Review by Holly Mason
Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press
Author: Sarah Browning
Publication Date: 9/21/2017
Retail Price: $14.95
At a time when poets and writers are frequently and earnestly asking the age-old question of What can I do to help, to make change in this current social and political climate?, we can look to Sarah Browning as an example. Browning is a poet whose work (writing and activism) puts question into action. Her work supports, exposes, builds, tears down, and gathers.
The poems in Killing Summer are empathetic, compassionate, and precise as they speak up, speak out, and talk back. Many of the poems are grounded in a specific time and place. Notably, Washington, D.C. permeates the collection. And like a sibling relationship, the relationship with this city is complex and exhausting. There is both celebration and concern. Take for instance these lines from the title poem, “Killing Summer”:
City of split heads, city of gun shops threatening,
city of playing the dozens across the steaming streets.
Streets of rain and fast anger, streets
of whistling, streets of mourning.
Mourning silence of lamp post shrines,
Sunday dinners cooking slowly in stewpots.
Stewpots of greens and fatback, all manner of potatoes,
pork that tumbles begging from the bone.
The dead young men lie in the city morgue, keeping
company with their dead brothers. It is Saturday.
The poems in this collection are immediate. They are in the current moment, like Frank O’Hara’s walking love-letters to NYC. The poems in Killing Summer explore the “everyday”… an “everyday” that is full of internal and external disappointments. This is an “everyday” that laments. Lamenting injustice, close-heartedness, isolation, and hatred. Lamenting trans lives being murdered. These lines in “Rembrandt Workshop in the District” hold you where you are sitting: “But here, the sun strikes the mother,// her grief well lit/” and then later in the poem, “well lit/ in grief for a son who// dressed like a girl, changed his name/ to Aisha and died in a car.” The poem seems to also be questioning the language the newspaper uses to describe this person’s life (and death), continuing, “shot, along with that other one,/ two blocks from home.”
Many poems in this collection reach a hand out to mothers—particularly mothers who have lost children. Like in “A Brief History of the Number Two” when Browning writes:
I can hardly stand to look
but the mother looks and looks—
the same photo again and again
on bookshelves, bedside table,
kitchen windowsill, dresser—
Then later in the poem:
I want to wake him, her son,
and send the other boy—
to his own mother,
whose knees one day
will give out,
whose fingers will cramp.
I want to tell the bomber
to choose to live.
There is an empathy for grieving mothers. Empathy I say specifically, as the poet even folds into the collection a moving poem dedicated to her own son. In this poem, “The Blueberry Seasons,” a few lines catch in my chest: “I can’t stop admiring you, how you run/ like that, bring your bucket now to show me.” There are poems in this collection of real tenderness and embrace. The poems in this book hold in their heart the inclusivity of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes— an I, too spirit.
Though D.C. tends to be the backdrop of this collection, the poet looks beyond the borders of this city and nation as well. There is a globally-minded speaker in these pages. Take the elegy (and also in a way, an ode) “Headline: Six Killed in Raid” that speaks into the empty space of the Iraqi interpreter killed alongside six American soldiers. Browning writes with care:
We won’t know
his name, his burying
place, the tea he drank,
his daughter, the shoes he wore.
And the gorgeous yet somber language in the opening stanza of the poem:
The Iraqi interpreter lent
his tongue, teeth, the tender
upper ridges of his mouth
to the Americans.
In the midst of poems dedicated to witnessing, honoring, and calling out— importantly— there is a speaker in these pages who is not afraid to turn a critical eye on the self. One instance of this is in the poem “Petworth, Early Evening.” After a line where Browning writes, “how white I am,” we then get the speaker’s declaration: “I don’t want to be afraid of my neighbors, walking home/ from the Metro in the clear light of evening.” And then the next line (the only solitary line in a poem of couplets) is one of the most powerful lines in the book (really, of anything I’ve read recently): “I want to tear history from my throat.” This phrase echoes in my vocal chords.
Most poems in Killing Summer close without really closing. They provide no relief, no closure, no resolution. And this is fitting for the reality that this book is illustrating and articulating. You will put your hand over your heart. Not in a pledge, but holding yourself in. Take the stunning final lines of “Rainy April Fools’ Day in Italy”: “Crawl around inside your despair. Tap on its walls./ Test its floorboards. Will it hold your weight?”
I have to keep myself from quoting every single poem here. My feminist soul cannot recommend this book enough, especially in this year. Browning invites us into the discomfort. She walks us through the uncomfortable spaces. Through the burning and the splendor of this world.
Sarah Browning is the author of Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry, 2017) and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007). She is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation & Witness and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Browning is the recipient of artist fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, a Creative Communities Initiative grant, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. She has been guest editor or co-edited special issues of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, and POETRYmagazine. Since 2006, Browning has co-hosted the Sunday Kind of Love poetry series at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.
Holly Mason received her MFA in Poetry from George Mason University, where she taught undergraduate English courses and served as the blog editor for So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. Her poems have appeared in Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Outlook Springs, The Northern Virginia Review, Bourgeon, and forthcoming in Foothill Poetry Journal. She has been a reader and panelist for OutWrite (A Celebration of LGBT Literature) in D.C. She currently lives and teaches in Fairfax, Virginia.