Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination

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by Cornelius Eady

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Brutal Imagination is the work of a poet at the peak of his considerable powers. Its two central sections—which could be called song cycles—confront the same subject: the black man in America.

The first, which carries the book's title, deals with the vision of the black man in white imagination. Narrated largely by the black kidnapper that


Brutal Imagination is the work of a poet at the peak of his considerable powers. Its two central sections—which could be called song cycles—confront the same subject: the black man in America.

The first, which carries the book's title, deals with the vision of the black man in white imagination. Narrated largely by the black kidnapper that Susan Smith invented to cover up the killing of her two sons, the cycle displays all of Mr. Eady's range: his deft wit, inventiveness, and skillfully targeted anger, and the way in which he combines the subtle with the charged, street idiom with elegant inversions, harsh images with the sweetly ordinary.

The second cycle, "Running Man," presents poems Mr. Eady drew on for his libretto for the music-drama of the same name, which was a l999 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Here, the focus is the black family and the barriers of color, class, and caste that tear it apart. As the Village Voice said, "It is a hymn to all the sons this country has stolen from her African- American families."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Eady's joy in language engenders our trust in the music that his art has made of love and pain."
—Publishers Weekly

"Eady fuses headlines and history with language that is a field holler, a blues shout, a hip hop rap that combusts inside the soul and keep on burning."
Bebe Moore Campbell

New Yorker
If the poet's complex, his verse is unsettlingly direct.
Village Voice
Eady's latest opus nimbly illumines how individuals can piddle away precious time searching for things that just ain't there.
Patrick Henry Bass
Award-winning poet Cornelius Eady displays his amazing literary powers with Brutal Imagination, a stirring, magical song cycle of black men and families in America. Eady's intensely personal work is timeless and shocking in its honesty, and utterly unforgettable.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly



By Candace Calvert, Sarah Mason


Copyright © 2013Candace Calvert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4143-6112-3



"THE GULLY, BELOW THE WATER TANK—I see something." Wes Tanner pocketed his radio and plunged downhill through tinder-dry Texas cedar and darkness, his cowhide boots scattering limestone gravel like stray bird shot. Logic argued that he could be wrong, that what he'd spotted might be no more than a sack of trash. Or a poacher's deer bag sent soaring by the November wind. But hope was wearing spurs tonight.

He pushed his stride. I'll find you. I'm coming.

The blue-white beam of his headlamp flickered as branches slapped his helmet and rescue pack; he hated to think of the damage they'd do to the parchment skin of an eighty-year-old. Or of how this woman, battling Alzheimer's, would fare dressed only in a nightgown. With dawn minutes away, the air temperature couldn't be more than fifty degrees. There was no way of knowing what time the former piano teacher had wandered away from the old ranch house she shared with her sister-in-law. She could have been out here for hours, confused, frightened, cold ... injured? Wes's jaw tensed. He'd find her in time.

He halted, took a deep breath of air made musky by cedar and oak, then swept the light along the shallow gully. "Mrs. Braxton? Amelia?"

The beam lit a stand of prickly pear cactus, a rotting tree stump, and a mound of dirt more than a little suspicious for a nest of stinging fire ants. Wes refused to imagine that cruel scenario and scanned farther, growing increasingly impatient to—

His heart stalled. There, beneath the brush.

The beam focused on a body sprawled in the leaf-strewn gully. Flowered nightgown, snowy-white single braid. Face pale, eyes closed, mouth slack. Breathing?

"Subject located," Wes huffed into the radio, jogging the remaining few yards. "Can't tell yet if ..." He swallowed the rest of the sentence, hoping he wouldn't have to report back with the team's code word for a deceased body. Don't be dead. Please.

"Copy, Wes. We're right above you. On our way down."


There was a yelp in the distance— Gabe's chocolate Lab signaling human scent— then voices. One deep, the other feminine. His "hasty search" team, assembled within minutes of the 5:30 a.m. callout by the sheriff 's department. Wes was grateful but wished his rural volunteers still included a nurse or paramedic. As an EMT, he carried basic medical supplies, but ...

"Ma'am?" He dropped to one knee beside the woman and grasped her thin shoulder, shook her gently. "Are you awake?" Alive? He held his breath, nudged her again, watching for the rise and fall of her chest that would confirm breathing, a blink of her eyelids, a small grimace—anything. "Amelia?"

"Unh ..." Her muffled groan was the sweetest thing Wes had heard in a long, rugged week.

"Hello there." Relief threatened to choke his voice. "It's okay. You're not lost anymore."

She blinked and he averted the light.

"You're ..." Amelia swept her tongue across her dry lips, then stared at him for a long moment.

"Wes Tanner, ma'am. I'm here to help you," he explained, doubtful she recognized him, though he'd seen Lily and Amelia last week, Amelia's ever-present doll propped in the elderly ladies' grocery cart. But his appearance right now would seem intimidating at best: shadowy bulk, dark beard stubble, equipment dangling from his search-and-rescue vest, squawking radio—and every square inch smelling of rode-hard horse. On the white-knight scale, Wes was a notch above Sasquatch.

He lowered his pack to the ground. "Miss Lily asked me—"

"Asked us," Gabe Buckner corrected. A headlamp lit his face like a jack-o'-lantern as he stepped into the clearing. He snapped a leash onto his dog's collar and walked closer. A few yards away, the team's newly certified member—a coffeehouse barista by day—said a few words into her radio before following him.

"Deputies are guiding the medics in," she reported, first-rescue excitement making her voice climb an octave.

"See?" Wes smiled down at Amelia as he lifted the foil rescue blanket from his pack. "Plenty of help tonight." He patted her shoulder as she tried to sit up. "Don't move yet, Mrs. Braxton. Let's be sure you're okay."

"You're ...?" Her gaze moved over Wes's face again, her chin trembling.

"Wes Tanner," he reminded. "My family takes care of the wells around here. And over there is Gabe. His family ..." Bad time to mention that they owned the local funeral home. "His family lives right down the road. The pretty one is Jenna. And that four-legged guy is Hershey, the best rescue dog in the county."

As if on cue, the chocolate Lab whined and wagged his tail.

"We're your neighbors. Come to help you back home, ma'am."

"Oh ..."

Wes watched as she looked from face to face, her expression as wide-eyed and incredulous as Dorothy's in the black-and-white aftermath of Oz.

"Yes. I remember now." She returned her gaze to Wes, beginning to smile. "You're Lee Ann Tanner's boy."

Gut-punched, Wes managed a nod.

"Let's get you warm, ma'am," Gabe offered, moving forward to help.

They had Amelia wrapped in the blanket moments before law enforcement and the medics arrived. And in less than ten minutes she'd been moved via rescue litter to the waiting rig. An initial assessment concluded that, beyond some scrapes and mild symptoms of exposure, the piano teacher had survived her unexpected adventure fairly well. Considering she'd made the trek in an ancient pair of men's cowboy boots—worn on the wrong feet.

"They're taking her to Austin Grace ER?" Gabe asked, watching as they loaded the woman into the ambulance.

"Right." Wes scraped his fingers through his hair, loosing some twigs left from his scramble through the underbrush. "I'm going to follow along after I get my horse settled. I'll give Miss Lily a ride into the city and let the granddaughter take over from there. I'm supposed to meet with the hospital social worker later this morning anyway. We're doing that emergency department presentation on critical incident stress this week."

"Oh yeah." Gabe stooped to pat his dog. "The media's all over those 'new details' on our missing nurse—has to stress those folks in the ER. Even after this long." He sighed. "Now there's a rescue we all wanted to see happen."


Gabe was quiet for a moment. "Must have been a surprise when Mrs. Braxton mentioned your mother."

Wes hated the way his stomach sank; he should be long past that. "Not unusual for Alzheimer's. Can't remember what a toothbrush is on most days but then can clearly recall the name of a woman who's been gone for twentysome years." Twenty-seven, come January 3.

"Right." Gabe glanced away as the ambulance engine leaped to life. "Sure you don't want to catch some breakfast before driving into Austin? Hershey's got his mind set on apple-smoked bacon. I'm buying." He raised his brows. "Jenna's coming too. I get the feelin' she'd be pretty happy to see you show up."

"You're reading things into that one. Thanks, but I'm going to grab something to eat at the hospital."

Gabe shrugged. "While you're there, find us a few volunteers, would ya? I'm willing to share this opportunity for an early morning hike."

"You mean recruit the one remaining nurse who isn't working extra shifts to pay the mortgage and put gas in her car?" Wes frowned at the truth: their community search-and-rescue team was shrinking in this tight economy. He'd proposed a horse-mounted team and a long list of equipment he wanted to add to their incident command trailer, but donations were down and grant money was drying up. Fewer team members, less overall support. Still, today they'd had a live find. And it felt good.

"Hey, thanks for coming out, buddy." Wes clapped his friend's shoulder. "For a funeral director, a latte maker, a well digger, and a dog that still smells of last month's skunk chase, we didn't do half-bad."

Gabe grinned, snapped an exaggerated salute. "You call; I'm here. Count on it. It's more than worth crawling out of a warm bed to find someone alive."

"Nothing beats it."

Wes headed down the road to his horse trailer as morning lit the hill country cedar and prickly pear cactus—golden as the yolks in Gabe's favorite breakfast. He glanced back at the gully, remember ing the moment he'd found Amelia Braxton. "It's okay. You're not lost anymore." His favorite words in the world. Being able to say them and offer that lifeline of hope to another human being had become as important to him as breathing. It was the reason he'd answer any callout—anytime, anywhere. Even if he had to do it alone. And sometimes he did that ... hours, weeks, even months after other searchers called it quits.

Because he understood how it felt to be lost, cold, terrified, and desperate for help. Despite a lifetime spent trying to forget, he still remembered it as if it were yesterday: the January night that Lee Ann Tanner left her seven-year-old son in the woods. Then drove her car into the river.

* * *

Emergency department director Kate Callison hugged her scrub jacket close and crossed the employee parking lot, watching dawn's attempt to erase the bruise-dark shadows that shrouded the entrance to the Austin Grace ER. With every step she fought an almost-suffocating urge to jog back to her car, gun the engine, and drive away to ... anywhere else. Somewhere without media, lawyers, patient complaints, and a sullen and dwindling—and quite possibly mutinous—nursing staff. The last few weeks had been miserable enough to make Florence Nightingale jump ship, and there was no guarantee today would be any better. There was already a rescue rig parked in the ambulance bay.

Her gaze followed the empty sidewalk to the visitors' tables, and an unexpected sliver of hope lightened her step; at least the night shift patient load hadn't spilled outside. It was almost a miracle. Maybe—

"Oh, excuse me," Kate apologized, stepping aside at the doorway. "Sorry; I didn't see you there."

"Uh ... no problem."

A girl, wrapped in an oversize sweater coat as dark as the shadows, had appeared out of nowhere. As if the building itself simply spit her out. No more than a teenager, she had oily and lank hair, her face thin and far too pale. Even in the chill air, her skin glistened with perspiration.

"Hey ..." Kate tipped her head, trying to catch the girl's gaze. "Are you all right? You look like you're feeling—"

"Okay," the girl whispered, eyes downcast. Her fingers moved to clutch the front of her sweater. Chipped black nail polish, a silver ring shaped like a Celtic cross. "I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" Kate asked gently. She glanced through the glass door panel and saw that the waiting room was indeed packed. "I can have someone look at you. That's why we're here. To help."

The girl's eyes met Kate's at last. Watery blue, lashes sodden, dark pupils dilated. Pain? Worry? Then Kate saw it with sudden certainty. She's afraid.

"You would do that?" the girl whispered, her trembling hand on Kate's arm. "You'd help me? Even if I—"


Kate glanced toward the sound, then back at the girl. "I'm Kate Callison, the emergency department director. That nurse is waiting for me, but I meant what I said just now. We're here to help. With whatever you need. Go sign in at the registration desk. Tell them you spoke with me."

"I have to go," the girl said, backing away.

"But ..."

As fast as she'd appeared, she was gone. Skirting the corner of the building, heading—


The nurse in melon-pink scrubs held two Starbucks cups aloft, hot brews merging with cool sunrise in a fragrant cloud. Kate smiled, her uneasiness replaced by a rush of gratitude. ICU nurse Lauren Barclay was the only real friend she'd made in the months since she'd moved to Austin. Their prework coffees had become the best part of her day. Lately, the best part of anything.

"What do you think?" Lauren asked, glancing at the vacant visitors' tables. "Sit out here?" She raised her brows, one of them disappearing beneath the flowered surgical cap she'd tied over her hair. Another attempt to tame the thick blonde mane, as wavy and long as Kate's was dark and wispy-short. "I realize cool mornings are nothing special to a California girl," she teased in the familiar drawl, "but in Houston, we'd call this a flat-out miracle."

She handed Kate her coffee and settled onto a chair. "That poor mother was out there on the boulevard again. Did you see her?"

"Yes." Kate winced. A young woman had been stationed at a busy intersection for two days now, holding a huge poster of a bright-eyed and chubby toddler. Below the photo, in heavy and uneven strokes of marking pen, she'd printed a heart-wrenching plea: Need money for my baby's funeral.

"One of the cafeteria ladies said she's from out of state. They were visiting here when the baby got sick. So sad." Lauren peered at Kate over the top of her mocha. "How'd things go yesterday with the boss?"

Kate rolled her eyes at the reference to her meeting with the chief nursing officer. "I think Evelyn's exact words went something like 'Your team's morale is sinking.' She was being polite. It's more like I'm captain of the Titanic and instead of a band playing, there's one endless Willie Nelson CD." She sighed. "I never intended to be interim director of the emergency department. It's not what I applied for. And I had no idea I'd be stepping into the shoes of a saint."

Lauren nodded. "Sunni's disappearance has been hard on a lot of people. And if there really is new evidence, another search, and they find conclusive remains ... I know you're skeptical about it, but I do think the social worker's right to present the critical incident stress information again. There's been more staff coming to the chapel lately. Several from your team."

"Hmm." Kate knew her friend was talking about an informal fellowship she led for hospital personnel, designed as a support system. Fortunately she'd figured out there was no point pressuring Kate to join in. Fellowship and hand-holding were the farthest things from her mind.

"When's that supposed to happen—the CISM refresher?" Lauren asked.

"At the staff meeting on Friday." Kate watched as an elderly woman made her way toward the doors to the ER. She was accompanied by a man in a faded denim jacket. Tall, with broad shoulders, dark hair, and considerable beard shadow. Wearing cowboy boots, of course—apparently a state requirement.

Kate turned her attention back to Lauren. "It's not that I'm exactly opposed to peer counseling or debriefing after a specific traumatic incident." For some reason, she thought of the too-pale face of the girl she'd met in the shadows. "I think it may have some benefit in isolated cases."

"But ...?"

"It's been six months since Sunni disappeared. I'd be blind not to see how respected she was. I understand that her loss left a big hole. And I don't kid myself that the things I've tried to do have helped much. But in my experience, dwelling on the past—resurrecting it—doesn't help either. At some point, you have to steel yourself and move on."

Lauren stared at her. "You're not quitting?"

"No," Kate said quickly, glad her new friend couldn't know about her recent conversation with the travel nurse recruiter in Dallas. Lauren wouldn't understand that a fallback plan was a necessity. Thankfully she'd never asked how long Kate had worked at Alamo Grace and, before that, the Mercy Hospital in San Jose or any of the other hospitals in California and elsewhere. Places where she'd joined the staff only to find that something didn't fit, wasn't quite right. Plan B was a lifeline for someone like Kate. "No, I'm not planning to resign. In spite of my teasing about big trucks and bigger belt buckles, churches on every corner—" Kate smiled—"and that there are actually places you can buy Texas-shaped tortilla chips, I like it here. It doesn't make any sense, but it's growing on me."

Nuts as it seemed, it was true. Kate wouldn't say this city felt like home—nothing ever had, including home—but ... "Maybe it's because Austin feels a little more like California."

"Whoa, girl. Don't say that out loud," Lauren warned in a stage whisper. "You'll be run out of town." She checked her watch and stood. "We should head in."

"Right." Kate followed her toward the entrance to the ER. "I'll probably be run out regardless. Interim director is a temporary position. No guarantees. I came in on the heels of a lawsuit against the hospital that's still being settled. Patient-satisfaction surveys are at an all-time low. And last month I had to suspend that nurse."

"For drugs—you had no choice."

"The rumblings are that Sunni would have handled things with far more compassion. I'm working my tail off to prove myself, Lauren." Kate plucked at her scrubs. "I wear these instead of a suit so I can pitch in alongside the staff. All shifts, I come in to see what I can do to help. Ask Vicky who offered to give that soapsuds enema she groused about. I even baked red velvet cupcakes for the last staff meeting. But ..."


Excerpted from RESCUE TEAM by Candace Calvert. Copyright © 2013 by Candace Calvert. Excerpted by permission of TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Library Journal
Eady's new book consists of two song cycles. The title sequence involves the imaginary black man that Susan Smith created to cover up killing her two small sons. That ugly, sad lie has given birth to a narrator with wit, personality, and unexpected wisdom. Of course, he is a figment of a white woman's imagination, a black man of white invention, and yet his is a penetrating look at race in America: "I am not the hero of this piece./ I am only a stray thought, a solution." Elsewhere in the sequence, Eady evokes the ghosts of other white creations: Uncle Tom, Uncle Ben, Jemima, and Steppin Fetchit ("the low pitched anger/ Someone mistook for stupid"). Finally, the "Confession": "There have been days I've almost/ Spilled/ From her, nearly taken a breath./ Yanked/ Myself clean." In the second sequence, the "Running Man Poems," a black family faces death and the obstacles of color, class, and caste that test them. This sequence was the basis of Eady's libretto for the musical drama of the same name, a 1999 Pulitzer finalist. With its good, thoughtful work, this volume steps forward to face challenges of its own, and it should be appreciated.--Louis McKee, Painted Bride Arts Ctr., Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Eady's poetry is always approachable-often written in a voice almost like speech-so he's a good poet to recommend to YAs who fear that poetry is by definition opaque or elusive. In the title selection, resonant layers of psycho- and sociological complexity make up for linguistic simplicity. The sequence is a series of monologues "spoken" by the fictional black man who Susan Smith invented and charged with the alleged abduction of her children in 1994. The truth-that Smith herself had killed her sons-came out only after the law, media, and popular imagination pounced on the idea of a black perpetrator. Smith was not the first person to capitalize on society's fear of black men and its stereotyping of them as criminals; her crime was simply the most sensational. The disempowering effect of being repeatedly summoned up by whites ensures that this black man is akin to Uncle Ben, Buckwheat, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, and especially Stepin Fetchit-all of whom weigh in with their own monologues in Eady's book. The protagonist examines Smith's accusation from all angles, most powerful and some startling-as when he mentions "one good thing:/If I am alive, then so, briefly, are they," a reference to Smith's children. Smart as a whip and just as stinging, Brutal Imagination is an important addition to any collection.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The connection in Eady's art between music and drama, drawing on their close associations in African-American traditions, has never been more important than in this work, which comprises two distinct but related "song cycles." Although each poem stands adequately on its own, when assembled they form an even more powerful and coherent poetic narrative, the protagonist of which is the "dusky angel" invented by Susan Smith in 1995 to explain the abduction and disappearance of her two young sons. (She later confessed to leaving them in the back seat of the car she drove into a lake.) The effect is chilling. With both wit and well-directed anger, the poet invokes other mythical characters of the white imagination: Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, Buckwheat, Steppin Fetchit, the "ghost of the scripts." The second cycle of poems derives from Eady's libretto for"Running Man," presented at Here Theatre in New York in early 1999. It portrays, through family recollections, the life of a black man who ventures from the small Southern town of his birth to a Northern city. The language here is both more rhythmic and idiomatic, as when "a sinner smacked to the floor by the holy spirit" is compared to a flopping fish "scooped from a pond" (a cogent metaphor for the rural black exodus of the 1940s and 1950s). Although this may hardly seem a fit subject for poetic exploration, Eady's touch is masterly.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.33(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.33(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Uncle Tom in Heaven

My name is mud; let's get that out
Of the way first. I am not a child.
I was made to believe that God
Kept notes, ran a tab on the blows,
So many on one cheek, so many on
The other.

I watch another black man pour from a
White woman's head. I fear
He'll live the way I did, a brute,
A flimsy ghost of an idea. Both
Of us groomed to go only so far.

That was my duty. I'm well aware
Of what I've become; a name
Children use to separate themselves
On a playground. It doesn't matter
To know I'm someone else's lie,

Anything human can slip, and that's enough
To make grown men worry about
Their accent, where their ambition might
Stray. It doesn't help anything to tell you
I was built to be a hammer,
A war cry. Like him, nobody knew me,

But in my prime, I filled the streets, worried
Into the eardrum, scared up thoughts
Of laws and guns. How I would love
Not to be dubious,

But I am a question whole races spend
Their time trying to answer. My author
Believed in God, and being denied the
Power to hate her,

I watch another black man roam the land,
Dull in his invented hide.

Copyright © 2001 by Cornelius Eady.

Meet the Author

Formerly director of the Poetry Center at SUNY/Stony Brook, Cornelius Eady is currently distinguished writer-in-residence at the City College of New York. He has been awarded the Academy of American Poets Lamont Prize, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to Bellagio, Italy, and fellowships from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Brutal Imagination was nominated for the 2001 National Book Award for Poetry. The author of six previous volumes, he lives in New York City.

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Brutal Imagination 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He might get asked by smeie else so do it real son
Guest More than 1 year ago
Outstanding! February 4, 2003 This collection is made up of two cycles of poems, both dealing with the black man in white America. The first is a cycle of poems narrated by the Imaginary black man Susan Smith invented to cover the killing of her two children. This collection is deep! It's so moving and so vivid it leaves you angry and pulls the heart strings.Eady paints such a picture you can see the tail lights slowly slipping into the water. The second cycle is about a black family and the barriers of color. I had the pleasure of listening to Eady read from this collection as well as his work in progress. He is very moving. And like he said' The best thing about this is....there is no black man on death row right now for murder because of the imaginary black man she created'. This is more than a collection of poetry. Brutal Imagination is the brilliant, stunning creation from one gifted writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cornelius Eady's latest collection of poems, Brutal Imagination is quite the fascinating depiction of 'black and white' mentality blended together effortlessly on the strength of Susan Smith's murdering of her children, to later blame her 'brutal' action on a black man. A black man summoned from the depths of her 'imagination.' Not only does Mr. Eady show us the constant paranoia a black man envisions on the streets of America, but also the incredible lack of respect many whites have for blacks when faced with immeasurable odds. And this is only the first half of the book. This compilation is one for the ages and must not go unread unless you're the one with a 'brutal imagination.'