Posted by: cousinbrandon | February 10, 2012

Versus: The Poetry of Cousin Brandon

Today’s a special edition of Versus. Ever since I started this section of my blog, I’ve referenced the name of poet (and hero/mentor/friend) Bruce Weigl time and time again. Whether it was here, here, here, here or here, his name has surfaced here like no other, and with good reason. See, Bruce did entirely more than influence me as a writer; he influenced me as a person through my writing. What I mean by that is that he taught me the most basic tenets of my own writing. Because of Bruce, I understand what it means to lie to tell a bigger truth. I know how to write what I mean. And I know that, even though I’m convinced I’ve not yet found it, there’s nothing worse than a writer without a subject. Bruce was lucky that way, in that the war in Vietnam blessed him/cursed him with his subject. Those other principles, though, he learned from writers and from writing. I, too, have learned them from writing, but more importantly I’ve learned them from him. Like it or not, and despite the fact we’ve never met in person, he’s been teaching me for the past 18 years.

Well, for the first time since first hearing an audio recording of him reading his wonderful (and perhaps most famous) poem, “Song of Napalm,” in Jan Beatty’s Intro to Creative Writing class at Carnegie Mellon in the Fall of 1993, I’m going to meet my hero. This Friday night at 8, Bruce is reading at Chatham College in Pittsburgh. And, yes, I’ll be there. And, yes, I’ve told him I’ll be there.

I won’t lie: there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to meet him. Despite all the back-and-forth emails over the the past 10 years and the sense that we have, in fact, already met, it’s downright terrifying. They tell you not to meet your idols for a reason. I’ve been down this path before, mostly with musicians. I’ve met more than one who’ve turned out to be enormous assholes. In fairness, though, I’ve met even more who have been nothing but kind and appreciative and humble. I should expect nothing less from Bruce, and I’ll be shocked if he’s anything but sweet and genuine. With that, I’m not going to post one of Bruce’s poems, but instead link to a reading he gave in October at Arizona State University. It’s a very fast 30 minutes, so I urge you to check it out if you have the time.

Today’s poem, “Driving Home,” is one I wrote about two months ago, and is, well, raw. It touches on common themes in my work — childhood, father/son relationships, booze, fear, guilt. It’s all there. It usually is, for some reason or another. I still haven’t figured out how to write about family lovingly, or how to be nostalgic without being simultaneously jaded and even angry. I don’t know if it’s something I can let go of. I don’t know if it’s something I want to let go of. The anger, I mean. Maybe anger is that thing — that subject — I found and never knew it. In which case, and if I believed in him, God help me.

What’s more, thank you, Bruce, for both your brave poems and your guidance.

Driving Home

My father managed to pull
our Chrysler wagon off the road
and onto the shoulder,
far enough from the buzz
of traffic screaming past,
yet still so close as to feel
the vibration and kick
of every engine
as they left us for dust.
I didn’t want to lie
and so instead said nothing,
thrusting my balled-up fists
deep into my pockets,
storing them away like my last
twenty bucks – twin tens
buried below the floorboards
of my embarrassment.

I stared mostly at my feet.
I wiggled the right one around,
fiddling with a stone
that had no business
so far north
in the Pennsylvania winter.
I came down on it like a pickaxe
with the heel of my boot,
then flattened my foot
and pressed down hard
upon it, rolled my shoe
backward over the pebble
until I’d lifted my foot
like a goalkeeper
up off the ground
and punted the stone
far into the skeletons of scrub
lining the highway.

My father, his head tucked
deep beneath the hood
of that run-down heap,
cursed wildly. He brought down
everything that afternoon:
the mailman, the crooked cops,
the butcher whose fat thumb
fucked over the weight,
the dog who’d gone missing,
the wife who’d gone missing,
the asshole at the factory
who couldn’t bust through sheet
if his dick depended on it, the God
of Old Milwaukee and scotch,
God of Country, God of War,
God of Fan Belts, Spark Plugs and Oil.
He ripped the world
and its circle of moving parts
to ash, blaming none of it,
at last, on me.

But in that grey, irresistible
afternoon of winter,
my back turned on my father
as I disappeared
into the tree line, I knew
that I’d poisoned the tank
with bad gas and,
afraid to feel the bones
of his knuckles crash
against my quivering jaw
like they had so many times
for less, I clammed up.
I knew too goddamn well
his anger belonged, for once,
to me, and I wouldn’t –
no matter how long we stood there,
no matter what darkness
may have poured out over us
from the January night
or what cold may have
burrowed its way inside my slim,
unmuscled body – draw the map
and guide my father’s rage home.



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