Acacia Road by Aaron Brown
Silverfish Review Press, 2018. 96 pages.
Reviewed by D.M. O’Connor
We held the mangoes in our hands
the skin ripe and firm, and sliced
until we had a plate full of gold.
Aaron Brown’s Acacia Road is a prodigal’s travelogue that examines, questions, and tells heartwarming stories from elsewhere, not only the leave-taking and arriving, but the deep land in between. Tanzania, Chad, Rwanda, Cameroon, Kenya, Japan, Salisbury, Libya, Paris, and Istanbul are where this poet is writing from and about, and the images come as great relief and proof that the constant foreigner can cross the frontier to become local, at least for a minute, with understanding and witness. Brown’s voice is that of the pilgrim, the seeker, the nomad—think Ibn Battuta meets Rumi meets Rilke with some good old Mark Twain narrative sprinkled throughout—an Orpheus who returns to sing:
I might spend the rest of eternity here, along this shore,
or return tomorrow, I don’t know, only I know
that when the rain comes, I will push out
into the Batha—sit there while the current
grows. I will pass the villages and fishers
out for only a few weeks of the year, to see
if the perch have come to be caught.
Acacia Road is a motorcycle ride down a dusty lane clinging to the back of an old pal to share a cup of tea and reminisce. “I said, Don’t drive too fast as we left and you only laughed.” Acacia Road is tragic and dangerous. Friends die from falling off the hood of buses. Children are stillborn. The soldiers are coming, Howitzers echo in the distance, genocide and pain can erupt at any minute without logic. In “I don’t know anything about suffering,” Brown catalogues the tribulations of a wife and mother who loses child after child, then husband, and lives in constant lack of water. Brown does not point to a charity case nor to the tragic but to stoic survival:
as if you could even begin to think with a mind that for once
wasn’t parched as in the road you walk to your field
every morning several kilometers away,
joining the others
who bear the same blows, wear the same cracks, who sweep
The endless horizons with their eyes and reach
their jagged arms
to the single cloud that won’t let go, won’t seal up the earth’s scars,
though everyone asks it why.
Brown is a great student of nature. Landscapes are painted with a deft brush. Trees appear like punctuation: Elders, Maples, Oaks, Neem, Gum, Bajlig, and the eponymous Acacia, which looms large, peaceful and protective. Millet stalks mix with papaya trees above split acorns which counterbalance the broken families, crowded buses and deaths as common as fallen leaves, while seeking “a better life.”
Stylistically, Brown is in full control of form; the aubade, the ghazal, and the elegy are employed with sublimity and placed on the optimal page to propel the momentum of the collection forward, ever onward to the next destination or departure. There is also a fresh use of compounds, “cookfire,” “sandshadow,” “rainwind,” which will make Joyce scholars smile. Yet, with all this craft and skill, the real power arrives when Brown remembers the people met along the way. “After the return, you try to tell them how it was” is but one example proving the old adage: it’s the people that make the place.
You realize it’s this silence
of time you’ve missed with him and with others, time
sitting down and sharing everything except words
speaking in smiles and spending in the currency
of hours—you had no better place to be.
Like the speaker, the reader feels that time could not be better spent than on reading Acacia Road. In parallel to great enjoyment in sharing, Brown teaches the reader about river deltas, unpronounceable cities, family structures, and little known cultures. He transcends and avoids “the danger of a single story,” as described by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by focusing on detail, firsthand experience, and bearing witness. Through self-examination, attention to poetic detail, and highly skilled craft, Aaron Brown has compiled an award-winning collection which is both pleasure and education to read.
I press on to a place I call my own, to name with a name
That will withstand the blast of wind and desert grain.
To move in progress is to regress into the present of past
To find myself
Echoed in memory, rather than returned to who I once was
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.