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Reviewed by:
  • Sea of Faith
  • Michael Wilmot (bio)
John Brehm, Sea of Faith, University of Wisconsin Press

Reading John Brehm's Sea of Faith (winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry), it is difficult not to be charmed by his voice and glittering wit. [End Page 179] Like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, Brehm writes compressed, polished, approachable verse.

But it would be unfair to dismiss him as just another writer of "accessible" poems. A composite of poetic strengths – the humor and form of Collins, and Kooser's insight into the commonplace – Brehm's poetry is more than a mere sum of its parts. Sea of Faith elegantly blends the narrative and lyric, wonder and sorrow, and life in both the inner and outer worlds.

Brehm is the poet-friend you've always wanted. On one level, he is a plain-speaking raconteur – delightfully hyperbolic, ironic, and comically self-deprecating. "I'm getting stupider every day," he reveals, at the beginning of one poem. Later, he nearly thwacks a dog "in half-repressed rage" with his closed umbrella. And who can forget "At the Poetry Reading," the poem in which he whispers into your ear, "I can't keep my mind off the poet's wife's legs." His candor is both winning and disarming.

But amidst the waves of wit and fun, tiny pearls of wisdom wash ashore – treasures all the more marvelous owing to their oblique arrival. Because you see, there is a very real world below the surface. Hope, grief, love – all these are intimates of the heart. And sometimes humor, though an indirect means, can be the best way to gain access to this delicate realm.

The first section of the book, called "Wishful Thinking," includes the title poem – a 1999 Best of American Poetry selection. While teaching a freshman class "Dover Beach," a female student asks Brehm if the "Sea of Faith" can be found on the map, if it is a real sea.

"Yes," I wanted to say, "it is. It is a real sea. In fact it flows right into the Sea of Ignorance in which you are drowning. Let me throw you a Rope of Salvation before the Sharks of Desire gobble you up. Let me hoist you back up onto this Ship of Fools."

Thankfully, he chooses to bite his tongue, saving the young woman from certain humiliation. It is only later, however, that he wishes he could have answered her differently, wishing that

there really was a Sea of Faith that you wade out into, dive under its blue and magic water . . . . . . and then emerge again able to believe in everything, faithful and unafraid to ask even the simplest questions, happy to have them simply answered.

Clever conceits, followed by unexpected yet poignant tropes are a staple of Sea of Faith. These elements – humor and the quick turn – allow Brehm [End Page 180] to sustain emotional intensity without overwhelming the reader or sliding into melodrama.

Brehm's yearning for faith – and for an interested God to believe in – is a cry that pervades the book. We sense emotion of uncertainty and unrest. The poet recognizes there is something wrong with the world, but isn't quite sure what to do about it. On Coney Island, he takes in the sights and sounds of human activity. People eat hotdogs, hero sandwiches, and cotton candy. Children ride roller coasters and play in the cold waves. Later, he wanders through the streets of lower Manhattan, bombarded by the clamor and blare of the city. On both occasions the poet wonders if those around him can even tell what is going on, if they can hear "death waiting behind it all saying have / your noise yes make as much as you can." There is a sinister force at play, alongside feelings of detachment and loss.

It isn't only the world that's flawed – something inside of the poet is broken as well. Of all the trees along a winding forest road, the one he takes his greatest comfort in is an old blasted oak. It's been struck by lightening and is missing a limb; still, it is a manifestation of an inner...


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pp. 179-182
Launched on MUSE
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