(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Lloyd Van Brunt’s poetry is an acquired taste, and most of those who have helped to make the reputations of American poets over the last thirty years have not acquired it. A quick comparison of the periodical credits in Van Brunt’s career selection and those of his contemporary Laurence Lieberman’s parallel career gathering (New and Selected Poems, 1962-1992, also 1993) reveals a sharp contrast and helps define Van Brunt’s place. While Lieberman has had his poetic tickets punched with high consistency at Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, and several other classy markets, Van Brunt’s poems have usually sneaked into print in less prestigious and less available places. On only a handful of occasions in his more than three decades of writing has he broken into a literary house of fame, and even then he seemed like a fugitive. Without denying Lieberman’s genuine accomplishment, it is the accomplishment of a law-abiding literary citizen (perhaps even a sheriff, as Lieberman edits the well-respected Illinois Poetry Series published by the University of Illinois Press). Van Brunt stands as one of America’s outlaws, his only reputable connection that of being a founding editor of the annual Pushcart Prize anthology.

Critics who have written about his work sound the usual platitudes about celebration and suffering, as if these themes distinguished one writer from another when everyone treats them. Van Brunt himself maintains that his achievement lies in his artistic triumph over raw emotional material and his ability to articulate chaos and celebrate it. It is neither the encomium nor the lament, however, that represents Van Brunt’s poetic stance; rather, it is his peculiarly mixed, unstable tonality that strives to hold both together. This tonal tension, conveying a bifurcated vision of life, is only one of the ways in which Van Brunt comes across as a difficult poet. Not that he creates linguistic or intellectual difficulties; he is simply difficult to pin down and (therefore) difficult to like. The first time one drinks a certain Colorado wine, the effect is the same.

Van Brunt, born in Oklahoma but a longtime resident of New York City, writes like a man living a frontier existence: His sensibilities are on a margin, perhaps a battlefront. Re writes from and about exile. Central to portraying this condition (because they seem to explain so much else) are the poems that have to do with betrayal. Van Brunt’s persona is, alternately, a victim of abuse (memories of child abuse and neglect by parents or orphanage functionaries link many poems) and an abusive though regretful adult whose rages and psychic wounds scar others. “Revenants” contains as much of this material as any single poem, though the background story is a motif running through the later stages of this collection, as in “Snow Woman,” and a shadow in the earlier poems. Thus there is a sense of exile from established moral and behavioral norms. Van Brunt writes of conditions that haunt many but find little voice in American literature.

His interest in the morality of nature stems, perhaps, from these psychological dilemmas: Van Brunt examines the border and overlap between the natural and the normal. What is “natural” in the world, many of the poems point out, is the predatory instinct. Pain is everywhere. Van Brunt’s third collection, Feral: Crow Breath & Caw (1975), is centered on this concern, and the poem “Gods” is one of the most inspired. The age-old question of how (or how well) humankind uses its higher faculties brings observations that link Van Brunt’s insights to those of the profligate seventeenth century poet- nobleman Rochester, whose “Satire Upon Mankind” is an engaging blueprint for self-hate and misanthropy. Both poets recognize that certain kinds of pain and suffering are uniquely human enterprises.

Sometimes, the misanthropic stance is tonic. It presses one to defend oneself (if possible), to find one’s dignity, and to face ugly truths. In these poems, beyond the speaker’s expressions of pain and fierce hatred is a tendency toward romanticism and naivete’. This other side of him is dangerously idealistic, dreaming-for all of us-impossible dreams.

Van Brunt’s poetry, then, is at war with itself and registers a similarly warring personality. The “language so flat and plain, so raw, so hurtful” that X. J. Kennedy describes in his introduction to this collection battles with the language of the lyrical Van Brunt. In certain poems,...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)