Brood by Rob Thomas (Bywords, 2014)
Reviewing poetry enables me to research a range of topics I otherwise wouldn't. Sometimes that means getting to know the origins of our modern bathtub by studying ancient Egypt or finding an excuse to explore the Mediterranean. In the case of Brood, the chapbook resulting from Rob Thomas’ 2013 John Newlove Award win, I listened to “Five Little Monkeys Jumping On the Bed” and reacquainted myself with nursery rhymes.
This Bywords chapbook revels in the simple joys of childhood via day-to-day anecdotes you’d expect from a stay-at-home parent. A playful poem like “Cereal Killers”, which gleefully does away with certain breakfast-box elves and tigers, finds Thomas in full-on Dad mode: caring for his children while, in a way, getting to become one again himself. It’s a cute poem that, if channeled in tone throughout the whole of Brood might've put readers into sugar-shock. Instead “Cereal Killers” stands as one innocuous flash in a spectrum, where perspectives on Thomas’ own coming-of-age dissect the roots of parental anxiety.
Bridging the realms of innocence and world-weariness gets explicit attention on “the number fourteen bus”, where an odious passenger attempts to impress Thomas’ kids. The tension, seeing innocence at risk of being tampered with, proves brief, but lies dormant beneath some of Brood’s best work. “quarter pounders”, for example, reflects on the author’s own adolescence as grim proof that innocence doesn't last forever.
as a teen, in winter, drunk on the tracks,
a waddling family of skunk surprised us
and I pissed myself, a blush of warmth,
though they spared us further indignity
this is why I imagined
those hunks of meat and splintered bone
were just some other animal (“quarter pounders”)
Just beyond the confines of this excerpt, there’s sufficient reason to suggest that those hunks of meat weren’t animal at all. It isn’t made clear and that omission empowers the tension further. Thomas’ language is as direct as his gaps in narrative are precise, meaning that readers will cruise unencumbered by abstract frills but end up pitted against the occasional unknowable. It’s a tactic that arguably renders Thomas’ verse most noteworthy for its prose-like storytelling — matter of fact, but a touch enigmatic for good measure. It’s only upon transcribing lines that I notice the partial rhymes covertly buoying his rhythmic ease.
Brood prefers the tailored reality of the household to the uncontrollable nature of the outside world, measuring the development of his sons (“Yin and Yang”) and the challenges of managing them (“where it counts”). But only in the six-part “missing children” suite does Thomas delve beyond the chores of maintaining the fantasy and create one anew, weaving well-known fairy tales into a police procedural.
ii/ missing children
we trail breadcrumbs into twilight
the cackle of crows in a delightful murder.
I knew this was going nowhere,
the constable snipes; the
search party weary with his bellyaching.
we should question the hag, he continues.
I see licorice smoke coiling
from her cottage in the clearing.
meanwhile, the twins
gorge themselves in the marzipan kitchen
and rehearse their story.
Riffing on the likes of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel without betraying their often grisly moral messages, the “missing children” series meets the chapbook's chief concerns (i.e. the title's dual nature) halfway. Moreover it serves as a reminder that fairy tales were originally intended for adults as well. That fear of losing something so fragile motivates Brood in ways that are both heart-warming and thought-provoking.