Mahogany Browne’s new novel, “Vinyl Moon” was released in January by Crown Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Browne – poet, activist and teacher – is based in Brooklyn but frequently visits the North Country thanks to the Adirondack Center for Writing, where she sits on the advisory board.
And while “Vinyl Moon” was a success, I wanted to review his first novel in verse, “Chlorine Sky” since his arrival last winter. These two books were marketed as “Youth Literature” but Browne’s unique style lands squarely in the broader category of “Literature” rather than the limited “young adult”. Yes, these are stories of 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 about adolescent situations that we only delude ourselves into imagining that we have outgrown.
In its advertising materials, “Chlorine Sky” was marketed primarily on its situations: a girl navigating an unequal friendship, discovering the thrill and inadequacies of romance, grounding her body and mind in basketball and swimming. And no doubt many readers, especially young adults, will be interested in following the character’s path through some difficult emotional terrain. It is a sensitive portrait of tenuous alliances and dangerous rumors.
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 how long or how old their readers are expected to be. Browne’s delicate lyrical and narrative mesh is impressive. The text feels deeply invested in the techniques and cadences of spoken word poetry, a form Browne has long practiced alongside his publishing career. “Chlorine Sky” unfolds as a series of recited verses; a story told rather than written. It is a novel which, even read in silence, is projected aloud in the brain. Sometimes language propels static time (a sentence, for example, like “the sun no longer feels the heat of the frying pan”) while it slows down in turn – exaggerated spacing (“nothing”) or jerky repeats (“blue blue” or “light light,” with their ambiguous accents) – to verbally balance active situations. Browne constantly plays the heights of narrative against the lyrical potential of language. The result is a nuanced and engaging read.
Dialogue can seem like a stumbling block in contemporary verse novels, partly because “poetic” diction is so far removed from informal speech. Browne is particularly adept with these sequences, uncovering the latent eloquence of familiar, informal exchanges while maintaining the tensions of dramatic dialogue. While the distance between poetry and speech is sometimes necessary, the lyrics are more often than not the medium through which the story swims. Through Browne’s expansion of “poetic diction,” many descriptions receive memorable boosts (“Always the air is hot / Like a hot air balloon ride to nowhere”) and its modes allow for quick and compelling self-reflective asides like “You have a way of repeating a question until it sounds old and worn / like shoes with bad soles / and no one can believe a story / with all those pauses.”
It’s poetry first and foremost, with all the tools and powers of the genre – minus one “novel in verse” one “novel in verse”. For all readers, young or old, “Chlorine Sky” reinvents the power and applicability of lyrics to everyday situations. He insists on careful language as the correct medium for day-to-day interpretation using Browne’s distinctive blend of spoken cadences, reported observations, and rapid shifts in perspective.
I will review “Vinyl Moon” in an upcoming episode, but for now, look up Browne’s novels on Kindle and at her local readings, hosted by the Adirondack Center for Writing.