With My Head Rising Out of the Water
by John J. Brugaletta
a review by Andrew Wells
Negative Capability Press
In Keats’ letter to Richard Woodhouse, he writes that “the poetical Character…has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.” In contrast to what Keats calls “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” this shapeshifting poet “has no Identity” but dives into the identities of his or her subjects, be they “The Sun, the Moon, the Sea, [or] Men and Women who are creatures of impulse.”
In the work of a Keatsian poet, we would not expect the autobiographical lyric “I” of Petrarch’s Laura sonnets or Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, but instead a chorus of voices, the voices of “creatures of impulse,” speaking out diverse identities.
John J. Brugaletta, in his third poetry collection, With My Head Rising Out of the Water, furnishes readers with this kind of chorus and shows as much delight in speaking for Artemis, Cassandra, and Humboldt squid as he does when writing in a voice that sounds like his own.
The table of contents gives readers a clue that Brugaletta will be acting as a ventriloquist. Sections titled “Voices on the Bus,” “The World Beside Us,” and “Portraits” are especially full of a varied cast of characters.
Readers are shown new perspectives on classic stories spoken in the mouths of minor characters. We hear the delightfully colloquial anti-war voice of “The Nurse in the Odyssey,” who says that
…all fit Achaeans supposed to go
and get her back, with all her ‘charms,’
to decency. Bah, say I, let her highness choke
on cates. She’s worth not one Greek boy
speared through and left to die on foreign sand.
We hear King Arthur’s side of the story in “Arthur on Lancelot,” which begins with “Of course I knew. What choice was there for me?”
We find out Artemis’ motive for seeking revenge on the house of Artreus. The goddess was incensed that the Greeks, “randy for boys and girls,” had stopped venerating her as a mother goddess, and had
…bully[ed] my worshipers into
belief that I, so fertile once, am childless virgin
scouring the parched hills for pigs and deer
like some ragged beggar with a clumsy spear.
In retribution, Artemis leads the family to filicide, mariticide, and patricide. Brugaletta’s humor and rollicking wordplay is on display in the final couplet with its cacophonic alliteration and surprising rhyme.
In addition to poems speaking for literary characters, readers encounter voices from the worlds of animals and inanimate objects. We meet a coffee shop where “…the imitation flowers / do their best to mime / their evanescent betters,” and an alternate history where squids evolve, “rippling their chromatic sentences…and discussing amid dinner / the reddening expense of colleges.” In “Cathertes,” Brugaletta plays with the etymology of the turkey buzzard’s scientific name, which comes from the same Greek word for “purification” from which we get “catharsis.” The lowly vulture becomes a “goitered mortician in a black suit” which can digest dead matter before “…depositing it where it / will nourish both locoweed / and buttercups.”
Brugaletta’s mastery of language and metaphor is evident in “Cassandra Takes the Podium,” where the prophetess, cursed to be always distrusted, defends herself. Brugaletta plays with terms for sex and pregnancy, writing that Cassandra was “filled up with seer’s skills,” but rejected Apollo’s sexual advances. This spurning “unmanned his full rigidity” and led to “the wooden horse [that] was pregnant with / a troop of Greeks.” No one believed her warnings, and she was raped and carried off in chains by the Greeks. Yet, in the end, Cassandra has no regrets:
But I would keep my purest days today
if rank Apollo sought my bed again.
For nothing good can last, not civic pride,
or cities saved by swapping sex for gifts,
or sacred longing for a truthful life.
In the last lines of this poem, Cassandra speaks like a poet, perhaps even expressing Brugaletta’s thoughts. Indeed, there are several poems dealing with family, teaching, and aging that seem semi-autobiographical.
In “Everything is Otherwise,” Brugaletta writes of the effects of age:
With all the things I’ve ever learned to do –
grout tile, teach literature, appreciate my wife –
I learned it just as health and age said, Stop.
However, even in this confessional poem, Brugaletta moves quickly to considering others, Socrates, Lao-Tzu, Christ, and the authors of the Iliad and Beowulf. Just as they achieved immortality only after, and perhaps because of their deaths, Brugaletta muses, “that nothing succeeds if it succeeds.”
The poems in this slim volume succeed in demonstrating their author’s “poetical character” in part because they fail to focus on his identity. By letting a host of other characters speak, With My Head Rising Out of the Water gives us lyrics of a truly chameleon poet.