A review of The Air in the Air Behind It by Brandon Rushton

Reviewed by Regina Colonia-Willner

The Air in the Air Behind It
by Brandon Rushton
Tupelo Press
September 1, 2022, Paperback, 114 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1946482754

The Air in the Air Behind It by Brandon Rushton, winner of The Berkshire Prize for 2022 is a thought-provoking, richly sonic architecture of poems. In Rushton’s book, the theme of liminality sits squarely on the interface between the betwixt and between borders of human states and – for that reason – allows the reader to address some of the critical issues of our times, where the fluidity of identity is considered. In the decisive awareness to explore the possibilities that can emerge out of a willingness to stay with ambiguity, the author creates the opportunity to address some of these issues.

In fact, the epigraph of the whole volume comes from The Sea Around Us, a book written by Rachel Carlson, an American marine biologist, writer, and conservationist whose influential book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement. That epigraph reads: “And wherever two currents meet, especially if they differ sharply in temperature or salinity, there are zones of great turbulence and unrest.”

In that same earthly direction, Rushton’s proem – the introductory poem to the book – Milankovitch Cycles, starts with an epigraph taken from a conversation between Richard Manning (author of Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie) and the US Fish and Wildlife biologist Pauline Drobney.  Drobney says: “We as a species are lessened by the loss of unknown places.”

” Milankovitch Cycles,” the title of Rushton’s first poem in the book, refers to the eccentric orbital patterns of planet earth and the effects those cycles have on the climate. These cycles are named after the Serbian geophysicist Milutin Milankovitch who theorized their patterning in 1920. As the earth’s orbit approximates an ellipse, eccentricity measures the departure of this ellipse from circularity. Milankovitch cycles describe the collective effects of changes in the earth’s movements which alter the amount and location of solar radiation reaching the world on its climate over thousands of years. During these thousands of years, the rotational tilt of the Earth (its obliquity) changes slightly. The greatest tilt makes the seasons more extreme. 

In his first poem, a prose poem, Rushton considers what happens now and happened to humans during these thousands of years:

The meteorologist agrees there is a great momentum. History 
happens in waves, nomadic hunters hefting spears that – in their arch-
ing – turn into arrows, turn into cannonballs, turn into bullets, always 
more efficiently turning the target’s insides out. Extinction is a byproduct 
of evolution. The global grid goes down and the earth seems quite de-
liberate in its darkness. Mass graves are continual signs of our malfunc-
tion.  Breath clouds crowd the square as the convicted traitor is shot at 
nightfall in the snow. A photographer takes pictures of an unpopular 
regime, buries the photographs in jars after everyone agrees democracy
is a better way to dictate terms. War is, first and foremost, a mimicry 
of the geological processes of the planet it is fought upon.  A conver-
gent boundary. A collision of forces in a confined space. Plates collide 
and mountains sprout from all the crashing, jagged and monstrous with 
snow collecting at the caps. This is the place where clouds obscure the 
colder weather and its wandering, where all the good sled dogs go to die.

In that same poem:

Even the earth is elliptical, affected
by the gravitational pull of other planets.  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.
Directionless, the broken vase makes the lovers sing the
baby back to sleep. Hushed tones and howling in the hand-me-down 
suburban home. A nomadic hunter picks up a pinch of sand
and lets it loose, points his party toward the over-there, the yonder
plains, the uncontainable continuum of years. Revolution means this all 
comes back around: ice sheets carving up then carving out a way, the
turbine towns siphoning the wind, the little lightning fires burning what
they may then burn out. 

Throughout the book, the reader is accompanied by a rich sonic structure and, as the lines progress, the narrative seems to use echolocation, to sense what is around like animals who can do this to hunt for prey or find their peers. 

Metaphors in the book re-present themselves in similar, reinvented forms.  For example, in the poem Puddle Jumper (which is a type of “leaping poem,” the expression we inherited from the poet Robert Bly, which shows the singular importance of the artistic leap bridging the gap between conscious and unconscious thought.) At the end of Puddle Jumper, we read:

a moth dizzies
over with a letter in its mouth and she reads it
while everything around her waits

Compare these lines to the following ones in the poem The Far Away Farm:

        Some hopscotch
stone suspended in its toss
        and the world around it
waiting patiently.  

The surprise is always there, like in the Puddle Jumper passage:

the sun coming in through the office windows
and the lovers mistakably still in one another’s 
arms the scene was argumentatively not rural
although after the tornado the stairwell climbed 
up into nothing but the sky.

In that same inventive Puddle Jumper poem, Rushton creates a new verb that, because it initially belongs to another language, adds the hint of transgression by misappropriation, and enriches the narrative:

Vertically the rappelers robbed the bank vault
and rendezvoused in a diner clinking mugs

This space “in-between” – the idea that there is Air in The Air Behind It – is also represented in the zeugmas, chiasmus, anacoluthon, and enjambments, to only quote some of the rich resources used by the poet to construct his lines. 

Here are some examples:

Anacoluthon in the poem The Far Away Farm:

             The season smelled
       like orchard work and you 
in a dress time won’t allow me
                to describe.

Apparently, the poet was about to refer to the woman’s dress, but then in a sudden and unexpected break in the sentence, concludes in a different way than might have been expected.  Dress time, then, turns into representing a very short amount of time. A surprise for the reader.

Zeugmas and chiasmus in “The Far Away Farm”:

I’ve returned with bagels. Maybe
I’ve misunderstood the warp, maybe
      you the weather we are 
under. A truck passes close
      chuck-full of barrels. A tin can 
the kids kick down the road. Wherever
             they go they go there rattling
and return unrecognizable next summer.

We could say that the poem contains a “zeugma created with images” – barrels transmute into the image of the tin can the kids kick down the road. When you use one word to link two thoughts, you’re creating a zeugma. In the following chiasmus, “wherever the kids go, they go there rattling.” The second part of the sentence repeats the first part with a different purpose and then, they “return unrecognizable next summer.”  Several enjambments in the poem Sound Barrier also attest to the space in-between:

          “Science is fundamental
to my misunderstanding, you must
           know. Beam fastened 
into beam and then a building
           growing taller by the day.
I ask earnestly for what sake
            other than the sake
of speed. To breach or bypass
              like a bridge over the river
running now, below. I hold up
              my hand to block the sun
and partake in the partial obfuscation
              of the self.

At the conclusion of The Air in the Air Behind It, Brandon Rushton informs us that “this book began in the summer of 2016, on the floor of Nick and Erica Cooper’s living room, where I woke one morning to their daughter, Cora, running through the house, running through the light.” Now, that the book which won The Berkshire Prize 2022, has been published by Tupelo Press, and partakes in the partial obfuscation of the self, we can certainly say that its poetry runs through delight.  

About the reviewer: Regina Colonia-Willner was born in Rio de Janeiro, grew up in Paris, and moved to the United States in 1985. She has published four collections of poetry and short stories, including Canção para o Totem (Song for the Totem), which won the Jabuti Prize, Brazil’s Pulitzer. Fluent in five languages, Colonia has worked as journalist and served as writer-in-residence at the University of Georgia, Athens. She holds a PhD in neuroscience.