout the book, a kind of mourning for a world that either never was or never came to be, we are almost freed by the inward glance. Because of this, we almost miss the fact that these are sonnets.
The best part of the book-the most accessible, perhaps-is the closing poem, a 21-page piece called “How I Got in the Business” that takes a poke at the low stature of poets in general. It is a tour of Bradley’s considerable wit and style, and it is in this poem that we are given enough clues to go back into the book and revisit earlier poems that seemed incomprehensible or off putting.
Although this book is not for everyone (and I doubt that it will sell very many copies), I suspect that his work will one day be anthologized. Bradley’s work bears studying, and I suspect that this was what he was after all along.