If I Were a Suicide Bomber
(Open Letter Books, 2017)
One of the most distinctive collections of verse published in the United States this year features the poems of a Danish cognitive scientist in translation. This is not a condemnation of the current state of American poetry, which is as rich and varied as it’s ever been, but an uninflated testament to the highly original work of Per Aage Brandt. Up to this point, Brandt has been largely unknown to readers of English-language poetry. Thanks to Open Letter’s publication of If I Were a Suicide Bomber, which gathers more than one hundred of Brandt’s poems alongside Thomas Satterlee’s deft and nimble translations, the poet’s fortunes may change. A rigorous practitioner of the art for over forty years, Brandt achieves much through his persistent use of strict formal procedures that paradoxically welcome versatility, variation, and play. Visually, the bulk of Brandt’s verse is as square as milk crates, but its relentlessly uniform shape is not only a supple instrument for surprising shifts and nuances within individual poems but an effective container for accommodating a broad range of themes. As Satterlee notes in his introduction, “There’s hardly anything in the world that fails to interest this poet, and nothing that he fails to make more interesting once he’s written about it.” By turns philosophical, satirical, confessional, and elegiac, there is no single kind of Brandt poem; conversely, every poem in If I Were a Suicide Bomber bears his unmistakable signature.
Comprised of generous selections from four of Brandt’s recent books, Satterlee makes the case for Brandt’s contemporary relevance. Of those four collections, it is 2013’s Elegi. Poesi that is given the greatest concentration. It’s not hard to see why: poems from this section rank among the collection’s most intriguing moments. Consider the alternately titled “76/ (my favorite things)”:
very unusual particulars such as a sheet
in mexico, a nail in california, an un-
known face, the sound of brakes from
the freight train over the viaduct in
cleveland, these things that don’t form
any synthesis; a motel in argentina and
the glass mosaic over the marble steps
in a hotel, which has disappeared, an untuned
piano in a ruin in vesterbro, and a building
in which love took place, razed by an earthquake
(my favorite things)
Like all the poems from Elegi. Poesi, “76/ (my favorite things)” is assigned a number, in descending order from 100-1; titles are placed below their respective poems in parentheticals with the assigned number appearing on top; and common grammatical practices, such as capitalization and terminal punctuation, are disregarded. These decisions challenge long-standing print conventions and balk at our assumptions about the inevitability of text construction. They also prove effective strategies for this particular poem, insofar as the removal of such hierarchical procedures blurs and equalizes its “very unusual particulars” while de-familiarizing what might otherwise be unexceptional or mundane. As a result, each instance in the list is charged with a mysterious glow and a backstory that isn’t revealed. Brandt’s meta-comment about synthesis foregrounds this concern, though that, too, is quickly absorbed by more particulars, culminating in the hair-raising juxtaposition of the final line. If items in the list suggest more than they explain, that is because, for all of us, memory is an ultimately personal process that informs and distorts experience. Brandt understands, too, that some of the best poetry keeps its secrets.
Immediately following this poem in Elegi. Poesi is “75/(ethic),” a succinct yet powerful observation of human behavior:
recent research has revealed that persons
who are frightened can easily become evil,
too, for instance they throw each other out
of lifeboats or steal bread from their starving
friends, the majority however feel the need
for a spiritual explanation, to be used at a
later time, the victims were impure and did
not appreciate their country and copulated
with sheep, the action was meant as a kind
of cleansing ceremony and service to god
Although the opening summarizes a specific study, the initial “too” in line three suggests that “75/(ethic)” is part of an ongoing catalogue of people prone to evil. Therefore, the pair of actions cited in lines three to four are merely two among many possible atrocities. Unlike the previous poem, Brandt doesn’t indulge in a long list; rather he swiftly turns to an articulation of various “ethical” rationalizations people invoke to justify evil behavior. “75/(ethic)” isolates this bitter irony not only for its own sake, but in order to instigate questions about discursive framing. If the entire poem appeared as a paragraph of prose, its power would be derived from objective, non-editorialized reportage. Lineated into verse, however, the same language is weighed with anxiety, for if one sees poetry as the affirmation of human experience, how can this poem’s conclusions yield any poetry at all? Put another way, how might the problem of evil—or our fascination with its many manifestations—be aestheticized to correct rather than celebrate its horrors? (Dante’s Inferno remains the most widely-read of his Divine Comedy.) In a mere ten lines, then, Brandt summarizes fear as a particular motive for evil actions and interrogates humans’ macabre commitment to the presentation of evil.
Such remarkable feats of economy are routine in If I Were a Suicide Bomber—and occasionally certain tropes are recalled to accomplish this. In one more example from Elegi. Poesi, Brandt again evokes the language of “recent research,” this time in cognitive science, as the springboard for proposing a poetics:
recent research shows that communication
and thought are related, but in an odd way:
the rate of speed has an inverse effect on
them: the faster one communicates, the less
one thinks, and the slower one communicates
the more thought is able to slip into what’s
communicated; this is the difference between
poetry and stocks, even though both do a little
thinking, and very fast poetry does just as little
as stock rates; poetry must therefore be difficult
Again, ten lines long, “81” approximates the assertion-turn formula of a sonnet (albeit unmetered and unrhymed) and introduces more than halfway through a surprisingly apt analogy about poetry and stocks. In a stroke of ironic genius, Brandt’s phrasing promotes rapid reading, as if a performative contradiction ostensibly undermines the poem’s actual message—that is until the last sentence. There, a precise yet ambiguous conclusion, presented as logically inevitable, induces pause, for the exact nature of the difficulty and what it may accomplish are deliberately unclarified, presumably to promote greater thought and avoid rushing toward meaning. For Brandt, poetry does communicate, but its information is not readily consumed, nor easily disposed.
Throughout If I Were a Suicide Bomber, Brandt draws material from unexpected sources and is able to synthesize a wide range of materials into a coherent, accessible form. Initially, the effect feels similar to an insightful article in a general-interest publication. However, soon enough, some seamless turn arrives and the language of poetry intervenes. In “72”: “only the hand holding / the bow remembers clearly what eternity’s face / looks like”; in “70”: “the psychoses are growing / up the wall like ivy”; in “25”: “something will happen, but unknowing will / prevail”; and in “43”: “without a beyond, the world / would be a peaceful and quite different place.” What is more, Brandt’s frequent yet subtle allusions to other poets reveal his commitment to participating in a world literature. Echoes of Eliot’s “Prufrock” surface in “68”: “…[the women] talk in / nonsense, it sounds like backward litanies / from an age of ashes and black milk”; the spirit of Yannis Ritsos pervades “21”: “…maybe people still will remember the question / when the answer lies down before them like a stray dog, tired out after drifting around for too long”; and in “(deathview)” from 2013’s To or About Søren, Brandt appears to be channeling Goethe: “truth: the beautiful is the vanishing, one sits down / in the grass and sings a peaceful song, and / afterwards plants a kiss on a peaceful kiss.”
Ultimately, however, Brandt’s ironic, pithy, often aphoristic poems square well with a certain strand of Danish poetry. Time and again, the poems in If I Were a Suicide Bomber seemed directly descended from the short, aphoristic “grooks” of Piet Hein. Like Brandt, Hein was trained as a scientist (and also a mathematician) but felt the pull of poetry and its ability to address the atrocities of our age, often through metaphor. One of Hein’s grooks may as well have been written by Brandt himself:
It may be observed, in a general way,
that life would be better, distinctly
If more of the people with nothing to say
were able to say it succinctly.
Thankfully, Brandt has a great deal to say. Written succinctly and distinctly, we who read him not only benefit from his understanding of an ongoing “communal hurt,” we observe in each of his milk-crate-shaped poems the “pointless abandonment / to powers of unusual concentration.” In this respect, the world needs Per Aage Brandt more than ever.