Sunday, July 28, 2019

Barbara Swift Brauer: Rain, Like a Thief

In my continuing series of reviews of collections by Marin poets, I turn to Barbara Swift Brauer's Rain, Like a Thief (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2019). I had the privilege earlier this year of hearing Brauer read at Rebound Bookstore in San Rafael, Ca. I found her deceptively simple poems an apt counterpoint to the lush, dark poems of Camille Norton, another Sixteen Rivers Press poet. Although Brauer's Rain, Like a Thief explores the weather of our existence that is often "...wind [and ] black clouds," they are also are perennially infused with light. And it is this light, sometimes only "brief sun" or a "small globe flicker[ing]" we are able to lean into for solace and comfort. Brauer's collection is divided into four sections. I have attempted to share the best example of her writing from each.

From section I, "You Think This Is You," the poem that remained with me longer than other poems emblematic of Brauer's light/dark poems, was "The Professionals." Those "loose materials... [that] arrive in any freighted crate / or on a sun shaft / through grimed windows" seems about right for the way poetry comes to me.

The Professionals

     Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up 
     and get to work.
          --Chuck Close

We are busy getting on with it,
every day surveying the loose materials
scattered about the studio.

They arrive in any freighted crate
or on a sun shaft
through grimed windows.

Soon we are hammering
a new apron to broaden the stage,
seducing form into brazen acts

of primary color, ever
exploring the intimate cracks
in the surfaces of things.

Tonight an evening from long ago
rumbles into memory
with the passing of a truck.

I am here at my desk as an old light,
long extinguished,
spreads everywhere in the room.

How to tell you of the age-darkened walls
of that once-summer cabin--
kerosene lamp on the table,

flowered tea service
thought from the kitchen.
What was it we talked of,

my grandmother and I,
the lake outside knocking
softly on its shores?

The conversation vanishes,
only the light remains.

A vastly different take on light and dark--one that widens into racial and socio-political realms--emerges from "Brothers," a poem from section II, "Our Brittle Doors."


     It cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were
     symbolic expressions of the Neanderthals.
          --Alistair W. G. Pike

     Sin crouches by the door.
          --Genesis 4:7

We knew them from the caves,
their handprints on the wall.

Held our own palms against them,
our five fingers matching.

We were not alone.

Just over the hill,
their fires and dark burrows.

Someone knew us
as certainly, warily, as we knew them.

We were not alone. Knowing
comforted and chafed.

By dark, we watched from the distance.
By day, we found them at the hunt

bloody over their kill, the fat herds startled
and out of reach. We turned back in hunger.

By the lakes they gathered,
the streams fouled and muddied

in their wake. It chafed and galled.
We coveted the caves,

the forests and fields, first strike
at the bison, the calves, first chance

at the eggs in the nests. We coveted
and then we struck. Surprised them
from behind, struck and struck again.

In section III, "The Mountain Is Our Weather," I find the title poem particularly compelling because of the specificity and compression of its diction, paired with its ubiquity of content.

The Mountain Is Our Weather

     A Traveler's Notes from Denali

Skim-milk moon
above Igloo Creek,
fireweed at the door.
Is someone knocking?
Savage River with its glacial song
glides through the dimming light,
disappears far down the valley
like a great flock of birds.
Site 142 with its knee-high
quaking aspen, mosquitoes
easy to swat from the sky.
That wind, black clouds.
Brief sun, redemptive.
This thick stand of spruce,
minyan of elders,
keeps its own counsel.

I look for clues, omens
whenever I meet
what's larger than myself.
Here at Wonder Lake
it's all abut the mountain:
our last view at night,
the first each morning.

The mountain is our weather,
our darkness, our light.

In section IV, Brauer gives us this short elegy to a mother that encapsulates a life in fourteen lines. "Temporal," could be a final poem in this note-worthy collection--like Janus, looking backwards to our origins and "what remains in this world," and forward to the tasks before us...


I recognize my mother's body
as I soap in the shower: the soft undersides
of my arms, the round of my hips.

Year later, I am washing her,
face and neck, withered legs,
her small hands between my hands.

Now I wash the dishes
from her cupboard,
lay the places at my table.

How careful we must be
of what remains in this world,
how careful of ourselves,

fragile vessels, and the light
through these small windows.

Barbara Swift Brauer is a freelance writer living in San Geronimo, California. Her first poetry collection, At Ease in the Borrowed World, was published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2013. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies as well as in art exhibitions and installations. With portrait artist Jackie Kirk, she is coauthor of the nonfiction book, Witness: The Artist's Vision in "The Face of AIDS" (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996).