I am reading and re-reading Tony Brinkley’s Gomorrah. A long poem, which remains mostly oblique and mysterious when we read it for the first time. Palpably concrete in its images and sensations, yet mysterious. Yet we do read on. The surface is fascinating, yet we feel with certainty that there is something momentous taking place there in the verbal explosions underlying the fragmented narrative, and that there is some theme unfolding from these explosions that we feel as compulsively ours.
This feeling is rare, yet it has been familiar to me from a long time ago. This was what I felt when reading the prose poems of the great San Francisco poet Robert Duncan for the first time, more than forty years ago. The fact that a long poem can capture us in this manner, carrying us on with its fascinating effect, before a more rational understanding begins to break through at points, is as rare as it is quintessential. This experience persuades us that we are in the throes of major poetry, of an elementary power.
Very few serious poets dare to write a long poem today, in this excitable and dumb age of sound bites and blogs, and even fewer are those who succeed. Tony Brinkley has succeeded in Gomorrah, it seems, because the vision that grips him has an exceptional urgency, and because he can translate this urgency into an effective verse mode all his own.
The vision presiding in Gomorrah is that of the devastations that the wars and every day brutalities of the totalitarian systems of Europe did to our external and internal worlds in the last century. A vision that remains with us, alive, unsurpassable. Burnt up landscapes, towns, bodies, souls. To me, as it comes through in Gomorrah, Brinkley’s is probably the most powerful vision of that devastation, and the most judicious.
Yet Gomorrah is not a war poem. It is not a poem about blame, or guilt, even though the figure of the senile and murderous Lenin does emerge in one of the sequences of this rich poetic montage. It is Job speaking here, but in a stoic’s voice, pained but almost numbed. Humans are mostly sinful and mostly innocent, Brinkley seems to suggest – but the wrath of Jehovah is inscrutable.
Operation Gomorrah was the British code name, Brinkley tells us in his notes, for the 1942 fire bombing of Hamburg, which took place as a revenge for the German destruction of Coventry and so much of the city of London. An eyewitness from Hamburg is quoted in Gomorrah, but it could be words of survivors of the fire bombing of Tokyo, the destruction of Warsaw, Stalingrad, Dresden, Budapest in the Second World War. It is the heavily tragic irony of history that the modern means to defeat a totalitarian killer are similarly summary, impersonal, industrial methods, where counter-moves become just as anonymous and oblivious to individual existence and soul and indeed the human.
In his own family history, Brinkley has come to these scenes from another side. His mother was raised in a wealthy Jewish family from Bucharest. She managed to escape the persecutions of Jews in Romania during the War, and brought with her to America, for her son to be born, all that experience – but more than that, the vast cultural memory and art resources of Europe. Raised in the States, and closely involved in the poetics of his American generation, Brinkley reaches with a natural ease to the immense reservoir of his mother’s heritage. He internalised the nightmare of destruction and turned it into his innermost vision, but at the same time he also forged a language, a way of speaking about this vision with the help of those poets who lived and suffered through it all in their person, and often to their deaths. No masterpiece stands all alone – each has its own tradition. Searching for parallels and examples of Brinkley’s restrained lines I ventured some guesses. Perhaps Hilda Doolittle, perhaps Louis Zukovsky, perhaps Muriel Rukeyser, I asked him in a letter. In his own generation, some of the Language poets of San Francisco, I mused. The answer came the same day: Osip Mandelshtam.
Of course. Tony Brinkley translated Mandelshtam, too, among the modern classics of Russian poetry. Most notably poems from his Voronezh Notebook, from his time in internal exile before Stalin’s wrath sent him to his death in a forced labour camp of the Gulag. Hungarian Review was pleased to publish some of these translations in its January 2011 issue. Lines are pared down in these Voronezh poems to a bare essentiality, yet remain rich. Passionate yet preserving a beautiful poise.
Gomorrah is a richly laid on text, with sudden turns and halts and starts, yet creating the effect of unity, apparently the same voice speaking all through the various bits of quotations, too. Listening to it, I am reassured again it is a quite exquisite work. Very special, nothing like it in my experience. The structural effect is that of an imaginary abstract painting where particular fields are made up of discernible figures when you stand nearer and look at them more closely.
It also has the abstract dynamics, and hovering visions, of a complex musical composition. A bravura composition technique of collage is hidden behind that overall effect.
The perfect finish of the stunning phrases suggests that it is a work issuing out of paragraphs in a notebook. They must have been gathering there for a long time, and chiselled to perfection of sound and sense. They are gems of perception and reflection, it seems, or rather, explosions of light, related to a cluster of ideas and memories of the devastations of European totalitarianism in the 20th century. And mass killings of civilians since then, in Cambodia, in Rwanda.
In Gomorrah, Tony Brinkley, our American contemporary, has woven for us a version of the unwritten Biblical story of Gomorrah, a city whose sins have remained unknown, and its twin sister Sodom, a story of Central Europe in the mid-20th century, in which mothers turned to pillars of salt, and daughters dragged on aimlessly in the scorching heat of a flaming landscape, remembering incongruous moments of blessings and peace. Of course Jehovah’s indifference to suffering is there, too. Job’s predicament, weaving through the poem. The Biblical context giving perspective to the vision – a terrible vision, which, as Brinkley writes paradoxically in his Afterword, also makes us free.