The Air In The Air Behind It 

By Brandon Rushton 

Tupelo Press 

$21.95

978-1-946482-75-4

Review by Gabriel Costello, Poetry Editor 

Brandon Rushton’s first book The Air In the Air Behind It is filled with poems that show us new ways to see. These are poems that overlap and associate. The spaces  are familiar: garages, running paths, named streets, buses. The way they enmesh with one another though is where things diverge. This sense of association shows us that the physical, the image, is a circumstance and that through that circumstance we find ourselves incomplete. That meaning is a moving target. But the familiarity of the images is what makes them impossible to ignore.

In the first poem of the collection“Milankovitch Cycles” Rushton Writes: 

“In an age of emergency, experiments are always the first things to be

abandoned. It happens gradually or so glaciologists agree. Some- 

thing massive moves in, melts, and rapidly meanders out.” 

It is hard not to read these opening lines as a self aware nod to the place this book and its poems take up: an experiment in the midst of crises. Rushton navigates this contradiction and its damages in a totally unique lyric voice. 

Later in “Milankovitch Cycles” he writes: 

“No wonder the adolescents tilt/ their magnifying glass to engulf the parading ants. Everything moves one/ way or the other. The cartographers won’t stop talking about adaptable/careers-how they charted and, now, charter. The bus lets everybody off to flashbulb the blitzed and blinking landscape. A railroad comes and goes.”      

These are poems that rather than resolve contradictions accept them as the state of the world and represent it in the world of the poem. Rushton is often sardonic but the degree of observation present here shows a poet who is definitely paying close, earnest attention and asks his reader to do the same. That humor illustrates the often ridiculous condition of our circumstance. 

Rushton’s scenes are panoramic, a master of the short line scene, he moves in the space of one poem from metaphor to image and back again so many times the poem takes up a musical feeling of meaning via rhythm rather than linearity or narrative.  Often, each poem will hold dozens of micro narratives that run into and up against one another. What makes Rushton’s voice so arresting and unique is that he seamlessly connects disparate, but equally striking, images similar to a visual collage. 

Form helps to build up this image bank of association. Rushton appropriately returns to a cascading short line form throughout much of The Air In The Air Behind It. In an era where formal invention is often prioritized Rushton makes the choice to focus instead on the poem’s interior. This feels appropriate for a poet who has a wonderful preoccupation on a kind of vernacular image. Images of  “weather eroding patio chairs and pages/ from a perfume magazine strewn all across the bike path” catalog the world of Rushton’s poems as distinctly rooted in twenty first century American life. Rushton troubles the idea of a homogeneous landscape. He exposes the contradictions and overlaps of a world in which everything is meant to be measured and excised.  

This slow cascade form is on display in the poem “Public Works” 

Dismissed from some other duty

the drawbridge attendant questions

the stability of days. As in: how long

until what we’ve been holding on to

finally gives way. A paycheck comes

and the only thing we find puzzling

is its amount. Hold up, yells a stranger

and we breathe easier when we know

he’s talking to the bus. We’re all in this

together. The commute. The tailpipes

we press our tonsils to. Figuratively

we see ourselves in the frozen lake,

the one we drive by coming back

from lunch. Looking out pessimistically

a shoe polisher prepares to be replaced

and counts his years. Everybody has

an idea about real work: it is digging

down to and replacing the seepage

bed. It is dirty and always thankless.

New ideas come and go while we wonder

which of those they might permit.

A municipality complicates the matter

with a makeshift levy. Taxes that

which cannot take another hit.

A vendor on the street takes down

her sign. The roof we nail-gunned

together, collapses in. How marvelously

one explosive in a lunchbox can light up

a square. For the sake of national security

we’re asked to get some sleep. Daybreak

can only represent the way we rise

and shatter. We’ll all be getting up soon.

Like all of us, you are so much, right now

just snow. You scrape the ice

from the windshield, check the handle

of each door, and swear: this is not the way

I’ll be worn down. 

For a poetry so steeped in location that feeling of alienation pervades this book. A feeling that these images of landscapes shaped and defined by work could exist almost anywhere in contemporary America. Rushton, a native of Michigan, seems preoccupied with images of the de-industrialized midwest. Writing scenes that  take place not only within the foreground of economic ruin but give voice to a population often left behind in contemporary poetry, the working class. The contradiction of emotion and the variety of characters portray a humanity that feels familiarly flawed and relatable. Indeed, that sense of dislocation makes these poems feel like so much more than just catastrophe portraiture. Rushton uses the poem as a location device both within place and language. Creating a tension between these two poles that comes together around that sense of alienation. These are poems that, perhaps, do not give us answers but show us how to ask better questions.

Rushton is a poet who lives the quotidian and examines the humanity and contradiction within. The way the voice and lyric emerge here is striking. For a poet who pays close attention to the built environment Rushton richly represents an interconnected ecology. A sense that even those people who remain anonymous, commuters, have a consciousness that can feed into the world of the poem. That protest in the final line of the “Public Works” could serve as a capstone to Rushton’s poetics. A refusal to ignore those contradictions that threaten to overwhelm us. A photographic sense that whatever else the world is, it is ongoing.

About Post Author

Gabriel Costello

Gabriel Costello serves as Poetry Editor at Meridian. He is currently an MFA student in poetry at the University of Virginia. His work has recently appeared in Afternoon Visitor, Bluestem, and elsewhere.
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