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Review: Quarantine :: Contagion, by Brian Henry

Brian Henry is an American poet who has published five collections of poetry. His book-length poem Quarantine::Contagion, published by Arc in 2009, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

The book is split into two parts, each consisting of forty short, numbered sections. The second reverses and condenses the first. They begin with the voice of a man who lies in a field beside his wife and son. All three have recently died from the plague. The opening lines, slipping into repetition and using little punctuation, appear to be removing themselves from their own structure, mirroring the separation of the man's spirit from his redundant body: as I was thinking to keep myself here / where I could not be dead could not be / dead could not be [...]. Expertly, tenderly, and cruelly, sounding at times as if he were translating a Bushmen song-cycle, Brian Henry evokes the horrors of the plague. But there is another isolating pain troubling the narrator. It is portrayed just as cruelly, just as tenderly:

I left for the river and let a man there
touch me inside he ripped something
inside and he told me my scars
would be beautiful when they healed

The image of the river runs through this volume; it is where the man learns about violence, beauty and death. Appropriately then, the second part becomes a fragmented reflection of the first. A difficult structural move, it is successful in the way it returns to and isolates some of Henry's most striking phrases: A jagged fire in the mouth and a knot. / The white scarf still in one hand. By the end of the book we are back at the beginning, the final image repeating the first. Henry's song has turned full circle, returning - like the dead narrator - to the earth.