A Meadow Afterward
by Zara Raab
Stay, Illusion, poems by Lucie Brock-Broido, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 2013, 102 pages, hardcover $26, finalist for the National Book Award.
In Brock-Broido's Gorgeous Jottings, reveries on the human condition in the early twenty-first century by a woman in mid-life—in a "single person tax-bracket of one alive," similes and metaphors tumble out in meditations on cruelty, fame, loneliness, insanity, and death. The poet takes solace and pleasure in the sensuous details of the moment—blue thistles on the road, the black flowerbed "sumptuous in emptiness"—even as she scrapes and cracks against brute and brutal realities—unspeakable anxiety" and what Helen Vendler once called "the dreadful given of life."
Like Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, Brock-Broido masks her dread in whispered longing for something after:
One thing. One thing. One thing:
Tell me there is
A meadow, afterward.
(from "A Meadow")
A meadow, or pecan pie for dessert, which is what the brain-damaged felon on death row, Rickey Ray Rector, requested be saved from his last meal until after the ‘event'—his electrocution. But afterward, no pie, only, the poet tells us, a bird of prey waiting outside "like a hearse." ("Of Rickey Ray Rector")
Yet Brock-Broido can write in the Keatsian longing-for-death mode of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci":
In our clouded bed of wind and timothy with me.
Lie here with me in snow.
(from "For a Snow Leopard in October")
Stay, Illusion is a retrospective, a look back over the poet's life and times, and not always with pleasure:
I cringe to think I stood for nothing, for a jar
Of jam and marriages, my usage of exotic words (chimerical), my lilac apron, me
Starry in our own home-movie, handsome, noir
As the one dark brooding stallion, kicking going down.
One naturally expects a poet with a name like Brock-Broido, conjuring as it does Frodo Baggins of Tolkien's The Hobbit, to produce poems—down to the word unit—with archaic and allusive qualities drawn from half-forgotten languages. But Brock-Broido mixes in postmodern effects—like op art and trompe l'oeil—on the same canvas. At times, her poems have the feeling of Joseph Cornell boxes, collections of the old-fashioned tools and toys of our grandparents' intimate domestic lives. She interweaves the domestic vocabulary of cozier, more agrarian times, the dated language of farming manuals, 1960s dress, and gardening books—all the charms of the old-fashioned—with terms from science and industry: harrier (a word straight from Yeats), pottage bowl, lantern (not to mention petticoats, poodle skirts, and barrettes) stirred in with lung, optic nerve, and cosmonaut. You can tell she loves a chance to use words like "mitochondrial" and "fumatorium."
Introducing each of the seven stanzas in "Observations from the Glasgow Coma Scale" with an element from the neurological scale assessing conscious states, she creates a sliding tone scale from deeply mournful to nostalgic. The section labeled "Persistent Inappropriate Speech" leads to:
Not so much nattering please, says the impresario,
The nurse's commandant on call.
Still others mumbling
About salted beans left soaking in brisket pots
At home. Some olden Jews are still compelled to hide
Their jewels in smallish alligator carry-ons.
She achieves brilliance in the "Red Thread," using "croft" —a small, rented farm without right of common pasturage—to set the mood for a story of plague or pogrom:
Whole family decimated
As if in war.
Old wheat, color of ransack or curlew,
Jews wandering, coppering, each
In their croft. The pond, iced-over now …
…In a vase, the red dust
Of gillyflowers aslant by the bed.
Thou shalt not be dead.
The archaic vocabulary can be found in Brock-Broido's first book, as well. In a review of that book, A Hunger (1988), Helen Vendler found Brock-Broido's "persistent use of a few obsessive words," among them the adjectives small, little, […]; the nouns child and girl to be hazards taking "an insidious toll in the long run." ["Drawn to Figments and Occasion: Lucie Brock-Broido's A Hunger," Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, Vendler, Harvard, 1995.] Yet despite this critique by a formidable critic and laureate-maker, Brock-Broido persists here in their use in poems like "Little Industry of Ghosts," "A Girl Ago," and "Two Girls Ago." "Medieval Warm Time" is typical:
Before the Iron Curtain, before the sadder
Century, the one I was born into as
A little Cosmonaut…
"Little" and "small" meant one thing in A Hunger. In Stay, Illusion, size connotes mortality. The poet is a woman "in the field dressed only in the sun," and she's acutely aware of it, as she reveals in "You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World":
We have come to terms with our Self
Like a marmoset getting out of her Great Ape suit.
"Illusion" echoing delusion, the book's title signals the poet's obsessions—she more than once here and in A Hunger refers to herself as a wizard. A typographical error, or a poet's whim, and "wisteria" yields hysteria. The blue-flowered, climbing plant becomes Brock-Broido's witty but serious satire on the excesses of madness:
On abandon, uncalled for but called forth.
Comic and tragic in the way of John Berryman's Dream Songs, "Extreme Wisteria" itemizes the weird behaviors, the obsessions, the early childhood manifestations of illness—perhaps her own, perhaps a colleague's (she dedicates "Moon River" to the avowedly troubled Franz Wright) or predecessor's:
Case history: wistful, woke most every afternoon
In the green rooms of the Abandonarium.
Beautiful cage, asylum in.
"Gloom," Brock-Broido knows, "Is pre-articulate." She captures the continuing disconnect between humans in a machine age. In the insane, the disconnect among humans becomes particularly jarring:
He had never read the face of any soul.
The mouth a dim albino light.
The eye, to him an apothecary jar
Splayed by silver implements.
(from "Eight Takes of Trakl as Himself")
"He" is Georg Trakl, the young Austrian Expressionist poet, likely a schizophrenic, who overdosed on cocaine in 1914. Brock-Broido ponders the thirst for glory that may have led him astray as it does the poet in Donald Justice's famous villanelle, "In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn" ("Lately he had wandered between St. Mark's Place and the Bowery, / Already half a spirit, mumbling and muttering sadly. / O the boredom, the horror, and the glory.") In Brock-Broido's rendering:
His wish to cast himself
Where chestnut-colored horses
Raised their hooves against the sky.
"Eight Takes of Trakl as Himself" is one of a handful of poems written from history in the way of Robert Lowell, transforming events into epics, myths, or at least metaphors. The poem works well here as did Brock-Broido's earlier poem (from A Hunger) "Elective Mutes," on the actual story of two criminally insane twins. The hazard that becomes apparent in Stay, Illusion, in the poem "Ruby Garnett's Ornament, Circa 1892," is that Brock-Broido's weird psychically penetrating images of the lyric lose their power and remain only weird when put to use describing what are essentially external events. Whatever it is she wants to tell us about prostitutes like Ruby Garnett in the Old West gets lost in the historical details needed to set up the story.
Brock-Broido's poems are spared the fate of mere decorative surfaces by her thoughtful reflections, her refusal to balk at Important Questions and Big Ideas—Evolution, planetary destruction, global warming, death penalty, free speech, treatment of the insane. A unicorn—apt symbol of illusion—decked out like a royal pet, adorns the cover, and animals—horses, polar bears, leopards, doves, robins, owls, sows, marmosets, goats, chicks, flounder, trout, even a Dalmatian hound—make appearances; they are subjects in their own right, but also useful introductions to the moral quandaries of human and animal rights and species extinction. She locates in her own psyche an equivalency to external situation or trauma. Extinct species tug at our hearts in "Posthumous Seduction." Elsewhere, the trout she catches may be the lover she must let go: "I was groomed to throw him back," she tells us. We are all owlets, she suggests, "apprentice to the common law of harm," part of a world where one tribe kills another, just as one species kills for its livelihood, to be "warm, somewhere, in hay" ("In Owl Weather") "Ten thousand turkey chicks" escape the "fixed gaze of a barn owl" and thrive in "the tin-red heat lamp / That is Mother to us all." ("Humane Farming")
Animals and animal husbandry become stand-ins for humans and their affairs. Animals' limited perceptions—call them "illusions"—and the tricks we play on them—provide Brock-Broido with ways of talking about our own limited view, our essential illusions. In "Sleeker, Currier," animal hides "hang in the odd / Two-dimensional shapes of the animal they once were.":
Sow, in a rucksack, unfolded, now in the shape of a dull
Ache or a continent, flattened like a blotch of hollyhocks
In the slaughterhouse, animals are "hoodwinked" into giving us their hides. "[A] mercy is wrapped in a scarf made of autopsy // And hoodwinking." Humans dressed in animal hides wear a kind of disguise. The groom curries his horse "even sleeker for the ride," though both horse and rider will end in the shape of a meadow, a hide hanging in odd shapes of what they once were.
Now the Eskimos are frightened at the robins in their weirdly warming
Village because their language has no word for robin—not quite yet.
Brock-Broido is a smart, hip poet, up on the absurd, and happy rutting in the muck of puns and witticisms: "The train passed slowly through every belt we know: Prayer, Tornado, Bible, Grain." ("Death, XXL") Sometimes Brock-Broido seems to speak in an aside to someone in another room; the reader eavesdrops, a listener at a keyhole, except that what we overhear are common phrases uttered with a slight twist—for example, "he would have my way / With me". (page 4) Words slide into each other. Smudge the word "egret" with your eraser, for example, and you get "regret,"
Green as alchemy and even more scarce, little can be known
Of the misfortunes of a saint condemned to turn great sorrows
Into greater egrets, ice-bound and irrevocable. The wings were left ajar
At the altar where I've knelt all night…
(from "Meditation on the Sources of the Catastrophic Imagination")
Wings belong to angels, to the theater, or to political parties and sections of houses.
The past is much with Brock-Broido, or as Faulkner wrote, it is not even past; it appears to her as ghosts who live "here with me, leaning / on their cellos, doleful and plenty." She seems to gird herself: "No Donner bones with cuts on them or not. / No horizontal weeping; no weeping vertically." (page 72) The poet William Meredith wrote of Robert Frost that "he wanted to hear, / Something you had done too exactly for words, / Maybe, but too exactly to lie about either." Brock-Broido satisfies Frost's and our expectation of honesty. She also satisfies a rule of the poet John Berryman, who once wrote in effect, you aren't a poet at all unless you can "contrive to do the elementary thing required, which is to sound as if [you] meant it." Brock-Broido means it. I found the poems witty, serious, honest, and unsentimental; their "blue" politics, told slant, please me. Stay, Illusion traverses a gadget-driven, machine-operated, slightly insane, material world—even ghosts are an industry and hunger, a contraption—rich in possibilities, an echo chamber in which Brock-Broido's arcane, allusive verbal constructs and buoyant vocabularies wing their way like bats, and where subatomic events and invisible bits of DNA determine fate. But Brock-Broido refuses to sink into sadness and grief, instead finding solace and feeding her soul on the sumptuous, shimmering surfaces of everyday life.
Zara Raab's poetry collections include The Book of Gretel, Swimming the Eel, and most recently, Fracas & Asylum. Her new chapbook, Rumpelstiltskin, or What's in a Name, is based on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and is a finalist for the Dana Award. Her poems, reviews, and essays appear in Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, The Dark Horse, and Poet Lore. She is contributing editor for Redwood Coast Review and Poetry Flash.