A Review of Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses; In particular, “This book can’t be sung”

Reading through Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses reminds me of the fond times I’ve spent at art museums with my boyfriend. This fondness has a hard edge, however, because this activity always feels to me like it will end in some dangerous discovery; thus it is at the same time coldly arduous and warmly aromatic, like the mouthfeel and digestion of a liquor poured neat. I think that Companion Grasses feels like a walk through a museum because of the way its stanzas so often snap the eyes quickly from the end of one line to the start of another (as eyes from one painting to the next), and groupings of words stand like separate pieces in each others’ midsts. In one section, Teare quotes and interprets texts from authors Dickinson, Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, et al. (a grouping largely of transcendentalists). These antiquated philosophies, which at the time, rejected traditional ethics and reason, and the brink of discovery which characterizes Teare’s now contemporary poetry feels liberating yet traditional — standardly essentialist, yet enticingly muted, like the stirring of the “coastal prarie” (37) that he recreates in the biology and place of his work.

I always find it difficult when reviewing poetry books to let readers know “what it’s about” because I find my words faltering over each other until I end in eventual silence. Poetry usually has contextualized meaning, especially to the author, and it can’t just be anything you want it to be; yet it is so elusive that it’s almost easier to say what a certain poem is not about more than what it is. To me, Companion Grasses is a collection of poems which constructively criticize the way intellectuals have thought in the past, through the invocation of nature and place, as well as the competing ideals of companionship and solitude. As in the poem “This book can’t be sung,” in which the speaker reads Thoreou’s Walden and reflects on it: “–solitude        self-definition       :         pure / nationalism!         beans in a row        & a year / to hoe them” (Teare 53). This moment in the poem harkens back to the old optimistic adage around the early 1800s that America would be an independent nation that stayed out of foreign affairs–the vastness of the land and rich natural resources seemed to promise a manifest destiny — “your grammar so declarative        it is” (Teare 53).

At the same time as Teare’s speaker criticizes these early American ideals, saying that they need “rebuttal          stuffed / with spirit” (53), he seems enticed and fascinated by them over and over, drawing on their power and entertaining for them as one would for a muse: “–transcendent reason       :        mind forsaking / matter it finds       impossible questions / to consider       –roots / cool      green      below / browning stems         it / didn’t want to       eat” (54). The speaker here may be frustrated by feelings of “inherited citizen dualism” (as the title implies) but he clearly seems fascinated by philosophic ideals of transcendence, even invoking nature to ask if this transcendence is possible. This is why the speaker’s criticism is constructive; it questions traditional ideals while fascinating itself with and mulling over these same ideals.

To me, Companion Grasses feels like a solitary walk through a classical art museum, like the fleeting taste of warm salt in the ocean air, like the cabin setting near Walden Pond, where New Englanders first sensed the prophetic call of manifest destiny. It looks like tan and aquamarine and faded brown-green, feels like the papery sensation of dry reeds and grasses, “how spring undoes the year like a knot  :  / how winter hay’s flat thin cover turns gold” ( Teare 93).

Companion Grasses feels, like a walk through a museum, both aromatic and arduous, filled with potentials and questions, “like having to choose–matter / or the look of matter?–” (Teare 69).

Postscript: This collection strongly reminded me of a piece I admire in Geneseo’s literary journal Gandy Dancer, from issue 6.1 (“Bright Night City Lights”)As my eyes explore the colors and textures of the night and are drawn ultimately to the center of the painting, I am left in awe and wonder about the beauty of the natural (and rather unnatural) world that humans have experienced, and created.


Ta, Jackie. 2017. “Bright Night City Lights.” Gandy Dancer, 6(1). https://www.gandydancer.org/issue-6-1-art/

Teare, Brian. 2013. Companion Grasses. CA: Omnidawn Publishing.

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