Derrick Brown wants to partner with Taco Bell.
He’s currently touring in support of his new book of poetry, Hello. It Doesn’t Matter. He posts clips from readings in his Instagram stories, jokes about it, includes the hashtag #DBxTacoBell. It makes sense to me. Derrick Brown seems like the only poet who lives in the real world. Rupi Kaur lives off sunlight and the dew that collects in the cups of flowers; Richard Siken might be the ghost of a gay man who died sometime in the 1940s. Derrick Brown is a real, flesh and blood human being, who writes dirty jokes into his poems and carries a strange light inside him, and shines it all on us. Of course he wants to partner with Taco Bell. According to the list of standards for dating, included in his new book, it’s where he wanted his future wife to take him when he’s sad.
I like poetry but it almost always felt like there was a barrier between me and the words, like the pane of glass over a work of art. I can stand only a few feet away from Van Gogh’s Starry Night but I’ll never get close to it. A few poets made their way in: E.E. Cummings, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, but they were all long gone when I found them. Derrick Brown is still alive, still writing. With his poetry I feel like I can touch the brushstrokes – or, better still, put my hands into the painting, feel the colors for myself. For those of us who holler among the living, he is the present tense.
I first came across Brown on Tumblr. One of the blogs I follow posted a close-up photo of the last four lines of a poem: “I love you, you asshole. / It is strawberry season. / What we came from is in the air / And I miss you like a son of a bitch.” What was this? Something personal and universal, a declaration of desperate love expressed in a way that poets just didn’t talk. There was something real about it. Who hasn’t wanted to call someone they love an asshole? Who wouldn’t instantly know how strawberry season feels? I had to know more. I went to the tag and read everything posted on this writer I’d never heard of, Derrick C. Brown. Bruce Springsteen said that hearing “Like A Rolling Stone” for the first time “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Reading Derrick Brown for the first time was like someone throwing a brick through a window in my head: a crash, a shatter, a rebuild. Where had he been all my life?
That first poem, “When Your Friends Leave You,” opened the floodgates. I couldn’t get enough. I had to catch up with him and the people who already knew him. My library system had a few of his books, and I requested and inhaled all of them: Our Poison Horse, I Love You Is Back, Born in the Year of the Butterfly Knife. Even his titles were beautiful. I bought Scandalabra, How the Body Works the Dark, and Strange Light without knowing what was inside. I looked up his readings on YouTube and listened to him with my eyes closed, absorbing his words. I still hear the opening lines of his epic poem “Strange Light” in my head, in his cadence, at least once a week. It’s something I can carry with me and think about when I need it.
My discovery of Derrick Brown came a few months before I started therapy. I started and then quit a job because I was having panic attacks in the elevator every morning. When I got out of bed, washed my hair, and called the therapist’s office, I was thinking about “Church of the Broken Axe Handle.” My heart was rusty. I had spent so long chasing what I thought I wanted that I didn’t realize that it was making me miserable. Hallelujah, I was fucked, and knowing that was the first step to getting out of my rut. To paraphrase the last lines of that poem: I wasn’t abandoning anything. I was releasing myself.
Last month he posted lines from his new book, Hello. It Doesn’t Matter. on Instagram. In two lines he stunned me all over again. “No one can tell me what love is. It’s a midnight thunderstorm, and it is as lame as gifting a cheese knife.” This is his gift as a poet. Even if you don’t know what it means you know what it means. The “ivory piano moonlight” shining on the ocean in “The First Skinny Dip,” the comparison of his body to his ten dollar map of the world shower curtain in “Estonian Islands and the Great Shampoo Calamity,” how in the future there won’t be any romance and everyone will be as “sad as a straight edge yacht party” in “How Can You Hate Oranges?” He throws a pun at you – “I was only sew-sew as a surgeon” and then lets you know why he didn’t succeed: “I tried to heal people with ideas. Couldn’t heal myself.”
This is Derrick Brown. The paratrooper turned hilarious, heart-rending poet who lived on a houseboat called “The Sea Section,” and writes about love and sex like it would kill him if he didn’t. He writes poems to shout into the uncaring void, to scream in protest against death and loneliness and seeing your exes live better than you on their social media. He’s funny and serious in turns, tried to write his will in a Cuban bar in Miami, as chronicled in “Hello. Finish Your Will.” but found himself crying as he tried to parcel out his stuff to his friends. He had so many friends, and “that much love is an earthquake.”
Derrick Brown has, once again, given us a gift, in Hello. It Doesn’t Matter. His presence, his vitality, his howls at the moon, collected in a book. It’s a precious thing, but not so precious that it can’t stand up on its own. This is poetry for the real world, in all its messy, sad, lonely, lovely glory. Maybe I’ll take my copy, drive to the Taco Bell in my little town, and eat a cheesy gordita crunch while reading. It seems right. •
Buy Hello. It Doesn’t Matter. here.
Jessica Lordi is an East Coast native who loves history, theater, graphic novels, used bookstores, and New York City. You can find her on Twitter @popeawesome3rd, or in a haunted house.