To Bless with Words, a look at the poems of Bryan Merck from First Exit
Review by Dave Mehler
It’s all about guts here trapped in the goulash.
And there are few trees.
–From “Prairie Song on the Eve of Father’s Day”
Bryan Merck is a Catholic writer, and a Southerner–these two factors are the most important thing to know about him. Both inform his work and the conventions he relies on and the tradition he works within and extends. Catholics are still a minority in the South, thus he follows in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, partly as an outsider (as Christian in a secular culture, and doubly so as Catholic in the protestant/fundamentalist Bible Belt). His work shares an affinity with O’Connor’s in his emphasis on the grotesque, and lastly in his desire to illuminate and highlight the workings of grace (redemption) in and through the mundane. He is not what I would classify as didactic, but in style he is a rhetorical poet. He uses humor, juxtaposition of odd pairings, and argumentation in the vein of parables as a way of thinking through problems, I believe, in an effort to persuade or point obliquely into corners and experience our culture would be just as glad to be distracted into not thinking about. These devices persuade the reader (not always gently or subtly) to grapple with big questions: Does personal evil exist, does God, what are the purposes of suffering, is redemption possible (or necessary), are things determined or does free will exist?
These questions are always present in Merck’s work, and not necessarily always brought to bear in the immediate subject matter, but sometimes through implication, metaphor or conceit, and occasionally through the plain, direct speech and personal experience of the poet. I think he knows and expects his audience will most likely be at odds with, if not hostile to, his ‘message,’ which places him in the category of prophet, not as one who foretells the future, but more as one who tells the truth. His prosaic style ensures that it cannot be easily misunderstood, but perhaps unpopular–yes. It seems clear to me that some of the poems are transparently confessional and the poet dispenses with the fictive “I.” I read this as a consciously deliberate choice to bear witness, and not due to a lack of sophistication, or a default stance. Alternatively, other poems are whimsically imagined constructs that we’ll get to later.
His experience tells us that he is damaged, but under reconstruction: an addictive personality who has entered and come out the other side of recovery and a redemption (physically and spiritually). We learn this from an excerpt taken from the opening poem in his chapbook, First Exit, and several lines into “Washing Clothes at Jimmy’s Trailer”:
I am in this land of farmers seeking recovery.
For many years I cancelled my emotions with alcohol and drugs.
My childhood is a bad neighborhood.
It’s not safe to go there.
He concludes this way:
Winter may still be some ways off.
Nature endures without apparent effort.
I have survived the passing mystery,
the metaphor of Spring.
One of the things I find refreshing about Merck is how unfashionably he proceeds in the context, poetically, in a culture where ambiguity, nonlinearity and political-correctness rule the day, merely by being direct and plainspoken in his longish, sometimes confessional, sometimes narrative poetry. This seems stylistically to me to be the trait of a Southerner or at least one willing to stubbornly go his own way. Another way he is glaringly unfashionable relates no doubt to his choice of subject matter and his Catholicism, which is to make the case for the metaphysical, personal evil, and a redemptive very personal God moving in and through history. He does this by way of narrative, which alternates between personal experience and lyric confessionalism and sometimes through stories involving (one would assume) fictional characters. By implication, if God exists, every person and life assumes huge significance and dignity by virtue of its being made by a Creator, as persons in His image, with great responsibility and the ability to make good or evil choices for oneself that in turn affect the lives of others daily. The speaker’s voice in these poems is terse, wry, idiomatic and unpretentious. Speaking of the fantastic or strange, his voice is reasonable and matter of fact. There’s very little use of artifice or much use of many of the tools of craft, including metaphor, but this is calculated I believe so the poet can focus a tight beam on the few devices he chooses to employ. Occasionally he alludes to the works of famous writers and thinkers, like Twain, or Descartes, subtly–if you weren’t paying attention or were unfamiliar, you might pass right over these.
In “Technique of Ecstasy” Merck uses a juxtaposition of two strands of narrative, one being a young and beautiful woman named Wanda who is typical of many Americans her age, and Otzi, the 5,000 year-old ice man, whose remains were recently discovered in a thawing glacier in the Alps. Merck imagines and summarizes their individual views on what is most important in life and death, their fears, and religious beliefs and how this drives them.
…Wanda’s religion is the world of fashion, runways, magazine covers.
Her temple is New York’s Garment District. Her father’s religion was college football.
His temple was the Superdome in New Orleans.
Otzi participated in a cult of the dead,
stylized burials, communion with them and their afterlife.
The graves of his parents and kin were holy places.
At certain times of the year he visited their graves.
Use of juxtaposition between a modern and ancient metaphysics; the secular versus religious viewpoint and utilizing history to offer a perspective beyond our cultural (and Merck would say, illusory) norm of autonomy, avoidance of mystery and individualism. This is a sneaky device which causes us to see and think beyond our few decades of personal, circumstantial, lived-out ethno and chronocentricism to consider a viewpoint beyond ourselves and everything we’ve been taught and assumed to believe is true of the world. Why? Enter another technique besides juxtaposition he has in his toolbox: the bald declaration:
Godlessness is not endemic to humanity.
Existential angst is not endemic to humanity.
The nonstop barrage of media, the hegemony of academic ideas,
the titular power of the scientific method–
every human being is born knowing this truth:
‘Love will follow me all the days of my life.’
A theologian, scholar and cultural commentator on a similar page in academia as Merck is poetically, is James K. A. Smith, who in his book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, makes the case that all humanity is unavoidably religious; even inside a secular culture, but the religious impulse manifests itself differently in that context–his opening chapter compares medieval cathedrals to shopping malls. Additionally he also makes the case that belief is less a rational, cerebral decision than the end result of desire and habit:
Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall–liturgies of mall and market–that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos, or goal of our own desires and actions…The core claim of this book is that liturgies [Smith defines ‘liturgy’ in his usage as ‘formative practice’ and ‘worship’]–whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’–shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. (pages 24-25, from the Introduction)…. The order of importance in forming who we are and become, according to Smith, is 1) Body, 2) Imagination, and 3) Head: Because I think we are primarily desiring animals than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities–what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are–is what we love. (page 26).
Merck, over the course of several poems, seems to be wrestling with this thesis and how evil corrupts and twists it, for example in these lines from “The Greatest Kleagle in the World,” opening with the impersonal and material: “There is no agenda behind a snowflake.” At first I find myself arguing with such a statement because a snowflake has a sense of order and natural law and process imposed on raw molecular material, but then as the poem and argument develops, we see what Merck means and where he is going,
The life of things impinges, a glorious will to power,
domination, triumph, green seed that must grow, mature,
reproduce after its kind.
and then we see the argument expanded or reiterated as a contest between DNA or heredity and will, which opens the question, are we free, do we make choices, or are things merely determined and if they are, or additionally, how does evil come into it, and what might that imply about God and the built-in structure of the universe?:
DNA drives the cell and makes it reproduce after its kind.
DNA is the culprit. The will. All the rest is just baggage.
The boys at Nuremburg
were distressingly sane.
The poem ends without resolving or attempting to answer these questions directly, which don’t get readdressed until later in the collection with different poems, but the closure in this poem seems to be ambiguously that we are like little gods, wanting to impose some order or meaning or purpose on or through our actions but doing it only imperfectly and without much of a blueprint to work from, but mainly through unconscious desire and ending perhaps with bewildered regret:
He stood on the night shore of the Chattahoochee.
No thought would come to him bathed in sweat as he was.
He carried an assumption not really conscious about
an ordered world. There in the chaos. Something
to be imposed.
We get the feeling from this poem that we are at the mercy of not only what is determined through heredity and environment, but also the possibility of evil springing forth any minute either from within, which is the most scary possibility, but also from others or circumstances, as in “Wolf Man,” when the poet/speaker is driving with his grandson, and they stop at a carnival after his grandson sees it and there is no possibility of passing it by. Wolf Man conflates into a metaphor that is not only like the speaker at his worst, but also might even be a preferable curse compared to when the speaker was in his chemically dependent bad days:
I did not ask to be chemically dependent.
I would rather have been a wolf man.
There would have been less mayhem and damage associated with my past.
I would have been shot early on with a silver bullet and killed…
Most chemically dependent people have childhood trauma issues,
some fundamental insults in childhood.
Scientists can now cite a gene or two that predisposes addiction.
Here we see both heredity and environment working against the speaker, but additionally the speaker must contend with evil within himself as impulses and memories, and possibly even outside through dark spiritual forces and influences of others, all of which he feels as he begins to change, but then struggles against and succeeds in recovering himself:
…I walk back into the carnival.
I have a sense of leaving something sinister behind me.
My radar is on. I reflexively check for evidence of a blackout, damage.
The thread of memory is continuous. The crowd takes me into itself.
I see Tiger [his grandson] flying through the air on a biplane. I revel in my restored humanity,
the reassurance of another carnage free evening.
In “Minstrel Show,” the poet recounts a bout with evil as a child, in which even within the context of being a youngster, being a member of an innocuous club like Cub Scouts, and in a church setting putting on a minstrel show performance in blackface, he cautions himself and us,
I should not think that penury will not exist, again,
or the auction block, or the concentration camp…
In the church kitchen getting donuts, I saw an image
reflected on a big steel pot. I had used burnt cork. [to apply the blackface]
I knew of the casual evil living in the heart, then,
the white middle class heart, supposed repository
of the Holy Spirit
I must concentrate on joy.
I had a mental cancer.
It’s tumors are in remission.
There is always the malignant
Here we have a summarized prescription for how to respond to and treat this cancer, but we are never free entirely, made whole, or healed completely; we exist only in remission and subject to relapse–this is the implication of the middle poems. Then, toward the end, there is a wild shift in the last third of the chapbook. The poems turn a corner thematically and more resolution to some of the introductory questions begins to be offered. The irony is always present, but gets richer and deeper, through the grotesquerie of, for example, a hedonistic, yodeling rooster emblematic of appetite (and life), and other characters (including the speaker) who while not necessarily perfect per se are obviously on a road toward restoration in the present and wholeness in the future (redemption). Partly this is done through an expansion of the prescription of joy, and partly as a development of a particularly Catholic concept within Christianity of Carnival. Several of the poems deal with or are set within the context of small “c” carnivals, which is really the only touchpoint most of us in middle America are familiar with, and so Merck plays with that by literal reference with metaphorical extension in his poems, but actually the real Carnival is closer to Mardi Gras. It’s a complicated, enigmatic concept and tradition that arose in cultures with pagan roots, as in European or central and south American countries that syncretized with Catholicism to become culturally, Latin Christendom, in which the pagan roots become transformed into something new, and then undergoes more change as the culture secularized, along with most of the modern, western world. To understand how Merck might see this as a resolution, and possible solution conceptually and theologically to the problem of evil, heredity and DNA, and the will, it would help to look at what the Catholic and Canadian sociologist/historian/philosopher, Charles Taylor says about Carnival outlined in his magnum opus, A Secular Age:
Another way in which this feature of equilibrium in tension emerges in this society [of medieval Catholicism] became evident in Carnival and similar festivities, such as the feasts of misrule, or boy bishops, and the like…boys wore the mitre; fools were made kings for a day; what was ordinarily revered was mocked; people permitted themselves various forms of license, not just sexually but also in close to violent acts, and the like. These were periods in which the ordinary order of things were inverted, or ‘the world was turned upside down.’…people needed this safety valve. The weight of virtue and good order was so heavy, and so much steam built up under this suppression of instinct, that there had to be periodic blow-outs if the system were not to fly apart…the thinking behind this parallel draws on theories about the Saturnalia, and other similar festivals (e.g. in ancient Mesopotamia, and also the Aztec renewals of the world). The intuition supposedly underlying these is that order binds a primitive chaos, which is both its enemy but also the source of all energy, including that of order…so that order itself can only survive through periodic renewal, in which the forces of chaos are first unleashed anew, and then brought into a new founding of order…Then, of course, there is Bakhtin, who brings out the utopian strain in laughter. Laughter as the solvent of all boundaries; the body which connects us to everyone and everything; these are celebrated in Carnival. A kind of carnal Parousia…Victor Turner proposes another theory. The order we are mocking is important but not ultimate; what is ultimate is the community it serves; and this community is fundamentally egalitarian; it includes everyone. Yet we cannot do away with the order. So we periodically renew it, rededicate it…(page 45-47)…This enables us to see that the play of structure and anti-structure can take place on more than one level, because it is this whole complementarity of state and church together which plays the structural pole to the anti-structure of carnival. So the pull of communitas is potentially multi-valenced. (page 50)
If Merck finds the difficult and mysterious issue of Carnival somehow important and healing–how does he incorporate this into his poetry? From a poem called “The Colors of Revelry,”
I dressed as a pirate on Walpurgis Eve.
The black eye patch. With only one eye.
I was raised in a world of revelry, debauch.
I can only make hand signs about which I have to also
try to explain the meaning…
Festive midget clowns and tom toms and women
who are not white. Anodyne.
I am come from a land with no sunset
and from “Tree Top Walker:”
I was 17 when I realized I had no capacity for happiness
apart from beer and pills and pot.
In these poems, he is trying to show not only a progression of events in his life personally, but also how spiritual awakening comes about and what that looks like and means to the individual. For him, it looked like one focused inward, filled with stories of sadness, despair, cynical awareness and bewilderment, whose only real hope and coping mechanism is to anesthetize oneself through the numbing properties of alcohol and drugs, but this only treated symptoms of genetics and environment. It not only proves empty, but damaging to oneself and collaterally to others without ever addressing the ultimate issues causing the pain to begin with. In other words it’s pain management (anodyne), not healing. What does bring about healing? Acknowledgement of one’s spiritual need, of God, of ultimate purpose and meaning in the midst of adverse circumstance, a desperate and newfound dependence on others followed by shared community/fellowship, and the joy which results. Mainly what we see is a ridiculously exuberant joy in these latter poems which results from the speaker and his characters who hit bottom in self-destructive cycles and then turn out of desperation. Carnival is community coming together through interdependence and equality of the lowest and the highest, on display through reversals of role and status, but still involves wearing a mask and only lasts a day, a night, or perhaps a week. In a sense it is a corporate coping mechanism within a culture–a release valve. It is a hinting, and perhaps even a counterfeit, but signifying pointer to a greater, deeper reality of peace and communion within the Kingdom of God and true shalom.
We see the speaker move from a point of personal revelry or debauchery and the temporary, superficial happiness based on numbing oneself and selfish focus within a community of individuals in isolation who then turns out of necessity toward an implicit meaning and purpose, toward wholeness, healing, and communion through interdependence, a seeing and being seen of one who has been made free to remove the mask because he is acceptable as he is in all his need and inability to stand on his own. Joy is possible, but only after hitting bottom enough to make acknowledgement of a Creator (and corresponding dependence) who purposes and loves unconditionally and does not leave us needy and broken, but heals, and restores something that was lost–something less beastly and more human: The divine image, which is directly tied into the ability to choose (and believe). This provides a foundation to stand on for a true community (and communion) to exist, which results in actual joy and peace cosmically to those individuals who are enabled to partake of it. The glue appears to be divine love apprehended by belief, and all the things which follow.
These references to Carnival, and Merck’s technique in his poetry through the use of grotesqueries in fictional character and narrative, such as for example a yodeling rooster, brings me in mind of the medieval technique of drolleries in architecture, illuminated manuscripts and Bosch’s visual art. Stefan Fischer, an art commentator and critic of Hieronymous Bosch, says this of the technique:
The [French] term drolerie [German: drollen, Netherlands: grillen] began to be used in the late 1500s in France as a collective name to refer to bawdily comic and grotesque figural or scenic representations…Bosch’s works make use of a number of motifs and themes that are more or less identical to those found in drolleries…The existence and, indeed, the major evolution of drolleries within the sphere of religious art can be explained by the fact that the monstrous and the grotesque serve to illustrate sin and Evil and are thus part of this world and equally of the Divine Plan of Salvation. Hieronymous Bosch takes up this great tradition of visual art, previously tucked away in the margins of illuminated manuscripts and in the carved decoration of choir stalls and capitals, and transfers it to panel painting…The principle of creating hybrids out of several creatures also allowed him to construct entirely new figures. (The Complete Works, Hieronymous Bosch, Stefan Fischer, pp 94, 95).
Whether directly and consciously, or unconsciously, Merck is in touch with and drawing from the Medieval tradition of Carnival, drolleries, and the same symbolic source as Bosch for his poetry.
In “Rooster,” in the concluding lines that echo an earlier poem, “Technique of Ecstasy,” Merck follows his characters to the point of saying this about them:
All of these are not doing time, are not just hanging on. They
have only forgotten a common level of rejoicing, that is coming back to them.
They are beginning to feel, once again, the bone-level joy in the marrow.
And Smiley [the rooster] can yodel.
These characters have been translated from a kingdom of darkness into a kingdom of light, through acknowledgement of their common need and the resulting fellowship with one another, and underlying this, a newfound harmony with Creator and creation and a renewed sense of humanity and dignity. In a later poem, “Volition Trumps DNA,” the issue of determinism is revisited and resolved, again in the context of joy and the characters, Mose, Doc (John Galen Holliday, MD), Thomas (a personage over 300 years old), and Smiley (the service rooster), joy is the result after they are each visited with visions. The poem opens with play, gamboling (frolic):
Sea lions play. Otters play. Lions play.
Humans need scapegoats.
Humans also gambol…
They do this in the context of meeting at a very pagan fountain, the storyteller’s fountain, which features an anthropomorphic goat reading to animals where water comes from the mouths of five frogs forming the shape of a pentagram. These characters aren’t threatened by pagan or idolatrous images–it is the context they exist within, and creates a focal point for their antics and meetings with one another. It is the world they were born into, the culture they sprang from, but is not in any sense their ultimate destination or source of meaning or consolation. They don’t shun or try to separate themselves from the world, but in a sense they don’t belong to it either because they are passing through, while they gambol and play and have visions of other realities they are moving through and toward.
Echoing James K. A. Smith, alluding to Descartes, grappling with free will versus determinism, the poem’s ending lines are worth quoting at length:
Mind and imagination, will and emotion are synonymous to soul in these three men and a chicken.
Any being–air, rock, water, wood, flesh, spirit–carries existence.
Thinking is only one form of being. Today, Thomas and Doc and Mose and Smiley
and the entirety of the universes exist with ease[…]
At the Storyteller Fountain, just now, Thomas and Doc and Mose and Smiley are not merely waiting
for their various genes to turn on or turn off. For them, intelligence, love, joy,
body-mind and heart-mind are subject to will, and even will proceeds from choice.
They are not conscious of this[…]
For Thomas and Mose and Doc and Smiley, each with good treasure
in his heart, balanced on a fine point, volition trumps DNA. Nothing
is determined apart from belief. Beliefs operate their bodies and their minds
and manipulate the nearby quantum fields of reality.
Each cooperates in the creation of this common world.
They are not really consciously aware of this, either.
After the rich, generous sampling I’ve offered I think we can all agree that the poems are highly theological and prosaic, but not in a predictable or pedantic sense. The largely operative theme seems to be a turning from our animalistic condition determined by DNA and environment to a restoration of our humanity (and the divine image) characterized by having free volition, and not just driven by impulse and instinct. Thus we see in the characters through the arcing narrative of the chapbook a contrast or contest between lower earthly desires and higher spiritual ones. We glimpse the fruit of choices and beliefs which produce community and communion, interdependence based on mutual need and humility, and a true joy as distinguished from happiness versus the kinds of distractions or coping mechanisms our secular culture commonly views as human flourishing: the American Dream, consumerism, a cynical, world-weary numbness.
This joy in Merck’s poetry is predicated on a combination of choice and belief (faith?!) leading to a restored fellowship with Creator, and creation, and a kind of unknowing and unconscious, unthinking connection (because it was a gift?). So in that sense the poetry is not really theological, except that it is predicated on God working in the world redeeming and restoring fellowship with the lost and damaged. This doesn’t mean his work is without artifice, but he definitely has something to communicate, and like any prophet, feels charged to get it across plainly to whomever will listen.
And, he is his first reader. As a poet, I believe he is talking to himself first and foremost–in one of the poems he says directly, “I’m talking to me.” At the same time I don’t believe he can be accused of being preachy or dealing in simplicity, but often tackles deep mystery, irony and verisimilitude through lived experience–avoiding the judgmental, condescending or pretentious pitfalls in voice. This voice and condition is only possible for the convert, I believe–one who at one time was blind but finally sees, and one who was dead but now lives. And it is ecumenical and inclusive as opposed to exclusive or fundamentalist–in one of the later poems, “Cave Man,” some of these themes, of unconscious being, community, and joy come together in a primitive, pagan, prehistorical subject without judgement or condemnation, but also since it’s in the first person, Merck seems to be talking with himself as speaker:
I am loosed, now. I enter the stream. In my hand,
I have a sculpted figure of a woman. Small, Stone.
All hips and breasts. In the lull before dawn,
I take on flesh, again, to become
Perhaps what he wishes his poetry to do in the contemporary world, almost like an ancient tablet, reminding us of a time in which all were theists and none were atheists, is this:
[…]Someone takes a sprig
and traces something essential into wet clay.
Someone deciphers it. And the thing explodes.
It’s radical. Let those who have ears to hear, listen…