The Air in the Air Behind It by Brandon Rushton


By Greg Bem

The light / sure look solder than / it is. The days are slow and filled // with supermarket sales.

(from “The New Century Springboard,” page 9)

As our world is changing, and drastically, and, in our every day, how much of our daily observations reveal these changes? Is much of the world compelled to feel ordinary, relatively stable, while its inhabitants through it and live life under the protection of the mundane? Certainly some parts of the world, certainly some parts of the late stage capitalism that sends us commuting to work each day, watching our screens through the sublime to the paralytic, and living in the constraint of boxed suburbia. This tension between a humdrum middle-class existence and transformations of epic proportions across the globe is explored in poet Brandon Rushton’s austere and analytical debut collection, The Air in the Air Behind It.

Like always
the forecast called for fog, a slow commute,
an unknowable future.

(from “Before the Experts Mislabeled the Beyond,” page 21)

Following the collection’s opening and prophetic doom-and-gloom prose poem, “Milankovitch Cycles,” The Air in the Air Behind It is otherwise filled with long, sprawling epics verse that roams and spins, walls of text that read like cracked mirrors with thick, tightly representative descriptions careening and splitting. Enjambment leads to surprise and revelation. Rushton’s forms feel familiar and simple, but feed upon themselves, grow and unlock exquisite social portraits and comment on phenomena.

Let’s say—for the first time—something new
becomes the focus of the suburban centerfold.
A backyard brochure that finally embodies
the complacency of the community taking so much
pride in welcoming—with what they say–
is open arms. The young boy has his doubts, it seems
about the dare, and insists upon a rope
around his waist before he’ll run out across that thin-
and-freezing-thicker pond. Anything lost will agree
there is a distance you can’t be dragged from.

(from “No Known Natural Predators,” page 18)

Density offers opportunity for flips and sprawls. Rushton’s poems often move quickly enough to disorient in their revelation, yet there is a calm undertone that keeps every poem centered and focused. The results is surprise for the reader and cohesion for the work.

But the book goes well beyond the long sprawl of verse described above. The poet fluidly moves between other forms the serve to visually upset and reflect off one another, offering a result to the mundanity of Rushton’s source world. Among Rushton’s forms are winding tercets that jab and gnaw, often forming a triangulation as they move from down across multiple stanzas, starting and staying and leaving each idea as in a tree or web:

The road / is wide open and the sudden // stone chip in the windshield / makes us cry. A phone rings / and the people in the pool // start whispering. Someone / to stay the street looks dark / and welcoming.

(from “A Rhombus,” page 17)

While the poet is not afraid to bring in his speakers, which often feel autobiographical, the book also affords some distance, reading like something between a news article and a biography. Still, the focus on collapse and broken systems follows a popular lineage in Western Literature, including the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, George Orwell at its most calm and complacent, and Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, and Steven King at its most hyperbolic. The Air in the Air Behind It is also reminiscent of contemporary poets like CA Conrad and Sandra Simonds, whose comments on place are often incising and occasionally scathing.

Rushton’s work, while profound and exceptional for today’s contexts of implosions and decays, is often filled with unease and can be challenging to finish. Like Kafka, much of the world, even at its brightest moments, is still filled with fallacy and impossibility. Often those moments of hope in the collection appear nervously liberatory, indicative of a lack of global confidence and assertion, a phenomena plaguing large swaths of society, across culture and place.

Waking in the wet / sweat of a nervous sleep, a routine / walker makes his way // toward a routine street. No real purpose. / No plan to put the barbarous / in their place. Honestly, the people // had hoped for more space / to feel spectacular. Thought maybe / they might see // a revolutionary thing.

(from “Ergonomics of the Later Land,” page 72)

And Rushton’s sardonic worldbuilding is often filled with little release and reprieve other than having simply been written. Which is where this book is exceptional: it feels at its height to be a documentation, an exclamation. While a clearer resolve could have been infused, Rushton’s decision to keep clear results in the book offering its own resolution: a vacancy, open to be filled by the reader’s capacity for the imaginative. This implied ask may be too much to ask when the scene set is dim and drawl, but at its core we have the struggle and suffering, the human condition, to spur us. The Air in the Air Behind It may reek of systems, but its core is filled with what humanity the world has left. With this humanity we can dream. Whether the dreams involve further collapse or emergence is up to us.

You can find the book here:

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at




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