Brandon Rushton’s debut poetry book, The Air in the Air Behind It, begins with an epigraph from Anne Carson’s The Sea Around Us. “And wherever two currents meet, especially if they differ sharply in temperature or salinity, there are zones of great turbulence and unrest.” This seems to foreshadow the disorder and unease that the collection explores in beautifully expressive and musical language.
As a reader I wondered what the two currents were and how that turbulence and unrest would find expression. The answers to this are found in the opening prose poem “The Milankovitch Cycles”: the break-down of society and the disintegration of the earth, and our resistance to look at what is not right in either.
As explained in the notes at the end of the book, “The Milankovitch Cycles” reference “the eccentric orbital patterns of planet earth and the effects those cycles have on the climate.” The poem weaves scientific facts and close observations from daily life. It asserts that we are in denial of what is happening to the earth and within our society. We can’t accept it or face it:
...When the people can’t make sense
They manufacture myth. They talk about the future like the unfolding
events won’t take them there.
The speaker directs the reader’s eyes toward the violence we manifest toward each other and the earth: “Extinction is a byproduct of evolution,” the evidence being our turning spears into finer and finer weapons of war to maim and kill each other. “War is...a mimicry/of the geological processes of the planet it is fought upon.” It is this unblinking way of seeing that leads the reader through the collection, because “Violence//finds a way.”
Form and diction play a significant role in this book. The poems sing in the mouth through the liberal use of alliteration and striking images: “A meteor cuts through the low cloud-cover and all/the stampeding herds abruptly stop and stand bewildered. Parents call/the kids from their kitchens, but the kids are on their backs in the black night, on the black grass, with the light of the already-over leading near.” Whether describing something ordinary or bleak, the language captures the imagination of the reader and carries us forward: “...the kids kickstand their bikes beside both/cars the parents bought in an effort to permanent their love the landscape painters/vow to capture the look of the lock the ships/slip through...”
In some cases, the poems shift the direction of the eye with every complete sentence, whether written in indented tercets or in block stanzas. That mobility keeps the reader off-kilter, thus experiencing the very point of the poems. The variations to the poetic form also keep the reader engaged. Line breaks are masterfully done and call attention to the relationships between words, and to the images they create. Long run-on stanzas without punctuation, create a sense of rushing toward oblivion, yet force the reader to slow down to gain understanding.
In the first section of the book, the poem, “What If There’s Something Out There,” reminds me of the dystopian life on Madeline L’Engle’s imaginary planet of Camazotz with ITS robotic control over the people (A Wrinkle in Time). Rushton writes: “Like clockwork everybody calls for their kids/to bring the kites in....Lately, everyone I look at looks a lot alike.” He invites the reader into his confidence as he claims, “I don’t know/anything anymore about endearment. Not a/lick about how any of this is meant to end.” But that is will end is clear. And in those moments, “Maybe then the type/of mattress finally won’t matter.”
It is our indifference, lack of connection with each other, our inability to know ourselves, and the lack of connection to the earth that is brought to light in “The New Century Springboard.” In this poem, the poet uses one of several characters in the collection to make statements that would otherwise be seen as commentary or opinion. The “rheumatologist” observes that “reflection is a lesson the clock/can’t teach us.” The speaker implies that aging is no guarantee that we will become reflective. Even more, that we are not always capable of learning the important lesson of self-knowledge, of seeing the truth not only about ourselves, but the world in which we are living. “How unlikely//it is anymore to lead by example, or/in that fashion/learn.” Just one example of our detachment from the destruction we wreak upon the earth is in these lines:
is what the rich people call
the wreckage left in the wake
of all the rockets. They watch for a bit and then feel bad about
the broadcast up until it’s time for bed.
“All Night After Erasing the Equations” appears to reference a disastrous rocket launch. Here the poet creates characters that fills the poem with people given status within society: the scientists, the pilots, the reporters, the senators, the committee, the politicians. Yet while all these characters are responsible for the society’s response to the disaster, the speaker states: “The people lost interest/in public life and how things were.” All “the people” care about is what is right in front of them: do they have access to food, are people mostly kind to animals and can one replace a heart that’s broken. That sentiment by itself doesn’t feel particularly judgmental. Yet it is, in fact, this lack of interest in the larger concerns of society, by both the characters who remain focused solely on their interests, as well as the people in general, that dooms us to disintegration as a society.
Near the end of the book, the poet takes the reader to the end times in “Ergonomics of the Later Land,” where: “Everyone in the late age/starts considering longevity.” But he suggests it is a different question that should be considered: “The boiling question/is why things begin to break/apart in the first place.” The poet then turns our attention to all the ordinary moments in life: to the contractor who builds, the policy-makers, the climber seeking to reach the summit first, all the good moms, the cashier wanting the bagger to move more quickly. Only after taking the reader through a series of these daily scenes, does he again revisit the fact of everything disintegrating: “...We should have known/a population on a planet/known for wobbling will wobble//too.” And we truly have “no idea the ways we will hurt” when “everything stops.”
Rushton explores, finally, the ending of the world in his closing poem, “The Isthmus.” How will we experience this “...long crossing clouding over./An uncountable amount of wild.” He is clear the destruction of society, of the earth, of our bodies and relationships is inevitable. “All the things we vowed to change, changed/without us....The weather is exactly what we thought/it’d be: oblivious.”
In this business
of missing there is no happy medium.
...Whatever is on the other side
of that expanding sphere
that contains us has split, has grown long
and in its growing is long gone. It has unzipped the back
of itself and slipped out. When they take inventory
everything is there, but the invisible.
In the last section of this five-part poem we turn to the possibilities that still exist. Although we can’t stop the destruction of the earth and all that inhabits it, we can allow: “The children/who insist on springing through whatever light/is left.” We can still, perhaps with more self-awareness, pay close attention to each other, to ourselves, to the land. It doesn’t presume that all will be well. But there is some possibility that expressions of joy and humanity can still be made in the time that is left.
...How they all stopped and greeted each other
in the street. How the future opened up, drawn out
and long. How the people then were people.
Then nothing. Nothing then, but fog.
This collection unsettles the reader. Its musical language and close attention to daily life is used with finesse to successfully bring the disequilibrium of our world into full view. One cannot look away.
Margaret Anne Kean received her BA in British/American Literature from Scripps College and her MFA from Antioch University/Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in poems.for.all.com, Eunoia Review, Drizzle Review and EcoTheo Review. She is collaborating with a Portland, Oregon composer to set a tanka series. Kean lives in Pasadena, California and works at USC Gould School of Law.