Tastes Too Good to be Bitter

“Steve Brightman’s poems are short, the lines are short, the words are, if not short, simple.”

Steve Brightman


By Victor Schwartzman

There isn’t much widely known about Steve Brightman, though in this marvelous information age we supposedly know everything about everyone. But we don’t, so get ready for a surprise.

He should be widely known. Brightman has poetry chaps to his credit, performs frequent readings and has been featured in anthologies. Here is a bio from online site Two Hawks Quarterly:

“Steve Brightman lives in Kent, OH, and frequently worships at PNC Park, the finest cathedral in North America. His poems have been featured in Pudding House, Origami Condom, A Trunk of Delirium and he was included in the Ohio Bicentennial Anthology titled “I Have My Own Song For It: Modern Poems about Ohio.”

FYI, PNC is a baseball stadium. Apparently, Steve has a religious connection with the Pittsburgh Pirates, possibly praying for them to play more productively [2012: 79 wins-83 sighs]. Brightman also owns a Pionus Parrot, possibly purchased from a Pittsburgh Pirate.

However, you should know you do not need to know any of this. You don’t need to know about Brightman’s life or if he has been published. You should know about his work–but, not to get personal, you don’t.

What you should know before reading further is, First, none of Brightman’s poems appear to be about baseball (in case you were worried, although you should feel ashamed of yourself for denying poetry about the National Pastime.) Second, how much Brightman draws on his personal experience is unknown, but let’s hope he draws on little or none of it. His narrators go through more than a few breakups, though they never blame the other person. Unpleasant life experiences or not, at times Brightman’s philosophy is straight out of “Moby-Dick,” in reverse:

“Big Fish in a Big Pond”
The belly
of the whale
isn’t big enough
to hold us all and
even if it were,
the whale has
better things to do
than swim in
deep blue circles
waiting for us
to decide.

We all have a destiny inside that belly. Not inside a shark, which would chomp and destroy us, but a whale, which would swallow us intact. Inside, we wait to be digested. Life adds up to how long it will take us to decide to be food, and whether the belly will wait. While there is some comfort in knowing the belly is not big enough to hold all of us, there is less comfort in knowing the belly could care less. To it we are not so much minuscule fish in a big pond as we are potential food it is not even hungry for.

Many poets are optimistic. There’s all that stuff about pretty blue skies and flowers. Brightman doesn’t write about nice crap, but he does cushion the sharper edges.

“Fast Last Breath”
To be human is
to say goodbye.
Everything in this world
is a beautiful reminder:
the cathedral,
the cancer, the crow,
the crocus upon crocus,
upon blooming crocus
in the sunny early
days of April.

So, too, was the day
last year when you
didn’t recognize the sag
of your own face
in the rigid mirror.

And the photograph,
the fire bell,
the fast last breath and
the look of surprise,
the left turn into traffic,
the left behind,
the leftovers on
a chipped plate
in an otherwise empty
refrigerator that hums
too loudly as you
close the door
behind you.

Whoa. What starts out as global shrinks very quickly to the specific. Everything becomes a memory—in particular, one’s life with one’s partner. The reader is set up in the first stanza, and then the second goes from the global to the specific, where one’s partner not realizing s/he is unhappy, but the narrator does. And, over the course of a year, the narrator is unable to make it good enough. There is some funny wordplay in unfunny circumstances, but underneath it is a powerful sorrow–the basis for the narrator’s sad reflections about little memories are rooted in the other person splitting, and the presumed destruction of those happy memories.

Steve Brightman’s poems are short, the lines are short, the words are, if not short, simple. There are few flourishes, no pandering. Colour is inserted as needed, with fine results. The poems featured in this review have been taken from “Sometimes, Illinois,” a chap produced by NightBallet Press (123 Glendale Court, Elyria, Ohio 44035; www.nightballetpress.blogspot.com; nightballetpress@gmail.com.) The chap is new and rare—only 40 copies were produced in the first printing, all assembled by hand by NightBallet’s Dianne Borsenik. Probably one of the few places on earth where you can read these poems is right here at Target Audience:

“Need to Stay”
He never told the story
the same way twice.
Sometimes it was in Illinois,
sometimes it was in Ohio.

Sometimes he was on a bike,
sometimes he was walking
in front of her house.
I thought he was going daft.

Memories ain’t the movies,
I know now. Words cheapen,
Words corrode the details.
Reflective monologues kill.

The quiet skips of the heart
need to stay clean, need to
stay tucked away in case
she leaves before you do.

Our narrator is not a happy guy. In the past, he listened to some fellow tell the same story over and over, regularly changing details so it was never the same. The narrator thought the person was “daft,” which is a kinder, gentler characterization than “raving loon.” But then something happens to the narrator, and his gentler approach to life evaporates. Now telling someone stories from your life is pointless. Why pointless? Not because of changing key facts so there is never one clear version of a memory. It’s the very act of trying to relive or remember that is the problem.

And why is that a problem? Because, in one interpretation, if your current sweetie is about to split, you want to preserve your version of the truth. Especially when you are not the one initiating the split and want your partner to stay. “Need to Stay” is the title, not “Memories are Unreliable.” All those memories of the good times, the quiet skips of the heart, must be kept hidden, unheard. Why? So if you’re dumped, you’ll have your side ready?

On the outside, Brightman’s poems look easy going, even simple. Below the surface there is often bad news. Brightman’s narrator has not learned the secret of making people happy (nod a lot and don’t lend money). All of those rejections lead to that awful monster lurking in everyone’s closet: regret. And regret is a monster because once you start, you always look back and never forward.

“Under Luggage and Picture Frames”
Long live the shadows
when you let them.

Long live the dueled ghosts
of regret in darkened closets.

They coil like adders
under luggage and linens.

Make your peace with them
before you unearth them.

You will not corral them
once they see the light of day.

Ain’t that the truth. Everyone’s life is littered with mistakes, some of which hurt other people. Some mistakes can be corrected or at least compensated for. But the ones where you acted like a total jerk, where you were offensive, a bull in a computer store, the ones where you destroyed something good, those mistakes linger. They linger because they are never resolved. If you open yourself up to them, if you let the snake out of the closet, it will bite.

Part of the charm of his poems is Brightman’s writing ability. His poems mix colourful, spot-on metaphors with topics we know too well, to produce new insights into old issues:

“Long Gone from Illinois”
There were no
buffalo head nickels
in his desk after he’d died.
I didn’t really expect to find any.
Somewhere in my grieving head,
I’d known that the buffalo
were long gone from Illinois
by the time he’d left for
the Pacific to fight the Japs.

He liked to tell the story
about the fist fight
he’d gotten into.
He spent time in the brig
for punching an officer,
who was out of uniform with
a bunch of other men
playing volleyball.
He used to say that
every day he spent in the brig
made him wish
he’d punched that loud-mouthed
lieutenant even harder.
He’d say to take two things
from his story:
‘Give em hell’ and
‘Get your money’s worth.’

He never talked about
his time in Guam, though.
He didn’t have to.
If we touched him
while he was sleeping,
he woke up swinging.

Here is a fellow who seems cheerful enough on the surface, but something seethes underneath. Being in the Army during a war can be a profound, positive experience—soldiers are part of a huge team fighting for a common good. Veterans have many funny stories of life on the base, but rarely any about combat. Being in a war can have horrific effects on all involved.

The narrator describes a man, an older close relative, possibly his father, who had few illusions about life. Most of that life appears tied to being a soldier. There were no buffalo nickels in his drawer, no daydreams. He believed in living fully—getting your money’s worth and standing up for yourself, and when standing up isn’t good enough, giving them hell. Perhaps the nightmares drove him to embrace being fully awake.

Brightman writes about not so much specific problems as about the people who have the problems. He does not write about break-ups but does write about the people involved. Even poems that are statements are often reactions to problems.
Speaking of which, a major Brightman issue is regret. Certainly the man in the last poem had severe regrets from Guam. He did not get help. But you were promised help, and in this last poem Brightman looks at what stops us when the problem is right there in front of us and we can solve it. The poem succinctly lists the helpful rationalizations, even bailing-out of suicide. We let the problem continue when we feel that twitch and are afraid to act.

“Waiting for the Twitch”
The angle of retreat is always there.
It sits there, a dishonest Buddha,
beckoning us through cloud weak skies.

The angle of retreat is always there.
Our internal geometries put our jugular
to the blade, waiting for the twitch.

The angle of retreat is always there.
Phantom dragon need not leave its lair
when the enemy fears itself more.

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