Rotten Kid reveals its author’s vulnerability – scars and all

I was not a popular kid. I read books under my desk during Math class and escaped into worlds kinder than this one. I see myself in “Rotten Kid,” a new hybrid chapbook by Ben Brindise and if you were ever a kid – rotten or otherwise – I suspect you will too.

He writes in the preface that “part of this book is an attempt to show the things I cannot tell.” And he does that, in this memoir in verse. The biggest challenge for most memoirists is to illuminate those parts of ourselves that are hard to find. The dirty parts, the dark ones, the places where spiders hide, and make them accessible to our readers. To show them who we are and in so doing, help our readers find out something about themselves. Brindise does that with ease in “Rotten Kid,” in his stark, simple verses. There’s no complex imagery here, no rambling lyrical lines to swim through. Brindise shows us his hand with a self-effacing shrug, then gets out of the way so we can examine himself – and ourselves – with it.

“I want someone to tell me I’m not good/so I can start doing something I want to do,” he says in “My Moment.” Haven’t we all had that same moment? In an age of participation trophies, don’t we all look at our track team ribbons, our plastic soccer statuettes and think, “How will I ever know my talents if the grown-ups keep patting us on the back for everything?”

Maybe that’s just me. But reading “Rotten Kid” feels like looking in a mirror made of words. It feels like sitting down with a friend over a cup of coffee and whispering your secrets into it. Hearing them whisper, “me too.”

As Brindise puts it, “we like things that remind us of ourselves.”

The second half of the book is a long fiction story, which repeats part of “My Moment” in prose. It’s disorienting, reading that same story twice, but maybe he means it that way. We do that, don’t we? Tell the same stories over and over in different ways, turning them around in our heads like precious jewels, trying to find the best angle. Brindise’s stories and verses come at us the same way, like the sun catchers my grandma used to hang on a wall in her home office. She didn’t want them in the window, she said. There, the sun would catch the dust when they got dirty.

Some of Brindise’s poetry plays better read aloud. As a spoken word artist, Brindise is a talented performer. His “aw shucks” posture, signature hat and black-rimmed glasses become a conduit for words that stream through him and directly into the audience’s hearts through their ears. Two poems in particular, “Finger Paints” and the titular “Rotten Kid” made their debut as slam poems in Buffalo bars, and there, they’re wrenching. On the page, they lose some of that power, or my perspective is skewed, having seen them live first. Brindise’s strength is in beats more than lineation. Imagine his poetry aloud, alive, pulsating through a microphone. That’s where it gleams.

“The ones like me, we tell stories to make ourselves feel better, to lighten our loads. Sometimes it works. This has not been one of those times,” he writes in “Cold World.” But unburdening is not the point of this book. It doesn’t ask readers to suspend belief, to follow its author anywhere we haven’t been already. Even the final story, a longer futuristic piece about life, death, love, and loss doesn’t cover anything we don’t already know with the insides of our bodies.

And that’s the beauty of “Rotten Kid.” It’s as familiar as that jacket you keep in the back of your closet to wear on your vulnerable days. Where some words don’t land quite right, we’re comforted by that imperfection. Kerouac, this isn’t. But Brindise isn’t trying to be anything other than what he is: An up-and-coming rust belt poet as grounded as we are.

“Rotten Kid” is published by Ghost City Press and can be found here.

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