Review of Double Agent by Michelle Chan Brown

Michelle Chan Brown. Double Agent. Tucson, AZ: Kore Press, 2012. 80 pp. $14.00, paper.

Michelle Chan Brown’s mischievous debut, Double Agent, clears a wider space for both spying (loosely defined) and expatriation in poetry. Old tensions make their appearances—strained relationships, illicit love affairs—along with a menagerie of devices from slant rhyme to aggressively enjambed free verse. Yet the book’s foreignness is unavoidable. Set in a version of the Eastern bloc, Brown’s speaker guides readers on a sort of participant-observer tour where language and vision become alien.

While travel is a familiar topic, Brown makes it unfamiliar with terse, streetwise paranoia, as if Pynchon were made to write with a telegraph. Even in the table of contents, the reader is introduced to an amorphous hostility with titles like “Semi-Domesticated Arsonist” and “The Newlywed’s Guide to Hunting.” And the poems themselves brim with the cold surrealism of espionage. In “Enemy,” she claims, “Genial. Harmless as a new hat. / That is the way of plagues.” One feels the line becoming a contested boundary, a space for gamesmanship and deceit. But while some poets get drunk on these sorts of hijinks, the reader questions neither Brown’s cleverness nor her seriousness. In the same poem: “They’ll eat off the family tree. / History told them: no one ever starved / for love. The mother darned / old flags for their cadavers.”

Danger suffuses the poems’ imagery as well. One senses a sardonic version of T.S. Eliot in “Open House,” where Brown chillingly puns on the crowd: “They are pillars of society. Hence the faces of stone.” And here, she confronts paranoia embodied:

       My mother was afraid of her fingers.

       She squirreled them in the dry crevices
       of the furniture. Desiccate there, little liars,

       she’d croon, rocking herself into her fear….

Threats loom in and out in the forms of a hypnotist, lovers, even (seriously) rabbits. And though these threats seem to emanate, as the setting might suggest, from a Cold War ambiance, the book treats the setting not as an engine for dried-up politicking, but for aesthetic exploration. In the first of the “Autobiography” series, the speaker watches “The windmills hum their song / through the nuclear plants. A time, / a time for kindling.” Elsewhere, “The potatoes’ eye-sockets disapprove of her dye job.”

But beyond all else, Brown’s capacity for whimsy and spontaneity makes these poems memorable. One always senses wryness at the margins, a resistance against the poems’ bent for bleakness. Lines like “Our talk was small enough for the laden table” suggest a sort of high-society Dick Tracy. In the sassy and heartbreaking “Pleasuring the Enemy,” she writes, “You give a leather mask a real personality. I feel / the edge of every bad-sex dream / knifing its merry way under my eyelids.” Too often in poetry, such bold posturing sounds desperate. Here, though, the speaker’s bravado reveals the sadness surrounding her, the fears she has learned to live with.

And those moments of oblique vulnerability lead, unmistakably, to compassion. She offers these beautiful lines from the end of “Shipwreck”:

       We were used to solitude. Some of us
       had worked the mills, where skylights cracked
       and loaned us stars. We learned to relish
       the ownership of hours. Our sheets
       acceded to the torpor. If you must
       call it sickness—the sea colonized us.
       Below muslin, our heartbeats thrilled,
       lazy as laps. Breezes licked our faces flat.
       If we wept, we wept soundless as sand.
       What wave would betray our trust?

Caesuras resolve to an uninterrupted line as alliteration emerges and end-stops become insistent. The utterance, as if realizing its own entanglement in punctuation, gives up its declarations for a question. Here and elsewhere, the speaker opens herself to clarity, so when cleverness and confidence return, they feel different—more complicated.
As with any distinctive voice, the possibility for cloying the reader is virtually unavoidable, and there are one or two poems the collection could thrive without. But taken as a whole, Double Agent successfully rides its formal flexibility and vocal daring from beginning to end. The title, of course, prefaces the intrigue found in the subject matter, but it also points to the spying found here and in all good poetry: excitement both in what is revealed and how that revelation happens.

Matt Sumpter’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Boulevard, 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, and River Styx, and recently won the Crab Orchard Review Special Issues Feature Award. In the fall, he will enter the PhD program in Creative Writing at Binghamton University.