The Poetry of J. Quinn Brisben

— Angel Martinez

The Significance of the Frontier: Selected Poems 1966–2002
by J. Quinn Brisben
Chicago: Scars Publications, 2002, 130 pages, $10.00

“art is
the part that means
more than the sum of wholes
re shaped in pain to make old words
new worlds.”
— from Cinquains for Studs Terkel

J. QUINN BRISBEN is known as a retired schoolteacher, civil rights worker, disability rights advocate and former Socialist Party presidential candidate. In publishing a literary historical account in verse, he reveals to us his role of poet.

In this collection The Significance of the Frontier, he brings together years of observation, summation and celebration, with many previously published poems, so that Brisben’s first full book of poems is also a stirring anthology of his works.

The poems in the book are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. As a result, the poems are presented to fullest literary effect, with each of the four chapters collectively becoming an essay in verse. The Significance of the Frontier has the feel of a memoir, carefully crafted with works representing his life as an activist, and as a student of the word.

Reading the works does not reveal any contrasting characteristics of any particular “period.” Rather, they overall call attention to the poet’s preoccupation with the familiar, as a way of bringing understanding to what draws people together in a variety of situations, and specifically what united working people in their lives, pain and happiness.

Across The Significance of the Frontier, he lays out the most significant relationship of art, particularly poetry, to politics. When poetry meets politics, the gathering is not always cordial. That is because poets create works that tell the truth. So the verses themselves are radical and anti authoritarian. Through verse, the poet puts truth into action.

In the spirit of telling the truth, Brisben uses a variety of styles and themes to take the reader on a long lyrical road. Here he also keeps the spirit of bringing together. Along the way, he introduces us to Oklahoma river baptizers, the Trail of Tears, Eugene V. Debs’ gravesite, prison artists, movie characters, and even La Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. The works show him as a faithful witness and a keen observer.

The fourth chapter, The Cicerone, provides a good understanding to the tone of the experiences. Humor, pain and encounters with the arts that drive the poems in the book are strongly emphasized here. “Cicerone,” as Brisben explains, means “a guide who conducts sightseers.” (91)

Here is especially where he broadly uses his powers of observation. In the process, his poetic voice makes powerful statements. He chronicles the Cicerone’s journeys with accompanying “speeches.”The style is reminiscent of “The Master” who is “quoted” in the work of the late Indian priest poet Anthony de Mello.

In The Cicerone in Terre Haute, he offers his homage to Debs: “The common marker in a common lot / Will do for the herald of our coming triumph” (92)

Underlying the poem is a very moving statement of the power of being humble. Also, the poet reminds that even in moments of sadness, there will be victory:

“Our group with too many martyrs / And no clout, chronicled only / By trivial pursuers, honors this / Saint with relics strong enough / To keep creating faith.” (92)

Remembrance of Tragedy

The Cicerone’s voice animates strong feelings of pain. Brisben offers that in The Cicerone Crosses the Trail of Tears, a remembrance of the treason against the indigenous peoples:

“A crime is so great it could not / Be kept out of textbooks, an eddy / Challenging the patriotic flow / Of Andrew Jackson’s squatter triumph / On the endless stream of twenty dollar bills, / An atrocity all right, small by standards / Of the next century, but real, thousands / Of corpses from despair of uprooting” (95)

But to tell the whole story, the Trail of Tears was itself but a small part of the great atrocity of massive genocide lasting for nearly four centuries previously, all across the Hemisphere.

The poems show the poet’s penchant for the poignant. Beneath the headline like title Congress Kills Ergonomic Rules is a very moving story. Brisben speaks of “hardened hearts worst of all / decreeing, bricks, without straw / refusing to let / people go / ignoring the long series of plagues / finally drowning without heirs.” (82) Here again, a truth that may not be otherwise made known.

Subverting Pop Symbols

How these pains begin are revealed as well. In Memories of the Fingers, part V of Summer Bottles, he illustrates his own story to bring understanding. He graphically yet subtly describes the scars that multiplied from his own “Three summers at the bottling plant and two / More as a driver salesman for Hires and Squirt.” (23) Again, pain is channeled in verse as a call to struggle.

Brisben utilizes pop culture references as tools to tell his stories. For an artist to best subvert those symbols, from logos to Hollywood personalities, from Hires root beer to Captain Marvel, it is not enough to turn mass market names on their heads. They must be kicked as soon as they secure in the upside down position.

He succeeds in doing that in many instances, such as in Memories of the Fingers as well as throughout Summer Bottles. In that set of recollections, his words are especially reminiscent of the late worker Beat poet Richard Davidson.

Brisben very freely constructs his verses but can easily work with forms such as those in Sonnets and Other Hermit Crab Poems. Here he shows his willingness to play with forms that have been largely confined to the academy, toward giving his words a name that unites the forms by their celebration of humanity.

To fully understand the significance of subverting old verse forms and creating new ones, readers should see Jackpine Sonnets (Toronto: Steel Rail, 1977) by Milton Acorn, the People’s Poet of Canada. In the book, Acorn radicalized the sonnet to its roots by focusing on its role—he reminds in the book’s essay that a sonnet puts forth an argument in short poem—rather than rhyme.

Brisben shows that understanding here. Even in conforming to a rhyme, he makes his point. Where he succeeds best in that regard is in Pecans and 150 Days after 11 September 2001.

In the latter, he reminds the reader why the arguments must keep being made: "The lying shout / That truth is treason and must be erased / By star wars." (37) It is at precisely these moments when the poet, the truth teller in verse, must be present.

The Artistry of the Activist

Brisben’s poetry hints at the constant tension between politicians and artists. Here is an activist that has elevated his role of artist to being an important part of his work, where in other instances an activist’s creative side may remain dormant.

Cultural workers, that is, artists who recognize each other as workers and realize the role their creativity plays in struggle, have long sought to synthesize this artificial divide. For it is culture that propels struggle by reaching to what is at the roots of people and their struggles.

The poems also display a careful lifting of quotes from radical figures. In The Cicerone at Terre Haute and Special Collections he blends the sayings of Debs and Utah Phillips, respectively, with his words. He acknowledges them as a poet would: quietly and forcefully. So the former becomes a moment of high esteem, and the latter is a call to tell the truth.

Where telling the truth is key here is in Brisben’s observation of a modern day empire in decline. In reading Questions of a Studious Worker, he tells the reader who the poem’s subjects—Alexander, Caesar, Philip of Spain and Frederick the Great, all in one stanza—are called today.

He also reveals what, collectively for the past and the present, was their undoing: “Every page has triumphs. / Who cooked the victor’s banquet? / Every ten years a great man. / Who paid the bill?” (47)

Special Collections is a manifesto against media censorship of labor history. It is a battle for the truth, with Appeal to Reason and Kansas lead miners and their women, “an Amazon army,” squared off against corporate bosses, “blacklists” and scowling statues of “John L.” Lewis. (59, 60)

Sharp Tools is an ode to Industrial Workers of the World artist Carlos Cortez. The poet takes us deep into the core of not only the artist’s toolbox, but also the souls of the artists learning the craft from the Teacher inside a jail.

The Cicerone presents a strong, dedicated, even understated, story in The Significance of the Frontier. He takes the reader squarely into struggles worldwide and stories from home, connecting past to present.

He also reminds activists of the need to creatively document our struggles, both our defeats and our victories—and the struggles each person must overcome in order to struggle for others. Finally, for the teacher and the student alike, to make our clamor so great that, as Brisben would tell it, “it could not be kept out of textbooks.”

ATC 111, July–August 2004