Acacia Road: Poems
Silverfish Review Press, 2018
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Reviewed by Ben Rawlins
Aaron Brown’s Acacia Road flows from a remembered intimacy with a particular place foreign to most of us. In the opening poem, “N’Djamena Morning,” the speaker strolls through the African city as a popular song crackles on the radio, and a lizard scurries across a wall. N’Djamena is the capitol of Chad, a land-locked country in north-central Africa and Brown’s home through childhood and adolescence until violence forced his family to leave. Even as these poems provide continued connection to past meaningful experience, they also acknowledge the palpable sense of loss inherent to translating memory into poetry.
In the first of the volume’s three sections, Brown attends to the everyday patterns and images of life in Chad. Often, he includes vivid descriptive moments that incarnates this faraway place. In “Batha River,” Brown shows the “dry riverbed” that “slithers like the trail // of a prehistoric snake, its scales leaving the ruts and cracks along the bank, / dried and caked, sandstoned by sun and drought” (17). As this image shows, Brown excels at creating vivid and haunting descriptions while never veering into cliché. He has a patient, affectionate poetic voice that stays with an image until unfolds. I loved this simple yet evocative moment when Brown recalls cows returning to town at the end of “Teacher”:
—we heard them call out
their arrival, the gentle rumble of their hooves on sand,
the close coming of each one down the street and into the houses
of neighbors, to the same corner of yard where they spend
every night, where a bowl of hay waits by the tetherpole,
for slow chewing through hours. (20).
This kind of descriptive impulse affects the reader because it slows the pace of the poem and positions us in a specific moment. It also temporarily suspends our awareness that the poetic account of a place is necessarily mediated through memory.
If Acacia Road features poetry of place, it is also a collection that celebrates and mourns the lives of its inhabitants. Brown’s “Teacher” educates us on what it means to share small, intimate moments with a mentor: “my brother and I took in your mind, / there in the diminishing afternoon, you so tired you could only // drink juice and crack jokes that danced around the intricacies / of Arabic” (20). I particularly like Brown’s friend who appears in “Motorcycle at Maghrib.” After motoring through town, he becomes the “life of the party” who orders “the top three things on the menu: an omelette, / steaming nashif, and bread barely stale at the end of the day” (19). In these portraits, Brown honors the dignity of lives well-lived in the midst of a difficult landscape and burgeoning violence.
While Part I offers memories from before civil war, Part II reveals the displacement Brown feels as he and his family are forced out of the country. After his family left Chad, Brown spent time in Gabon and then France before attending college in the U.S. Chad might not have been Brown’s birthplace, but the poems in Part II show how it remained his home. “Coming of Age” depicts a speaker who happens upon the disorienting energy of protest in Paris. The speaker does not know “what they protested against, only that they stood in my way // from an afternoon walk when I wanted to see something / more than marching feet, upended trash cans” (43). Compared to the affectionate perspective of “N’Djamena Morning,” this poem shows that home lies a continent away.
The poems of Part II carry a profound feeling of loss, which culminates in the final poem of the section, “The Calling.” In this three-part poem, the speaker returns to a vastly changed landscape with a torn-down temple and “old rusted pipes bursting like shredded paper” (54). The speaker meets a friend, “Madri coming from the mist,” who requests:
When the last child died of thirst, when the old woman
goes past the furthest house and disappears in the desert,
when the last bull has withered to its ribs, breathed its final
breath, and the mourners still gather ten years later,
still say my name and sip the same tea on the same rug
in the same yard, when the water never comes again
to the dry riverbed, and it has been dammed upstream,
when all the herdsmen have waited hours
for its drops—who will write about his place? (56).
Brown turns this question into an assertion of poetic vocation: “I said I will I said I have to and then I walked past” (56). “The Calling” encapsulates the thematic concerns of this collection by first revealing the shock and pain of displacement, and second, by expressing the desire to re-member lost places and people.
If Parts I and II are characterized by remembrance of home, Part III initiates the search to establish a new one. The poems in this section capture the sense of isolation that comes with a wandering existence. In “Continental Drift,” the speaker expresses the desire to stay in touch with a friend from the past but recognizes the impossibility of intimacy over long distance. The speaker is “readying and not readying, / searching and not searching for you dear brother” (70). He wants to call this “dear brother” to “speak in pixelated voices / a conversation we’ve been meaning to have, but haven’t been—for whatever reason, the line’s disconnected long ago” (70). Here is Brown cut adrift.
The last section also includes the stirring, five-part poem “Ceremonial,” where names keep appearing to the poet-speaker as he recalls the past. These people inhabit his recollection, yet memory can only do so much: “To move in progress is to regress into the present of past / to find myself // echoed in memory, rather than returned to who I once was” (78). Paradoxically, memory strains toward a coherent sense of self through a remembrance of past experiences. This poem—and the collection as a whole—understands that to remember means to gain and lose at once. While memory maintains a connection to the past, it also makes apparent the impossibility of returning to it.
But Brown shows in Acacia Road how this disquieting experience of memory can be transformed into art. In the spirit of Milosz, Brown’s poetry becomes a “second space,” a “Memory Palace” (the tile of one of Brown’s poems) that offers some consolation in what is often a sorrowful search for belonging. While loss permeates the volume, Brown affirms poetry’s potential to transform memory into a place of solace.