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A Dazzling Poet

W.T. Pfefferle
Lucie Brock-Broido, New York City, 2004

Lucie Brock-Broido’s most recent book, Stay, Illusion—a finalist last spring for the 2013 National Book Award and the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award—follows three dazzling earlier volumes: A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995), and Trouble in Mind (2004). Brock-Broido is now the director of poetry and a professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia; I have followed her writing since 1988, when she became my colleague as a five-year Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard.

Brock-Broido’s poetry is imaginative beyond the usual notions of that word; unlike the many dull poems, domestic or disarticulated, that proliferate on page and Web, her inventions have power. The personal narrative underlying the poems occasionally breaks through: we hear of youthful anorexia and hospitalization; a mother dying; a father and a stepfather, both dead; three sisters; occasional travel; love affairs; the death of friends. In the first poem of her first book, Brock-Broido mocks the restricted scope of identity politics, offering instead the multiple cartoon identities that populate, as she says, “this work of mine”:

It’s peopled by Wizards, the Forlorn,
The Awkward, the Blinkers, the Spoon-Fingered, Agnostic Lispers,
Stutterers of Prayer, the Flatulent, the Closet Weepers,
The Charlatans. I am one of those.

The poems in A Hunger were sometimes spoken by persons regenerated from bizarre news clippings—baby Jessica, who had fallen into a well; Birdie Africa, the child survivor of the police bombing of the MOVE cult in Philadelphia. But even in such “fact-based” poems the invented child-voice possesses, in an individualized form, all the perverse energy of Brock-Broido’s eccentric language. To read her is to learn about alternate versions of English. She has plucked and inserted into her poems the English of prison guards, of insane twins, of “the Glasgow Coma Scale,” and other such outliers of discourse, while compiling a personal lexicon part real, part dislocated. In “Freedom of Speech,” her recent elegy for the poet Liam Rector—a beloved friend in declining health who shot himself—expressions of grief are interrupted by the medical language of the autopsy record, its impersonal chill confronting personal desolation:

Winter then, the body is cold to the touch, unplunderable,
        Kept in its drawer of old-world harrowing.

Teeth in fair repair. Will you be buried where; nowhere….

The eyes have hazel irides and the conjunctivae are pale,

With hemorrhaging.

Brock-Broido’s titles resemble no one else’s: among the more extravagant ones in Stay, Illusion are “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World”; “Pax Arcana”; “Father, in Drawer”; “Notes from the Trepidarium”; “Scarinish, Minginish, Griminish”; and “Carpe Demon.” (There are conventional titles, too, but not many.) The title once absorbed, the first line of the poem again stops the eye. Punning on a poet-recluse and the recluse-spider, Brock-Broido opens Stay, Illusion with an icon both immobile and mobile: “Silk spool of the recluse as she confects her eventual mythomania.”

Other first lines are equally unexpected: “Don’t do that when you’re dead like this, I said”; “There should be one spectacular of ruin, red, mid-tragedy.” The titles and verses alike prevent paraphrase by their ornamental fictive language. They are eerie, they resist interpretation, they abound in odd similes, yet their strange idiolect transmits the complicated shadings of emotion essential to lyric.

Deviations in language, though not rare in poetry, awaken mixed reactions. Ben Jonson, repelled by Spenser’s archaisms, said, “Spenser, in affecting the Ancients writ no language,” and yet a few lines later allowed for the attraction of unfamiliar words:

Words borrow’d of Antiquity, doe lend a kind of Majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes. For they have the Authority of yeares, and out of their intermission do win to themselves a kind of grace-like newnesse.

Deformations and deviations, generations later, become less peculiar; nobody flinches now at Dickinson’s subjunctive grammar and metaphoric definitions (“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”); nobody finds Dylan Thomas’s “a grief ago” strange; and even the words of “Jabberwocky” have entered the common sphere. The constant refreshment of language (not necessarily by deviation—think of George Herbert) is the stressful obligation experienced by poets. In one of his Dream Songs (#67), John Berryman explains the oddity of his own linguistic performance: “I am obliged to perform in complete darkness/operations of great delicacy/on my self.” Brock-Broido’s “operations,” like Berryman’s, often emerge from a darkness (of bewilderment, of pain, of loss), and produce linguistic distortions peculiar to the necessities of each poem, spells for enchantment.

Brock-Broido’s first two spell-casting books conceived of imagination as a form of magic—chiefly a magic that could hold off catastrophe. The baby Jessica trapped in the well is, astonishingly, saved by a cohort of rescuers who urge her to speak so as to preserve her alertness. Jessica, at eighteen months, could not speak. But in the poem she does, answering the rescuers’ bidding:

And: How does a kitten go?
And I go like a kitten goes, on

& on in that throaty liquid lewd bowlegged
voice like kittens make.
Then shut these big ole eyes.

The creole of baby Jessica—baby talk and sexual vocabulary crossed with regional dialect—is one of many mixed languages issuing from the unlikely characters of A Hunger. Even when the poet speaks in her “own” voice, she is alive in an imagined time and place, “listening for secrets”:

I am the medieval child in the basket, rocking.
Feigning sleep, up all night listening for secrets:
why there are punishments,
what news bad weather brings,
how things get winnowed out.

Once the “secrets” of disaster are understood, the world will be intelligible—or so goes the magical thinking of A Hunger. “What I want is to sleep away an epoch,/wake up as a girl with another kind of heart.”

Brock-Broido’s second book, The Master Letters, abandoned the arias of invented personae, and was possessed instead by the daimon of Dickinson the letter-writer. Inspired by the three abject “Master Letters” written by Dick- inson to an unknown recipient, Brock- Broido’s half-ventriloquized, half-personal poems assume some of Dickinson’s stylizations, among them a disjointed syntax. Dickinson’s “Master Letters” (says Brock-Broido’s “Preamble”) “maintain the lyric density, the celestial stir, the high-pitched cadences, her odd Unfathomable systems of capitalization, the peculiar swooning syntax, the fluid stutter of her verse.” Some of the pieces in The Master Letters are highly artificial prose-poems, but others are lineated verse: the poet says archly that in her fourteen-line poems she is writing in the form of “the Old World sonnet—but American & cracked, the odd marriage between hysteria & haiku.” As for the unattainable Master himself, he is “a composite portrait, police-artist sketch. Editor, mentor, my aloof proportion, the father, the critic, beloved, the wizard.” But even the wizard, in after years, cannot perpetuate the magic protections of A Hunger.

Brock-Broido’s own Master Letters—Ingenue to Wizard—strike notes of resentment, yearning, confusion, candor, remoteness, apology, and sorrow. She is forced to suspect that love, no matter how powerful, cannot compel satisfaction: “There are no sorcerers left, only mechanics to fix things as they break down.” (Things can at least still be “fixed.”) Brock-Broido’s excellent satiric eye exposes America’s ersatz repairs: “I am invited, with religious frequency in parking lots, to be Saved, to convene, to partake in redemptive ritual, to come back to the small circle of prayers.” Instead, the poet settles for a “glooming peace” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet) in which winter draws in and dramas diminish, as a strict self-definition is imposed to circumscribe the steely passions of the will.

The poet asks whether her attachment to the Master is a form of desire or the enacting of a compulsion. As magic wanes, the poet becomes expert in grim self-analysis, watching herself freeze into the Dickinsonian stupor of “letting go” as the Master dissipates into phantasm and specter:

The sedative of frost composes
Its infinity of dormant melodramas

On the glass. It consoles one,
The solstice of the hour’s no

Apparent motion, standing still.
It contents one, the solace of

Form & phantasm, of sieve
& specter, root & disposition.

The difference between desire & compulsion
Is that one is wanting, one is warding off.

Joining the long tradition of winter poems (Keats’s “In drear-nighted December,” Melville’s “Monody,” Dickinson’s “After great pain,” Stevens’s “The Snow Man”), Brock-Broido’s impeccable voicing of the oncoming of emotional winter is worthy to stand with those predecessors. It locks its words into a fixed relation of immobility: a solstice is a solace, what consoles one contents one; as form and phantasm click their alliterative identities, wanting and warding off become the painful timekeeping functions of the heart. Ironic melodrama is a congenial mode to Brock-Broido: she monitors its vagaries (hysteria, dormancy) under the formal demands and constraints of art.

By the end of The Master Letters, the power of the will to direct the course of a life is no longer efficacious. “Long ago…druidry//Was my first dream,” she confesses in “Grimoire,” the poem banishing the druidic will to power: “Soon/My little book of incantation//Will be done. It was a magical. And it is nothing that I want.” The poems recall an earlier self—“dryadic, gothic, fanatic against/The vanishing”—and then announce that deaths have erased that girl-self: “I will not speak to you again.”

A changed self requires a changed style, and a reader may mourn the poet’s sacrifice of linguistic girlishness and gaiety. “We begin to live,” said Yeats in a hard piece of wisdom, “when we conceive of life as tragedy.” Brock-Broido’s third book, Trouble in Mind, declares a moratorium on embellishment and fantasy, as the unignorable cruelties of human life impose themselves on the eyes and mind. Early innocence, the poet says, has been discovered to be finite:

As finite as the grade school teacher in Sierra Leone

Whose arms were axed off only at the hand, first left
And then the right, and then his mouth as he was making noise

And should be shut.

She adds an aphorism: “Wisdom is experience bundled, with prosthetic wrists.” This poem, entitled “The One Theme of Which Everything Else Is a Variation,” is the manifesto of the poet in her second, experienced stage:

I cannot master anymore the surgical or magical,
I do not know how the specific punishments or amputations are so

Meted out. When you delete a wing or limb
From a creature’s form, it will inevitably cry out against this

Taking, but in the end it will become grievously docile,
Shut; far gone old god, you have been plain.

Against the stoic and Christian doctrine of compensation, which asserted that suffering strengthened and improved the soul, Brock-Broido proposes her cruel corrective: that suffering weakens and tames the formerly independent creature. To oppose the injustice of the “far gone old god,” the poet will be as plain as he:

If I am lucky in this life, here, I will go on
Being whole, and speak again old god, I will be plain.


Trouble in Mind, in being “plain,” includes bitter and sardonic poems about a love affair; the poet no longer idealizes a lover, but instead exposes his heavy and “gluey” being to derision.

The disavowal of magical power is reiterated in “Soul Keeping Company,” Brock-Broido’s elegy for her mother. The legend that “The hours between washing and the well/Of burial are the soul’s most troubled time” prompts the vigil by the corpse between death and burial:

I sat with her in keeping company
All through the affliction of the night, keeping

Soul constant, a second self. Earth is heavy
And I made no wish, save being

Merely magical. I am magical
No more.

The heart resents its impotence, and lashes out at those who have urged compliance with “reality”:

The New Realism
Will be a bovine one with widened eyes.

But the poet succumbs to fact, urging her own reform. The New Realism to which she must concede requires a new heart, material not magical, animal not narcissistic:

Heart be strong as a burden beast,
        Common, clumsy, sunlit, oxish, kind.

As usual in Brock-Broido, the words are laden, but the double or triple meanings do not exclude one another (as they do in unsatisfactory puns). Common: Is it “held in common” or “frequently encountered” or “low”? Clumsy: In what aspect: physically, emotionally, verbally, imaginatively? And then the wholly unexpected and beautiful sunlit: the darkness generating wizards and druids must lift. Oxish reorders the resentment of bovine, voicing the quality as natural, not debased. The sustaining end-word, “kind,” is a comment on the mutual needs of daily life—a quality not acknowledged by those self-endowed with magical powers.

Trouble in Mind had restated earlier deaths—both parents and a stepfather:

First, my father died. Then my mother
Did. My father died again.

After the strange storm they were ruined down
From the boughs.

There were apples everywhere.

Those deaths are rapidly succeeded by later ones in an accelerating pace; elegies in Stay, Illusion commemorate not only Liam Rector but also the writer Lucy Grealy, dead of an overdose, the writer Jason Shinder, extinguished by cancer, Brock-Broido’s mentor Stanley Kunitz, and an unnamed friend who killed herself by drinking antifreeze. The poet is unwilling to return to ordinary life after each death; she does not want to enact the myth of Psyche and be reborn a butterfly. In “Pyrrhic Victory,” she resists the successive metamorphoses of self demanded by the scale of loss: “Some grief is larger than my body is.” “I do not want to be a chrysalis again”—but she is in her chrysalis already:

How long will I have to live here quickened in

My finespun case, like a folded pilgrim, blushing,
Till I am moth.

The will is defeated not merely in its inability to stave off mortality, but even more in a new helplessness, the inability to command its own passions, as erotic vertigo returns. “Pamphlet on Ravening,” spoken from “the prison of the Post-Hellenic world,” is uncompromising in admitting the continued strength of the erotic, not manipulable by will: “You cannot will intoxication, vertigo, a ravening or wild/Love.”

Because in the unmagical everyday “it’s against the law to harbor wonder,” the poet locates herself, satirically, “On the slower barge/Up the River Hubris in the post-curiouser world.” Trouble in Mind—in one of its excursions—borrows from Wallace Stevens’s notebook a few of the titles for which he never wrote the intended poems. Brock-Broido takes the occasion to write a new poem under each Stevensian title. In one of these, “The Halo That Would Not Light,” childhood is violently re-thought, as the poet borrows from (and contradicts) Wordsworth. In Brock-Broido’s myth, from its obscure pre-existence among raptors, the tiny body of the child is dropped into life and (temporarily) deposited in a deceptive softness: now, to end childhood, a raptor wind is “hover-/Hunting,” looking to pluck the child back, killed, into the dark raptor world, “And the spectacular catastrophe//Of your endless childhood/Is done.” The death of innocence is final.

Brock-Broido’s first three books record the inner life of a poet passing from childhood through adolescence through maturity: “I was little; I am middle. Will I not//Grow old, not final/As the broken pleated falcon’s wing…?” And now Stay, Illusion appears, its title citing Horatio’s address to Hamlet’s father’s ghost: summoned by his son, the ghost returns, suggesting that the wish to retain illusion never vanishes. Time is now told in girlhoods lost, as “A Girl Ago” is followed by “Two Girls Ago.” The first says, “I was sixteen for twenty years,” and the second, referring to anthologies that append birth and death dates to the poets’ names, ventures, “In the table of contents I’m not dead yet.”

The plainness vowed in Trouble in Mind lives on in these pages: “If it is written down, you can’t rescind it.” The sway between wishing and rescinding governs Stay, Illusion. Comedy, tragedy, and irony are no longer discrete effects. In “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” the effect on the polar bear of the melting of the Arctic ice cap, retold in the sentimentally anthropomorphic words of TV’s Animal Planet, coexists with the poet’s mordant self-portrait mocking her diminished animal grandeur as she divests herself from primacy, changing from Great Ape to a murmuring marmoset:

Too far gone to halt the Arctic Cap’s catastrophe, big beautiful

Blubbery white bears each clinging to his one last hunk of ice….

        We have come to terms with our Self

Like a marmoset getting out of her Great Ape suit.

In between these two comic bookends is the devastating question of the denuded heart: “For whom left am I first?”

In Stay, Illusion, Brock-Broido’s lyric habitats take on invented Latin names never free of self-irony: she dwells in the Trepidarium, or the Abandonarium, anatomizing fears or loneliness in her third-person “case history” of the self:

Case history: wistful, woke most every afternoon

            In the green rooms of the Abandonarium.

        Beautiful cage, asylum in….

Her single subject the idea that every single thing she loves

        Will (perhaps tomorrow) die.

Pathos is surrounded by harsher moments: in “Contributor’s Note,” which forces the conventional genre into emotional exposure, the poet reproaches herself in her autumn poetry for not making full use of the material that life has given her (in this case a mythical horse, resembling those in the prehistoric caves, mentioned elsewhere in the poetry). Accusing herself of ingratitude, she bursts out:

How dare you come home from your factory

Of autumns, your slaughterhouse, weathered

And incurious, with your hair bound

Loosely, not making use

Of every single part of the horse

That was given you. What of his hooves.

His mane. His heart his gait his cello tail

His joy in finding apples fallen

As he built his coat for winter every year.

“The wise man avenges by building his city in snow,” said Stevens, and Brock-Broido’s stoic horse, every year, builds his coat in snow. He lives not in anticipation of spring, but in preparation for another winter. The stoicism of the helpless recurs in Stay, Illusion: in “Of Rickey Ray Rector,” illiterate prison guards record an illiterate condemned man’s docile and deluded wish for a last meal (“koolaid, cherry & he said, for later—/pecan pie for just after when he would went to sleep”). There is stoicism, too, in the poet’s own existence among her ghosts (“How is it you can explain their living here with me…./In my single person tax-bracket of one alive, there are more/Living here with me not alive//Than are.” Brock-Broido finds terse epigrams in her unpeopled world: “There is no thou to speak of.” (Expecting “speak to,” we experience the sudden mortal wrench as second-person speech becomes third-person reference.)

The pity that animates the pictures of suffering—of people, of animals—in Brock-Broido’s work is balanced against the grotesqueries of incarceration, of infidelities, of illness, of deformation (“The animals are ironed, docile now, flat at my feet”). The poet’s Gothic, so indispensable to her early work, has become “plain” in her flattened menagerie; in her taciturn journeys (“The train passed slowly through every belt we know: Prayer, Tornado, Bible, Grain”); in her description of a mummied bird placed in its owner’s purse “circa 1892” and hidden behind the chimney bricks: “In the Dumas Brothel Museum,/In your glass case, now, canary,…//You are beautiful, grotesque.” The poet constructs a Gordian knot entangling the beautiful, the pathetic, the grotesque, and the plain, as her provocative language ascends into precarious regions.

With this fourth book, so original and so candid, Brock-Broido awakes in her readers an appetite for future lyrics of pity, satire, grief, comedy, and epigram. Autobiographer and ventriloquist at once, she is uncontainable in any single category of verse: her poems are domestic and grand, melancholy and sparkling, contemporary and archaic, plain and wizardly, American and European. She memorializes moments at once unforgettable and inconspicuous. Of all the vignettes of her childhood tucked into the poems, my favorite remains the one recounting the absurd safety procedures in the “bomb shelters” of elementary schools. The world was still “warm inside,” when the innocence of childhood was as yet unacquainted with death’s cold:

Before the Iron Curtain, before the sadder
Century, the one I was born into as
A little Cosmonaut, creeping in bomb shelters
With Mr. White, the school custodian
Who shoveled the coal while I occupied the alcove
Of my ways, it was so warm inside.

“Medieval Warm Time” is the title of this snapshot of childhood. The chill that succeeded that warmth gives Stay, Illusion its prevailing climate, but Brock-Broido has not sacrificed her comic edge to the gloom of elegy. What is artifice, after all, but the wry recognition of comic distance in every representation?