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Ahsahta Press, $16 (paper)
Brian Henry’s fourth book needs to be experienced as a whole. Opening it at random and sampling a few pages might give the reader a sense of the book’s tone (the haunted eloquence of its writing, the even keel of each line) as well as its preliminary situation (dying of the plague, a man wonders back on his life, its disturbances and violations). But a partial reading could not fully appreciate the book’s most pivotal fact: how the narrative ground of the 40 “Quarantine” poems is overturned by a completely different principle of composition in the appendix’s series of 40 “mirroring” poems entitled “Contagion.” As a result, what at first appears to be the book’s entire calling (“I will die silent I will tell my story as I die”) is only halfway to the point. This half is articulated with a surreal calm (“Fire brought to the water by flesh / for days the river burned / birds rode the bodies flapping”), each one-page poem drafted in the spirit of exhalation (rather than inspiration) from a place beyond pain (“but now there is a softness / to the feeling a body is washing / away falling into the grass beneath it”). But in the moment between the closure of the narrative portion and the opening of the “cryptic” appendix, a profound change has occurred: the fragments one now examines appear to be the exhumed “remains,” the mysterious petrifaction, of lines just previously encountered in the first section. What had once been made of breath, itself so spontaneous, now is reversed into artifact. This is the exquisitely executed impact of Quarantine’s concept: through the contrast between antipodal poetic techniques, one experiences composition and decomposition as central to writing’s paradox: the life (as expression) and death (into material) of the writer.
Zack Finch is a doctoral candidate in the poetics program at the State University of New York at Buffalo and teaches periodically as a visiting lecturer in creative writing at Dartmouth College.
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