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,
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…
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