“generations from now/they will know us/by the enchantments we create”
A professor of mine once told me that James Joyce had to leave Ireland to really understand it. This is why his seminal achievement, Ulysses, was composed on the European continent, he needed the perspective of distance to fully comprehend Ireland in all of its enormity. In a similar way, Brandon Pitts has used his time spent abroad in Canada to contemplate the United States in all of its complexity. The result, Tender in the Age of Fury, is a book filled with all the religious and political bloodshed that stains our history, written in an authentic American voice.
From the start, Pitts displays a Frostian command of the American vernacular with lines like “when the Reverend Chivington/whisky on breath/and pistol on pulpit/sermonised from the book of Joshua” from the poem “Volunteers.” The success of the voice in lines like these lies in its matter-of-fact subtlety, and it helps the reader not only to picture the reverend but the speaker of the lines as he draws you into his tale. Telling tales like this and yarn-spinnin’ are an American tradition and Tender in the Age of Fury is nothing if not a celebration of this. “A man-child is comin to you/ in two-hundred-seventy-one days -minus a night” the speaker tells us in “The Prophecy of the Coming Mannish Child”, as he relates the circumstances of his own birth, thus preparing us for an incredible story filled with escaped slaves and psychedelic hallucinations.
For better or worse, religious prophecies like these are integral to the American experience. This may be why Pitts has devoted so much of his book to a discussion on the language and culture of religious faith. Tender in the Age of Fury is a book influenced by Charles Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, and most noticeably by the Book of Revelation. The second section of the book is entitled The Apocryphon and is filled with visions like “I hath seen the ghastly rider/the one/who is marked by a swarm of hummingbirds/as he pursed his lips” and “there will come to you a man/with one eye/he will show you water that you cannot drink.” There were lines in this section that got bogged down in the narrator’s opinions on specific modern problems but at the same time, Pitts masterfully uses the voice of a mad back porch preacher to reach the pith of our great societal conflict between hedonism and puritanism.
In a political sense, Pitts seems to be offering a spiritual message to contemporary progressives that doesn’t require dogma. Thus in the book, capitalism is linked with hedonism to become a kind of Babylon while socialism becomes a kind of puritanism, not in a priggish sense but in the way that an oppressed people will cling to their ethics and morals during persecution. If this seems like a reversal of sorts in our contemporary religious climate, it is one that Pitts wholeheartedly embraces with exhortations like “lash them my Jesus/strike their skin/bring down thine fire upon their backs/with your whip of cords” from the poem “John 2:13.” The title and the theme of the poem itself come from an instance in the Bible when Jesus Christ drove merchants from the temple. Pitts uses this anecdote to remind us that even Jesus got angry when confronted with untrammeled greed.
If there is one person in the United States who should read this collection, it’s senator Bernie Sanders. The final section of the book is dedicated to him and in this section, Sanders becomes a kind of John the Baptist preparing the way for a coming revolution. I feel the need to confess (perhaps because we’re talking about religion) that I agree with many of the political opinions expressed in this section but that was not why I enjoyed reading it. What will stay with you long after you put this book down is the tenderness that Brandon Pitts feels towards the senator as he takes you from the androgynous birth of Sanders’ avatar, through the parables he tells his confused followers, and finally to his lonely death following the abandonment of these followers. It is this same tenderness that Pitts shows towards the lovers and friends who also appear in the book. And it is this tenderness that tempers the fire and brimstone in our age of fury.
Benjamin Schmitt is the Best Book Award and Pushcart nominated author of two books, Dinner Table Refuge (PunksWritePoemsPress, 2015) and The global conspiracy to get you in bed (Kelsay Books, 2013). His poetry has appeared in Sakura Review, Hobart, Grist, Wisconsin Review, Two Thirds North, and elsewhere. You can read his scary stories for kids in the Amazon Rapids app. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle where he also reviews books, curates a reading series, and teaches workshops to people of all ages.