The Brothers Silver: A Poet’s Novel
by Marc Jampole
Poets write novels invertedly; the language comes first, then the plot ‒ if there even is a plot. In his Acknowledgments, Marc Jampole mentions a number of poems that have been transformed into prose in The Brothers Silver. My favorite poet-novels are by Beat luminary-turned-Zen Buddhist monk Philip Whalen: Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head and You Didn’t Even Try. Both are gentle, sad, inconclusive portraits of San Francisco in the mid-1960s. The writing is deceptively simple, but there is a poet’s languor; a sense of the narrator watching patiently, from a great distance. Jampole writes tempestuously, with rising and flipping wordplay:
Desire to play Oberon in the school play claws at me. This hunger doesn’t rest, to say out loud in front of everyone, “At a fair vestal thronèd by the west….” To a mirror twin, I exclaim my lines for hours. Audition day I stand outside the gym gnawing, pining, and whining to myself my shapeless, aimless shame. I watch the other kids, but can’t go in.
I see a Jack Kerouac influence (which Jampole, in an email interview, utterly disavowed). The passages involving music are particularly strong:
Sometimes I would wait for hours for a ride, prancing back and forth at the side of a freeway entrance. I eyed the expanse of concrete and cars before me and started singing a song about the road, Fire and Rain, On the Road to Find Out, The Weight, a droning, moaning tune I crowed and cried and cripped and crooned for what seemed hours, imploding the oldie with jazzy riffs and gyrating vibrato folds, wonderfully dissonant cliffs and dips, notes expanding, subsiding and colliding, waning and waxing, until my voice went strange, like Coltrane coaxing every possible agitation from his axe….
I once calculated that I hitchhiked 33,000 miles: 30,000 in the USA, 3000 in Europe. I sang some of the same songs as Jules, waiting for a friendly driver! But such is the lonesome immensity of the highway that each hitcher believes he is the only one who ever warbled “Fire and Rain” in the Nevada dusk. (By the 17th verse, incidentally, that song sounds like:
Oh, I’ve seen friars and I’ve seen romaine,
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never wane,
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find champagne,
but I always thought that I’d see your cocaine.)
In an email interview, Jampole admitted that his book began as a poem:
I wrote the first chapter as a stand-alone non-rhyming poem several years back. After setting it down for a few months, I decided to set it to irregular rhymes, which seemed to give it extra emotional power. I put it down again for a few months, then started playing with the poem. I decided to experiment and set it as prose, and the lines seemed to soar….
Because I am a poet, I respond to works of art in poetry. Here are some of the poems I wrote while reading The Brothers Silver:
I’m very patriotic,
just not towards the USA;
I honor Yemen,
Costa Rica, Norway!
My gated community
went totally socialist.
W. S. Merwin
is an award-
I am an award-
There are thousands of ways to destroy a car,
but only one way to build one.
The snows of yesteryear
are the rains of next week.
Should I have
gone into another
field besides poetry?
Maybe I should
have been a
Some of the themes I was thinking about: success and failure, the crisis in the USA, suburbia, nostalgia, the beauty of cars.
The Brothers Silver are two: Jules is the elder, Leon the younger. They live in a small house in Queens, in the 1950s. Their mother has deep depressions, which drive her into the basement, where she languishes on the couch watching television. Their father is a philanderer, who soon abandons the family entirely.
Of course, every trauma is also an education. The brothers learn how to survive, and how to snatch their mother from the arms of death – after her repeated suicide attempts.
Leon is the paragon: intellectually brilliant, handsome, a chess master, a fine athlete. Jules is a mediocrity, but a good cook, and a strategist. In the 1960s, Leon discovers LSD and falls in love. He emerges diminished, silent, determined to live off the grid. He moves to the South, adopts a Southern accent.
The sad truth of the lower middle class is (as I have bitterly learned) that you can’t escape the drive towards “success.” Even if you scrupulously refuse to pursue it, that voice remains inside you. Leon began to call himself a “deadbeat” – echoing his father’s insult.
At the age of 58, Leon falls off a roof that he’s repairing, breaks his neck, and dies. I was saddened by his demise, more sad than I expected. It was a sudden, useless death. I had great hopes that he would find a way for himself: become a great blues guitarist, perhaps. I remember my youthful admiration for all true acidheads. Now they seem to me hopelessly deluded. You can’t cheat the universe and extract revelations from it at the drop of a pill. But there is a certain sad, doomed heroism among the ones who try.
After living in San Francisco in the 1960s, Jules marries a “normal” woman named May, has a “normal” child named Maya, finds a lucrative job, moves to the suburbs. My friend Tyler Gore once said: “Everyone in the suburbs is insane, but they’re all insane in exactly the same way.” That uniformity seems to have done wonders for Jules, who considers his 25-year cocoon of suburbia an unexpected blessing.
It is a precarious dilemma to be the first person to read a book. At the moment, I’m reading (very slowly) The Merry Wives of Windsor; in that case, I have the advantage of four centuries of criticism. If I had been the first to read On the Road, would I have recognized its classic rhythms, or dismissed it as a chaotic overwritten mishmash? Kerouac was lucky; the usual reviewer for The New York Times had the day off, and Gilbert Millstein gave his book a rave, illuminating his life.
–review by Sparrow