You can practically tell just by glancing at his books: Brandon Downing is some kind of genius. But it takes a lot of reading to understand exactly what his genius is. In Dark Brandon, Downing begins with a succession of traditionally formatted poems named after movies ("Mutiny on the Bounty," "Forrest Gump"), but as the book progresses, these poems change shape and strain against the idea of poetry. One double-page spread incorporates collage and newspaper advertisements into an extended photo-poem about alienation. The book concludes with a rat-a-tat succession of tiny poems (many of them titled "Poems") that go from nonsense verse to insult comedy: "Sex with/Your mother/Was pleasant,/Like an/Ok bath," and the final piece is just a repetition of the number five, as though Downing has broken poetry once and for all, and all we're receiving now is the code underneath the text.
Downing can sketch an image that puts other poets to shame. His collection The Shirt Weapon opens with a killer:
The ladder lying leaves its teethmarks
in the grass.
Our new yard... it's arrogant. Grass is
like a flesh, spinning out
Quadratics of itself. The branches form,
and they divide.
That's the kind of thing—the image of vegetal flesh and the hollowed-out remains of a ladder in squares of green—that should make Billy Collins soak his latest dog poem with a torrent of salty tears. But Downing also produces work that, to an incautious reader, scans like nonsense verse: "I say blame Beverly/Milestone, she/Of the ramming ideas" is one entire poem, and thick hedges of words like this can block a struggling reader from seeing the bigger picture at work.
Downing's greatest achievement so far, one that puts his entire body of work in perspective, is 2009's Lake Antiquity, an enormous $40 art book from Fence Books. It is made up entirely of collages of vintage art (postcards, valentines, color plates from science textbooks), and he has delicately illustrated these weird landscapes with text cut from old books. He has conducted these disparate elements into stanzas rich with new meaning: "I repeat, if your daydreams are whole-/some, your character is forming along proper lines:/the realities of becoming bride,/fantastic housewife, and mother."
Lake Antiquity makes it clear that Downing is a genius of juxtaposition. He rubs elements together that were never intended to meet. When you read it as one work—nonsense verse, photo collage, pop-culture references, and all—you realize that Downing is working on maybe the most ambitious memoir you've ever seen; he's telling us about the world by remaking the world in his own image.
Brandon Downing reads Wed March 10, Open Books, 7:30 pm, free.