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Breathing In, Breathing Out by Fleda Brown

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Levine Prize in Poetry (2001)

Fleda Brown brings brilliance and craft to the inexplicable narratives of lived memory. In poem after poem her omnivorous intelligence, driven to understand, stands poised beautifully on the moment between breaths. -- Marilyn Nelson

In Breathing In, Breathing Out, Fleda Brown tells us, "One day Adam said 'Adam'/and found out he was standing/across the field from everything/else." Brown deftly explores the otherness that language both gives us and inflicts on us. Nothing is changed and everything is, once words separate us from nature. Fleda Brown's great skill with that alienating and communicating tool, language, is to show us how dazzlingly strange the familiar world is. -- Andrew Hudgins

Fleda Brown has such a wide ranging intelligence, such a large and quirky variety of subjects, and such facility with language that you come away from her poems amazed at the emotional impact under the entertaining and colloquial surfaces. This is a fine and original book. -- Linda Pastan

 

Fourth of July Parade, Albion, WA.

Everyone's happy, catching candy.
There's an army truck; one fire truck
screaming; a blue Olds about 1975;
two police cars side by side,
everything huzza-huzza,
the band playing "From the Halls of Montezuma"
from a flatbed truck; eight kids on bikes,
with balloons; a dozen 4-H kids in clover-shirts;
a bulldog with a bow;
two hefty rodeo girls on horses,
a small tractor pulling prizewinning chickens
in their two festooned cages.
I can't help it, I get sentimental tears.
Damn, I say to myself. Chickens.
A prize for being chickens.
Then, amazingly, here they all come again,
back up the street, chickens
from the other side,
fiddle-players instead of horns showing,
candy flying again like stars.
Everything a copy of itself, another chance.
Quantum physics says it's true,
particles coming and going.
The road not taken may be taken.
Meanwhile, the chickens move forward
again in our eyes, the Declaration of Independence
gets signed. We need custom,
return. We like to sit sandal-footed in the grass,
happily surrendered to either side.
Past or future, it's no wonder
the chickens win, the way they keep
their artist's eyes cocked, lost in the work
of being chickens
again and again.

 

Buying The King-Sized Bed

I'm already thinking of rolling around that expanse,
tossing a leg without entangling. The way I am,

though, I see all the possibilities for loss. I see us
pillowed and billowed, supported in exactly the right

hollows by ergonomically designed, pocketed coils,
while beneath it all -- the pea under a royal height --

the oppressed, the downsmashed, sleep in despoiled
cardboard boxes, or three on one frayed blanket.

Think of us, spread out, tongues on the rampage,
marking where we'll kiss. Oh wild God, how can

you permit this excess? How could any of us gauge
the exact distance at which people turn strangers

to each other? In our double bed -- called double,
but we have been bumper-cars and cliff hangers

on it for years, our shorter ancestors troubling
us still -- I can't even raise my knee

without poking my dear love in the groin.
We have been close, we have understood each other

the way people in tight houses start growing
together -- at a molecular level, absorbing

each other's pheromones. Yelling and slamming doors,
too, or else they are lost inside each other! They would

have grand houses, if they could. They would forge
on like jet-skis through the foyer and out to the good

sea. They would send a wire to say, "I still
love you." The sweet old world is longing to be

loose and light. All night long it stares up at the chilled
stars. This is a sticky business, finding the peak

distance for love, knowing our bodies will be nothing,
someday, wanting to hear them make their delicious,

reassuring sounds, bobbing against each other.

 

Monarchs

The monarchs blink
along the buddlia bush, eye-level, acting like
the butterflies of my childhood, except
for the one that fights its way
to the top of the poplar tree.
All of them, though, are starting to agitate

over their upcoming trip to Venezuela --
who would have thought it? -- little torqued-up
leather-wings, miniature thrusts,
as if someone had dropped
a Picasso and made monarchs, splintered
into Monet or Manet,

thousands of jewels --
diamonds -- because a butterfly's wings
have no pigment at all,
only prisms that try to deflect attention
from the fiercely secret source.
Easy to imagine that one thing stands for another:

monarchs erupting
wet from a former life, baptised by immersion.
Forgive me, I only recently learned
they have no former life. The caterpillar melts
down to pure DNA. It is not a matter of reshaping,
as if it had a sex-change operation. It is

a monarch, finally
shed of whatever sluggish thoughts
had dramatically misunderstood what life this is.

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