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James Brasfield. Ledger of Crossroads.

James Brasfield. Ledger of Crossroads. LSU Press.

The "crossroads" to which James Brasfield refers in the title of his new collection, Ledger of Crossroads, welds sociopolitical junctions to critical turning points in individual lives. For example, "Letter from Germany," a persona poem in the voice of an American GI, speaks of the condition of soldiers everywhere: "There is nothing normal left. / The smell of guns massed in this valley / Hangs bitter in the air. / A town burns across the ridge." Layered with figurative language that gathers importance through pattern and repetition, the poems take up the legacy of institutional and systemic oppression. Speakers examine wartime shifts in national borders and the historical consequences of violence, undercutting the concept of a stable personal/political identity.

Using strategic syntax in the opening poem, "Identities," grasfield locates the "reading" of a place as a site of difference and commonality.
    In Kyiv, citizens decipher the surface
   as at the Pole, an Eskimo
   reads snow, as in Baltimore a man
   might read the Sun
 in that southern city ... 

Cross-cultural empathy and a searing urgency, unfamiliar in much American poetry, reflect Brasfield's two Fulbright awards to Ukraine. For example, in "Renovation," set in contemporary Lutsk (northwestern Ukraine), an old woman sweeps a courtyard, where a demolition fire burns.
    For centuries she's swept the leaves
   with her broom of birch twigs and straw.
   From the court of Macbeth, men
   in heavy coats and fedoras
   stoke the fire with Styrofoam. 

Here, the visual scene contains a pan-European picture of domesticity paired with characters representing the timeless struggle for a throne. A magpie "rests in the scaffolding / of branches," one of many bird motifs Brasfield employs to link disparate places and people.
    ... the magpie has flown six hundred years
   from Lubart's castle, from the seige
   of dilapidation at Lutsk,
   from apple tree, from pig squeal
   and cockcrow, all those deserted
   factories by the river Styr. 

Past and present comingle in image and sentence structure. Prepositional phrases yield precise nouns ("castle," "siege," "dilapidation," "tree," "squeal," "cockcrow," "factories") and establish a transnational, fictional lineage for contemporary Lutsk and the speaker who, at the close of the poem, "can almost / hear the Scythians dancing." Placing himself among ancient, fierce warriors who lived in a vast area that included what is now Ukraine, the speaker acknowledges his own unstable national identity and his connection to others.

A Georgia native, Brasfield confronts the legacy of American slavery in an original way: he juxtaposes the American South and eastern Europe. "Heart of Dixie" showcases Brasfield's many prosodic gifts.
    Every day came, the char of silence and beauty,
   brick foundations of what was here, dirt roads
   cut through pines, rivers and the dust of the dead,
   bone silt and a song, bird cries, the freight train
   through the county, crops and cows, chickens wandering
   a patch of yard, wind through sun-silvered leaves,
   the clay baked hard, undulating in August, farmers
   in a field, weathered wooden sheds, isolated.
   Every day came, a hound in the yard.
   Call it circumstances, the way we thought things
   had to be, rough and polished stones on a creek bank.
   We had no choice but to believe, sincere and alone
   and the black faces, their eyes lowered
   in our homes on Broad Street. We did not sympathize.
   It was almost normal. Call it circumstance,
   the alarm and nature of sidelong glances,
   the way we thought things had to be,
   God's will, our history and we wanted it quiet.
   It was always dark. You get used to anything, we said
   with eyes lowered. It was almost perfect here,
   mist and wildflowers, the charred cross
   in a field. It was almost normal, a quiet stream
   and a gravel road. Every day came.
   It was dark and no one could see. 

The speaker produces a dense, penetrating music with anaphora ("Every day came") and single-word ("yard," "dark," "quiet") repetitions. Variations on short, staccato phrases and sentences--"It was almost normal" and "Call it circumstances"--evoke a brutally constricting environment. Varying a word's form, the poet unifies his artful construction.

For example, the "char" of the opening stanza (suggesting the charwoman's domestic work) becomes the "charred cross / in a field," a symbol of terror in the Jim Crow South. Throughout the poem, the speaker underscores the inseparable fates of blacks and whites. He echoes "black faces, their eyes lowered / in our homes" with "You get used to anything, we said / with eyes lowered." Repetition of "the way we thought things had to be" reinscribes the social practices endorsed by "God's will." The poem concludes masterfully with eight words. They enact the shuttering blindness that an oppressive way of life renders "almost normal" because "no one could see."

While Brasfield deploys his knowledge of American and eastern European social history, he determinedly allows images to persuade readers of his arguments. In the book's title poem, the speaker meditates on Kyiv's violent past.
    Blocks away, Tatars crossed the Dnieper--impatient
   hooves entered the water. Depths silenced them,
   then Asia was here, the city sacked, then the dead,
   the disappeared, the desperate ... 

Even as the speaker acknowledges the inevitable--"there is no end to history. Each potato is held and peeled"--he cites the very human effort to find and make meaning. He praises those "who, like the oil lamp hung above a table, / surround themselves with imperishable air, / who rekindle luminosity."

Artists hold a beloved and privileged place in Ledger of Crossroads. Franz Kafka, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Joseph Brodsky, Leopold Staff, Jean Toomer, and Robert Motherwell appear in epigraphs, dedications, and poems. Paul Celan, however, claims a place of primary importance. He stands as the book's central, heroic figure: tormented by the deaths of his family in the Holocaust, Celan wrote original and memorable poems regarded by many as the most important to emerge from the postwar period.

In addition to a brief lyric called "Celan," Brasfield concludes Ledger of Crossroads with a majestic, fourteen-sonnet sequence titled "The Relief." Set in present-day Chernivtsi, the poem recalls the city's earlier incarnation as Czemowitz, Celan's birthplace. Studying the plaster "Hapsburg face" on a building relief, the speaker offers a sweeping meditation on human solitude and community, on what perishes and what endures. What Brasfield calls "that long / parade: Scythian, Rus, Tatar and Turk" musters across one sonnet; in another "the boy Antchel running with hoop / and stick down the strasse" returns readers to Paul Celan as a child in an innocent time. Poems speak to one another across this sequence and across the entire book as elements of architecture, flesh, landscape, and memory converge. Sonnet 9, for example, opens with the line "Here in what was once a city of Jews" and sonnet 14 closes with "bones ... become a kind of plaster dust." By poem's end, Brasfield brilliantly transforms the sculpted plaster relief into an indifferent witness to human history.

Chernivtsi or New York, the sites Brasfield observes shimmer in shadow and light. In the face of human suffering, apt detail dignifies individuals and lends places vitality. We see the crippled person, "his thick stump / blunt as a broken carrot" ("The Relief") and the "poorman's Venetian cafe," with "pressed-tin patterns on the ceiling" ("MacDougal Street"). Imagist and modernist, Brasfield combines a deeply musical lyricism with a historian's attention to politics. Ledger of Crossroads may remind readers of the eastern European poets from the 1970s, when the geopolitical sweep of Holub, Milosz, and Zagajewski took people by surprise and challenged assumptions about what contemporary poetry could do. Brasfield stands with these poets in his ambition and obsessions.
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Author:Becker, Robin
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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