Sunday, August 16, 2015

Michael Lake reviews Stephen Brockwell’s Images from Declassified Nuclear Test Films (2014) in Broken Pencil #68

Aside from the title and a dabbling of references to gamma rays, alpha particles and civil engineers, it is unclear what thematic connection, if any, this suite of poems has with nuclear test films. Many of the films are available to stream online, but they do not provide any clues as to what is at the heart of this collection.
            The first seven of nine poems reference specific films in their titles: “080071, 1964, Tonopah Test Range” or “0800035, 1968 & 1973, Project Plowshare.” The films themselves are a mix of propagandist fear-mongering voiceover footage of test blasts that feature some rather abstract and hypnotizing shots of explosions and floating lights. The corresponding poems pull a variety of images from the footage—images of dust, deserts, water, fire—but are strung together without any larger cohesion in either theme or form. A few standout lines—“The thought was / everything / could be delivered by cannon—” or “Anchor of the trunk / more membrane of flame / than memory of / wood, water”—land with dull thuds in the middle of poems that are otherwise so vague as to be about anything and nothing all at once.
            For the collection’s final two poems, Brockwell changes modes and strays even further from the already tenuous thematic thread. “Wednesday Morning, 3 AM” reads like an early draft of a finger-pointing manifesto. It repeats the phrase “Nothing is more silencing than…” with such offerings as “the law” or “wireless everything” or “the grave.” It reads as if it came from a different collection altogether. Ultimately, these poems do not add up to more than the sum of their disparate parts.

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