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John Brehm's "Of Love and Life Insurance: An Argument” and Bill Morgan's "Six Tree Sparrows"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Of Love and Life Insurance: An Argument"

John Brehm's "Of Love and Life Insurance: An Argument" consists of a single free verse paragraph (versagraph), which content-wise sections itself into six movements. The verse offers a fascinating look at the differences between the pragmatic, real world desires of one individual, and that of a head-in-the-clouds poet.

The verse loses its balance when the speaker rambles off into his romanic view of poetry, leaving readers to wonder what happened to that relationship. Or even what the girlfriend's response was to his musings on poetry.

Even though it is likely the two split soon after that conversation, the verse could benefit by making that possibility clearer. This loss of balance also results in the verse failing to live up to its title: there is no true argument. There are only two different statements about the nature and practicality of a poet's life.

Of Love and Life Insurance: An Argument

“I need to accept you as you are,” she said,
“so you need to become the kind
of person I can accept.” I was
becoming bewildered, but I don’t
think that’s what she meant.
“Life insurance,” she said. “You
don’t have any life insurance.”
“But we’ve only known each other
three months. Aren’t we jumping ahead?”
“Look,” she said, “I don’t want
to have to take my child and move
back to Chicago and live with my mother.
I don’t want to have to take my child
to a public clinic. And I don’t want to
have to ride you and nag you and ask you
a hundred times about all this stuff.”
And then my heart fell from the sky
like a shot bird. “Is that how you
imagine a life with me?”
I guess being an unsuccessful poet
isn’t as attractive as it used to be.
But where’s the risky spirit,
the headlong leap into the vast
unknown of love, where anything
and everything might happen? Where’s
the wish to be surrounded by poems,
the great sustaining luxuries and dangers
of poems, or to make one’s life itself
a poem, unpredictable, meaning
many things, a door into the other world
through which even a child might walk?
Words have such power, I wanted to tell her.
You never know what may come of them.
Or who will be the beneficiary.

Commentary

The speaker in this piece is dramatizing a conversation with his girlfriend of only three months.

First Movement: Change

“I need to accept you as you are,” she said,
“so you need to become the kind
of person I can accept.” I was
becoming bewildered, but I don’t
think that’s what she meant.
“Life insurance,” she said. “You
don’t have any life insurance.”

The girlfriend says she needs to accept the speaker as he is, which indicates that she does not want to change him, but then she adds that he needs to "become" the type of individual she can accept. In other words, she does not want to change him, but she wants him to change.

The speaker comments cleverly on the idea of "becoming": "I was / becoming bewildered, but I don't / think that's what she meant." While the girlfriend needs to accept him as he is, she finds she cannot do so, because of he has no life insurance policy.

Second Movement: Imagining Marriage

“But we’ve only known each other
three months. Aren’t we jumping ahead?”
“Look,” she said, “I don’t want
to have to take my child and move
back to Chicago and live with my mother.
I don’t want to have to take my child
to a public clinic. And I don’t want to
have to ride you and nag you and ask you
a hundred times about all this stuff.”

The poet/speaker then replies that they have known each other for only three months and poses the question, "Aren't we jumping ahead?"

Then the girlfriend gets specific: she imagines them married with a child, and she is so dissatisfied with the marriage that she has to leave him, move back to her hometown with their child and live with her mother.

Furthermore, she does not want to have take her child to a public clinic, nor does she want to keep nagging him about all these practical aspects of life. The girlfriend is simply looking out for herself, telling him what she does not want for herself and her child. She is being very pragmatic—perhaps premature—but practical.

Third Movement: Blasted

And then my heart fell from the sky
like a shot bird. “Is that how you
imagine a life with me?”

The poet/speaker then reports that his feelings were blasted like a bird that had been shot. The romance has been obliterated by the woman's practicality. The speaker is wounded and asks her if that is now she imagines their life together.

The speaker is shocked that this woman with whom he has had a three-month relationship would project such a bitter future for herself if they married.

Fourth Movement: End of Conversation

I guess being an unsuccessful poet
isn’t as attractive as it used to be.

At this point, the conversation has ended; only the poet/speaker is musing. He postulates with a rather sarcastic remark regarding the nature of the attractiveness of remaining an unsuccessful poet. Again, the speaker's retort is somewhat humorous.

While the romantic notion of the starving artist is always afloat, and some women and men will always be attracted to that romantic fantasy, other more practical individuals will not be so easily swayed.

Fifth Movement: Romantic Fantasies

But where’s the risky spirit,
the headlong leap into the vast
unknown of love, where anything
and everything might happen? Where’s
the wish to be surrounded by poems,
the great sustaining luxuries and dangers
of poems, or to make one’s life itself
a poem, unpredictable, meaning
many things, a door into the other world
through which even a child might walk?

The speaker continues to engage his own romantic fantasies about the nature of the starving poet and his world of poetry. This poet/speaker believes the beginning of a romance requires the partners to accept risk as they jump into the "vast / unknown of love."

Because in that vastness "anything / and everything" is likely to happen. The speaker wonders where those romantic views have gone. The speaker wonders what happened to the notion that poems are "sustaining luxuries and dangers." The speaker wonders what happened to the wish to make one's life a poem.

Unlike the girlfriend, this speaker is so in love with poetry that he believes that it possesses the power to open doors into worlds unimagined and "through which even a child might walk."

Sixth Movement: Power and Mystery

Words have such power, I wanted to tell her.
You never know what may come of them.
Or who will be the beneficiary.

The speaker wants to tell his girlfriend how important poetry is, how important the mystery of the unknown is to him, with the possibility that someone will benefit from poetry's words. The speaker concludes with the term "beneficiary" to resonate with the earlier life insurance request.

However, it is likely that the girlfriend would not be so inclined toward that great unknown; she would still want him to show her the money, or at least, the solid potential for acquiring the green stuff.

Poetry Series - S7: John Brehm

Bill Morgan's "Six Tree Sparrows"

This elegant poem, "Six Tree Sparrows," offers an intense look at six birds as they go about their task of conquering the food supply in winter.

Introduction and Text of "Six Tree Sparrows"

Bill Morgan's beautifully crafted piece, "Six Tree Sparrows, plays out in three unrimed verse paragraphs (versagraphs), resulting in a colorful drama in which the birds strip foxtails in a cold, snowy field in winter.

Even with its flaws, the poem speaks powerfully, and without the regrettable final line, this piece could very well be considered a Christmas-season testimony to the birth of Divine Love for all created beings.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Six Tree Sparrows

Among the dozens of Juncos, six Tree Sparrows,
low in the snow-crusted field, make their way westward
through mixed grasses, calling discreetly to one another
in calm, candid voices like so many small wooden flutes.

In this late-afternoon work, each bird settles
about two feet up on a pale yellow Foxtail seed spike,
slim and tall, and rides it, bowing, down—
tail and wings buzzing in quick bursts, for balance—
then slides along toward the brown tip,
pins the cluster to the ice and strips it, telling and re-telling
a narrative of progress to the others, who listen,
feed, and reply. This goes on, stem after stem, for half an hour.
Then their little rusty caps, black breast spots, and white-
barred wings rise [up] and disappear into darkening trees behind.

Theirs is a contented, un-self-conscious harvest song;
theirs a labor elegant, precise, perfectly fitted to itself.
One watching could almost believe in a peaceable god.

Commentary on “Six Tree Sparrows”

This poem focuses on six birds as they go about their task of finding food in winter.

First Versagraph: Flute Like Bird Voices

Among the dozens of Juncos, six Tree Sparrows,
low in the snow-crusted field, make their way westward
through mixed grasses, calling discreetly to one another
in calm, candid voices like so many small wooden flutes.

In the first versagraph, the speaker reports that he is observing six birds, who happen to be tree sparrows. They are moving "westward." He then likens the sounds that the birds are making to "small wooden flutes."

He claims that the birds call "discreetly to one another," and their voices he finds to be "calm" and candid." The reader may be in awe of the flute comparison but wonder why the speaker would claim that the birds call to one another "discreetly."

In order to determine the presence of discretion in the behavior of another, one needs to determine motive. The bird-watcher can certainly determine the bird's motive in rummaging for food but not whether the bird intends to be discreet when he calls to other birds. Reading the mind of a bird is beyond the talent of a poet!

Second Versagraph: Detailed Activity

In this late-afternoon work, each bird settles
about two feet up on a pale yellow Foxtail seed spike,
slim and tall, and rides it, bowing, down—
tail and wings buzzing in quick bursts, for balance—
then slides along toward the brown tip,
pins the cluster to the ice and strips it, telling and re-telling
a narrative of progress to the others, who listen,
feed, and reply. This goes on, stem after stem, for half an hour.
Then their little rusty caps, black breast spots, and white-
barred wings rise [up] and disappear into darkening trees behind.

The speaker then details the actions of the birds as they strip the seeds from a foxtail. The unfortunate intrusion of "I think" weakens the mood: "each bird settles / about two feet up on a slim, tall seed spike, / Foxtail, I think, and rides it, bowing, down."

The description of each bird's action is marvelous, however, giving the reader a joyful experience in watching the skill of the birds. The speaker reports that the birds, as they wrestle with the foxtail, cause their tail and wings to "buzz[ ] in quick bursts." Just a wonderful way of noting those actions!

Then again, alas, the speaker intrudes upon the moment by claiming that they do this thing with their wings and tail "to adjust for balance." Even if the speaker could be certain of adjusting for balance being the reason for the quick bursts, it weakens the effect of his brilliant language choices that sufficiently portrayed the exact actions.

The reader simply does not need to note the possibility that the bird buzzes his tail and wings to keep his balance.

The speaker then states that the bird, "slides along toward the brown tip / pins the cluster to the snow and strips it." Again, the speaker is offering a wonderfully economic description of the bird's action.

The speaker/observer adds that while the bird is moving along this stem, he is "constantly / narrating his progress to the others, who listen / feed, and reply."

The speaker then reports that this awe-inspiring little scene continues with the birds moving "stem after stem," for as long a "an hour." Then he watches as their little colorful body parts "rise up and disappear" into the line of dark trees that has served as a background for their activity.

The speaker captures their departure from the scene by giving the colorful description of the bird. Except for adding the unnecessary "up" after "rise"—rise always means up, no such act of rising down is possible—the lines are graceful and melodic.

Third Versagraph: An Unfortunate Admission

Theirs is a contented, un-self-conscious harvest song;
theirs a labor elegant, precise, perfectly fitted to itself.
One watching could almost believe in a peaceable god.

The final versagraph should probably have been omitted. The speaker merely editorializes about the birds, describing their song and their labor, and offering what amounts to a commentary on the speaker/observer's religious inclinations, which unfortunately, seem to lean toward atheistic.

An Unnecessary Intrusion

This magnificent poem dramatizes a slice of natural existence, and for the most part, it does it astonishingly well. The speaker's accuracy suggests an intuition that is readily accepted as truth even for the reader who has never watched bird activity. As already noted, a few flaws do limit the poem's success.

Especially egregious, however, is the last line: what a place to announce one's atheist-/agnosticism leanings! The speaker has just dramatized actions that testify to the Intelligence of the Presence that creates and sustains the cosmos.

The speaker even states that fact clearly: "theirs a labor elegant, precise, perfectly fitted to itself." Yet he chooses to leave his readers with the philosophical conundrum that this "elegant, precise, perfectly fitted" activity might, in fact, just be chance emanating out of chaos.

Bill Morgan Poetry Reading Part 1

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 24, 2017:

Brehm is a contemporary poet. His work is somewhat shallow, as are so many moderns. I would not recommend delving deeply into his scribblings.

I commented on this piece primarily to demonstrate the common weaknesses in contemporary poetry: it is often inconsistent, lacking balance and depth. The surface that the contemporary mods skim is often devoid of beauty, truth, or interest in light and love. But still some entertainment might be had from giving it a perusal.

Thanks for your interest, Louise. Always like hearing your response to my offerings.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on August 24, 2017:

I shall have to look for John Brehm, I've never head of him before now.