Polyverse by Lee Ann Brown
(Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1999)
The title Polyverse (Sun & Moon Press, 1999) is itself a direct clue to Lee Ann Brown’s schema: Poly, the prefix from the Greek, is a modifier to Verse here, indicating many kinds of verse. There are highly structured poems “in the style of…” and a great diversity of freeform pieces. The work comes from many sources, to honor historical writers she loves as well as to work with as many of her contemporaries as she can fit. The question might be posed: is the meaning of Poly ‘”Play” in drag? Her sense of play is manifest throughout the book, and her taste is broad, knowing nearly no boundary.
She starts her book of poems with a quote from Sappho -- “People do gossip” -- on a page heralding the first of three major sections, the first deceptively called “Her Hearsay Hymnbook” as if in homage to poets of yore. Smaller sections heads are for select groups of poems -- called Comfit, Witch Alphabet Occasionally Named, a museme, Co-labs (collaborative efforts which are fully diverse). The second major section called “Velocity City” -- brings modernity to Lee Ann Brown, where she talks of Transistors, then in “A little Resistance” come Cultivate, then Daybook.
Brown is imaged as a medieval roving poet from certain poetic styles, and as the apron-clad lady from Victorian years from others. She later propels herself into all types of modern form and experimental image. The writer launches us into an untitled highly stylized poem that is a choreographed echo of Emily Dickinson --
Come go with me out to the Field –
To look upon the Rose
Whose glow – remembers once the Sun
Gave Garments for her Clothes…”
Next is a nonsense piece in a similarly old-fashioned structure, complete with key-placed capital letters, in which we see the beginning of at least one game and the beginning of Brown’s focus: poetry driven by words, sounds and lots of jokes. The titles and bodies of many of Brown’s poems are a dead giveaway of homage paid to both writers of days past and her contemporaries -- in alphabet, words and sounds. In the final couplet, “This comes of whose period Can make the sentences soon” (pg. 19), of “The of a The” she is joyfully consumed in telling us about sentence structure without taking a pedantic stance.
Brown makes it clear that she loves language throughout Polyverse -- she loves language in any form in any way she can get it -- she’s addicted, and she makes no bones about it. A pure energy bursts from this book at any given moment -- some of it unabashedly playful. It is often sexual and completely without guile; she likes sex and makes no bones about that either:
“Words…weren’t enough for her.”
She often made high cat cries
And danced hard
On the blue carpet (pg 23).
Museme is a definition of a musical term, “A museme” is clearly a pun on that word, as well as her love of the poetic muse, any person or thing that can function as amusement, or as muse, and surely, a way in which she amuses herself in the process (pg. 78). “Yoo-Hoo, Polyhymnia” as in several other poems, permits Brown to play with sound by constraining herself to the use of specific letters:
“A po’ hymn hoopla
in a Lollapaloola Hall
I am Polly
A Nippon Mina Loy.
An alloy pony hoola-a-hoop
Amy lay in Hilton limp and ‘nilla
Imp yo-yo all lampy
in open hill lay
A Loopy Lap
An Oil Mop
A pool Nope
A Pall in May
Pin yon piñon on yo’ polo yoni
Monopoly Mania” (pg 86)
Brown likes using this type of found poetry -- a single line she can define and redefine several times in as many ways as she can -- puzzles with a focus on sound and unusual, unlikely combinations of words. Her love of nonsense and silliness becomes abundantly plain in the first section. “Meow Memo” is a poem with a structure created strictly to allow the letters M-E-O-W to be read vertically.
Eggs sol much
Maya yams say “ma”
Wow” (pg 118)
The reader is given a lesson on historical poetry at the book’s start -- then the writer jumps into experimentation, providing a multitude of tiny, seemingly insignificant “poemettes”; lists of things to do; things found in everyday life -- “Cafeteria“ reads “Ice Tea, Cream corn, Fried okra, plus one meat.” Are these her choices for lunch or dinner, are these things Brown discovered at a Cafeteria, or just words bandied about for a precious sound, a look? She plays lots of jokes on us, often joking about her own image, about who she is -- absentminded and/or blinded by love? “White Slippers” says
“When I reach for the lamp,
my thumb goes into
the bowl of water by my bed.
Even the book just bought
is missing, as my shoes
are heading for the door.”(pg 24) --
I love her sense of humor but I like best the smile behind the words. Not disingenuous -- it may be a little devious but the poet never laughs at or stands apart from the reader -- she has as grand a time without leaving you in the dust.
Brown’s generosity is shown in her sense of humor. She is open, lusty, caring, and devotes an entire section to collaborating with or writing poems to fellow poets friends and family. The people she loves are evidently in her writing life as much as they are in her personal life, coupled with her strong sense of connection, to men and women. She is open about her sexual relationships with women but is no male basher -- her lustfulness is evident in poems of love and sex; aggressive about who she is/ what she likes, though the narrator, to be certain, has experimented with both men and women. She says being “crushed between him and her is nice” (pg 176). This is not confessional work, per se, but it does inform us about a life; as in many books, we are just not certain that the narrator is the poet. That in itself could be a big part of her joke -- is she behind door number one, two or three? Is she straight, lesbian or dare I say poly-sexual? It does not matter, but it piques the reader’s interest to know if she really loves everybody, as implied.
Let’s take off all our clothes,
Honey, and lie down
With our skins touching in every place possible. (pg 154)
The above lusty stanza from “Let’s take off all our clothes” is her healthy almost aggressive sexuality coming to the fore -- a “Let’s just do it in the road” approach. Immediately following is “A Critical Approach to Love”, in which she dreamily talks of love, proving that she loves being in love -- and concurrently shows us her visual and aural prowess in the use of all the o’s in the following:
“A random kiss to concentrate on
Does it bloom anymore than if left alone?”
I need to do laundry
I need to be alone to write and think I think
Then spend all my nickels calling you. (pg 155)
Brown’s concurrent naïveté and sophistication are quite charming; this woman likes to have fun in everything she does. Her poetry is no exception- -- and might be the thing that gives her the greatest pleasure, because it evidently permits her to play well with others. In “Summery”, slyer fun --
An undone tropic fell too lush
A canyon climb a bird a thrush
A tea before the ending hitch
The sprite from hell said smoke the bitch. (pg 171)
Sad issues lurk behind some poems. They are not hidden; issues are discussed, not merely alluded to but treated as a matter of fact Some might think pain is treated cavalierly, or with little seriousness -- she simply pays little attention to it here -- it is not denial; just a part of a life. “A Long Distance Sentence” is a piece that attempts to rival the great Joyce’s Ulysses; a six-page sentence with no punctuation in a stream of consciousness that gives the reader many choices of interpretation. This writing feels like a decagon might look in architecture -- with many characters concurrently calling different phrases from a multi-sided building -- picture “Laugh-In” from a Bucky Fuller building. Brown talks about how her mother has made her crazy on more than one occasion -- just her mother’s voice can make her neurotic. You can almost hear the narrator hyperventilating and getting faster and more manic throughout the piece; and yes, inherent in this neurotic behavior is a fear of really going crazy -- as her two siblings rest in mental institutions:
“…forgiven me for both my brother and sister are in insane asylums am I three a success probably sometimes more than others playing word games with others …” Her fear of death is evident in other pieces, but here Brown writes: “am I going to be a good ‘dier’ already in the hospital young my parents I’m a real poet…” (pg 132, no page breaks). But again her healthy lust for life, shown in lacing both innuendo and not so subtle sexual references “…body is what I am hoping for some trim rub our starter sets together cat and mouse or even joke with ugly names like chore girl weezer willie or lily muff muffin peach or even peachfish…” (pg 127) grounds her. You realize this is just an everyday human being, with all her unique and interesting foibles. No great mystery.
I like Lee Ann Brown’s work. It is refreshing, pleasant and totally unpretentious, but it is concurrently complex, requiring willingness to go beyond what is simply offered or basic nuance. The interactive collaborative work, and the poetry in which she mimics (and therefore shows great esteem for) her fellows, is exceptional -- the form, structure, and sound are joyful and you get the same vicarious thrill she had writing it. She uses many poetic forms throughout, and revels in doing so -- while putting her own stamp upon the form. If you are quiet, you can hear a raucous, thoroughly blissful laughter behind each line. Lee Ann Brown clearly loves poetry, she loves to write it, study it, consume, even absorb it -- and this book proves that she wants to share it in as many ways possible with everyone, providing “a jewel of etymology hair” (pg 149).
Wendy Lynn Cohen is a writer and editor currently living in Los Angeles, California. Cohen is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles baccalaureate Creative Writing program in 2002. She continues to freelance for multi-disciplined commercial writing/editing/design projects, while executing varied creative fiction and non-fiction projects. In 2007, Cohen edited, The Devil Made Me Do it, a memoir of a renowned 1970’s film actress. She aided the self-published author in designing the book, its cover, and marketing its initial launch in mid-2008, garnering a coveted NPR interview and book signing at Book Soup, one of LA’s foremost independent book stores. Though not specifically a poet, her love of poetry was greatly heightened in an all-involving “…reading-poetry-is-reviewing course…[whose] syllabi were recognized by [the] National Book Critics Circle as innovative courses.”