They say that magic is the second oldest profession. According to Shakespeare, Macbeth conjured up visions. The wizard Merlin supposedly moved the giant stones of Stonehenge by ordering them to fly through the air.
A poem is a conjury. It calls for a clever, dexterous act and a device called indirection.
In Exactly What Happened, Joel Brouwer's stunning first collection and winner of the Verna Emery Poetry Prize, we are urged to trust our own eyes.
In "Abracadabra Kit," a boy tries to outwit a gang of school bullies with a mail-order magic kit and discovers it's a fake: "The book said people need magic more than water."/
The next day at recess the chief Knight, Pete,/
brought me a dog turd, said Here's your lunch, fag./
I reached, pulled an egg from his ear, cracked it/
in my hand, and mom's canary shot up/
gold between us, pulsed above the playground,/
vanished whistling over the gym./
At 30, Brouwer is a brave new poetic talent. He doesn't think twice about turning the landscape upside down and inside out. He isn't afraid to stand up and praise that which might slip by the common eye: the fruit fly, for instance: "rising/ like smoke and ash from the bowl of bananas"; or Khruschhev's Shoe; or a truckload of live chickens on their way to market: "Clouds of down and dander billow behind/ like a slumber party gone haywire."
In these poems, what is real and what is imagined work hand in hand. The taut line between them is all but invisible. Now you see it, now you don't. What is truth? Will we recognize it when we see it?
In "Houdini," the great conjurer explains that his illusions don't come from magic, but from " ... these fingers,/ cut and calloused stalks." Houdini used steel nerves and sheer determination to get the job done:
I never crept/
unseen into the wings. It was me in that casket/
launched from the bridge, no effigy./
To escape I loosed the nails with my teeth /
In "Kelly, Ringling Bros. Oldest Elephant, Goes on Rampage," Brouwer turns a Times article about an elderly four-ton fugitive elephant into a powerful story poem, using great skill, care and lyric force:
Think of all the circles/
she wore into the earth. Twenty-seven years of plod,/
orbiting the Ringmaster's mega- phoned jokes/
while squads of ballerinas dug their heels/
into her spine./
They shot her forty times before
There are no trick mirrors here. No hocus pocus. Brouwer's poems are beautifully exact. They are verbal sleights of hand that cause the mind to blink.
This is sweet conjury: poetry that shows us what it knows, spellbinding and unpredictable. It's what the poet calls "the glow/ of potential."
Brouwer's invention and biting wit, in combination with his wry, political observations, make Exactly What Happened a rare book that deserves a wide circulation.