Review: Ben Brindise's Rotten Kid
Rotten Kid Book Release Party
Buffalo’s Ben Brindise, slam poetry exponent and impresario, beloved educator and fire-tender, has written a chapbook “for the moments.” You know, those moments:
the deep breath and the exhale,
the time you finally decide to untie, untether
and set sail
For the moment you realized you weren’t rotten
You were brave enough
And you mend well
These luminous lines will be familiar to many who’ve seen the poet perform around Buffalo, on tour, or at last year’s National Poetry Slam where Brindise and Buffalo’s Pure Ink team were semifinalists. The words come from the title piece, “Rotten Kid,” and strike the tone for a chapbook dedicated to mending broken things, while honoring all the cracks and bruises. Though Brindise published a short collection of fiction, I Was a Lid, a few years back, this is his first collection including poetry, and is a sort of reintroduction to an audience that knows him best for his performance, his teaching, and his tireless advocacy for other artists.
As a Just Buffalo Teaching Artist and a mentor in the city’s poetry community, Ben has dedicated much of his adult life to helping others find, listen to, and then amplify their voices. Rotten Kid is full of similar journeys. The speakers and other characters of these poems and stories (rotten kids—you know the kind—maybe you were one, once) are everywhere tripping on sabotaged shoelaces into moments of personal epiphany, finding their voices—and oboes, and finger paints, which count as voices, too.
In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook” Joan Didion says that “we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
In these works Brindise is on nodding terms with himself at four, 11, 15, 23, and, apparently, 157. Far from the tight-lipped please-let’s-not-talk-please-let’s-not-talk nod a younger Didion might expect from her Slouching self, this poet only gives nods of affirmation and understanding. In darker moments, his nods are full of undeflected regret.
By “My Moment” or perhaps the unsettling “Happy Face,” we’re on nodding terms with our old selves too, at first tentatively, then with greater recognition, giving nods full of confidence, elation, apology, wonder. Not every reader will see herself in these Brindisian scenes of middle school band recitals and bloody boating trips, or in these elaborate finger painting metaphors, but certainly most of us can relate to the multisensory images of sidewalks “cracked from tree roots reaching up…You could almost feel the way your body would rock up and down if you bumped over them on a bicycle” Brindise writes. You could, and you will.
And at some point the faces will start to change. We see not ourselves, but the other bent, broken, mending, and hopeful humans who burned brilliantly in our peripheral vision all our lives, and still do—the ones we never saw because we had our high beams on, going fast.
Despite the tone early poems strike, Rotten Kid isn’t merely an exercise in celebrating the poetic persona, or even “voice” in a more democratic sense. Complicating his characters’ “Moments” is a pervasive awareness that not everyone finds a voice, and that some find a voice too late—that as good as it is to yell, shout, yawp, especially after feeling the world’s pressure to be silent, sometimes still after all that “one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it,” as T.S. Eliot puts it in “East Coker.” The chapbook is as affirmative as it is melancholy. The rotten kids might have grown up, struck out, found a voice, found a friend, found love, but that doesn’t make the past any less rotten, the present any less painful, or the act of speaking any easier. Sometimes we have to tell the ones we love, “I never figured out how to talk to you,” as Brindise does in “A Fear of Dark Water.” A poem following a silence still only makes noise now; it doesn’t fill up the silence that preceded it, no matter how present poems like this can make that past feel.
And sometimes silence is better, because, as one narrator observes, “Words kill the truth in things”—a truth, ironically, that Brindise manages to demonstrate in many of the right places.
“At a certain point I realized a lot of what I was writing was opaque,” Brindise said in his recent interview with Yeah! Buffalo. “[T]he works in this book are a collection of my first attempts at being transparent with my audience, but more so, with myself.”
The book is filled with masks and mirrors and smudges of black paint, but all this plays paradoxically into Brindise’s “transparency” project. Masks are made and broken, mirrors turn into regular glass, and we realize all the black paint only served to cover up distractions. The cover of the book looks a lot like the brown paper lunch bags familiar to most of us—but it could also be the paper shopping bags we used to cover textbooks on loan from the school (a necessary casualty of the Green movement and reusable totes). You won’t find eye-holes cut out through the paper shopping bag cover, but I imagine them there: the book is the disfiguring mask, and while we never get a glimpse at the face that wore it, as readers we are on the inside. No matter the subject or style, the works in this chapbook are frank, immediate, and open-palmed (occasionally to a fault).
In this book Brindise, the slam-man, is proving himself as a page poet. Pieces he keeps in his handy slam belt work surprisingly well in static typeface (a definite credit, as too many spoken word poems that wow audiences out loud sound like a lot of dead wood, cliches, and cheap rhymes in the silence of the mind’s ear). The weakest page poem here is the title piece, “Rotten Kid,” which depends too much on fricatives, plosives, and full stops that aren’t easy enough to sense in ink alone. But what they hell—it’s still a fine poem and an important keystone here. Find a video (link below) or catch him live. If you’ve never heard Brindise, you’d never guess that the other five poems in the collection were spoken-word pieces.
Then there are the stories, Brindise’s firm but unpresumptuous reminder that he’s a prose stylist, too. And he is a stylist. As you might hope, he threads the stories with a subtle lyricism, a dance of rhyme and rhythm without cease. The first person voice may be too comfortable a fit for someone so steeped in the confessional style hegemonic in slam—sometimes you just want him to write “X happened to Y and it felt Z, very Z,” without any more explanation about social coding or backstory or musings about time and memory and how things could have been and…you get the point. And yet the stories are full of precise insights into human interaction, starkly illuminating social needs and weaknesses with references to everything from Buzzfeed articles to the Bulet Bill from Mario Kart. The stories flesh out themes developed in the poems—childhood trauma, all the ways that storytelling (that act we so love to celebrate as if it’s mankind’s only hope, though it will never end disease or war or hunger) falls short of our expectations and our needs—though of course we keep telling stories, because that’s the greatest need of all. They also offer an exciting pivot, what you might even read as a kind of maturation. Many of Brindise’s poems sound and move in a sort of childlike surrealism, where imagination is ready to step in wherever reality—and realism—fall short. But that doesn’t feel like Ben’s bending the rules of realism, any more than a kid with a cape on is bending the rules of physics when he thinks he’s flying. The fiction is different, giving freer play to some of Brindise’s fantasy, sci-fi, and horror influences. In fact, the stories leaver the reader with a wish for more fiction. There’s an imbalance in the chapbook: the first story is really a flash fiction, and the second, despite repurposing an entire poem from earlier in the collection, feels like a work-in-progress. It’s all very promising for his yet-published novel manuscript, A Bad Spot.
Which brings us back to Didion. Of course, that bit above isn’t how her essay ends. (When quoting someone like Joan the writer always has to cut her off somewhere, and that somewhere inevitably feels arbitrary and a little bit deceitful.) She goes on to say that if we don’t keep on “nodding terms” with the people we used to be, our rotten kids et. al., they will sooner or later “turn up and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”
So, in Rotten Kid Brindise nods to past selves, and soon a cast of other characters who needed nods and never got them. But some didn’t make the cut. And when they show up at Ben’s mind’s door with their demands and remonstrances, I’d like to be close enough to hear what he tells them.
Aidan Ryan is an adjunct professor at Canisius College and editor of Foundlings magazine.