The Korea Herald


‘Year of What Now’ is really a ‘what if?’

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 5, 2013 - 20:05

    • Link copied

The Year of What Now
By Brian Russell 

On the surface, Brian Russell’s first book of poems, “The Year of What Now,” seems nothing if not traditional.

Winner of this year’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, it reads as a confessional, a sequence of reflections by a man whose wife is undergoing treatment for cancer.

But if part of Russell’s purpose is to explore the dynamics of a relationship stretched by crisis, there is something else at work here also ― an exploration of genre and its (dis)contents.

Russell’s own wife, after all, has not been sick, making “The Year of What Now” an extended game of literary what if, a projection into both an alternate present and the inevitable future in which “we are each our own culture / alive with the virus that’s waiting / to unmake us.”

Let’s be honest: This is a gutsy move, and I’m not sure what I think of it. Partly that’s because, as someone who both reads and writes poems, I’ve been conditioned to think of them as snapshots, little memory slices, images taken, for the most part, whole from life.

“In contemporary poetry,” Russell explains in a recent interview with his editor, “most of the time when you’re reading about an ‘I’ who’s watching a bird build a nest in a backyard, you can probably bet that the poet watched a bird build a nest in their backyard and wrote a poem about it.”

He goes on: “There is nothing wrong with writing autobiographical poetry. But it must be interesting. A true story is only useful insofar as the reader is going to care about it. I’m unwilling to accept the autobiographical “I’ as the only option for poetry.” “The Year of What Now” takes that as a fundamental challenge, to draw us in as if into a work of fiction, to blur the line between verse and narrative. The writing is nuanced, full of feeling ... but still, there are moments, especially early on, when the pressure of the conceit can feel too much. In “Preface,” for instance, Russell describes the difficulty of discussing with his wife “the last thing I’ll see you in,” the dress she’d want to wear at her funeral.

Here, the pressure of the creation, the tension between the confessional voice and our knowledge that what it is describing didn’t really happen, is too much, and the poem collapses under its own narrative weight.

Do we read, he is asking, to be reassured, or to be drawn into an unknown territory, where we are what we imagine? “The Year of What Now” leaves it up to us.

“believe me I try,” Russell writes, “but I can’t understand it / to know that someone does will have to be enough.” (MCT)