Slam poet J. Bradley’s collection has the in-your-face pace and bullying egotism of the slam circuit. Blunt personifications and schoolyard similes abound. “Disappointment kneels,” for instance, likely to honor lines like “Your face looks like / a swine flu outbreak / in a small town.”
The poems here read like performance pieces, and, thus, one will need to read a little spittle and swagger into them, and discard the repeated reference to thesauruses, and maybe put the book down from time to time to take a breath and rally up enough sympathy to witness another amateur bare knuckle verbal beat-down. Consider a poem like “Upon Seeing Your Profile on MySpace…” which taunts “Your idea of a diet / is holding a digital camera / at a 45º angle.”
But if you take a deep enough breath between bouts, you might realize just how bare the knuckles are in this fight. As insults go, most folks prefer witty ones, for sure, but when you get to a poem like “On the Day of Our Wedding” and read “You looked like / the kind of princess / who needed poisoning” you just might catch a whiff of the real poison in play.
Bradley is more bruised than a bruiser, and in his poems he needs to own up to this fact and put his deep purples on display. It’s hard to care about the keyboards that “call 911” and “show bruised Delete keys / to the responding officer,” but it would be easy to care about the man pounding out poems on said boards–especially if he deletes a bit from his next collection.
Describing a hangover as a construction site is a nice warm-up exercise, but keep it private. Likewise, as to the question of how to “woo / a pterodactyl to bed,” well, pyrotechnics of words might work, or just a shot of homebrewed honesty. Dodging Traffic gathers together scraps of scuffles–one-two aphorisms (“What Makes a Man,” you ask? Bradley serves it to you raw, on a bumper sticker) and some too-obvious feigns (How is someone sleeping like Dresden during the firebombing? That seems a less relevant question than the one about seducing a gliding dinosaur). In his final piece, “The Poetry of J. Bradley, Abridged,” the narrator declares:
I will make a mask for sadness
out of the liner notes of my
The Cure collection so I can
skull fuck hope into its ocular nerve.
This is the voice from the gym, shadowboxing for the next slam, the same sort of character who “laughed all through Roots” and wants to write poems with the same sardonic reach. The guard up here is what’s throwing the fight the wrong way; Bradley needs to swing less, lean back, rope-a-dope, and bleed!
After a poem like “On the Day of Your Mastectomy,” which feels like a cop-out (“Enough asked / for a moment, silence”), it’s hard to expect more than bile and Bazooka Joe lyrics in something like “June MacGuff to Bristol Palin.” But here we have–maybe through the channeling of a different fictional voice, the film character instead of the man-at-the-microphone–something downright poignant, and laced with the very “hope” whose eyesight gets threatened a few dozen pages later.
Hidden among the hard jabs are some real flashes of sincerity, where the speaker isn’t ranting over an audience but speaking directly at some real “you,” talking about wedding vows or raising a son or even, in the improbable–but funny, sweet, self-deprecating and deep–“Doing It Norse Style,” wooing women. The take-away here (and the promise of Bradley’s poetry and this rough collection) is that hands must be trained to do something other than fight:
Until they wield bouquets
skillfully, you cannot spend
another Monday morning
counting coins of broken glass
cached beneath your skin.
That’s the wisdom of the bruised. No fine lace-work there, but it’s not without its beauty, its truth.