Kurt Brown is a poet’s poet, the kind who is immersed in the life of the writer, knowing his forebears, adept in the classics, in tune with the times, rubbing emails and blogs and pen and elbow with contemporary colleagues in the literary arts, married, even to a fellow poet, Laure-Anne Bosselaar. They both teach in MFA programs, and indeed, Brown is, in some ways, the father of the what many of us think of when we think “writer’s conference,” as he was the founder of the famed Aspen Writers’ Conference and the association of writers conference directors, the Writers’ Conferences and Centers group. Brown has edited numerous anthologies, most notably one on the poet Bill Matthews, Blues for Bill, one on poetry and cars, Drive, They Said: Poems About Americans and Their Cars, and one of essays on poetry and science, The Measured Word. Brown has a keen intelligence, is a connoisseur of poetry, his interests are rangy, and he respects many aesthetics, even those not embraced in his own poems.
Of his own poetry, Brown is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and the forthcoming, No Other Paradise, due out in 2010 from Red Hen Press. He and his wife, Laure-Anne Bosselaar translated a the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck and published a book together, The Plural of Happiness, in the Field Translation Series.
Which is why Brown’s littlest book, the charming and disarming, Sincerest Flatteries: A Little Book of Imitations might be easy to miss, or, even, to dismiss. On first blush, a book of what might sound like either parody or undergraduate creative writing assignments, to mimic noted poets, might seem un-serious. These poems are anything but un-serious; though they are bright, musical, engaging, and great fun, they are exquisitely rendered as only a person of great skill and authority could possibly pull off.
It is possible to read some of Brown’s poems—written with the authorial control, orchestration, gestures, quirks, intelligence, temperament, musicality, and tone of such noted and admired poets as Charles Simic, Stephen Dunn, Tony Hoagland, Kim Addonizio, Russell Edson, Sharon Olds, Jerry Stern, and more (there are 24 “flatteries” here)—and believe that these poems could have been theirs, to believe, in some cases, that the poems are the quintessence of the poets Brown pays homage to.
Make no mistake, these are homage, the kind when an intelligent colleague has bent his will upon the serious work of another, not to conquer, not even, perhaps to understand it, but to be inside it, to be, a little, in love with it. These poems do not parody; they do not satirize. They are intimate, as if someone has worn the clothes of another and while wearing them, inhabited a bit of your life. This might seem disconcerting if it weren’t for the fact of Brown’s great skill and range as a poet. The rigorously trained classical dancer can bring a kind of elegance to other dance forms; the Olympic skater can make ice dancing look effortless, even funny.
If you have read Tony Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means to Me, you will over hear the voices in Brown’s “Of Tony Hoagland” as characters you have met before. The domestic fact of the TV being on and being located in “Kathy’s living room,” will make you right at home in this poem, as you will be in “Frank’s Place, lined up at the bar” in the poem “Of Kim Addonizio,” and when the speaker says, “honey, we’re all on our last legs,” you’ll hear Brown and Addonizio with their arms around each other’s shoulders agreeing with that fact.
If you, like Brown, are a connoisseur of contemporary poetry, and have spent some nights with the vertiginous and hyper-aware poetry of Stephen Dunn, you will nod with the lines, “not/the self-knowledge of a mirror/and the mirror’s indifference,//but the self-knowledge of others’/indifference, which was always/greater and, somehow, more true,” and the cadence and the switchbacks and reprisals will make smile with then kind of appreciation the wine expert might have when he tastes a flavor down at the bottom of the tongue and knows it suddenly and well. Ah yes, that’s it. And when the voice of Brown’s Russell Edson exclaims, “my father was a lump of plastic…so shut up and have our baby” you will know in your bones something about the plasticity of language you didn’t know before because Brown has molded ways you thought only, only Edson might do.
Yes, that’s the problem isn’t it? But isn’t it also wonderful to see the impostor pull off the great forgery? Except Brown isn’t doing that. He’s immersing himself, not just in craft, but in soul.
In the end, Sincerest Flatteries is a book of love poems. Much like we “parody” family: Uncle George always dances like this (insert funny dance move here) at the family parties; Aunt Judy always gesticulates thus (you get it) when she tells an old family anecdote; Cousin Ginny always wears yellow, vintage dresses (canary, tulip, daisy, maybe ivory): Brown has been part of the family of poets, and knows them, and loves them, and can do them. Uncle Jerry Stern; Aunt Jean Valentine; crazy Cousin James “What a crazy stunt!” Tate.
Brown is exposing the family tricks, the humor, his affections and affinities. Read this Little Book of Imitations. Enjoy them. Then go read Brown’s poems.