A Cup of Coffee and a Conversation
A Review of
Call Me Exile: Poems
Paperback: Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2022
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Reviewed by James Hayes
Call Me Exile by Aaron Brown is a collection which invites the reader to inhabitation. As one turns the pages, one is welcomed into the grief, pain, and growth of the author, the desperate and hopelessly beautiful midwest, and the journey of change and struggle in a life of the Middle East.
The collection is at its best in these moments, when the reader is part of the emotion and imagery of the poem in a setting which feels as familiar as it is aching. The first section is a masterclass of loss and identity; poems which seek to explore the aftermath of a divorce and a subsequent journey of isolation and confusion. The language is engrossing and elegant, and this initial style serves as a preview of the best work yet to come. “Split” is where Brown’s form is near its pinnacle, where lights “bleed through the wet” and one is ripped between a surreal mind and harsh realism.
The middle of the collection has its own strongest and most gripping moments. The exploration of war and life in a variety of Middle Eastern settings is honest and unrelenting. There are no images of glorious patriotism, nor is there self-loathing. There is simply a question which, as mentioned above, demands appropriate engagement and time. Brown seems to explore, of course most clearly in “In a parallel universe” but also elsewhere, what a life could have been, and how its triumphs could have looked. In the same section Brown stands tall, the tallest in the collection, in “Midwest Elegy” and “The Mechanic Gives Advice”. The theme of inhabitation is strongest here, as the woes, charm, and darkness of life in the midwest takes monstrous shape. Brown does not shy away from the idea of the “fly-over” states, but rather his poems immerse the reader in what that truly means. There is nothing that would make you want to sit and stay with Brown in this part of the country, but Brown’s understated melancholy invites you to a run-down diner for a cup of coffee and conversation.
However, in spite of the middle section’s exuberance, there are times when Brown’s experimentation of form begins to detract from his skill in invitation and relation. “Dreaming in Arabic,” “Abecedarian,” and “Reincarnations” are all fine enough poems, but the risks that they take in the name of experiment often detract from the overall strength of the verse. But, again, poems such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph and shorter efforts like “Old Man Watching Dunkirk” are strong enough that these minor stumbles are easily forgiven.
The collection ends with the third section, sometimes stumbling and sometimes soaring. The weakest poems of the book are here, sometimes without clear heft or purpose, but the painted words still lift off of the page and demand recognition. Brown indulges in explanation and metaphor, leaving one with a sense of understanding and awe for the everyday. Brown’s constant reliance on that which is familiar and that which is worth being explored brings the collection to a fitting and satisfactory conclusion laced with hope.
Ultimately, Call Me Exile is unflinching. Brown does not shy away from the pain or grief which he so clearly has experienced. He does not cower when faced with unsatisfactory pasts or terrifying realities. He does not sugarcoat the harsh state of country life with cliche formality or platitude. Brown invites the reader to call themselves that which Brown presents in the poems. The reader is given a chair and led to sit where they perhaps have not been before, and that isn’t always a place that’s desirable to sit. But one is better for having sat there, and the world feels slightly more open and processable for it.
The titular poem says “climb up out of / bullet-shudder, watch the smoke signal / the end of childhood…” Call Me Exile stands up amidst the smoke of love, life, and loss, signals the end of multiple things, but looks toward a future worth dreaming about.
James Hayes is a product of the Rust Belt. He reads voraciously, writes painfully, and makes a habit of seeking degrees which promise no remuneration.
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