by Greg Alan Brownderville

Irresistible in its color and momentum, Greg Alan Brownderville's debut collection explores the competing mysticisms of his boyhood: the Voudou of his native Arkansas Delta and the Pentecostalism embodied by his devil-hunting pastor, Brother Langston. On the one hand, "gust" sonically suggests "ghost," and wind is a metaphor for inspiration and the Holy Spirit.

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Irresistible in its color and momentum, Greg Alan Brownderville's debut collection explores the competing mysticisms of his boyhood: the Voudou of his native Arkansas Delta and the Pentecostalism embodied by his devil-hunting pastor, Brother Langston. On the one hand, "gust" sonically suggests "ghost," and wind is a metaphor for inspiration and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, "gust" suggests urge and pleasure, especially of the gastronomic variety, thus evoking the body. 

Brownderville commands the complex eloquence of Southerners who love not only local color but also high-flown rhetoric. Instead of reinforcing stereotypes about rural folks' thought and speech, he challenges our assumptions by presenting real life as a festival of mixed diction. Church, as Brownderville enacts it, both quickens and forbids the erotic, whose lightning flashes and crashes everywhere in these poems. Highlights include a press conference with a bizarrely poetic rural sheriff, a Zimbabwean meter never before employed in English, a rock and roll song interrupted by a Walmart intercom, and poems about the exploitation of Italians in Arkansas cotton fields. 

At once evoking Yeats and Whitman, Gust recovers the dramatic mode often neglected in contemporary American poetry. Brownder­ville's uncanny lyricism storms through stories that are both moving and humorous.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

 "Gust is at once a tapestry, narrative and continuous, as well as a collage, impressionistic and momentary. For me, that is a satisfying combination; nowhere does this book strain to hold together as a unified expression. Brownderville is aesthetically bold-inventive, often electric, in his phrasing. I expect he's a poet we will continue to hear from, and I'll be glad for it."

Maurice Manning, author of The Common Man and Bucolics

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2011 Greg Alan Brownderville
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5221-2

Chapter One




    Me and Sparrel Rance were friends
    ever since they clipped our unbiblical cords.
    Side by side as babies,
    we rode our mamas' cotton sacks,
    and later worked from can't to can't
    together in the fields.
    Soon as Aubrey, Sparrel's brother,
    got old enough to shadow us,
    he made it three,
    and Dark Corner, Arkansas,
    had never seen such devilment.


    Our fifteenth summer,
    men and boys both, me and Sparrel
    lit a fire below a rotten tupelo
    and smoked out the bees.
    We sawed the tree down, stole the hive,
    and trucked it home along a path as wavy as a panther tail.
    We cut the comb
    in little waffly squares to go in every jar.
    That was the awfullest amount of honey—
    filled up two number three washtubs
    like we took a bath in. After we got it all canned,
    a few jars had some live bees in them.

    We were sucking honey off the comb,
    and Sparrel asked if I believed in ghosts.
    I told him I would have to think about it.
    He said one night when he was six, a shadowman
    with an ankly cypress branch for a cane
    shambled in the house
    and lifted Aubrey off his corn shucks,
    held him for a spell, and said, "Are you dead yet?"


    Me and Sparrel went frog gigging
    one night. I held the light.
    Where the swamp was loggy
    and we couldn't pass,
    you'd a thought bluegrass done gone metal,
    way he worked that banjo of a chain saw.

    Gar passed the boat
    like black submarines.
    We floated, listening to locusts, tree frogs, panthers—
    thought we saw a bull shark up from the Gulf.
    As the moon slipped under cloud cover
    like a scared face,
    drumfish took to drumming.
    "Listen," Sparrel whispered.
    "Listen to that drum—
    it's like a stuttering heart."

    I was paddling, not to get somewhere
    but just for pleasure, working that lazy water,
    and Sparrel said, "I swear
    it was a wet tornado."
    Said it a little too loud, like I was arguing.

    "If I'd a jumped in, we both might a died.
    I should a tried."
    I told him he was talking crazy.
    He said, "God won't save me—
    he's doing me just like I done Aubrey."
    Said sleep was a strong woman
    but couldn't take him anymore.
    Every night he stuck to his covers,
    doused with sweat,
    seeing Aubrey spit and flail and bob loud-eyed
    like a Holy Roller getting baptized.
    "One night," he said, "I threw my sheet off
    and the demons come a-swishing in
    chilly through my pores.
    Next day I seen Jesus in overalls,
    nibbling a ground-cherry.
    He moseyed off into the tall cotton,
    saying, 'See you in the funny papers.'"


    This Monday at the market,
    I spied a jar of raw local honey.
    The comb was like a box of shells.
    I thought of Sparrel Rance,
    them eyes of his
    like a kitten's not all the way open yet.
    Late that man-child summer,
    he fired a goose gun
    at the stuttering drum in his chest
    and left me,
    left me a chain-saw banjo
    and the need to truck with ghosts.


    Dirt-stopped, eary mussel shells were strewn
    across alluvium jigsawed by the sun.
    Barefoot, I waited, saw Jack Langston dunk
    all comers in the Cache. God's champion.
    Tall cypress knees loomed gray along the bank
    like tombstones. As the line shrank,

    words from "Jesus on the Mainline" rang
    inside my head. (Sister Lila had sung
    a couple rounds to start the ceremony.)
    Call him up, rolling off a Southern tongue,
    sounded like "call them up," reminding me
    of Uncle Paul, of all I couldn't be

    now that I was Langston's kind of Christian.
    Tangly red hair like dodder in the sun,
    Paul taught me how to call them up: He stole
    his mama's antique hand-crank telephone—
    a little generator, powerful
    enough to be our magic fishing reel.

    With rubber seats and boots we'd float the Cache,
    cathedral-quiet if not for chirp or splash.
    Mirrored dimly in the river's brown,
    tupelos towered—cypress, gum, and ash.
    We'd hook two twelve-gauge wires up to the phone
    and drop them in the water twelve feet down.

    Finally, when I was twelve, my uncle said,
    "Here, man this winder—you ain't no little kid."

    The fish lived through the shock but couldn't swim
    for minutes, only float. I cranked like mad.
    As Paul took hold of the dip net, here they came:
    flathead, blue cat, buffalo, and bream ...

    It was time. My feet went clean invisible
    and read the riverbed's treacherous Braille.
    Langston covered my nose and mouth with white,
    then braced my back and said, "Surrender all."
    In a wet rush I felt my blood ignite
    and shivered as I rose electrified.


    I make fire underneath an iron pot
    and kill a cat nothing but black on its back,
    skin it and boil it like the two-head said—
    "Stare in a looking glass and run them cat bones
    cross your tongue, one by one, till your reflection
    disappear like a snakehead in the river.
    That's when the Devil got your soul, old boy."

    Next thing I know, I'm naked as the mange
    and scrabbling in wet weeds by a blue shack.
    Peacocks laughing, I laugh back, and pie pans
    go changalanga in the cherry tree—
    scarecrow tambourines. I kill the scarecrow,
    steal his garb, and walk into the sky,
    through a giant crystal tepee made of sunrays.


    In glimmering coils tuba-serpents beg,
      gaping their massive mouths
      to gulp the lunar egg.

    Trombonists blow their melodies cheek tight
      and loose them like balloons
    untied and yellowy bright.

    In streaming sound-confetti the dead arrive
      to claim this bead-strung city
      as their afterlife.

        Baby's in the king cake
        God and the Devil one
        Deep down in New Orleans
        Honey behind the sun


    Sister Law, a one-hundred-year-old preacher woman
    and folk sculptor, walks to Cache River. Cypress knees
    gather like silent monks around her. A daughter
    of the forest and the river, she's at peace
    among her holy men. Kneeling beside the water,
    speckled with red haws and tea colored from leaf tannin,
    she waits for driftwood. Her first find looks like a rabbit
    in blurry midair stride, the next like fighting bears,
    a third like her young face not yet crosshatched with years.
    She lets them go. Breathing to still her imagination,
    she knows the hardest thing to make now is the habit
    of saying amen to the river, amen, amen.


      Mawu, the dreaming Dahomean goddess,
    escorted little Legba, her sly son,
    through the yam garden. "I will bless
    the new moons in your eyes with mystic vision,"
    she said, "your hands with power. Human beings will honor
    the dog, your totem beast;
    worship in white, your ritual color;
    and serve you oil and cornmeal cakes, your sacred feast.

      "I will teach you the magic alphabet,
    my deepest secret, and every evening write
    beautiful poems about our planet—
    mail to the dwellers of earth, to activate
    their days and destinies." She smiled. "I am naming you
    the cosmic carrier, next
    to me the mightiest god of Voudou."
    Sniggering, Legba thought, Me tamper with the text.


    Fishermen lift their question marks from the lake
      in sudden rain. The clean horizon line,
    a perfect moon, and its reflection make
        an obelus, a great division sign.
    By the shore, I walk this glistening road alone—
      singing, against the wind's delirious keening,
        of the glad primal iamb. Divine breath,
      by wizardry of words, gave life to man
    to complicate the tale. In the beginning
        was poetry. Then God invented death.

    There were shadows, there were shivering and prayer.
      Tatterdemalions crammed inside a cave,
    we smelled of our kill and richly of our maker.
        The firelight deemed us lovely, fit to save.
    I could reforest Eden with a phrase,
      declare the cursive honeysuckle law,

        he thought, but easy mercy would have marred
      his poem, and he refused to compromise,
    too proud to play the deus ex machina.
        How can I save my creatures—and my art?

    My god, I feel him live—I feel him die.
      Arrows of rain. A lightning claw takes hold
    of a leafless tree to shake hands in the sky.
        Some strange white thing, as if the gush of road
    were a gentle river, makes a mad descent
      through blue-gray light and crashes, bleeds, transforms.

        Gravity-panicked at the pavement's edge,
      the bird is a book flapping in the wind.
    Tomorrow crazed black flies will come in swarms,
        characters loose and hungry for a page.



    Brother Langston's sermon over, we all stood.
    Every head bowed, every eye closed.
    A flannel-shirted lumberjack of a deacon named Joe Paul James
    was bawling and squalling as usual:
    "O Lowered, Jayzus, Lowered, move in our midst, Lowered."

    Brother Langston said, "I don't keer
    if you're a sinner man or woman or a holy saint of God—
    come on, people, press in!
    Get in under the spout where the glow-ree's coming out!
    I want to see a hundred percent in this altar."

    My older brother Eric knew the roving prayer warriors
    had him on their Holy Ghost Hit List.
    Had he stayed put, they might have come to his seat
    and made a scene of wooing him back to the Lord.

    (Or worse. One time, when a fifteen-year-old boy
    ignored an altar call, an elder called him out by name,
    said he had committed The Unpardonable Sin,
    said he could pull his hair out in the altar
    from "now till doomsday" but God
    would never have him, never save him.)

    So Eric eased up front and knelt
    on a pew of knotty pine in the second row,
    hoping to go unnoticed—a foolish move
    that made him all the more conspicuous,
    a timid sinner boy running from the Lord.

    He bowed his head on folded forearms, and could smell
    the Strawberry-Watermelon Hubba Bubba on his trapped breath.
    The voice of Sister Lou, our piano player,
    floated across the church—Swing low, sweet chariot ...

    Then a firm, vibrating hand
    gripped the back of Eric's head like a gearshift.

    It was Joe Paul James.
    He bawled in a creepy, weepy falsetto,
    "Make him a sheep, Lowered, make him a sheeeeeeeep."
    On "sheeeeeeeep" Joe Paul hit a spooky minor note
    like stormy winds that rattle windows, open and slam doors.

    Eric, not a Bible buff, had no clue
    what the goal of Joe Paul's prayer could be
    except to turn him into a sheep.


    While Joe Paul was slobbering
    through the same prayer over and over
    ("Make him a sheep, Lowered, make him a sheeeeeeeep!"),
    Eric lifted up his head and cried out,

    The church fell gravely quiet,
    and Joe Paul withdrew his hands and backed away
    as if Eric were a holdup artist or a wolf,
    anything but a sheep.
    Eric stood up and sauntered back to his pew,
    sat down beside me, and whispered,
    "There's some world-class kooks in this church, I'm here to tell you."
    A few folks flashed Eric V-browed frowns,
    but most people, our parents among them,
    tried to act as though nothing had happened.

    Soon, Brother Langston asked everyone to stand.
    After making a few announcements, he said, as always,
    "Let's love the Lord and be dismissed,"
    as if the alternative were to love Satan and stick around.


    Sister Lou played piano
    like a crazed novelist
    at a magical typewriter.

    She was a first-rate shouter.
    When she sang, the Spirit blessed
    the church, falling like manna

    from heaven, sweet to the tongue.
    One Sunday evening, Lou
    broke out in the holy cackle.

    (She must have been half grackle—
    that caw, those shimmers of blue
    in her black hair.) Her song,

    They that wait upon the Lord
    Shall renew their strength.
    They shall mount up with wings ...,

    melted to blissful moaning.
    My coat a quilt beneath
    the pews, I rubbed the hard

    swirls of gum stuck above me
    as if caressing nipples,
    tuning in wild she-cries.

    I closed my dreaming eyes.
    Bathsheba came in ripples
    to ride me, rev me, love me.


    We found cold breakfast under Reynolds Wrap
    and sat down in the kitchen by ourselves.
    Upstairs, a vacuum's dying fall and then
    the ever-louder plunks of Mama's feet.

    Eric had smoked kind bud the night before
    and left some evidence, an orange package,
    in the fifth pocket of his jeans. That morning,
    prepping the laundry, she'd discovered it.
    She came into the room and slapped that pack
    of Zig-Zag rolling papers on the table.

    "You got some tall explaining to do, son."

    Chewing, he said, "I'm glad you found that thing.
    What is it anyway?"

      "Don't give me that,"
    she said. "You know exactly what it is."

    He spread some mayhaw jelly on yellow toast
    and said, "I saw it lying in the street
    last night at the blues fest and thought it was
    a pack of Chinese chewing gum. I picked
    it up to take a look and didn't want
    to litter, so I stuck it in my pocket."
    The lie seemed too smooth in the telling,
    too quirky to be anything but the truth.

    Or maybe Mama needed to believe.
    Months later, she found a box of Eric's ganja
    paraphernalia in a dresser drawer.
    That day, he smiled and said, "Greg, I get all
    the righteous disapproval around here
    because my sins're the kind you find in boxes.
    But truth be known, you're further gone than I am."

    He was right. Next to my apostasies
    his beery Friday nights, boys being boys,
    would have seemed harmless, almost cute. Those years
    he spent flashing a fake ID and guzzling
    till he was fucked up like a snake in a lawn mower,
    bumbling with bra straps on a grass-stained quilt,

    I waded the wild switch cane with Voudou men
    and drummed or chanted prayers to Papa Legba.
    I tried to learn to shape-shift, mixing roots
    with buzzard beaks, graveyard dirt, and wood
    from an oak struck leprous with zigzag lightning.
    It never worked but Old Man Fullilove,
    swear to God, made a deck of playing cards
    scatter out of his hands like butterflies
    and light on walls, a homemade mobile, and me.
    Crawdead taught me the mind within the mind.
    Some of the Voudou shacks had cool dirt floors.
    My feet loved them and my soul loved the men,
  their quiet faces, lamp-lit, sad with history—
    those onyx eyes, those cotton crops of hair.


(Under a chinaberry tree in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Ancel Fullilove and I sit on upturned buckets and share a bottle of malt liquor.)

Mr. Fullilove: You hear Crawdead telling 'bout what happened to him down there at Ash Grove Cemetery?

Me: Naw. What happened?

Mr. Fullilove: Crawdead stay right by the graveyard now, you know.

Me: Yeah, his mama told me he moved out there.

Mr. Fullilove: Well, he say he out there in the graveyard one night and heard somebody say, "I better not catch you out here no more." He thought it was some woman flirting. She had a high, soft voice. Said, "Come here, big boy."

Ole Crawdead got happy then. He thought he finna luck out and get him some strange.


Excerpted from Gust by GREG ALAN BROWNDERVILLE Copyright © 2011 by Greg Alan Brownderville. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. 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.

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Meet the Author

 Greg Alan Brownderville is an assistant professor of English at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. His poems have appeared in Oxford American, Prairie Schooner, Arkansas Review, and other publications.

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