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Review of Soul Keeping Company, David Cooke, The Use of English Spring 2011
Soul Keeping Company is the first UK publication of work by Lucie Brock-Broido, an American poet who was born in 1956 in Pittsburgh. It contains a generous sampling of poetry taken in more or less equal measure from her three collections, A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995), and Trouble In Mind (2004). Having held various academic positions in American universities, she is now Director of Poetry in the School of Arts at Columbia University. She has also been the recipient of major awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This new selected edition opens with the intriguingly titled 'Domestic Mysticism'. It is a dazzling tour de force which, on first reading, seems both weirdly impressive and bewildering. However, as with many of her poems, Brock-Broido has supplied an explanatory note which gives the reader a helpful insight into her ways of 'making strange'. The footnoting of poems may be a contentious issue, but it must be admitted that her brief references to Herodotus, Empedocles and the cycles of reincarnation do at least enable the reader to make some sense of a poem which might otherwise remain impenetrable:Previous review of 'Soul Keeping Company'... To the 'Soul Keeping Company' page...
In thrice 10,000 seasons, I will come back to this world
In a white cotton dress. Kingdom of After My Own Heart.
Kingdom of Fragile. Kingdom of Dwarves. When I come home,
Teacups will quiver in their Dresden saucers, pentatonic chimes
Will move in the wind. A covey of alley cats will swarm on the side
Porch & perch there, portents with quickened heartbeats
You will feel press against your ankles as you pass through.
From the outset one sees that Brock-Broido has no qualms in using language that is highly wrought. There is the wilful archaism of 'thrice 10,000 seasons' and the artful rhetoric of her list of 'Kingdoms', whilst at the same time she can also be precise and objective in her delightful description of teacups. Although her tendency towards mannerist extravagance may not be to everyone's taste, it cannot be denied that she does also have a good instinct for the musicality of language as evidenced in the stanza's closing sentence, where syntax twists and turns as lithely as the cats she evokes. Through the poem's seven massive stanzas her Whitmanesque flow is 'refracted' (to use one of her favoured terms) through the elegance and the preciosity of Wallace Stevens, one of her avowed influences. With little interest in the merely quotidian, she would seem to be placing herself in the Orphic tradition of poets such as Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas or Allen Ginsberg, all of whom in their different ways assume, sometimes rather self-consciously, the mantle of le voyant. Combining the role of poet with that of a seeress, Brock-Broido creates a haunted, feverish world which might well appeal to those countless readers of Tolkien-inspired fantasy or the gothic novels of Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer. It is a world of 'dyed velvet', 'orchids', 'minstrels', 'wizards', 'owls', 'the queer light left when a room snuffs out'.
Defining her poetic terrain and setting the tone for much of the work that follows, 'Domestic Mysticism' is also, like many of the poems in her first book, a dramatic monologue. In some ways reminiscent of the early work of that brilliant, but now largely forgotten figure, George McBeth, they are poems in which enigmatic characters find themselves in extreme situations, and which would often be inaccessible were it not for the poets' notes. In 'Domestic Mysticism' the protagonist refers to him/herself as a 'witness & a small thing altogether'. This is a phrase which could be applied to several of Brock-Broido's alter egos. 'Birdie Africa' is about a real child, Oyewulffe Momar Puim, who from the age of two was brought up in a religious cult and was one of only two people who survived when the cult's headquarters were firebombed by the police:
My father calls me Wolf.
He says that I will see things other people will not see
at night. When he holds me, heat comes out
of his big arms & I belong to him.
In the cold of Christmastime he rocks
me in his deep lap in the great shadow of a comforter.
An analogous figure appears in 'Edward VI on the Seventh Day', where the sickly and introspective boy prince is, by way of contrast, in awe of his overbearing father. 'I am, by far, too fair for him. / He is dark & brilliant with a temper, fire / I am airy, scampering.' 'Jessica, from the Well' is based on the story of Jessica McClure, an eighteen- month-old girl, who fell into a well and survived for 58 hours until she was rescued. Apparently she had no 'psychological scarring, no memory of the event'. However, the five pages of her soliloquy do seem an improbable outpouring for so young a child. The theatricality of Brock-Broido's work may usefully be highlighted by comparing 'And So Long, I've Had You Fame', her poem about the death of Marilyn Monroe, with Sharon Olds' poem on the same subject, where 'The ambulance men touched her cold / body, lifted it, heavy as iron,/ onto the stretcher [...].' Olds' evocation of the stark actuality of a dead body could not be further removed from Brock-Broido's more idealised vision:
How odd that she would die into an August
night, I would have thought
she would have gone out in a pale clear
night of autumn, covered to the shoulder in an ivory sheet, hair
fanned out across the pillow perfectly.
Largely written while she was in her twenties, A Hunger is by any standard an astoninshingly precocious debut and one which seems to have left the poet exhausted. In an interview with Carole Maso for BOMB Magazine in 1995 she recounts how, shortly after its publication, she visited her 'prophet-teacher', Stanley Kunitz, confessing to him: 'Thats it for me. I have nothing left.' It would be seven years before her second collection, The Master Letters, was to appear. In 'A Preamble to The Master Letters' she explains how the genesis of this collection is to be found in three mysterious letters that turned up amongst Emily Dickinson's papers after her death. Two of the letters are addressed to a 'Dear Master'. The third is addressed to 'Recipient Unknown'. It is not clear whether they were drafts of letters which Dickinson ever sent or intended to send, or whether they were simply literary creations. The 'Master' may have been one of her known correspondents, a lover, or maybe even God. In Brock-Broido's words these letters are 'gracious, sometimes nearly erotic, worshipful documents, full of Dickinson's dramas of entreaty & intimacy [...].' Her own poems, which are written either in prose or in loose couplets, she describes as 'a series of latter-day Master Letters' which 'echo formal & rhetorical devices from Dickinson's work.' In Brock-Broido's reworkings 'the Master [...] began as a Fixed star' who 'took on the fractured countenance of a composite portrait [...].' The 'Speaker' became 'a brood of voice - a flock of women with Dickinson as mistress of the skein, the spinning wheel, the Queen Domestic, composed and composing, as she did, from her looms & room & seclusion.' She explains finally how the 'Speaker', like the 'Master', also became for her a composite figure as 'Raids on other work began - Sappho, Bradsheet, Bronte, Akhmatova, Plath. Then, a lustrum into the copmposition, I signed a poem -L.'
Brock-Broido waxes lyrical to such a degree in her enthusiasm for these letters that one might hesitate to enquire what all this really amounts to, lest it should seem bad manners. Nevertheless, there is something unsettling and even irksome in the poet's use of that highly charged classical term 'lustrum', which implies a too complacent assumption of the role of visionary, when really alll she means is 'some time later'. More worryingly, one has to wonder why she needs to 'raid' the work of so many others before she tentatively signs one of the letters in her own name. Her poem 'Also, None Among Us Has Seen God' is fairly representative of the collection:
My Most Courteous Lord -
The Teutons have their word for keeping Quiet which our blessing
Language does not have. To say nothing of - Agone, to say nothing
Of the monk who set himself ablaze, in autumn hair & all, the ravish
& wool of him, the mourning & the sweetest smell of him
How did you teach the learning of this Holding & the holding
Back - To say nothing of Ago, obedience , the hiding in
The feral peace of speaking Not, the root & oath of it -
Old as a prehistoric furrow horse abed in awe & sediment,
Curled on his runic side, in the shape of an O, broken. Wake
Is agape, an outskirt of agony, blouse-white and bad - To say
Nothing of the nook of sleep - which is the ravage in the chamois night-
Sweat of your raff & shames, the fevers of a minor fire, the rage
Or punishment, the Agape, the kerosene & bone-red rag.
That was the best moment of his life. The burning down.
As we have now come to expect, this poem has an explanatory note. However, like most of the notes to The Master Letters, it merely indicates a source, so that we learn that the title of this poem derives from a line in Archibald McLeish's poem 'Epistle to Be Left in the Earth'. Brock-Broido's use of it as her title promises a great deal and it does seem fairly clear that the poem is about the self-immolation of a monk and the 'Speaker's' identification with him. However, where does the poet stand in all this, or does it matter? The poem's salutation seems little more than a literary game, as is the hit and miss capitalization, the disjointed syntax, both of which derive from Dickinson. The opening lines are portentous but don't really make any obvious sense, while the 'Teutons' seem dragged in to give that medieval gloss that the poet is so keen on. 'Runic' is used later in the poem to the same end. The wordplay between 'Agone' and 'Ago', 'agape' and 'Agape' is laboured, whilst the repetition of the phrase 'To say nothing of' runs the risk of bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down. Death and transcendence, the prospect of union with a supreme being - these are hugely ambitious themes. Unfortunately, one is not convinced that the poet has the means at her disposal to deal adequately with them.
Brock-Broido's most recent collection, Trouble in Mind, appeared in 2004, nine years after its predecessor. Its sombre, bluesy title refers to the fact that in the interim she had lost both her parents. However, her uneasy coming to terms with mortality and the ravages of time had already been hinted at in lines from that signature poem 'Domestic Mysticism', which she had published by the time she was barely thirty: 'In the next millennium, I will be middle aged. I do not do well / In the marrow of things. Kingdom of Trick. Kingdom of Drug. In 'After Raphael' we sense that the poet is making a conscious attempt to restrain some of the effusiveness of her previous work and to adopt a more sober style appropriate to the expression of grief:
Perhaps it isn't possible to say these things
Out loud without the noir
Of ardor and its plain-spoken elegance.
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.
Even here one has doubts and has to question her use of 'noir', which inescapably suggests a certain style of cinematic thriller. Why is it coupled with 'ardor', which seems a strange word to use in the context of mourning? Again one feels that the writer may be striking a pose. After a brief perusal of her ubiquitous notes, one is struck by something even more disconcerting. The titles of several of these poems are 'titles' which our poet has adapted from a list of several hundred which she found in Pieces of Paper, a private notebook in which Wallace Stevens concocted a list of titles for poems he never wrote. This is a surprisingly circuitous way for a mature poet to deal with personal angst and grief. One such poem is 'Still Life with Aspirin' in which the poet seems to be coming to terms with the possibility of an afterlife, a notion her more rational self has been taught to consider improbable:
There she was, the mother of me, like a lit plinth,
Heavenly, though I was reared to find this kind
Of visitation impractical; she was an unbearable detail
of the supreme celestial map,
Of which I had been taught that there
was no such thing.
One has no reason to question the emotion that informs these lines. Regrettably, however, it is almost immediately diffused by the donnish tone and the condescension of those that follow:
Stevens wrote that
For a poem to be true,it must 'come from an Ever'
If you don't fathom that, then you should not be reading this.
Brock-Broido is not a poet to whom one can easily remain indifferent. In her interview with Carole Maso she quotes Zbigniew Herbert, in making a distinction between two types of poet. There is 'the ox' who 'is plodding and deliberate' and 'the cat - who's sleek and nocturnal [...].' Brock-Broido, unsurprisingly, assigns herself to the latter category. In a further comparison between herself, Frank Bidart and Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate is left to pursue his honest labours amongst the lumbering oxen.
In her own way, Brock-Broido is of course merely reiterating a long established dichotomy between Classicism and Romanticism, or Nietzsche's distinctions between the 'Apollonian' and the 'Dionysian'. Fearless and ambitious, Ms Brock-Broido's poetry is a high wire act in which she pushes language to its limits. It will be seen by some as inspired, whilst others may dismiss it as incoherent.
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