In Cadence. C. Rodney Pattan and Lance B. Brender. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2016.
Poetry captures the zeitgeist in a way prose never can. T.S. Eliot, for instance, so famously captured the spirit of post-World War I Europe that his poetry served as inspiration for a generation of prose works that aspired to do the same. The biting, bitter, post-War classics Vile Bodies or A Handful of Dust would not exist without “The Hollow Men,” and while it was novelist Ernest Hemingway who popularized the term “Lost Generation,” it was Eliot’s poem that served as a cultural North Star in the post-World War I world.
Much the same, a new poetry collection, written by U.S. Army officers C. Rodney Pattan and Lance B. Brender titled In Cadence, perfectly captures our contemporary, politically-and-generationally fractured moment. In that way, In Cadence is a deeply ironic title, because its structure, poems, and authors are anything but. This seems a book about a U.S. culture out of step, a time of division and tension. Though many of the poems are nostalgic, In Cadence is firmly a work of our time. It is often difficult to say that a book of poetry has a point or a theme, but this one does, even if it never explicitly says so or even alludes to it. It is a meta-work about our culture’s generational fault line, as expressed by two voices speaking for their respective generations.
C. Rodney Pattan’s subject matter—hagiographies of former teachers, a friend from elementary school, paeans to old soldiers, very distinct conceptions of what America is and is not—mark him as a completely different voice from Lance Brender, his co-author. Pattan’s poetry is strong, sure, earnest, and traditional. It brings to mind Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith,” the works of Eleanor Farajeon, and Henry Van Dyke’s “America For Me.” When Pattan looks back, he sees a simpler better time. He looks back and feels nostalgic. Pattan is the voice of the baby boomers.
Meanwhile, Brender is the voice of the post-boomer—the weariness of Generation X and the introspection of millennials. His work is minimalist and his themes more tinged with sadness—separation, loves lost, and solitude serve as his muses. The strength of his poetry is carried by the empty spaces between his words, by silence and absence. Brender’s influences appear to be poets like Frost and E.E. Cummings, with perhaps a pinch of Blake Schwarzenbach’s “Sweet Avenue.” Bender looks back as well, but his reminisces of times past are both more recent and more troubled. He is not nostalgic, but wistful and, at times, regretful.
The two voices are so different in tone, style, and outlook that the reader would intuit there were two authors even without two names on the cover. And in these two voices, we have a mirror of the conflict of our era, the struggle between two generations over the future and direction of the country and culture. Brilliantly, In Cadence never makes this struggle explicit. We see the cultural contrasts not in what is said, but what is not said. The subjects the two authors choose to write about illustrate their generational differences more clearly than a thousand essays written directly to one another ever could.
The book’s structure highlights this in the way it alternates the authors’ poems, and in doing so accentuates their differences, like shadows in a bas-relief sculpture. Take, for instance, one of the first poems in the collection, “American Dream.” In it, Pattan decries “A border unguarded and busting at that seam,” and fumes “Twas the Hill/Bill’ies in D.C. saying profit must die.” It is the boomer-ego’s ode to the Trumpian boomer-id.
The next poem in the collection could not be more different in theme, tone, or structure. Brender writes in “Boots:”
bring me home when it is done
return me to my bright-eyed son;
and gather dust in peace, i pray
Brender is intensely concerned with the personal rather than the public. It is not the polis that concerns Brender, but the citizen. The millennial voice cares little about happenings in DC, or the border, and remains relentlessly focused on the effects of the all-too-present-and-never-ending Long War.
Similarly, In Cadence bookends Pattan’s tribute to his adult daughter’s beloved Maltese in “Dreaming of Maxxy” with Brender’s musings on regret and fear of rejection in “I Would that I Were Dreamt” and “If You Hear From Me.” The two authors, like their generations, are in two different worlds, with completely different preoccupations, hopes, and worries.
Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in the contrast between Pattan’s “Would It Be Alright” and the poem from Brender that follows it, “Text Messages.” In an author’s note on “Would It Be Alright,” Pattan “bemoans the political correctness that we have let be foisted upon us” and complains that the art of flirting is a casualty of what he calls society’s sensitivity to “anything that might cause the least discomfort to anyone.” In perfect smirking counterpoint, the collection next offers:
This is not to say the book is some sort of call and response between the authors. There are highlights among the individual poems that stand on their own outside the contrast of generations, such as Brender’s “Fathers.” He begins:
father, when i was young i remember
the good times, and some others,
the merry mays and bitter decembers
with my brothers, you, and mother
And he continues to recall joys and regrets as the poem’s narrator ages, finally ending full circle with:
but i cannot protect you, not for long—
so, my love, when childhood’s done
be true and whole and quietly strong
and forgive me one day, my son.
Another highlight is Pattan’s “Grown Daughter,” whose subject matter needs no further explanation and includes this sentiment, perfectly-captured and all-too-familiar to parents who watch their children grow:
I thought you still a child
Til you turned to me and smiled
And in that look would dawn
That the little girl was gone
In her place a budding lady
A star or princess-maybe
But, strong as these individual poems may be, it would be a mistake to think the underlying truth in the work lies in any single poem or set of poems. Instead of the individual poems themselves, it is in the contrast between the two authors'—and by extension their respective generations'—fears, hopes, and dreams that the reader will find the In Cadence’s greatest revelation.
David Dixon is a former active duty Armor officer who now serves in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do nto reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Soldiers Marching (NextAvenue)