The Thicket of Context: Brian Teare's Companion Grasses
Brian Teare Companion Grasses Omnidawn, 2013 Paperback, $17.95 112 pages
Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses is a book that immediately immerses the reader in the thicket of context surrounding it: webs of language and history both inescapable and formative, each erotic and painful in its own measure. The book pulses hardest on the moments when these webs fuse—when grammar is touch, or the pleasure of naming allows experience to derail time. Here, the press of life against life is present in all its forms, from “a list of possible swallows” to the impossibility of defining a true “subject” in the motion of the city.
As in Teare’s previous books, Pleasure (Ahsahta 2010), Sight Map (U. of California 2009), and The Room Where I Was Born (U. of Wisconsin 2003), Companion Grasses is driven not only by the intersection of systems, but by a particular attention to a fragmenting and swiftly-changing arrangement of language. Teare’s deft metaphor for this use of grammar in “Little Errand” is the quiver: ever-present and skillfully employed at precisely the right moment to bridge the impossible physicality of a moment. At once, this experience is both unbearable and fleeting; each line’s touch is both precise and imbued with gravity as Teare arranges his artfully-placed words alongside a gallery of quotes. Taxonomies, jokes, and poetic theory are sometimes given citation, but also simply part of the shifting landscape. As Teare writes, “context is terrible weight.” Yet in the midst of the ruin, he draws us back again and again to what is left: beauty, stems, desire, sight, the fragile structures that survive through flexibility and mutation. In “Atlas Peak,” he writes:
when space shrinks, time expands : ten minutes vanish
into one flower, less than one square inch of earth.
These moments of rhapsodic meditation exist in conversation and collaboration with the voices of many others. For instance, Christophe Girot’s direction to “attempt to imagine a new form of thinking that can integrate the traveling continuum of time and space” is followed by an account of a hike that approximates an answer to that query. At the book’s center are struggles with faith, tradition, death, and fatherhood in all its forms.
“Atlas Peak,” an elegy in movements for Teare’s father, describes its mission as “transcriptive”—the influence of Whitman apparent in the speaker’s notation of grasses and gates, the mind’s inability to maintain all of its stores challenged by the pleasure of cataloguing, the requirement of the acts of sight and description to both forget tradition and collage it in patchwork with the new. Present, too, is Dickinson—of course, in the play of grammar, but also in the urgent attempts to personify the systems being grappled with:
doubt entered the field
In his notes, Teare quotes Jed Rasula in presenting the “ecology of the mind” behind these poems; the notes themselves are a wealth of information about the incredible breadth of source material influencing this work, even in the “composted states” that Teare writes entered the final versions. It is truly a privilege to see, beyond what one recognizes in the poems, the density of intellectual history supporting them: field guides, philosophy, letters, journals, biography; writers as varied as Robert Duncan, Susan Howe, Basho, Woolf, and Niedecker. These poems engage with the legacies of transcendentalism, the construction of the elegy, and even musical notation, while challenging and defining the boundaries of these influences. “Transcendental Grammar Crown,” originally published as a chapbook, reminds us of the necessary limitations of memory by context:
of a sudden in yellow --we lie on our backs a view framed by grass
In each of the arenas Teare enters, physical or abstract, we are never quite rid of the reminders of eventual ruin; rather, this is a book that profits from its insistence on observing the collapse in all its complication, and identifying the fluctuations in efforts to systematize the inherently mysterious:
your whole life a pattern of spectacular aptitude for disappointment your intelligence a broken wing a bird feigns to distract the hunt from kill
Kate Partridge's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, Rhino, Bloom, Verse Daily, and Better. A graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University, she lives in Anchorage, Alaska.