Review of River Bound by Brian Simoneau, C&R Press, 2014
Karen J. Weyant
Having grown up in a rural Rust Belt town, I have a special love for locations haunted by working-class history. Certainly, Lowell, Massachusetts, the setting in Brian Simoneau’s River Bound, is such a place. As I read through Simoneau’s debut poetry collection, I found myself entranced by the narrator’s story, as he navigates the working-class landscape of his hometown while grappling with the emotions that come in the wake of the death of his father.
Many of Simoneau’s poems are coming-of-age narratives of a young boy who is searching for both identity and fighting for survival in his hardscrabble world. In “Poem for my Brother” the narrator details a fight with another boy:
And I punched his ugly face once
then twice then over and over
until my knuckles burned and I
couldn’t tell if the blood was his
or mine. He cried for me to stop.
The scuffle, which begins when the boy calls the narrator’s brother “white trash” ends with the brother crying as well, but “softly and without a word.” It’s a poem that is clearly told from the perspective of an adult looking back as a specific memory, for the narrator explains that years later this same brother “tells me that he cried/because it seemed I never would./My eyes were someplace else.” With these words, we see both a widening, hard-to-define gulf between siblings, but we also witness the struggle the narrator has with himself, believing that relief could somehow be found by taking part in physical altercations while distancing himself from his present surroundings. In another poem, “To the Guy Who Stole My Bike,” the poet addresses a thief with both warnings, “Be careful/once I went over the handlebars and took skin off both hands and knees” and recollections about the narrator’s own life of struggles where he is seemingly, but grudgingly, is used to loss: “Booze took one grandfather, cancer another – cancer almost got/my brother too.” The narrator ends with these words to the thief: “I want you to enjoy it and never/think of me and what I’ve lost, what you could never take.” Both poems, in very different forms, are reflections of childhood memories and of a world that is best described in “Morning Mass” where families gather together to worship on Sundays, yet faith is “forgotten by Monday morning” in a world where “every day wears down//their bodies – crumpled pages, torn to pieces/tossed by a wind that muffles prayers and pleas/and cries for love or something like it, mercy.”
Other poems shift to third person point of view, where the poet’s father takes center stage. For example, in “Taking Flight” the poet describes a character who “always liked//the smell of gas, how it stings his nose, stays/in his clothes, soaks his skin.” Still, there is weariness in this portrait, especially with the ending lines, “How easily he’s light//sparks from a dragging tailpipe, a flicked cigarette --/how high the flare, how quickly he’d burn up.” This gritty portrait illustrates a man who takes pride in his work, yet is also vulnerable.
It’s later in the collection that we learn about the death of the narrator’s father through a poem, “Shopping for Pants as Lessons in Language” where the poet compares a painful shopping trip where he is steered towards clothing labeled “husky” with a time in his life where he doesn’t quite understand the power of language. Still, he discovers that there are times when language will elude him: “Then one April, dumbstruck, I stood amid flowers/beside a grave. No graceful passing on, no sunlit room, no words/of goodbye.” Certainly, the narrator’s struggle with both the process of grief and his role as a poet in recording this sadness is echoed in other works as found in “The Gravedigger to the Grieving Poet” who gives this advice to the grieving son: “No consolation/comes, remember, unless you walk out those gates//and get on with living, flip the page, forget.”
While many collections of working-class poetry focus on the debris of manmade landscapes, Simoneau lets the natural world show through the industrial wastelands, mostly in lamentations about his father’s death. For instance, in “Funeral with Cherry Blossoms Failing” the poet provides a personal narrative of the moments after a graveside service is over:
the soil – the snowmelt
weeks of rain. Now
the skies are empty
except for a blackbird
diving down, searching
for earthworms among
the green that spread
Indeed, a careful reader will notice that Simoneau is navigating grief through the seasons, as seen in “In November: Almost New Moon,” where the narrator finds himself not only mourning the loss of the dwindling year, but thinking of a gravestone where “it won’t be/long before my father’s name is lost/under a mantle of snow.” Finally, there is acceptance to his father’s death for in “Spring Comes to Lowell” the poet catalogs the various ways that “winter loosens its hold” explaining that the earth does struggle as it emerges from its slumber: “it falters, tentative/the way we begin/to accept the dead/aren’t coming back.”
Besides the poems that explore personal loss, Simoneau never lets the reader forget the importance of his home in working- class American history. Lowell, of course, is the birthplace of the American textile mills and the world of the mill girls. While this past is not the focus of River Bound, it certainly haunts the poet’s landscape, such as “The Canal” where the narrator offers a litany of descriptions of imagined lives of the boys who swim in the canal in spite of the warnings of “rats as big as dogs” and “ghost of mill girls drowned in black water.” In another poem, “Appleton & Pearl” the narrators takes a companion on a tour of his home town, where “vacant buildings, liquor stores and pawn shops” line the streets along with “a place that peddles postcards, snow globes, spools/of thread they say was made in the mills.” Finally, there is “Lowell National Historic Park” where the poet longs for visitors to stand on the bridge and listen to how the present intersects with the past, where the “babble of motorboat” and a “chattering tour” combine with “thousands of looms spinning.” Yet, he is sure that “no one is listening” and that when tourists they are told about the mill girls, no one mentions, the many “threw/themselves, nameless, down to the water.”
In essence, River Bound is an elegy: an elegy for a dead father, an elegy for a lost history, an elegy for a struggling landscape. Still, like all elegies should, there is hope in the knowledge of acceptance. This acceptance could suggest that there is beauty in debris or that the past, whether personal or historical, continues with us whether through physical reminders or memories. This acceptance could also be that contentment can be found anywhere, even in the most unlikely of places. As the narrator concludes in “The Truth Is,” his worn home still has happiness: “Lowell’s seen its share/of sunshine, despite what I often say.”
About the Author:
Karen J. Weyant’s most recent collection of poetry, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, won Main Street Rag’s 2011 Chapbook contest and was published in 2012. Her poetry has appeared in Barn Owl Review, Cave Wall, Copper Nickel, Harpur Palate, Poetry East, Slipstream, Spillway, Tahoma Literary Review and River Styx. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. In her spare time, she explores the Rust Belt regions of Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania. Her website is here.