Reviewed by J. Michael Lennon
A Magnificent Keening
A blurb on the back cover of professor-publisher-poet Philip Brady’s new book, Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2019) describes it as a “high-spirited flash memoir.” This phrase could lead innocent readers to anticipate juicy tales of the author’s life as an American variety of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, a farouche academic who will take us on a frisky ride through the postmodern cultural landscape where we’ll encounter eccentric editors and nasty provosts (Brady’s particular bogeymen), attend poetry readings, ponder manuscripts and blurbs, get tutored in small press publication, pedagogical conundrums, and literary politics, all of this reamed with apercus about the miseries of social media and technology, remembrances of youthful erotic escapades, and punctuated by mildly astringent appraisals of poets past and present— Homer, Yeats, and H. L. Hix are the book’s tutelary spirits—as well as comical portraits of fellow litterateurs and beloved family members, the whole shebang battened together by droll wit and admirable forbearance. Brady’s dazzling new memoir (he wrote an earlier, more conventional one, To Prove My Blood, 2004), is all of these things, but it is the dream-like manner that he employs for the majority of the volume’s essays that transforms the volume into something rich and strange.
Here I must make some disclosures: Brady is a friend and colleague, and I make a cameo appearance in the book, although under a different name. At the beginning of the book, I am also included in a four-page list of individuals, some living: Joan Baez, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, LeBron James, to name a few; some dead: Sir Roger Casement, Robert Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo), Virginia Woolf; some ancient: Sappho, Genghis Khan, Gestas (the Bad Thief); and some fictional-mythological: Molly Bloom, Batman, and Osiris King of the Dead, all of whom express their “collective outrage at the usage of our names, monikers, aliases, titles, and appurtenances without notice or permission.” The letter serves as a kind of dramatis personae for the volume, in that every one of the 365 named personages have their moment to strut upon the page. It also includes the candid admission that the book “is rife with dubious claims, fake news, jaundiced insinuation, and factual error.” Forewarned, the reader buckles up.
But before Brady assumes a new name (Thersites, a disgruntled Greek soldier in the Iliad, who tells Commander-in-Chief Agamemnon that he wants to go home), and glissades to oneiric realms, he provides an introductory chapter that explains that Phantom Signs replaces a conventional memoir of his youth abandoned out of a growing distaste for dealing directly with the “nightmare landscape of terror and humiliation” of a youth so skinny that “the fingers of one hand could encircle a thigh.” He was also weary of the earlier book’s discursive prose, of sentences that “can’t breathe for long away from print,” sentences “devoid of mystery.” In 2010 after by-pass heart surgery, he finds a new modality for his story while recuperating in a rocking chair. He rocks and thinks, rocks and remembers, rocks and conjures blank verse lines in the manner employed by bards of yore. He also notes his dissatisfaction with another kind of poetry in some of the manuscripts he’s read as poetry editor at Etruscan, a small press he co-founded with his friend, novelist Robert Mooney. His characterization of these poems coincides with my own grim recollections of certain poetry readings that I prayed would end long before they did. The poems submitted, he says, “were good, but not that good, or all good in the same way”:
a setting and observation about the setting developing into three or four related observations strung together in a short time span; usually walking was involved, sometimes driving. All were rectangular and they began to look like clumsy interpolations translated from the Etruscan and it was mile after loose-stepped mile of chopped prose. Did I say all? Not so. Some were served straight from academic Delphi, where the oracle was deconstructed into semiotic salads [read: language poetry] only a tower-dweller could digest.
Now-heart-healthy Brady explains in the opening chapter of Phantom Signs how after surgery he recast his prose memoir into a long narrative poem, To Banquet with the Ethiopians, in which his painful seventh-grade experiences at a Long Island Police Athletic League Boys’ camp are re-imagined as events in the Odyssey. Brady’s humiliations are akin to those endured by Leopold Bloom in Chapter 15 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, another memorable re-imagining of the Odyssey (the Circe episode), and Bloom is another of Brady’s avatars. In one of the most hallucinatory and hilarious chapters of Banquet, Homer and Joyce, along with Dante, Pope, and T. S. Eliot drink pints and argue poetry in Nobuddy’s Bar below the El in Queens, N.Y., where Brady grew up. Homer, a Yankee cap hooding his marble eyes, arrives via subway; Ezra Pound pounds the table and calls for gists and piths. On the wall hangs a signed glossy of Boss Steinbrenner hugging Agamemnon. You get the idea. In some chapters, Brady is an adolescent at summer camp, in others he’s grumbling Thersites, and occasionally he’s Homer—identities elide with ease in this phantom poem. His fellow campers (friends and fiends) are recast as Agamemnon, Achilles, Ulysses and the rest. To Banquet with the Ethiopians is an astounding, genre-busting, 18-chapter seriocomic marvel that unfolds at the intersection of myth, memoir, and history, unfurling in time and not, as Brady is fond of saying. Engraved on the tablets of his capacious memory, several of the book’s chapters are spoken from the stage at the semi-annual residencies of the Wilkes University MFA Program in which he teaches, and in other literary venues. It was published by Broadstone Books in 2015. The book reviewed here, Phantom Signs, is both a gloss of the earlier volume, and a web of tributaries flowing from it.
Some of the new volume’s most successful chapters—there are 18, the same number as in Banquet and Joyce’s Ulysses—are impressionistic portraits of Brady’s professors, including Galway Kinnell, W.D. Snodgrass and James F. Carens (with whom he edited Critical Essays on James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and those of several of his friends: sturdy Mooney (and his ghostly double), poets H.L. Hix and William Heyen, memoirist Carol Moldaw, and Steve Reese, the acoustic guitarist and leader of Brady’s Leap, a new-Celtic band, in which Brady plays the bodhrán, a small hand drum known as the heartbeat of traditional Irish music. As for the band’s title, it’s the name of a rest stop somewhere on I-80 at which Brady’s mother, “Pet,” was once forgotten by her family . . . and remembered after 20 miles. To this day, Brady stops there in remembrance of her.
H.L. Hix, a prolific poet and finalist for the National Book Award, is Brady’s closest poet friend. A dozen of his books have been published by Etruscan, so many that some believe that Hix is more than merely another of Brady’s avatars. No photograph of them together has surfaced, and doubts persist in some quarters of Hix’s corporality. I am happy to report that I was privileged to sit for an hour between the two poets in a seminar room beneath a bust of Tennyson, although I must admit that because one was fore and one aft I could not see them together in the prism of my parallax. Hix may not be Brady, but he is at the very least a muse for Brady, who reports various borrowings from Hix’s treasury of poetic wisdom. The slogan or epigraph for Etruscan Press, “Nothing attested, everything sung,” comes from Hix’s 2009 collection, Incident Light, published by Etruscan in 2009. The line is the occasion for one of Phantom Signs’ liveliest chapters, a forensic battle among Hix, Brady, and the shades of two novelists, Norman Mailer and John Gardner. The debate centers on whether attestation, or factual accuracy, on the one hand, “signifies a failure to mix, a hardening of boundaries” or, on the other, is the evidentiary roof tree of story-telling. Aristotle is one of the signatories in the letter at the start of the book, but Brady apparently skipped metaphysics class the day Aristotle’s “Principle of Non-Contradiction” was discussed. It states: “A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and the same respect.” No matter. Double identities, temporal interleaving, and the morphing of quiddities are the three tent poles of Brady’s literary endeavors.
Brady is large, contains multitudes and, like Whitman, worries nought about contradiction. Indeed, the numerous felicities of his book flow from the way many of his 365 characters flout every boundary. Line judge Aristotle may fulminate, but he is over-ruled by Proteus, a higher magistrate. Transmogrification, we could say with justice, is the operative principle of the volume. This is most apparent in the long final chapter, “Nine Phantom Signs,” which is both a non-chronological autobiography of the making of a poet, and a lament for the lost time when poets, in the absence of writing instruments and written language, muttered and uttered their songs. Brady and Hix insistently point to the fact that “the alphabet is a technology—the first to which we are exposed, at so young and age that we see it not as a tool but as a source of identity.” This technology, first created in the 8th century BCE by the Greeks, gave civilization a new way of recording history, but at the loss of the oral bardic culture that had for millennia conserved the past. The bards were all but wiped out by tablets, papyrus, scrolls, the codex, and the paperback. The Internet, mere pixels, continues the effacement. Much was gained with the alphabet, much lost. Phantom Signs, Brady’s beguiling multi-generic collection of poems, tales, jokes, gibes, eulogies, rants, pontifications, and memories, explores this contention from nine perspectives in the concluding cumulative chapter. Like the early Irish myths and sagas, his utterances comprise two worlds: one real, tangible, and testamentary; the other (an idealized simulacrum of the first) densely metaphoric, oneiric, and mythic. Again and again in the volume, he summons up the memory of sitting in his rocking chair after surgery composing the poem which became To Banquet with the Ethiopians, and then linking it to moments forty years earlier in his parents’ row house where his younger self “rocked back and forth in front of the cabinet hi-fi, listening to Father’s Clancy Brothers records babble from another world.” Phantom Signs is a magnificent keening for a time before written history “when lines were conceived and spoken in one breath” and gods walked the earth. In this magical time of pre-history, Brady says, poets composed “right at the vortex of forgetting.” Then and now, he concludes, “poetry isn’t written; it is the impression left after everything not a poem has dissolved.” Well, it has to be said . . . or uttered: Brady rocks.