Mahogany Browne’s new novel, “Vinyl Moon,” came out in January through Crown Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Browne–a poet, activist, and teacher– is based in Brooklyn but visits the North Country frequently thanks to the Adirondack Center for Writing, on whose advisory board she sits.
and-while “Vinyl Moon” has been a hit, I’ve been meaning to review her first novel-in-verse, “Chlorine Sky,” since it arrived last winter. Both of these books have been marketed as “young adult literature,” but Browne’s unique style lands squarely in the wider category of “literature” rather than the limited one of “young adult.” Yes, these are stories about young people, but so are many of Joyce’s masterpieces. Like Joyce, Browne brings innovations of diction and delivery to the material: adult modes of interpretation and presentation on the adolescent situations which we only mislead ourselves by imagining we’ve outgrown.
In its publicity materials, “Chlorine Sky” was marketed primarily on its situations: a girl navigating an uneven friendship, discovering the thrill and insufficiencies of romance, grounding her body and mind in basketball and swimming. And no doubt many–especially young adult–readers will be interested to follow the character’s path through rough emotional terrain. It’s a sensitive portrayal of tenuous alliances and dangerous rumours.
At the same time, “Chlorine Sky” is a triumph of style and delivery, and deserves to be reviewed that way. Verse novels are ambitious projects, no matter the length or intended age of its readers. Browne’s delicate mesh of lyric and narrative is impressive. The text feels deeply invested with the techniques and cadences of spoken word poetry, a form which Browne has long practiced alongside her publishing career. “Chlorine Sky” unfolds as a series of recited verses; a story told rather than just written. It is a novel that, even read silently, projects itself aloud in the brain. At times, the language propels static time (a phrase, for example, like “the sun feels more heat skillet stove top”) while by turns it slows down–exaggerated spacing (“nothing”) or stuttered repetitions (“blue blue” or “light light,” with their ambiguous emphases)–to bring active situations into verbal balance. Browne is constantly playing the peaks of narrative against language’s lyric potential. The result is a nuanced, fascinating read.
Dialogue can feel like a stumbling block in contemporary verse novels, partially because “poetic” diction is so far removed from casual speech. Browne is notably deft with these sequences, discovering the latent eloquence of colloquial and informal exchange while maintaining the tensions of dramatic dialogue. While the distance between poetry and speech sometimes intrudes, lyric is most often just the medium through which the story swims. Thanks to Browne’s expansion of “poetic diction,” many descriptions get memorable boosts (“Still the air is hot / like a balloon ride to nowhere”) and her modes allows for quick, convincing asides of self-reflection like “You got a way of repeating back a question until it sounds old and worn / like shoes with bad soles / and no one can believe a story / with all them pauses.”
This is first and foremost poetry, with all the tools and powers of the genre–less a “novel in verse” than a “see-novel.” For all readers, young or adult, “Chlorine Sky” reimagines the power and applicability of lyric to everyday situations. It insists on careful language as the correct medium for day-to-day interpretation using Browne’s distinctive mix of spoken cadences, reported observations, and quick perspective shifts.
I’ll review “Vinyl Moon” in an upcoming installment, but for now, look for Browne’s novels on Kindle and at her local readings, organized through the Adirondack Center for Writing.