Instead of fireworks, poet sees American skies lit up by history

Poet John Brehm was living in New York in the summer of 2003 when he attended a Fourth of July celebration in Prospect Park. “I looked up and saw military jets flying overhead and I just had this ominous feeling,” said Brehm.

The city was still reverberating from the 9/11 attacks and so was Brehm, who had witnessed the towers coming down. “I just couldn’t help thinking about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and this quagmire that it felt like we were entering.”

He was also thinking about a young soldier he had seen interviewed on PBS, who described the day he was wounded. “I was struck by the very matter-of-fact way he talked about his horrific injuries.”

Brehm began writing a poem, which became “Fourth of July.” It retells the soldier’s story about trying to brush burning embers off his chest, only to discover he was missing his right arm. “It felt symbolic. This wasn’t just a story about one soldier but the larger human condition, the American condition.”

The idea of patriotism is a complicated notion for Brehm. “I don’t feel patriotic in the conventional sense. But I love what this country stands for. I wish with all my heart that we lived up to those ideals more consistently. And I’m really troubled by the violence both in this country and the violence that we wage overseas.”

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Brehm began writing poems in high school and says he writes to better understand himself and the world around him. “Poems have to come out of a sense of urgency, of something not being quite right. I don’t think a poem is an attempt to fix what’s not right. But it responds to it, to help me better understand it.”

Brehm has published two collections of poems, in addition to a chapbook, and is currently working on another collection. He says he starts to think about putting together a book when he has written about 60 poems. “I start to lay them out to see what goes together. It’s a wonderful process because the poems start speaking to each other in ways they don’t when they’re in isolation.”

At age 60, Brehm is also getting married for the first time. He says he feels like he’s in a more solid place than he ever has been before— personally, financially and creatively. But admits that all this happiness could affect his poetry.

“It means I have to find a new way of writing. I have to write of celebration and contentment and let go of the fact that all poems must come out of loneliness.”

Fourth of July

Freedom is a rocket,
isn’t it, bursting
orgasmically over
parkloads of hot
dog devouring
human beings
or into the cities
of our enemies
without whom we
would surely
kill ourselves
though they are
ourselves and
America I see now
is the soldier
who said I saw
burning on my
chest and tried
to brush it off with
my right hand
but my arm
wasn’t there–
America is no
other than this
moment, the
burning ribcage,
the hand gone
that might have
put it out, the skies
afire with our history.

John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and educated at the University of Nebraska and Cornell University. He is the author of “Sea of Faith”, which won the 2004 Brittingham Prize, and “Help Is on the Way”, which won the 2012 Four Lakes Prize, both from the University of Wisconsin Press.

Brehm has published a chapbook, “The Way Water Moves”, from Flume Press (2002) and was the associate editor for “The Oxford Book of American Poetry” (2006). He is currently editing an anthology called “The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy” that will be published next summer.