June 3, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingWriting

Thea Brown’s “Principia” (Poetry in Public: Part IV)

Earlier this year, I spent some time thinking about the interplay between hearing poets read aloud (the experience of voice and embodied presence as event) and encountering their work on the page (an intimate personal relationship deepened in one’s own time). I wrote about my own reading encounters with Randall Mann and Andrew Joron through the St. Louis Poetry Center’s Observable Reading Series and my experience of repetition on and off the page in Ishion Hutchinson’s “The Wanderer” (read at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Poetry & Conversation Series in Baltimore) and in Deborah Bernhardt’s “After Stuff Smith and/or Steve Reich” (read at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900). I didn’t necessarily have a fourth installment of this particular meditation in mind, but when I clicked into Conjunction‘s “new to the weekly online magazine” post featuring four poems by Thea Brown, I wanted to write about that interplay between event-in-voice and poem-on-page all over again.

As a friend and neighbor of Brown (we both live in Baltimore and both formerly lived in Iowa City), I have had the great pleasure of hearing her read her poems on numerous occasions. Her deadpan reading style is unsettling and moving and occasionally hilarious all at once, a kind of anti-performance performance. While I have heard her read a number of poems more than once, my favorite to hear aloud—”lift my lighter up and yell wooooo if it were a rock show and not a poetry reading” piece of Brown’s—is her poem “Principia.”

Here, encountering “Principia” out in the world in print (and soon to be published in her second book, Famous Times, forthcoming from H_NGM_N in 2018), I (and other readers) can now linger over its form and specificities of tone and observation. As with the construction of her performance style, the construction of her literary style is deliciously subtle. What feels “spoken” is carefully designed to hit the ear pitch-perfect as such; what feels like an associative stream-of-consciousness is also orchestrated in its juxtaposition and overall arc for maximum impact.

I can’t remember if Brown reads the title before beginning the poem (she probably does), but in my memory of her reading of the poem, the first line startles and delights the audience with the disarmingly guileless candor of its persona, delivered in all its perfect syntactic awkwardness by Brown as a kind of offhand overture: “Where’s a lonely censorist to learn some new friends?”

I won’t ruin the poem itself by trying to paraphrase its trajectory, but it’s a poem that captures a particular detached longing for attachment and an exploration of “value” expressed in a way that embodies its contemporary moment and contemporary context without feeling contrived or heavy-handed. It is not ironic in its sincerity, but it is both ironic and sincere simultaneously. Can I call it sincere irony, true irony—a detachment and distance that paradoxically allows the reader to feel deep kinship with the voice and mind behind these poems?

While tone and voice are great strengths of Brown’s that sustain themselves both on and off the page, I am grateful to now have the opportunity to spend time with the subtle elements of craft (in particular, the interplay with the poem’s title and the paring down of prose blocks to a single sentence by poem’s end) on the page.

Read “Principia” and three other prose poems from Famous Times here. Check out Brown’s first full-length collection, Think of the Danger. And go hear her read (more than once) if you have the opportunity.