America’s perpetual war on its young men reached one of its peaks in the mid-1960s. The horror of Godless Communism led to the Vietnam draft; for fortunate sons who could elude it, America’s fears of miscegenation (rock’n’roll), euphoria (dope), and queerness (long hair) provided another set of threats that could, when taken to extremes, be just as traumatic to their victims. John—the lost younger brother memorialized in Atlanta writer Patricia Percival’s first poetry collection, Bargain With the Speed of Light (Kattywompus Press, 2015)—was denied admission to his Texas high school* for sporting hair “shorter/than Meet the Beatles.” So began his 20-year expulsion from America, simultaneously chosen and involuntary, that ended only with his suicide: “He lost his place in line/too old for 9th grade, forever catching up.” Percival’s book is her reckoning with John’s truncated life, her own survival, the history of the rest of her broken family (dead mother, vanished father, bad stepfather, stabilizing grandmother, various ghosts alive or dead), and the evaporation of baby-boomer hope by time and change.
Some of the poems display the novice’s tendency to distrust poetry’s economy; more than one poem begins only after stanzas of stage-setting that satisfy the purposes of history-writing, but which ballast their poems to the ground. Others could stand, their lines reassembled, as prose memoir, vivid and evocative but not all the way to poetry. The poems gather strength as the retelling of John’s life presses forward, beyond origin stories (which outline the characters without explaining their divergent fates, mysteries Percival accepts as inexplicable) to the most immediate, sharpest pain: brother’s suicide, mother’s death, narrator’s seeming aloneness in dealing with their loss. Among the poems that close the book, “The Dark Here,” “Pietá,” “Fishing for Words,” and “Theories of Equilibrium” are the strongest and most mature, poems where Percival’s focus shifts from history to elegy, navigating the inevitable gap between art and mourning:
Poems became sieves, lures
for glints of thought: a few goldfish
in crystal water, more often catfish,
ugly lungfish, muddy bottom biters.
Percival may be attempting much more than can be accomplished with the 23 poems folded between her book’s funereal black endpapers, but her bravery must be admired. Embedded in the book is her awakening into writing; by its end she’s transformed herself into a full-tilt poet. This redemption may be unequal to the author’s grief, but it comes as a gift to readers who can now look forward to more of her work (a second collection is in progress), unbound by so much dire necessity.
*These hysterias were particularly acute in Texas, the most notorious example being the destruction of the 13th Floor Elevators (“You’re Gonna Miss Me”) by state-sponsored persecution.