The Grief Muscles by Brandon Courtney
Sheep Meadow Press, 2014; 94 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


The poems in Brandon Courtney’s The Grief Muscles tighten to the point where we don’t always know if we can manage one more line, just before they go quiet long enough to have us hope that tension can’t possibly work back up. But it does return, and it must because how otherwise can this voice cope with what war has done to him? How else but through the constant repetition of contract and relax, contract and relax, can he work to exorcise the pain and menace that has taken residence in his body, his mind?

Because the burden of what he has experience is significant. Even gutting a fish becomes an impossible task that his military father can’t quite understand:

My father said the war changed me
from a killer to a pacifist; I refused

to filet the fish he pulled from the lake.
I refused to slip the blade between gills,

fold back their pearlescent scales,
cut away what little meat their bodies

offered. (“Hold Fast”)

It’s far too close to what he has seen on the battlefield, like when he describes blood’s exit from a man torn apart by an IED:

Sometimes, blood, like breast
milk, leaves the body
through the smallest of holes.

No, there is nothing
miraculous about the body—
it ends. I’ve stood this close
to violence; I’ll never be the same. (“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”)

And yet, we aren’t meant to believe him, not entirely. Though the body may not be miraculous, what it holds is. What is holy and true and to be celebrated is what gives us life and, as at the end of “Luminous Efficacy,” what outshines a ball of gas illuminating the night sky: “I’m thinking how there’s more / blood inside a man / than light inside the farthest star.” Courtney’s poems move us, certainly, but more important than that, they make us stronger.