reviewed by Lucy Biederman
Most of the poems in Sommer Browning’s Backup Singers are untitled, and that makes sense—Browning lets ambiguity lie. She doesn’t provide opportunities for morals or conclusions to creep in. For example, you only learn in the final two words of the book that it’s Backup Singers as in, back up, singers, “no, really—get back,” Browning writes, with her characteristic funny and fine ear for the sound of a certain type of casual contemporary American talking.
The book’s first section, which is titled “Rue Daguerre,” has such a different vibe from the other three sections of the book that it almost could have been written by another writer. The poems in this section are economical, each word like a crisp bill: “hesitancy blooms urge,” a clause in the first poem goes. These prose poems are strung together by subtle threads of affinity. “The bookseller keeps good records,” one poems begins before fleeing the scene of its opening; but the next poem begins, “Goodbye fast forward, goodbye alphabetical order.” As if that goodbye is an order, the poems following seem different, more intent on screwing with order than enacting it through precise language.
The section ends with several poems that make a kind of sequence in their heavy use of repetition, I think to convey a sense of numbness in language. In one of these poems, “a librarian plays the rename game. Hazel for Danielle. Charlotte for Sandra.” This makes me think of the arbitrariness of signs, how there’s no inherent reason why the thing table would be called table. Chandelier for Table. Flower for Foot. “The slang heap / the glottal dump // the wordyard / the vowelfill,” Browning writes, ars poetically. A grand, anxious chunk of a poem uses the word “check” as a refrain, so that the checking itself comes to matter more than what’s being checked on—and the baby, the flour, the receipt, and the drawers, are subsumed by their frantically being checked on.
Wait, four cups seems too too too, check the recipe, check the stove. The bowl, is it washed. Check the recipe, check the stove. The bowl, is it washed? Check the recipe, wash the bowl, check the baby. One two three four cups but wait, the sifter. Check the drawers, check the recipe, how much sugar? And the baby, check her. Water? Check, check to see if it needs water.
It’s not even clear whether the “it” in the last sentence refers to the baby or the recipe. Although this poem consists almost solely of directives, its insistent repetition makes it feel like an internal monologue, rather than one person giving orders to another. It’s as if the “I” has been elided from Frank O’Hara’s famous “I do this, I do that” poems: “do that, do that.” And that rush of directives or self-directives makes an “it” of the baby, the self, the Other. It hardly matters if it’s the baby or the recipe that needs water; just “Check on it. Check.”
The book’s second section is called “Friend,” and it’s refreshingly free of any reference at all to that other type of friend, the social media one. Cellphones make a couple appearances, but the world of Backup Singers is a walking-down-the-street-looking-forward one, not one in which people are at their phones all the time. My favorite poem in the book is in this section. It, like some of those poems in the first section, leans on repetition, but it seems completely different than those poems, with their hyperawareness of the “wordyard” of signs. This later poem, meanwhile, is a careful litany of alcoholic drinks at different bars at some time in the past, beginning:
There were the beers at Sophie’s, the whiskeys at Pete’s, the beers at Millie’s, the Bloody Marys at Sidewalk Café (Manhattan), the beers at The Sidewalk Café (Richmond), there were the beers at The Abbey, the beers at Diner, the beers at Main St. Grill, the beers at Redd’s, the whiskeys at Bowery Ballroom…”
and going on for three pages, ending unceremoniously with “the beers / at ODC.” And yet is something ceremonial about the poem, like the slow calling of names at graduation, when you know it’s stupid and you didn’t want to go, but you are suddenly swept up in a wind of institutional, establishmentarian pride. It’s easy to be romantic about other peoples’ lives, and here we hardly get anything: just the drinks and bar names. It seems so fun, though, and so long ago. Browning has such a light, sure touch that the extremely minor syntactical moves she makes, like the repetition of “there were,” or altering the pattern of repetition slightly in the middle of the poem (“the beers at / Black Rabbit, Europa, Sin-e, / Blue Moon, Poe’s, Chugger’s…”), hold great tonal weight.
There are other poems in the section that are formally similar to this poem, and similarly nostalgic. “When you were with Emily I was with Matt”proceeds by repeating that clause, substituting various names for Emily and Matt; “When you were a cook I was a waitress” does the same with job titles. These poems’ ardent repetition gives them a dirge-like feeling that imbues what seems like it might be casual with a sense of heft. The librarian in the first section switches around peoples’ names for fun, but that doesn’t seem like something the speaker of “When you were with Emily I was with Matt” would do; she has real associations with these real proper nouns.
The book’s second half consists of “Multifarious Array,” a long, numbered poem of lyric musings about other peoples’ poems, and “Deep Cuts,” containing a group of fist-tight, highly potent short poems. I didn’t like “Multifarious Array” as much as the rest of the book because the writing doesn’t feel as inventive or energetic as it does elsewhere. It occurred to me that perhaps Browning is using this section to mock poetry reviews (which seem past due for a good mocking), but the poem has so many sincere notes that it was difficult to stay with this hypothesis. Browning chooses to not include the names of the poets she discusses. Giving those poets anonymity could provide her with an opportunity to dish or let off some steam, but she is purely laudatory, and one gets the happy sense of a poet who loves poets.
There are some excellent moments, like this one that turns on the idea of a “bad” poem: “Her poems are bad. They disobey their parents. They don’t sleep when they should.” On the other hand, I liked less the one that goes, “I don’t want her to take this the wrong way, because I don’t know her at all, but I think she should start a cult with her poems.” Browning really does mean this as a compliment—“her followers will glimpse the belly of ordinary life”—but, I wondered each time I read this, how could this poet be offended, if she is unnamed in the poem? How would she know to take it at all? Those social stakes, as stated, are so obviously false.
Or maybe “Multifarious Array” hit me in some special “poetry reviewer” part of me. Anyway, according to W.H. Auden, that god of poetry reviewers, people only read poetry reviews for the excerpts of the poems they quote. So here is another bit from one of Browning’s excellent poems, the oddly moving final three stanzas of “The Monitor” (as in baby monitor), a mean lullaby, broken and gorgeous, like all the best lullabies are.
While the dough chills in the fridge everything is exactly the same in Australia, but Wednesday. A baby cries twice. Once as psalm, once as falling tree. And arts with they sweet graces graced be— Saint Petersburg, Leningrad, limousine. Flash blindness, sleeping gas, polystyrene. I’m here! I didn’t run! see see see see.