The Air in the Air Behind It

Poems by Brandon Rushton

Tupelo Press, 2022;
ISBN: 978-1-946482-75-4

Deep Breathing

In his Berkshire Prize-winning book, poet
Brandon Rushton braves the stinging
atmosphere of modern life.

The world today is complex to the point of agony. We walk daily through a miasma of bureaucracy, media, senseless violence, broken infrastructure and broken hearts, in the ever-present odor of environmental degradation and climate change. Yet we press on, business as usual, our psychological defense mechanisms fully engaged. It is no small feat to take this all in, let alone metabolize it into poetry, as Brandon Rushton has done in The Air in the Air Behind It.

Rushton’s book captures the way modern life feels, and to its credit, never becomes an argument against that life. Rushton’s unflinching images depict our present-day assaults and dread of the future. He catalogs like a scientist, and many of his poems invoke science and technology. Under the din or modernity’s machine, Rushton hears the small voices of human beings, overwhelmed by it all and struggling, like the flesh-and-blood animals we are, to build a nest in
the chaos.

A case in point is Rushton’s poem, “All Night After Erasing the Equations.” The poem begins as a taxonomy of science and its companions, the academic and governmental bureaucracies, which spend their time explaining away the “bad experiment.” arranging fruitless investigations in which “Like most senators, those conducting/the follow-up hearings failed miserably/at throwing fits.” Along the way, Rushton drops hints that regular folks outside the bubble of elite babble might have different priorities. They might just be suffering, hoping, and loving in timeless human ways, while defending their psyches from the complexities of “public life” (43-44):

They just wanted to know if happiness
was there; that the shopping carts
still have a place for the kids; that the good
animals weren’t used for glue; that if the timing
was right, they could still take the heart
out of one person and put it in another.

Rushton’s unique ability to find a pulse within mechanistic modernity is on display in poem after poem. He can conjure the mechanical without awkwardness. He can conjure life without sentimentality. The results are poems that are frank and cleansing. The poems never beat the drum of politics, or worse, the pipe the squeaky flute of corrections we all know are futile.  These are poems demand recognition that our fate, like any true tragedy, can only be accepted: We tore apart our world, but cannot mend it. “The Isthmus” makes that plain when it comes to the environmental devastation our future holds (89-90):

…Radiant and splitting apart
like polar ice, the days pull toward us then melt
away. That old ultimate overabundance of hunger. A sudden
spontaneity of flood. The water already reaching
the roof above the porch the people paddled from.

Every poem in this collection lugs the mess we have made of society, family, health, and nature. There are moments, line by line, where humor lighten the load a bit, but diverting and sunny poem pops in to relieve the burden. This commitment to the truth of our predicament would make for hard reading, were not Rushton so skilled at two techniques: syntax in counterpoint to the line; and structural rigor.

Rushton’s syntax across the line keeps the reader moving, ever onward, through the poems, even when the material is a tough go. In “The Far Away Farm,” only 2 lines in 26 stanzas are end-stopped with a period or comma—and one of this is the last line. The poem’s syntax rushes headlong, as the images drop across the lines like falling water—fitting for a poem about what we lose with time, the things, places, and secrets between people that time’s “pace and patterns” must “decay.”

Rushton also helps the reader by the regular visual structure of his poems. If a poem starts with 3 line stanzas of alternating indents, or a collection of prose poems, or 12-line blocks,  it stays that way. This steadiness of form is a comfort, a friendly arm about the shoulder, making it easier to confront the bleak subject matter of these poems.

If The Air in the Air Behind It has a flaw, it is that a few of the poems are seem overlong. There is the occasional sense that Rushton has more to say than can fit in the confines of one poem, or that concision has been sacrificed to squeeze in more images. Rushton and his readers can only benefit if he decides to craft more compact poems, because it will leave him material for yet more poems. This is outcome both desirable and necessary, from a poet with the courage to breathe deeply as the world smolders.

— Dana Delibovi