Sommer Browning. Either Way I’m Celebrating. Birds, LLC. 2011.
In reading Either Way I’m Celebrating, Sommer Browning’s first full collection of poems, one of a variety ofthings that came to mind was the scene from Kill Bill Vol. 2where Uma Thurman extracts Daryl Hannah’s one remaining good eye and drops it to the trailer carpet like a sad peeled grape. I twist with glee at that scene, primarily—but then, I always wonder: if my eye were to be so plucked, would my brain construct what it saw in its descent? A moment of phantom eyesight? I’m inclined to say that I’m reminded of this scene by the comic of Browning’s that depicts an olive with a finger where its pimiento should be, or the lines in the center of “Revel” that admit “My eyes at this point // have difficulty swallowing[,]” but it’s more than that. Browning’s poems and comics explore the difficult questions of what it means to see (and to say), whether and how we shape or are shaped by space, by experience, by distance and time, with a delightful sense of play and an unflinching candor. This book is one that asks us to entertain some viscerally heavy thoughts, but tempers them with a lyrical inventiveness and sense of humor that inhabits the borderland between high- and low-brow quite comfortably, a notion the speaker addresses directly at the end of ‘Feel Better,’ stating: “My audience uses semi-colons / accurately; I am a whole ass.”
The comics (including one that depicts a sandwich containing Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason) and the poems that comprise the book’s first section are at once welcoming and alienating; they enact a world wherein expectations are often thwarted; where the thing in itself is always beyond our reach, and where what we know can never be adequate. In “The Meat from the Dream the Heart Knows,” Browning writes “[t]he Heart knows one dream. You desperate in seawater prying a glued / quarter from the sidewalk.” The speaker later complicates this statement, stating: “You know what the / fuck the heart knows what hell what deep brutal homework….” The urgency of the unpunctuated line and the shifts in diction push us toward the end of the poem, where the speaker insists, that “[p]retty / is the flimsiest word to describe how pretty we were on the fraying / rope bridge. So pretty. So pretty. So pretty. So pretty.” The repetition in this and many other poems in this section reinforce for the reader the strangeness and terror in every familiarity; it shows us the absence within them.
The two sequences that comprise the remainder of the book, “Vale Tudo,” and “To the Housesitter,” are alike in that each of them employ a combination of prose and more traditional free verse form, and in that each of the sequences constructs an environment all it’s own, even as it modifies and mutates the themes established in the books’ opening section. “Vale Tudo,” a Portuguese phrase that means “anything goes,” (according to the author’s note) and is the name of a Brazilian style of no holds barred fighting, encompasses both an attempt to watch an MMA bout at a hotel whose staff speaks in bad British accents and an effort to visit a Walt Whitman historical site. One of the poem’s funniest and saddest moments occurs when the speaker encounters Whitman’s verse emblazoned on the side of a mall, interrupted by a plaque advertising a bank, the modified text reading:
“A Child said what is the grass? Fetching
Emigrant Savings Bank it to me with
full hands How could I answer Get more
money for your money the child?. . . I do
not know what it is any more than he.”
In the final sequence of poems, “To the Housesitter,” the house, the idea of a house, is an entity whose “…inside / furrows, then opens up to grab you.” Once inside, there is an irrevocable exchange: “Then you are shaped[,]” the speaker insists, “Now, / you are then shaped, and your then shape punctuates the house.” The poems in this section meditate on gender, sexuality and reproduction, and describe a house where “the mechanic storms about[,]” while “the crown / molding peers down at fools[,] and where, for the woman who inhabits it to catch the mechanics attention, “[s]he poses as a muletrain.” However, this is a vast oversimplification; the poems in this section are intricately interwoven, and they address the interior struggles of identity formation as well as a variety of other slippery ideas in a way that is difficult to excerpt or paraphrase—these are the strengths of this sequence in particular, but also of the book as a whole.
A brief word on the comics: like the poems in the book, they’re simultaneously quite funny and unnerving, and they ask the reader to read pictorially in a way that recalls the wordplay and formal devices within the poems. These two elements work within the book in a way that is as intellectually challenging as it is chuckle-inducing. Either Way I’m Celebrating is a book that takes risks, and successfully balances serious thought and humor and humanity, all while inviting the reader back in, and rewarding them with each re-reading. It gets inside of you, and you it. In “Notes About Art Pepper,” Browning writes: “Whatever they killed Socrates for / I want to die for that.” I, for one, believe her, and it was a pleasure being corrupted.
Sommer Browning writes poems, draws comics and tells jokes. She is the author of three chapbooks, most recently THE BOWLING (Greying Ghost, 2010) with Brandon Shimoda. Her poems and drawings have appeared in The New York Quarterly, Typo, Octopus, past simple, Free Verse, The Stranger and other places. With Julia Cohen she curates The Bad Shadow Affair, a reading series in Denver.
John Beardsley is a doctoral student in Florida State University’s Creative Writing Program in poetry, and a contributing writer and reviewer for SEROnline. His work has appeared in 42 Opus and Miracle Monocole.