Thomas Brush’s Open Heart

Long, long ago Lael, Logan, Leslie and I were visiting Pt. Townsend, and Lael and Logan wanted to go into a bookstore.  I went in but had to leave immediately because they sold used paperbacks, and I’m deathly allergic to book mold.  I waited outside, but Lael came outside and told me that the store had a fabulous poetry section. Sorely tempted, I rushed inside and grabbed a handful of books by local poets without browsing them very closely. I’m addicted to poetry books, and its hard to find good poetry books in the big-box stores — much less ones featuring local poets.  I’ll  admit I buy most of my poetry books from Amazon because it’s one of the few places I can find them, and more-often-than-not I buy the Kindle edition because I’ve run out of storage space and  need to throw an old book away every time I buy a new book.  

I bought Thomas Brush’s Open Heart because he’s a Seattle poet and several of his poems focused on places I was fond of.  It turned out those aren’t the only thing we have in common.  He is almost exactly the same age as I am and taught high school English (not sure how long, though).  I can’t tell if he went to Vietnam or if he just knows its effects because his brother was there, but we have certainly both been affected by it, though maybe not quite in the same way. 

We also share a love of place, a love of the Puget Sound and of the “the single mountain that holds/Puget Sound in place” as shown in 

HALF—WAY TO MAURY ISLAND


Thank God for the rain,
For the green home of moss and mud
And for the old wooden hull of the steam ferry
San Mateo that still floats
From Tacoma to Tahlequah,
And for all the rusting steel decks and rotting
Dugouts and the single mountain that holds
Puget Sound in place, and for the salmon that rise
Like the lost language of the Salish and for the clean
Hands of the rivers and the wet and swollen stones
That balance the earth beneath us.
And thank the damp breath
Of the leaves, and the sweet torrent
Of twigs stirring the black bark, and the branches
That twist and swell in the writhing
Trail of air, and the long, secret whistle of geese
That crosses that falling sky, and the sobbing music
Of the tides, and for what I can take
From this sinking island and call it
Home.

I may not always thank God for the rain, but I’ve never wanted to live in a place that isn’t as green as the Pacific Northwest, and you can’t have that without all the rain we get. Until I looked up Maury Island and Tahlequah I didn’t realize that this poem is about the ferry terminal that is just a few blocks away from our home in Tacoma. I love to walk the area around the Tacoma side of the ferry route and would love to ride the ferry again once Covid-19 subsides.  The view of Mt. Rainier from that ferry terminal has graced my site several times, and I’m sure you would get an even better view from the ferry. Only a Puget Sounder would recognize the importance of Mt. Rainier and recognize that Puget Sound is often referred to by its Indian Name, the Salish Sea.  There are many poems like this that I can relate to.

Unfortunately, there’s a side of Brush that I can’t relate to no matter how hard I try, one that is suggested by the blurbs on the back of book that praise the “the sweat and mud of the ordinary,” and “the cracked music of everyday life,” comparing him to Richard Hugo and Raymond Carver.  The main similarity I see is a focus on drinking, a symbol of the despair that threatens to overwhelm all of us, but also a sort of tribute to those hard-drinking men who tackle the world directly and manage to transcend it.  To me, Brush seems closer to Charles Bukowski who argued that “Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.”

“Dream Wars” appears early in the book and most clearly suggests these associations, but there are several references in other poems, one that struck particularly close to home was “Cannon Beach,” where he says his brother “spent the hoarded days of rest drunk/ and in bed with a girl…”  I spent my R&R in Bangkok in a drunken haze trying to forget everything I’d seen in the previous six months. As a result, I only have a vague memory of what I actually saw there and might not have any memory of it if I hadn’t snapped shots of sites I visited.

DREAM WARS


This morning mist rose from the valley,
The last hot day
Of July, strings the color of tarnished silver hanging
In the birch trees, wispy sheets floating like thoughts
I once had of something memorable, something
As transparent and important as that brief hour.


There’s a stray
Cat, adrift in a pool of sunlight, and I envy
Him, King—Of-Sooner-
Or-Later, but not
now, winding my way
Through the smokeless air, so blue
It could be a lake turned upside down.


On the sidewalk
A rope of little kids holding hands swims by,
Led by a woman wearing a tee shirt emblazoned
With a baby hippo, and I begin
The morning ritual, sipping bourbon
Beneath Christmas lights framing the back
Bar, seeing the mirror as another body
Of water as holy as any, knowing how
I got here and why


Two stools down
A man holds his beer in one fist, bleeding
From some dream war
All of us recognize and know
We can’t win but we keep trying
One drink at a time.

I can easily identify with the ideas expressed in the first two stanzas. At my age, I’m more apt than not to let “memorable” thoughts slip by without writing them down or taking action on them, and I have always been too busy to just sit and enjoy the sun, to just enjoy the moment. 

Brush loses me, though, in the last two stanzas.  I can’t even imagine a “morning ritual, sipping bourbon” in a bar lit by Christmas lights.  It’s hard to imagine anything more depressing.  Perhaps it is the contrast of sitting in a dimly lit bar sipping bourbon with the kids holding hands being led by a woman with a baby hippo that Brush is trying to suggest, but “ seeing the mirror as another body/Of water as holy as any” would seem to suggest otherwise. If sipping bourbon is a ritual, perhaps it’s time to seek another religion.

The last stanza is even harder for me to accept. It could be a striking image of someone who has been totally defeated, but to suggest we are still trying to win the war “one drink at a time” strikes me as just plain absurd.  The world you see through the bottom of a glass is never the real world; it’s always a twisted, distorted world, one that may confirm your view of the world but can never show you the way out.  

I’m certainly not denying that the world Brush is depicting isn’t real; it is, no doubt about it. Nor am I denying that there are a considerable number of writers (Hemingway comes to mind) who celebrate tough, hard-drinking heroes.  Bukowski is an extremely popular poet,  more popular than several poets I admire much more.  If you admire Bukowski’s poetry,  you might like Open Heart, but, no matter how hard I tried to like it, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Brush’s Open Heart”

  1. Couldn’t it be that he is trying to win the war within himself trying to forget all those awful memories such as in ptsd?

    1. I think that is what he’s trying to do, but I’ve all too often seen how badly that strategy fails. Self-medicating with alcohol too often leads to worsening the situation.

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