The Human Half

The Human Half by Deborah Brown, American Poets Continuum, $17.

Bright, dynamic blood-reds on the backdrop of a subservient maid’s clothing; cool, breezy greyish-blues outlining the harshness of the night sky: Deborah Brown’s new book of poetry The Human Half delves into color, light and texture in highly personal and visual poems that parse her life, the animal and natural worlds and the vibrant landscapes of famous paintings, as well as the terrifying country of illness and mental illness as they have affected her family.

In her new book, the New Hampshire poet, who is also the author of the 2011 book, Walking the Dog’s Shadow, takes on the task of visioning. Seeing the world and seeing depictions of it for example, looking deeply at works of art to ask probing questions, while imagining the narratives of characters depicted. Rather than directly responding to art, Brown seeks a deeper emotional connection, and even presents them as a call to action to her readers to join in her adventure of discovery.

In her bold ekphrastic poems about works by Henri Matisse, Jan Vermeer and Vincent Van Gogh, Brown personifies paintings and their pictorial inhabitants, asking us to question our own perceptions, offering up a compelling, inquiry-based journey to her readers. In “A Woman Holds a Balance in Jan Vermeer’s Painting” Brown questions how the woman in this painting “weighs alternative lives” and how we are all captive “by family, by physiology.” This holds true for people outside the paintings and for those within it— our sense of entrapment and a longing to be more than ourselves in the moment.     

“In Black and White and Red” she depicts the maid from Matisse’s painting Dessert: Harmony in Red. Brown implies that this woman is unaware of the pressures of the “blue spikes of air” that surround her and how the male artist may have intentionally used her body as a mirror. Brown wonders about the life she would live if she could escape the painting. And then she takes this another step, asking how would we live if we could escape the entrapment of our current lives.  Brown’s polished diction and sentence structure explores the emotional depth and circumstances of characters from famous paintings.  

Throughout the book, we are invited to shift perspective. To imagine ourselves characters in paintings by great masters, to think of ourselves as birds in the sky, or even the flowers in a garden. It is via this shifting of the poetic gaze and personification that invigorates Brown’s universe: At twilight, even birds lose part of their vision,” she informs us, in one poem,  illustrating how her inventive and polished diction and sentence structure explore the emotional depth of seeing.

Brown works hard to “see” herself through the vice of others. For example, in her title poem:

Half-baked, my father used to say, meaning/, that I was half in a state of nature’, not yet/ abashed’ into civilized form by parent’s/ and other elders, the yeast still rising”.

One of Brown’s most captivating poems is “The Red Suit.”  Her reflection upon a red suit worn by a grieving mother after the loss of her daughter outlines the internal struggles of loss, the torment faced by the concealment of our “wounds with a bright facade,” and the short-lived desire for mental solitude. Quick judgements in the face of anguish and masks worn in the face of recovery. Her use of imagery and symbolism is artful.

The Human Half is a mirror for Brown’s search for intimacy and connection much longed for. Brown invites us to examine our personal connections with other humans—the depressive thoughts of inadequacy and self-depreciation, coping with inescapable loss, and the disappearance of  innocence, our connections to the animal and natural world. In short, she invites us to think beyond our preconceived notions. Brown’s The Human Half extraordinarily outlines our dutiful, ever changing identities both “after the beginning and before the end” of our lives.

Henry Figueroa is a Senior Adolescent Education major with a concentration in English at SUNY Plattsburgh. He is originally from the Bronx, New York. Henry is a Writing Tutor and an Academic Personal Tutor in the Learning Center, a Kickboxing Instructor for the Fitness Center, an Associate at the Feinberg Library, and a Community Advocate for SUNY Plattsburgh. This previous summer, he was an Orientation Leader for SUNY Plattsburgh’s Department of Student Involvement and worked with the incoming Class of 2023. He hopes to create a massive non-profit community center in the South Bronx.

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