Clifford Brooks’ Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart is the latest work of a poet rising to deserved prominence. Incorporating much of his earlier Exiles of Eden, it---as both works’ names suggest—addresses issues of belonging and separation, home and departure, in ways that are paradoxically rooted in place and at the same time universal.
First, rooted in place. This is clearly a Southern poet’s work. Explicitly so: One poem is titled “An Ode to Southern Sons,” and another, “Sex and Sweet Tea,” mentions the “soft red Southern sky.” The prose poem “The Last Wispy Gypsy” says “no one keeps watch on the dirt road leading back to pavement,” a line that will immediately resonate with anyone who’s actually spent time on a dirt road.
More importantly, universal. Brooks is not afraid to tap into myth---—again, as his title suggests. Athena is present in many pieces concerning relationships, adored but soon to be abandoned. But Odysseus is everywhere, visibly, as a man or not quite, as an impulse--the simple inability to stay put, regardless of consequence, He appears explicitly in “A Noble Death”---“oh, to have my own Ithaca!” And as noted earlier the eroticism of the relationship poems is tempered by a sense of imminent loss—hers, of him, to the road. “Even if I told you/ how alone/ loving me leaves a lady/you’d stay,” he says in “Hypothetical Date with Calypso.” The drive to aloneness is undisguised in “As My Mind Wanders”—“a better, solitary existence.”
But don’t think for a moment that this is a freeze-dried once-over of Ovid. Brooks blows the doors off with “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a prose-poem account of the myth informed by the roadhouse. “Hades had, and has, a gambler’s stare, and hears a hanged man’s last prayers. . . .The house always wins.” “Eurydice smiled behind the veil that fit like tinfoil over cold rock.”
Brooks is not afraid of emotion, but his diction is consistently masculine and taut. He is an old-school poet of the first order nevertheless part of his place and generation. This is the right stuff, and not to be missed.