Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent won the Kore Press First Book Prize, selected by Bhanu Kapil, in 2011. I received the book a few months book and was sad it took so long to get to me and so happy it finally did.
“Apollo 11” is a poem that broke me apart into happiness. I grew up wanting to be an astronaut because when I was four years old I watched Neil Armstrong and the boys do their dance on the lunar surface. My mind was filled with the dream of space travel, my imagination run amuck. So, when I came upon Brown’s poem my mind and heart got giddy. What’s so exhilarating about this poem is what it does NOT talk about. Brown’s gift is being able to talk about a thing, a subject, without talking about that thing–the art of sublime deflection. “Apollo 11” is a poem in seven parts, a prose poem of sorts that dips into the realm of tenderness and love, of surfaces—beds, bellies, pools, and televisions—as they correspond or reflect the terrain of the moon. Instead of focusing on the feat of NASA and its extraordinary accomplishments she writes with an eye toward earthly terrains:
They lie naked. The moon landing is broadcast on television. The bugs flatten on them. They are as wondrous as cars.
The act of contact equals the act of butchery. His belly is long and translucent, a sheet of glass. When they touch in dreams, she can make out what he consumes. All the curious jellyfish.
This is an earthly poem about a celestial body. The brilliance of “Apollo 11” is that it is more about the lovers, the wives, the husbands, the astronauts, and their relationships in space to one another than it is about the moon landing. This, of course, makes the actual conquest event more epic, more human, and sexier.
See, Brown’s poems, at their collective core, are sexy. Or, should I say, sensually driven, and why I like them so much in the landscape of American poetry. It’s the sexiness, the desire she has as a poet, as a human being on the planet earth, to embrace the worldliness of love and longing. The voice in these poems is mystified, intrigued, and freaked out by love. How beautiful. In “The Title ‘Love Poem’ Already Exists” she writes:
I’m terrified. Can I say that?
I bit your cheek off as a defense
mechanism, & it’s a lie
to declare it’s more than I can
chew. My greed bores
me & a few & now you’re sleeping—
The cognac is warm & the mating
cicadas are restless or maybe committing
mass suicide outside our window
but I’m off track because you’re naked
& long & lovely, blanching sheets
I haven’t cleaned since I was born.
There’s a jar of paste in the fridge
that I eat standing up & lonesome . . . .
And, from “Of The Motherland” she writes:
He sniffs her coccyx, a mango from the black market.
Ashgabat is lovely at this time of year.
Summer bleeds the rats onto the pavement (wretched)
but their whirled fur makes a carpet we can clear
in flying leaps, or high-heeled goose steps . . . .
Brown’s connection to intimacy is this: it dips and bends between tenderness and that primal vortex of humanness that burns in all of us—violence. Not that kind of malicious violence that we hear of on the news but the sweet horrible acts/thoughts of violence that spring out of love. She knows this in her poems and so there is always a push and pull between the two that keeps us in the fun-zone. It’s so important, indeed, for that fun-zone to be present in poetry and it’s all over Double Agent. It’s the reason, the one singular reason that I love this book so much and that you should give yourself the opportunity to love it too—to put down the reading of this rumination and slip onto Amazon and ring it up.
Before you do, however, permit me to expand a touch on this notion of ‘fun’ in Brown’s poems. They are heavy poems. They are playful, though, and this is what makes them entities that you want to dance with on slippery bridges. The combination of her linguistic dexterity and soulfulness is what makes the work so entertaining. God, it’s so important for American poetry to be entertaining and soulful at the same time and that is why these poems make you want to hoist up the hems of your pants, your skirt, your blouse, and eyes, take their hands in your yours, and go. Here are the last lines, in the last poem of the collection, “Embassy”:
Our hearts, those murky children, do not dispute
Our boleros & bustiers. Even the river wears
A pink cape, the bodies of the salmon.
We know goodbye in six languages, hello in five.
Say “hello” to Michelle Chan Brown’s debut collection, Double Agent, gather up your heart in its busts and pumps, and go.