“Against Suicide” is the title of one sequence in Striven, The Bright Treatise but could just as easily stand for the whole. A lyric manifesto, by turns probing and furious, Striven, The Bright Treatise enlarges upon the poet’s brother’s death in 2007. “Can you psalm / this limit-work,” Pethybridge asks, echoing Zukofsky; the limit of such work-in-language, such unpronounceable grief, is, ultimately, a Nessus-garment of a text, “a shirt of beautiful / noise.”
––G. C. Waldrep
In his cunningly evolving repetitions, in his provocative use of constraints, and in his adaptations of great works (from Dante’s to David Bowie’s), Pethybridge’s Striven, The Bright Treatise exemplifies every element of Theodor Adorno’s assertion that the unresolved antagonisms of reality reappear in art in the guise of immanent problems of artistic form. Pethybridge reveals a complex of eroding societal values and human failings as he navigates the impossibility of coming to terms with his brother’s suicide. But, even as he reveals, he uses his formal range to query the vanity of trusting any lyric as a device capable of conveying the enormity of revelation that suicide engenders. Each formal design strives to bring to light more of the irresolvable elements that constitute this crisis of loss, though the poems are, in fact, testament to the possibility of shedding the brightest light on the motivations activating the agency of such striving. It is not a book bent upon understanding, and certainly not condoning, the choice of suicide—though Pethybridge unearths many of the societal and personal antecedents of such a choice. Rather it is a text that formally explores every interstice of the zone between the irretrievable past and ongoing present, which the grammatical form of the word “striven” suggests (past participle, used in the perfect tenses). This is a poetry that helps us to perceive that interminable bridge between past and present in all of its terrible normalcy, a bridge that carries us to the core of our human condition.
Sleeplessness and boundless sleep. These two poles constrain Jeffrey Pethybridge's Striven, The Bright Treatise. Rather, these are two obvious limits within which the book is made. Pethybridge is a formalist of the best sort, wracked into song by relentless reconsideration of the impossible situation any limit presents in itself: stretched between his bonds and singing in "middle living." This study in fraternal grief is also an anatomy of the process whereby we bear directly into pain, not that we "lose the name of action," as Hamlet would have it, but as the only way to act and effectively to live out "the haul of days."
Jeffrey Pethybridge describes Striven, The Bright Treatise as a “book of poems written against my brother’s suicide” with a telling preposition that expresses both opposition and relation. In a work that is equal parts elegy and inquiry, Pethybridge seeks an understanding of this tragedy in Dante, in scripture, in the experiments of Stein, in a twenty-thousand song playlist, in “the angel of the police report.” The result is a work as monumental as the Golden Gate bridge itself, a collection that does more than traverse the gap between the known and the unfathomable, but makes evident the ragged distance between survival and understanding.
I value poetry that commands respect. The gravity of these poems, dedicated to the life of the poet’s brother, speaks for the possibility of poetic gravity that is not the same as desolation; the case is for inventive ecstasy that might come of out having found oneself in a dark place. The book appears to have a will of its own, marshalling the resources of the poet-scholar’s not-quite-willing mind to unravel the circumstances that have lead to its becoming written. I am struck by the achievement of representing mourning as both a period of self-sacrifice and a period of mortal blindness to everything other than “the death:”
The book is a marbled room, the work of an artisan, sheets of marble, hung with artful threat, made after the fact to look, for all the world, like harmless poetry. If every grieving person is a sculptor, is a poet, she will return to the same materials, to wet, re-read, to skin, to lathe, to discard, to suffer failures in and with the material, with the loss, with the lost love, will paste and re-hang, and throw again the instant of having been severed, the sacred few words memory does not steal, the work of grief being not to summon back to life who would not live another day.
–––Simone White, Poetry Project, 4-7-14
Suicide remains, from antiquity to now, from Ajax leaping on the blade of his own sand-buried sword to our soldiers fighting now in Afghanistan, an act unfathomable to those of us who survive in its wake. Jeffrey Pethybridge’s astonishing and powerful debut, Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press, 2013) is written against the suicide of his brother, Tad, who in 2007, jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. “Against” here is a word of primary formal gesture—not a polemic, but a seeking of words that can place themselves tangent to their imponderable concern and so bring it to light. Death defies description. So every real elegist laments even as he writes his elegy, forced by reality into the impossible work. Such a poem becomes a “Fathom-Line,” taking measure of unknown depths, and placing within human arms an act that feels ungraspable. Pethybridge’s unerring instinct is to turn to poetry’s own prosody, those undergirding forms that make sense not merely available, but possible. Anagrammatic permutations of his brother’s name, as well as of antipsychotic drugs, demonstrate the book’s most strident ardor: an old, nigh magical belief, that in rearranging every letter into every possible position one might find within the word that unspoken thing (some call it soul and some mind), that silence that abides in the midst of all life and which, in some of us, so dislodges the frame that should hold it, that we propel ourselves into the larger blank that death seems to promise. Pethybridge’s intelligence is everywhere found, nowhere depended upon. His literary allusions move from Sophocles and Dante to Zukofsky and Stein, but he understands that knowledge offers no answer to those difficulties that in their ancient and ongoing resistance to human comprehension stultify the mind with its own devices. Instead, through translation and document, through psalm-making and repetition, through modernist play and metaphysical conceit, Pethybridge offers every method he can—not to answer and not to understand—to bring us close to the very limit, that line where word and song, body and soul, intent and act, have yet to differentiate one from the other, and we find ourselves there, at the railing of the bridge before the lights have turned on, brightly striving against the coming silence, offering—no meager gift—what company we can.
–—Dan Beachy-Quick, WEST BRANCH
"One does not recover, or recover from, loss.
What then? In Striven, The Bright Treatise, Jeffrey Pethybridge’s elegy for his brother Tad, the response is obsessive reconstitution: of the setting of his brother’s suicide, of the conditions (profound depression) that led to it, and so on.
Pethybridge performs the reconstitution, though, in full awareness that what gets reconstituted by it is not what was lost — his brother — but a “we” who were, or who are now, gathered around him. As Pethybridge puts it in the eulogy for his brother, reproduced as the book’s appendix: 'We are speaking and praying today less in order to say something, than to assure ourselves with the human voice that we are together in the same thought and feeling.'"
––H.L. HIX, In Quire
Jeffrey Pethybridge, Striven, The Bright Treatise, Noemi Press, 2013. This amazing, moving elegiac book dedicated to the memory of the author’s brother, Tad Pethybridge, uses a wide variety of forms, both traditional and innovative, to confront the brute fact of a fatal leap from San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. Only three books published in the last several decades are comparable, book-length elegies by Douglas Dunn for his wife (1985), Hilda Morley’s for her husband, the composer Stefan Wolpe (1983), and Mary Jo Bang’s more recent volume in memory of her son (2007). As C.D. Wright said of Bang’s Elegy, Pethybridge’s book is a harrowing trip but, given the paradox of art, also exhilarating and beautiful. Rusty Morrison writes that "Striven, The Bright Treatise uses its formal range to query the vanity of trusting any lyric as a device capable of conveying the enormity of revelation that suicide engenders. Each formal design strives to bring to light more of the irresolvable elements that constitute this crisis of loss, though the poems are, in fact, testament to the possibility of shedding the brightest light on the motivations activating the agency of such striving.” This is exactly right. The book is beautifully produced by Noemi Press, and includes a large concretist fold-out representation of the Golden Gate made out of words in which each letter represents one suicide from the bridge and includes the phrases that contextualize the title: "Striven, in the debt-age, its red-hanged air [the lamps will come on soon the lamps will come on soon] “I hate this ‘I’, this tired agent” he said—striven, the tired age entire, its sign." This is a brilliant book of poems.
––NOTRE DAME REVIEW
“The Book of Lamps, being a psalm book,” a 128-line poem dispersed in 8-line sections throughout the book, forms the immoveable core of mourning in the text, illuminating what, in the end, seems almost a willed disbelief in the loss its writer has suffered. In phrases that repeat, intertwine, and recombine, we hear the younger brother calling out to his elder brother—the “gargantuan” recognizable to all younger siblings—as though from their childhood bedroom or front porch. Once more, the elder is setting off on some as-yet-unfathomable adventure and the younger can only scramble to catch a glimpse of his retreating back “in rückenfigur” (from behind and in shadow).
Pethybridge’s use of white space, caesura, and typography also proves noteworthy as the book unfolds. Frequently using these literary devices to gesture toward the ineffable, the poet suggests the myriad ways in which we are limited by language itself. For Pethybridge, the society we inhabit lacks the resources to appropriately deal with negative affect, mostly due to our lack of ability to adequately express, and subsequently understand and analyze, feelings of grief, despair, and hopelessness. With that in mind, Pethybridge incorporates black pages throughout the book, referred to as “mourning pages,” and uses white space in innovative and visually striking ways. These moments when the poet turns away from language are among the most powerful in the collection.
––Kristina Marie Darling, COLORADO REVIEW
Similar to Twombly, the poems in Striven, The Bright Treatise arrive at thesis as much by visual statement as with actual words, but unlike Twombley there is a meticulous attention to wordings in Pethybridge’s work that seems more recherche than crude. Some poems are full page blocks of prose, some are scattered spaciously across pages and others more audacious as foldouts that blur the line between the act and art of writing and that of drawing.
Striven, The Bright Treatise is a challenging collection not only because of its lugubrious subject matter, but because this is poetry of a kind we’re not used to, it is as visual, tactile and melodious as it is analytical and historically referential. It is a rhetoric lingering in preterition, challenging our cultural, philosophical, personal and political ideas of death as impermanent and suicide as choice.
––Jody Smiling, THE RUMPUS
Against suicide Pethybridge positions an army of intellects, and in this opposition research becomes a grasping after knowledge suffused with apposite desperation, and its findings (and failings) produce a field of mourning that is experienced collectively. In this, Pethybridge calls attention to the public problem of suicide, and in so doing elevates private mourning into something that can be engaged collectively. This is ultimately the goal of any elegy: to create a symbolic structure that allows the individual or community to remember and encounter the dead, and thereby resolve the metaphysical tension between life and oblivion both for the lost and the living. In the eulogy in the Appendix, Pethybridge writes, “I want desperately to keep hearing him talk about songs.” Striven’s anagrammatic techniques quite literally build his brother into a poetics that takes seriously its presence as music. Time and again we are reminded that we are bodies, and that poems are bodies with singing parts. If the mind is wounded in its metaphysical wrestling, the body—the spirit—the human—is healed and held together in necessary song.
––Bradley Harrison Smith, THE THE POETRY
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.
––Jeff Hecker, THE COLLAGIST
Dear Reader: Let me make it clear. I loved this book. But I am at a loss of how to say that –reading it was a strange kind of pleasure. The pleasure of a mystery that cannot be solved. The pleasure of treating text as hieroglyph, as palimpsest. Reading Pethybridge’s poems, I felt like my best student self –seeking and finding the barest outline of a voice that both invites and rebuffs. The voice of Pethybridge’s poems is layered, textured, nearly anagrammatic. It revisits image, language, and line obsessively, like the tongue that cannot resist the dry socket of a lost tooth, like the nail that cannot stop scratching a scab. The work is its own purpose, even if, as is “The Drug-Tired Duration / The Blaring Day” it signals its unfinished-ness. The work is a “sad gargantuan,” a “monstrous concentration.” Remembering the lost loved one is equally gargantuan, equally monstrous.
––C. Kubasta, GENTLY READ LITERATURE