- A Wreath of Down and Drops of Blood
Allen Braden’s new collection, A Wreath of Down and Drops of Blood, contains troubadourian lyrics and Pacific Northwestern elegies. Braden may flaunt his poetic tricks, yet he is equally comfortable within the narrative moment’s realism. Reading him is akin to knowing a magician’s method while still being pleasantly surprised by the beauty of his results. The emotional weight of this book stems from Braden’s representation of sharp moments of violence within the pastoral. While poets such as Harry Humes focus on atmosphere rather than tension, Braden’s presentation of the pastoral is more tightly wound.
Braden’s earlier pastoral poetry contained the occasional sentimental moment. Sentimentality in contemporary poetry is often disparaged, though as Joy Katz has noted, such was not always the case: “Modernism [End Page 185] . . . cooled the heart of poetry; confessionalism warmed it up; and post-structuralism threw a bucket of ice water on it.” The contemporary result, Sarah Vap explains, is the “monitoring of sentimentality in poems, the naming of sentimentality in poems, the connection between this censorship and the belittling of certain life experiences and wisdoms.” Braden’s earlier sentimentality might be better thought of, then, as a willingness to allow nostalgia to frame a poetic presentation. “Sweet, Sweet Light,” published a decade before A Wreath of Down and Drops of Blood, sketches a scene ripe for sentimentality:
Early one Saturday of my childhood the sun prismed through our kitchen, touching my mother’s body here or there as she bustled around, casting her for one delicious moment in pure light.
This is a sweet scene: earlier there is talk of a “comb harvested from wooden hives” and “a jar of honey which was set in our window.” The ingredients for sentimentality are present—mother, kitchen, honey, childhood—but Braden undercuts an easy reading by following that “only memory operates in such a way.” His final lines further refine this moment:
Do not ask, therefore, why time crystallizes all we have into composite forms of sugar or why so many hives are split wide simply for a taste of this brief sweetness.
In this poem, Braden interrogates the act of pacification through memory, and the result is less a critique of the sentimental than an acknowledgment of its origin.
Pastoral settings have always been especially prone to sentimentality. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s mythic representations of the pastoral male form in “Harry Ploughman,” though linguistically hypnotizing, can be read with a critical skeptical eye: “In him, all quail to the wallowing o’ the plough: ’s cheek crimsons; curls / Wag or crossbridle, in a wind lifted, windlaced— / See his wind-lilylocks-laced.” Would it be possible to represent an urban body with such verve? While Braden’s earlier poetry stopped short of man dissolving into nature, the seeds are sown there for his later concern with the violent pastoral. “Lilacs and Desires,” another work predating his new collection, begins softly; “A few branches have been broken / and laid gently in the wicker basket.” The bees “come”: a passive arrival, but complimented by their subsequent action of “whirring from sprig to sprig.” The later violence is presented as a paradox, “nothing / like a dose of venom to mother beauty.” The swarm “takes shape / right before your disbelieving eyes,” and yet Braden leaves the reader frozen in the moment. Violence is near but yet not truly encountered.
In A Wreath of Down and Drops of Blood, Braden fully embraces the violent pastoral, but not before first dabbling in poetic play. Although the book is populated with distinct narrators, they share a certain milieu, and [End Page 186] therefore coalesce into an almost collective voice. Braden’s narrators deliver lines both sharp and swift. One narrator uses “words rare as blue-hoofed mare or black- / mouthed whelp,” and he knows that sometimes “salt burns sweet, / bruise preludes bliss.” Internal rhymes abound, mixing equal parts of wit and skill, while the occasional end rhyme also catches the reader, as in the final lines of “Taboo against the Word Beauty”: “Whatever...