Review: “Love’s Labors” by Brent Newsom

reviewed by Nathaniel L. Hansen, editor of Windhover

Fort Lee, NJ: Cavan Kerry, 2015. 78 pp. ISBN 978-1-9338800-52-5

At the 2014 Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature, it was my great pleasure to chair a creative writing panel that included Brent Newsom, who read from his then-accepted poetry manuscript, Love’s Labors. Published by Cavan Kerry Press in early March of this year, Love’s Labors features poems in the voices of Smyrna’s residents, interspersing their stories with those from Newsom’s life. Consider the closing lines of the first poem, “Smyrna,”:

                    At the edge of town, by the caution light,
a metal sign, green, lettered in white:
WELCOME–riddled with steel shot.

In this town with such a distinctive sign, readers will encounter characters just as distinctive in Claudia Blackwood, Floyd Fontenot, Esther Green, and Pfc. Mason Buxton, among others. While the collection (with its generous offering of dramatic monologues) will certainly remind readers of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, Newsom allows his characters several poems in which to speak their minds, resulting in a rich characterization akin to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, (to name but one prose comparison). It is no small feat for a collection of verse to read like an excellent short-story cycle.

Part of the book’s strength also derives from the ways in which Newsom portrays these individuals, as well as himself: complex, naunced, three-dimensional. The people who populate Smyrna are not caricatures, but are individualized human beings. There is, to put it another way, a generosity in the portrayal. Claudia Blackwood, in the first poem of the sonnet half-crown “Claudia Blackwood has Her Doubts” expresses the entrapment she feels:

It’s unbecoming of a preacher’s wife,
these thoughts that worm their way into my brain
like hairline cracks in ancient porcelain,
then cobwebs into chinks.

And as the book continues, we listen while she shares her fears and frustrations, empathizing with her in what could be rightly labeled her “plight.” This poem, along with the others, counter the notion that “not much life happens in a small town.”

As I mentioned earlier, one thread of the book traces the progress of Newsom and his wife as they await the birth of their son, several poems tagged with a “time stamp” as an epigraph. Take for example, part of the opening stanza of “Christmas Day” (with the tag, “twenty-six weeks”):

In bed this morning, I finally felt the kick
your mother’s described for weeks to my dumb smile.
With your aunt expecting, too, we constitute
unwitting, incomplete nativities
around the den: two Marys in recliners,
your uncle and I two Josephs awaiting the blessed
events.

What a wonderful parallel to draw, the way in which the two fathers-to-be, along with the expectant mothers, are these as-yet unfinished nativities.

Love’s Labors possesses a formalistic skill and grace, and if you are, as I am, a lover of more “traditional” poetic elements and forms, then this a great collection for you.  There are several sonnets, much metrical verse, and even a sestina. Other than the partial sonnet crown, the collection’s most ambitious poem is “Cut,” in which Newsom’s son is finally born. The concluding lines (and those of the book) contain a final, startling image (in a collection already replete with well-crafted images) :

Your mother waits for you.
In my left hand a clamp,
scissors in my right. The blades
bite down.

Because the collection possess such interesting people, you might might pass it on for the friend who enjoys fiction but who is timid around poetry. His work has made such an impression on me that when I began considering writers for the festival that I direct, I immediately thought of him. After all, as editor of Windhover, I published two of these poems in the 2015 issue. Finally, given this strong debut, readers can hope that Brent Newsom’s future poems will continue to develop more of these individuals (and himself), focusing on the confusing and confounding wonder of the human condition(s).