Striven, the Bright Treatise

By Jeffrey Pethybridge


Noemi Press
April 2013

Reviewed by Jeffrey Hecker


Despite the Mayan's incorrect apocalypse time signature (no doubt the ancient equivalent of Excel errantly dropping a leading zero) they got a lot of other stuff correct: architecture, mathematics, coitus positions, helmets as casual hats, summer clothing trends ­­— also a respect for calculated reasons one might end one's own existence upon this unstable planet. Ixtab was the Mayan deity assigned to care for suicide victims. Also known as The Rope Woman, she not only commiserated the plight of getting out of bed in Mesoamerica, she protected victims in the afterlife. She ensured they received a shady spot under the world Ceiba tree limbs — finally some perennial making good on religion's promise of inner peace without turning everything into an existential Mensa test or Double Dare physical challenge, the exact opposite of the Eden apple tree.

Jeffrey Pethybridge may as well be channeling Ixtab's singing voice in his experimental epic poetry collection Striven, The Bright Treatise, mourned, culled, and drafted during the seven years following his older brother Tad's 2007 self-descent from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. He stakes just the right amount of literary distance between himself and the subject, which allows him to serve as both analyst and caregiver, depending on the situation. The subject is the situation. Pethybridge takes a more considerate approach rather than meet grief on jogger's legs, or else treat Death as a One-Act character (see Ted Hughes casting Ted Hughes in Birthday Letters). He's engrossed utmost in suicide as objectivism rather than simply telling us all the hours "Jeffrey felt X, Y, Z about Tad."  

If Pethybridge stands in for any part in any play, he's the defense attorney on unpaid leave thumbing through a case that solved itself without ever going to trial. The poems seek to cotton on suicide as an impetus to freedom and presage, from Twenty Thousand Songs where the speaker listens for sub-transmissions in his brother's digitized music collection (left behind) to Against Suicide:

O paradox wherein to vindicate oneself from inevitable Calamity by Sui-cide is not a
   Crime. The Suicide owns himself unequal to the Troubles of Life and
   the Troubles of Mind; and he has guilt enough to own the severity of
   his remedy. The Suicide, nonetheless, owns himself — and nonetheless,
   after — contra the theory of dread and Absolute sovereignty, contra the
   theory of Hell.

The poet even bides time to sidebar into The Sword of Ajax: A Report on Democracy and Soldier Suicides, a refreshing big foam middle finger to the last decade of American war news.

Ixtab likes.

Striven owes a debt to Modernism and Modernism owes a debt to Striven. They're still figuring out which one owes more back taxes. However, for every line of verse spoken in lucid equanimity, Pethybridge inserts a well-placed line that springs our stented heart valve, thus causing us to perish a little too for the betterment of humankind, like in The Woods of the Suicides ("It is my true belief / that Virgil believed, that I believed that / people merely hidden in the thicket wailed for relief / from pain beyond belief), or Lower Limit Song, The Chord: "Agents graphed the day's red setting and birds / sang their tired vesper strain. His hands hanged. / His hands tired by the hap and heavy / pith, his tired hands agents in the end. / Sentry birds ringed the deadening bay. / The red bay devastated his sad entity."

A selection from his long piece, After the Current of Disappearing Time Leaves You, Your Skin Smells of Ozone, makes Pethybridge's strongest thesis for what I think he hopes to convey to us in the overall collection:

Sir Imagination hardly calling directions to the cast, instead he busily jotted in his notebook all the necessary revisions taking shape as the scenes played out. & then as everyone broke for water & ale, my thoughts summoned their own harlequin to gibe & sing to keep the company's spirits up, as they all sat around eating those little cucumber sandwiches their mothers brought to church picnics. I mocked the boys for their nostalgic talk and ready sentimentality.

Striven, The Bright Treatise will take over four consecutive season cycles to read through honestly. You already know how long it took to write, now deliberate the bravery.