Flashcuts Out of Chaos.* By Charles W. Brice. Cincinnati, OH: WordTech Editions, 2016. $18.96 (pa.). 97 pages.
reviewed by Mike Good
Entering Charles W. Brice’s first full-length poetry collection, Flashcuts Out of Chaos, is entering a tumultuous emotional landscape of Catholic school, domestic strife, and societal upheaval. Alcoholic figures move from home and into churches, from a therapist’s chair to the tabernacle. Brice’s work recalls a blend of the Beat, confessional, stand-up schools of poetry. As a collection, it reads as an act of unburdening through narrative: a recognition of the past to catalog it, recognize it, learn from it, and to understand the present. To contrast somber content, Brice splices humor into the heartbreaks that populate the collection.
What I enjoy most about Brice’s work is that he stretches for earnestness, while being aware that, perhaps, no poem can fully transfer a memory or experience to the reader. Failure is always on the tails of its sincerest efforts, and sincerity occurs in droves throughout this collection. Poems appear in free verse; lines and stanzas break to reflect content and narrative; most layouts are conventional; and most poems dwell in first-person. The book is arranged chronologically and falls into three distinct parts, “The Inverted World,” “Wild Pitch”, and “Milliseconds of Mystery.”
“The Inverted World” follows the speaker throughout a caustic and interrupted childhood, highlighting a tense relationship between his mother and father. Catholic school authority figures fail to embody the morals they preach to the young speaker, whose faith is often tested. The section ends with the speaker having grown into a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. The final poem of the “The Inverted World,” “Shave,” offers an intimate picture of helping a homeless man to shower and shave. The poem stands out from preceding poems in its style as Brice omits punctuation in favor of extra spacing:
the teeth of the comb were moving
We both had to shower not together of course
with Quell soap the only soap that
killed the lice and the eggs that moved
across the comb
Then I shaved him
The poem earns the speaker additional credibility as he relays an uncomfortable and intimate gesture of kindness.
Playful and more present-tense scenes appear in “Wild Pitch.” Initially, the second section appears to shift gears, leaning on humor to contrast to the heavier confessions found in “The Inverted World.” While a Nietzsche epigraph opens the section, the second poem “Three Blatherskites and You’re Out” begins with an epigraph by former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Charlie Morton, (often referred to by Pittsburgh announcers as “Ground Chuck” due to his pitch’s tendency to earn outs with opponents hitting ground balls). However, levity quickly gives way to intense subject matter. For instance, after “Sartre and Simone Get Married” offers a hyperbolic satire of the philosophers entering wedlock; the next poem “In Memory of August Kittel, Jr.” cuts to an elegy for the great playwright, August Wilson. In the elegy, Brice works to portray segregation and discrimination, while paying homage to Wilson, repeating the refrain:
In this ocean of white,
he was Pittsburgh’s black gem,
its king, the train we loved to ride;
our eighth guitar, our shining man.
I feel that it is to his credit that Brice exhibits determination to explore racial inequity from a white perspective (and he does so bluntly and pointedly throughout the collection). However, due to the poem-order and content, the tones clashed. The elegy reads more like a distant aside than the personal and intimate tribute I hoped to experience. The use of “we” in the refrain also made me inwardly squirm along with the person-riding-person-as-train metaphor.
The third section, “Milliseconds of Mystery” closes the book. While it is the shortest section of the book, it is also, perhaps, the most tender. Love poems like “Asparagus” explore the joys of a long and intimate marriage. The poem concludes, “Our eyes, our words, float/on the slow tip/of time—and we know years—we too/thickandthinners,/ hurtling towards the inevitable blur of us.” In the final section, Brice’s occupation as a therapist becomes more evident. This had the effect of further humanizing the speaker, who has had to stumble through difficulties throughout the collection.
Flashcuts Out of Chaos, is, as the title implies, a book with jagged edges that swerves through humorous, somber, public, and personal registers. While the book may have benefited from additional sections or some excision, Brice’s debut collection is filled with heart and provides a charged experience for its readers. The poet’s humanity and willingness to explore happiness, sorrow, discomfort, and disparities in equal and muddy intervals elicit joy, pointing towards a poetry that is messy, hopeful, and celebratory.
* Also available at local bookstores, such as Caliban Books
Mike Good serves as a poetry editor for the After Happy Hour Review. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com