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Soul Not on Ice

Michael Brownstein
World on Fire
(Open City Books, 2002)

Michael Brownstein’s new poetic book-length masterpiece, World On Fire, did exactly what it was supposed to do to me, but we’re not talking metaphors here. Rather, it short-circuited my new T23 IBM laptop computer, leaving me temporarily keyless to pen this review.

I’m not blaming Michael personally at all, but his view is so fire-and-brimstone and so, well, utterly prophetic that my electronic devices couldn’t take it. The TV went right after the laptop. It was a pffft-snap fest all around the house for the week.

Which brings us exactly to the point. We are, as a civilization, proceeding at breakneck speed towards an overreliance on electronic and virtual gadgetry, and thus teetering on the brink of our own destruction. Either this book is a bellwether or the rant of someone who is not sure what dosage his Zoloft should be, or—even worse—both. You cannot read it without feeling both depressed and amazed.

Michael takes us, the “dear readers,” on a factual and mythical journey through technological and shamanic time with prose so haunting it can stand uniquely all by itself, page by page. He tells us:

I hate the way I’m laughed at, ignored, patronized, all because I see the full force of what’s coming; highways overgrown with trees, oil tankers beached like forgotten toys, the whole petrochemical nightmare vanished.

He rants like a staunch Bible Belt hawker, but in a cunning, soothing way:

Be still my heart
Learn to accept what’s coming sooner
Than you think.
A new soft-sell eugenics is coming I’m sorry to say.

And I’m sorry to say, if you read the papers every day like I do, he’s more or less right on target. He puts forth the idea that,

Cloning is the biological version of sameness
It won’t work without predictability, control, standardization.
Just as globalization won’t work without predictability, control, standardization.

But Brownstein steps back and surveys the landscape below him, like a peregrine falcon, to arrive at the startling but uniquely insightful conclusion: “Only recently did I make the connection between human blood and gasoline, the blood of the planet. You could say I’m a vampire too…a vampire with a conscience.”

At times his understanding seems like it should be manufactured into peel-off affirmation cards offering a pithy insight a day. In this already over-saturated world of “knowledge management,” he manages to sneak in this aphorism: “Communication is experience, never information.”

Going on about international debt, farm subsidies, and the gold standard, he riffs into his view that the world has evolved into a middle manager’s wet dream: “Reduc(ing) creations splendid array to an arid two-step of cost-benefit analysis.”

Longing for a pastoral time just like any true romantic, he is in fact a highly technology-savvy Luddite. Yet his concerns are valid about our “techno-eugenic future,” which will incorporate “xenotransplantation” (crossing the human/animal barrier). And he sees all large trans-global megacorporations as equally “diabolique,” something not very far removed from the revelations we’ve seen sprouting up this summer around all these mega accounting scandals.

Brownstein blames himself for all his wasted years: “High as a kite, seeming content to letting life slide by.”

And he turns his critical eye back upon himself when ruminating about his tyrannical father, whose death from Alzheimer’s he sees as a metaphor for the slowly dying planet. He asks, “Do you see a parallel between turning up the heat on human tissue and global warming? It’s the devil’s work, the same in both instances, smaller, faster, cheaper.”

So what are we supposed to do to avoid a global and natural holocaust, Michael? Tell us already! I can’t take reading this stuff and not doing something about it. He says: “American, We still love you but you’re full of shit. Your only hope a major detox, a national enema, a transnational colonic. America, go on a vision quest.”

This is precisely what Brownstein did, in October, 2000, in Ecuador, with other gringos, to experience “La Purga” of taking ayahuasca with a Huaorani curandero shaman. But while on his vision quest he saw, as well, the virtual enslavement of the indigenous by the multinational oil companies and came to the conclusion: “Satan’s not some quaint Biblical figure. Satan is another way of saying I don’t care…Satan is unrestrained ego, standardizing all of life out of fear.”

In the end, though, despite his plaintive cry, Michael admits his own fallible culpability:

Do you really expect me to trade in my Lexus for a bicycle? Give up awesome stadium blowouts to sit around a campfire telling stories? (What stories would I tell?) Walk away from my state-of-the-art electronic interface? Kill my television? Give me a break!

So what can this morbid, obsessive poet do? The solution, he says, lies in the Buddhist view:

Emptiness my friend
As soon as appearance manifests
In that very moment is emptiness…(the)
Great covenant, untainted
By signs of rejecting and accepting.

Sure, but like, hey, Michael, here’s one last thing for you to chew on. It was the reviewer who sold you her old computer, your first one, for $100.00 some years ago. Remember?



Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail


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