rem_reviewBrandon Courtney, Inadequate Grave
Publisher: YesYes Books
2016, 24 pages, Paperback, $10

THE NARRATIVES OF war are ancient—only the weapons change, and the language. To hold beauty and horror close together, cleaving pain to history, is both a gift and a burden. Brandon Courtney’s Inadequate Grave converses with The Odyssey, the sea, and the firmament in a meditation on war, loss, and homecoming—the old story, told new.

You said: I don’t think you ever
recovered.  And  I  want  to  tell
you   how   Achilles   refused  to
wash  away  Troy’s  gore  before
Patroclus’s    funeral,   how   the
mourners  of  the  military dead
bathed in mud, smeared ash on
their faces,  a contamination,  a
way to experience  living decay.

In  the  end,   your   casket   will
be  smaller  than  the  inside  of
a cello.

The nature of war, the nature of combat, builds stories that are both universal and deeply personal. Each section of Courtney’s lyric, 38 part sequence is sonically beautiful and dense with images. Six lines from Homer’s Odyssey break the sequences into sections and integrate the dialogue between Inadequate Grave and the narratives of literary and cultural history.

Inadequate Grave is the inaugural volume of YesYes Books’ Companion Series, a new collection that benefits organizations serving Veterans and at-risk youth. The pocket size chapbooks are designed to recognize that “books save us…Sometimes they are all that connects us and keeps us in this world.” Fitting then that the first volume is a meditation on what it looks like to leave, and what the world can require of us to stay. Courtney’s lines don’t flinch from the tension between surviving and being the one who survived. Is it any wonder Odysseus took ten years to find his way home? The tangible aspect of the series echoes its mission; these are books that can be carried into battle, carried on the streets. The Companion Series is built to take poetry where it is needed, where it is made.

The volume is slender, paper and staple bound, combining utility and elegance. Lovely to hold, it fits the hand lightly, belying the weight of the words inside, but with a ruggedness so a reader can embrace the patina its cover will no doubt gain over time as Inadequate Grave rides in pockets, purses, backpacks, and book bags—and it will, because once you slip into Courtney’s salt-sea, if his water is the kind you drink, you’ll carry his words, talismanic, awed by the way something that feels so weightless in the hand can pin you to the earth.

The justified layout on the page, columnar and militaristic, establishes a precision to Courtney’s lines—when his images become incendiary, his lines march down the page in formation, reinforcing the tension between order and chaos.

You  pulled  Johnson’s  greening
bones from the sea. You entered
the    Gulf     holding     a    single
breath.  You  unfolded  the  nets
of your lungs to gather a million
shining fish.

The imagery washes from sea to stars, anchored by a mundane that reads as anything but. Each turn moves into unanticipated territory. The shifts are never expected, but in their wake you realize that there is an element of pre-ordination to Courtney’s lines, the effect of a timeless story.

The  same  iron in  your blood
once destroyed a star.

When Courtney’s images leave the sea, he reaches into the sky—but Inadequate Grave always stays grounded in the body, and in history. “The / night you drowned, there were / explosions on the moon/ … / when water entered / your mouth with the slowness / of a kiss, dust fell above your / head one hundred times faster / than any bullet.” Here Courtney binds his words to a recorded moment in time, the meteor shower as earth passed through the Temple-Tuttle debris field. The timing is both finite and mythological. Courtney manages the duality deftly and as the stanzas progress, and the themes move homeward, the images begin to fragment, breaking apart like the bodies in the lines as some try to find home and others never will.

—Michaela Hansen

Brandon Courtney is a veteran of the United States Navy. His first book, The Grief Muscles (2014), was published by Sheep Meadow Press. His second collection, Rooms for Rent in the Burning City (2015), was published by Spark Wheel Press.