Posted by: cousinbrandon | December 25, 2009

Versus: The Poetry of Cousin Brandon

Perhaps this week’s entry isn’t necessarily holiday-based, but it somehow felt appropriate to me. This was the first poem I wrote in grad school that began to define my voice. That is, I was in my third semester of grad school when I wrote it, and it was the first time I felt that I’d managed to capture not only who I was as a poet, but who I wanted to be. When I started grad school, I was still writing mostly prose poems – that is, poems that read more like paragraphs. They were incredibly dense and abandoned the line break. I submitted several to my first-semester workshop instructor, Stephen Dobyns, an unbelievable poet and writer of fiction. He gave me some incredible feedback, but began to help me to think differently about form. The following semester I studied under Bill Knott. In fact, I took both a workshop with him as well as a class called “Forms,” which was strictly about writing poetry in every form under the sun. While both classes were beneficial, it was Bill’s curmudgeony insistence that I abandon anecdote that made the most sense to me. What does that mean?

Okay, Bill Knott was hell-bent on asking “Who cares?” That is, it wasn’t enough for a poem to recount a personal event. There needed to be something larger at stake. Sure, this was something I knew subconsciously, in that my favorite poems were saying something more than what was on the page. And, no, not just in the subtext. What I mean is that those favorite poems of mine risked something, and exposed a much greater truth or approached a greater importance than merely recounting an “anecdote.” So by the time my third semester rolled around and I was once again studying under Bill, I finally understood just what in the hell he was talking about. It was like all of sudden it made perfect sense to me. Granted, this approach or “lesson” doesn’t apply to every poem; but, for someone like me who writes almost nothing but narrative work, it was spot-on.

With that, this week’s poem, written in the Fall of 2002, became the opening poem in my MFA thesis, Who Would You Be? It went through several revisions before emerging as what follows. Since then, I have revised it further, but this is as it appeared in my actual thesis. Also, I chose this poem this week for a friend who’s going through a rough patch, who after first reading it told me it “made her heart pang.”


At five I made my single father watch me
perfect chopsticks, plucking whole

rock shrimp from the plate of lo-mein
like an old pro. Holding those slender

splinters between my thumb and index
finger like miniature stilts was something

to see: all control and balance.
How quickly I mastered them, exhausted

my father with approval that I didn’t
know was required. Who wouldn’t want

to see their youngest conquer centuries-
worth of tradition in a single sitting? What kind

of father? I shot my right arm into the air,
freeze-framing those sticks in my crooked

hand like a how-to poster. Look,
I demanded. It’s simple. My father’s

slight smile was a blessing then, a thumbs-
up or congratulations. But leaning over

that box of take-out just yesterday, plunging
chopsticks into a bed of sesame shrimp

like two exacting spears, I remembered it:
his head-flinch that wasn’t quite a nod,

his smile without teeth. It wasn’t approval
or love that barely crossed his face, but more

like disdain, mock-enthusiasm for a five-year old
hungry for attention. More than twenty

years later, I can still see him there, slumped,
unshaven, grip knuckling around that brown

bottle of beer as if it were the last he’d ever have:
my wifeless father hitched to his mother-

less child, the two of us digging around for
something with only each other for balance.




  1. Heart pang, indeed.

    • Thank you for the comment. Greatly appreciated.

  2. Damn good poem. It moved me and I’m no fan of moving. Workshops with Bill Knott? It doesn’t get much better than that.

    • Thanks so much for the kind comments, Sir. And you’re dead on about Bill. Have you met the man? He’s the greatest/worst ever.

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