Brutal Imagination
Cornelius Eady

Putnam, $13

Many poets have taught us to never ignore the unknown, and that even the voiceless have voices. That group of voiceless "Others" includes the abstract, the inanimate, the dead, the animal. Cornelius Eady extends that group’s membership to include the non-existent and the imaginary.

The first thirty poems of Brutal Imagination refer to the events of October 25, 1994, the night Susan Smith rolled her car into John D. Long Lake in South Carolina, her two young sons still inside it. She told authorities during their investigation that a young black man carjacked her at a red light, driving off with her children. The narrator of Eady’s title sequence is that imaginary black man, Smith’s scapegoat. This figment of Susan Smith’s "brutal imagination," however, is not angry that he’s been created to function as a racial diversion; he quietly accepts his role with the resignation of one who is exhausted, yet cannot ignore the voice which constantly summons:

When called, I come.
My job is to get things done.

It is clear from these two lines that this is not the only instance in which he has been called upon, since he arrives complete with job description. His existence, always serving as a means to someone else’s end, is typical of the relationship between the exploited and their exploiter. Yet the pronoun ceases to be the singular "I" and becomes "we" as the sequence progresses and people begin to correctly suspect Smith of the crime:

The children were fussy,
Susan tells the FBI agent,
So we strapped them in the back seat
And drove off to go shopping
At Kmart.

Susan cannot exist separately from her "Mr. Zero"; her fate is their fate. By melding the first person with the third person, Eady has created a multifaceted self, a circumstance where the phrase ‘I am not guilty’ is both true and not true. She becomes her own scapegoat. When Susan finally gets arrested, the narrator tells us that

                {the policeman} binds our arm to the

Eady offers us a view that transcends objective and subjective morality, becomes something more than morality since it happens both within our world and external to it, in Smith’s imagination. There is no contrived moral judgment here. Rather, the imaginary man is a detached observer who simply reports all he witnesses. By eschewing moral discussion, Eady avoids having his book function as a handbook, and he allows us to design our own moral plan.

The voice and tone of the sequence is disrupted only once, when the voices of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and Buckwheat enter, comparing their own existence to that of the narrator’s. Even here, Eady never slips completely into the comical. It is very well controlled, never becoming silly, while aptly demonstrating the absurdity of race-oriented caricatures and the likelihood that they were designed by white men. Here, from "Uncle Ben Watches the Local News":

Like him, I live, but never agreed to it.
A hand drew me out of some mad concern.
                I was pulled together
To give, to cook
But never eat.

Eady’s is an ambitious project. It isn’t often that a poet embarks on a political or social mission in poetry and remains allied with poetic language rather than essayistic language. In many instances, the agenda generally takes over the act of writing the poem, and as a result, the poet tells us exactly how we should feel. Eady succeeds in avoiding this, largely through his use of the imaginary narrator and the absence of any intense moral scrutiny.

John Erhardt teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is a coordinator for the Poetry In Motion project in western Massachusetts.