Help is On the Way by John Brehm

University of Wisconsin Press, 2012
The first section of John Brehm’s new book of poetry, Help is On the Way, is immediately engaging. Like many of the poems in his award-winning first collection, Sea of Faith, the poems in “Over and Under” offer a light-hearted, ironic awareness of the collective experiences of civilization. “Talk of the Town” and “Getting Where We’re Going” collect words and noises of the city—things we might not otherwise consider. Several poems reflect on mass  transit. “Critical Mass,” recently included in Garrison Keiler’s The Writer’s Almanac, offers a visual metaphor of a political occupation of New York City’s East Village by bicyclists: “but what I still see / are the wheels / held upward / spoked with light / freed from / the pavement / spinning into sky.” Throughout the first section, there is an ubiquitous awareness of the author as poet. We are aware that this is a poet’s take on the world, and we are to understand things with all the pre-supposed concepts we have of poets.

At the end of the first section, Help is On the Way diverges from Brehm’s first book, and distinguishes itself as a deeper and more significant collection. The second section, a long poem called “Lineage,” has a far broader scope, exploring philosophical questions of human development and our fears of death as we fell from our primordial place in the trees into the jaws of lions. We are asked to make ourselves aware of “when we learned to feel.” Feelings existed in the earlier poems, just as they existed when we were in the trees, but they are small compared to what we are asked to experience from this point on in the book.

In the last stanzas of “Lineage” we are left with the sense of humans evolved and shaping their own world:

Because that’s what you do when you stand
upright and free your hands
from locomotion—
you start grasping things and reshaping them,
turning the world into your
idea of the world. [45]

“Lineage” bridges and delivers us from the rough and distracted life of the moment in New York City to a place of deep silence and slow time, a place where all is focused on life and death.

The third section, “Side by Side,” is the core of the book and details Brehm’s experience of traveling to Kyoto, Japan to donate part of his liver to try—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to save the life of a nephew, George Masahiro Brehm, to whom the book is dedicated. As he writes in “To Make the Wound More Beautiful,” “Deep silence held him / and because he could not wake / I joined him there.”  [55]

This section of the book is remarkably different from anything Brehm has published before and marks his transformation into an elegist of compelling power. “To Make the Wound More Beautiful” is the poet’s rendering of an encounter with death in the light of suffering, sacrifice, and loss. It memorializes not only the young man who died, but also Brehm’s gift to him, knowing there is no guarantee of gratitude or recompense for gifts like that.

In these poems, Brehm lets go of the fears of the lion, of death: “life felt real, its strangeness / no longer half-hidden.”[51] The telling of the story, evoking feelings which left people sobbing at a reading I attended, could not have come easily. Grief is difficult to express even as it lingers, even though it is profound. Profound sadness is hard to get right. And to make a poem about the death of a young man, it is important to get it absolutely right. Brehm succeeds on all levels. He faces his lions, aware that overcoming the fear of the “lion- / charmed savannas” [37] is the only way to turn the world into your idea of the world, because the lions are a small part of a much larger experience. In “Ultrasound,” near the end of the book, Brehm finally acknowledges that he is not so ready to let these worries go. He still needs them; they are part of who he is. “Those were not removed, / were they? I don’t think I could part / with them just yet.”[65]

As a collection, Help Is on the Way is a coming of age, an adult loss of innocence. Like all strong elegists, the poet meets and accepts the inevitability of death and finds the courage to write about things most difficult to put into words. It acknowledges a rite of passage where art meets mortality. But unlike those who have disease and accident thrust upon them without choice, Brehm makes the choice. “I had told my brother, ‘If George lives / and I die, I can live with that’” [54], which allows all the beauty of the wound. In the end, the poet remains the poet, only now able to transmute what is most difficult to know. In the end, I think he got it right.

THERESÉ SAMSON WENHAM is a poet and a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, CO. She is currently working on a book of poems and studying to be a speech-language pathologist.