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Great Reckoning

In Reviews on February 24, 2014 at 7:00 am

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by Matthew Pennock

Decisions are hard. Especially when made by a group. There exist many competing factors that one must consider; politics and compromise almost invariably come into play. From the outside, it’s easy to second guess, or become jaded with the process, but it’s truly difficult for those burdened with the task of selection, especially when it appears multiple options may be worthy, but, like The Highlander, there can be only one. When it comes to the biggest three honors a writer can receive for a volume of poetry in a given year (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle), the scrutiny proves even heavier. For many of us it seems, the most exciting books of the year come nowhere near the shortlist, thus we already watch half-heartedly, fully prepared to sneer or shrug at whatever the committee decides. The denizens of the shortlist and the eventual outcome seem perpetually predictable. The major publishing houses (Knopf, FSG, Poulin, Graywolf) are usually represented by well-established poets who have tenure at some university or another. Then there’s usually one “younger” poet, or a book from a small press that has no chance of winning, but exists on the list purely to show that an attempt was made to look past the incredibly small poetry selection that would be carried at your local Barnes and Noble. The winner will inevitably be an arbitrary collection by an aging poet near the front of the metaphysical queue where all the AARP poets who have yet to win, or haven’t won a major award in a while shuffle. Each year someone’s number gets called. They accept their prize or laureateship and then become free to die in peace, knowing they’ve been validated for a lifetime of scribbling in cold, poorly lit rooms. If there is a mild surprise, then the choice will still be hopelessly safe, God forbid we have anything too challenging stylistically or thematically. Like I said before, decisions are hard, and we can toss as much feces as we want at the deciders, but really they’re doing the best they can with the circumstances they’ve been given. Except for this year. This year I have no sympathy for the judges. They will be given no quarter from the ruthless shade I will throw their way if they get it wrong this time because it’s obvious this year. Lucie Brock-Broido wrote the best book of poetry in 2013.

It just so happens, I am Brock-Broido’s former student. I feel that must be mentioned in the interest of full disclosure. Normally, I’d just dismiss myself for being too biased; I wouldn’t even consider writing any form of criticism about a former instructor I worked with closely because it would just be too weird. So I fully understand, Dear Reader, if you can’t see past this happenstance and choose to disregard my arguments. Lord knows, I probably would if our roles were reversed, but, if I may, I think you should keep reading because I intend to get persuasive. Besides, anyone who knows me will tell you, I can rarely be considered pleasant and would not consider myself a devoted fan of pretty much anything, except my dog, and he died six years ago. This being said, I have always admired Lucie Brock-Broido’s work. She has a gift for linguistic verve that not many I’ve read can match in this era or any other. Her lines are contortions, you think you know where the arm or head will end up, but inevitably they take unexpected turns that elicit a gasp or wince. Whenever, I feel my lyric growing stale, I reach for The Master Letters and let Lucie put me to shame with her syntax, diction, and supra-encyclopedic references that embody the definition of the word “arcana”. While I would never hazard to criticize her craft in previous volumes, I will say, I never felt her work. I didn’t pull it off the shelf when depressed or in need of solace. I don’t repeat the lines to myself over and over when I run into the daily indignities of life. The poems were always too removed. Between the sophisticated diction and the inventive syntax, one already has to work hard just to glean a mote of understanding. When this is added to the poet’s penchant for taking on personas, I always felt pushed away a little too hard: A game of cat and mouse, with a bit too much cat. I have plenty of respect for her poetry, but no internal yearning to revisit it again and again, that is, until she birthed Stay, Illusion.

When I picked up this volume, I intended to leaf through and spot-read a few poems. Instead, I read it all the way through, then went back to the first page and read it again. That’s not an expression, or hyperbole, that’s truth, and I have never done that before. That was back in the fall when the book first came out. So you may be asking yourself, why am I writing this now? Well, I’ll tell you Billy, I thought she was a shoe-in for the National Book Award, and that didn’t happen. Also, I have read just about every review I could find, and I don’t think they’ve got it right. I may have missed a few, but I take great issue with the criticisms I’ve read up to this point. Now I don’t like to knock people who review poetry books. I think anyone who reviews poetry of their own volition is a hero. More poets should write criticism, and not just an occasional review for one of their friends. We have too much favor trading among friends and not enough people reading strangers and writing about them. Reviewing books is a simple albeit not painless way to give back to the community. Therefore, if you’re a grad student or a young poet and you tried your hand at reviewing any book, I applaud you, and if not, you should think about it. That being said, as I read the many essays in periodicals humble, or eminent, I noticed they all seemed to be defaulting to stock descriptions of Brock-Broido’s previous work, the focus lying primarily on language: syntax, diction, and references. I also browsed the comments on Goodreads, many of which were non-specifically positive, but just as many seemed baffled by the high-level vocabulary. Also much hay was made about the running motif of ghosts, hardly a brilliant deduction, the book is called “Stay, Illusion” directly referencing Hamlet, Act I, scene 1. The more astute reviewers at least recognized that the ghosts that haunted this volume were in fact multiple, real departed ones over that the poet grieves, but they still treated the theme as if it were some flight of fancy buried beneath references and fancy words. All in all, I was disappointed that they didn’t notice how much was at stake here, how much the poet laid herself on the line for us.

Now, I’ve made some pretty bold claims up to this point, and now I have the Herculean task of backing them up. Let me just make this clear. This book is complex and rich with all sorts of material and themes and moments, so if I fail to convince you, the failure remains exclusively mine. Go read it anyway, you’ll probably find reasons of your own to love it if your mind stands open and your intent proves true. My plan, however, is to begin with simple things and then move to some of the more complex issues.

First off, this book is really funny. People rarely talk about humor in poetry unless we’re discussing dudes like Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland, who are obviously trying to be funny. Many readers approach poetry as if they’re entering a catacomb and do not laugh unless someone has given them expressed permission. I make it a point to laugh loudly and a bit obnoxiously when I hear something funny at a poetry reading, so other people will know it’s okay. In case you haven’t noticed, I also have a hyper-inflated sense of my own importance. In her previous books, Brock-Broido’s humor is often buried, but here it shines through in classic ways. At the risk of ruining jokes by explaining them, here are some examples: In the poem “Dove, Interrupted” she writes “Whatever suffering is insufferable is punishable by the perishable.” This basically translates to “Whatever you can’t survive will kill you.” It sounds like something Yogi Berra would have said. When one adds the convoluted repetition and internal rhyme, it heightens the effect, making the line seem more meaningful than it actually is. When placed in the context of a poem that contains inventive images such as “Red grapes, a delicacy, each peeled for us—each sheath/ The vestment of a miniature priest, disrobed.” (This in itself is a funny image, naked priests, Come On!), the sense of a serious meaning is inflated, when the sophistication of the language is undercut by the simplicity of the sentiment, it becomes humorous. It’s like watching a King or Queen bedecked in Royal vestments trip over a curb and fall face first.

Next, in a poem called “Dear Shadows,” she writes “If it gets any darker in here no one will ever be able to see again, like cats/ With their eyes sewn shut at birth.” Let’s be honest, if this weren’t written by an already acknowledged brilliant poet, but by an average workshop participant, the banality of the title combined with the melodrama of the first two lines would cause said poor workshop participant to be derisively laughed from the room. Tears would probably be involved. Lucie, however, does not leave us with that, she’s setting us up. She follows those lines with “I could barely stand to write what I just wrote just now.” I love this moment. I love it not because it’s a sly wink to the reader that she knows she’s written something sentimental and is laughing about it, but kept it in there so we could all ironically laugh too at its silliness. I love it because it’s not ironic, it’s a step past run of the mill hipster irony. It’s like this: I tell people I like Katy Perry’s music. They laugh and think I mean it ironically and I can listen to Katy Perry and dance and sing and it’s all a good time because everyone thinks I’m joking. I want them to think that. I want to save face, but I know I’m really going to go home and listen to “Firework” on repeat until I cry because I secretly love it. These aforementioned lines realize that sometimes the most hackneyed images are the only thing that can truly express your pain, sometimes they’re just a punch to the heart that not even the most refined intellect can parry, thus I laugh, but I still recognize the weakness for sentimentality that can’t help but creep through all of us, and Brock-Broido’s strength in admitting it.

She exhibits another form of classic comic technique in the poem “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World.” The title sets us up for the possibility of the absurd, then the poem’s closure fulfills it, as she writes, “We have come to terms with our Self/Like a marmoset getting out of her Great Ape suit.” The line brings to mind classic comedies of size disparity, like Foghorn Leghorn hunted by the miniscule Henery the chicken hawk, or the timeless The Wizard of Oz reveal that the big scary head is just an illusion, and the wizard is just an old man, bumbling and sad.  While the image is humorous because, after all, monkeys are funny, it is also indicative of a greater theme throughout the book, one that puts its finger on one of the most quintessential contradictions of modern life. To ourselves we are everything, we are the alpha and the omega, we loom large, but to the universe we are less than insignificant. How does a person recognize such a discrepancy, how does one’s little world hold such importance in the face of so much vastness, and how can we let go of our bitterness that it will all go on without us?

This seeming tension between large and small reoccurs, especially in the titles of several poems such as, “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room;” “Father, in Drawer;” “Great Reckoning in a Little Room;” “Gaudy Infinitesimal.”  An incongruity of this sort creates a paradox in the mind of the reader, therefore, a moment of disbelief slightly akin to the sublime. The same sort of gap that plagues us when we try to wrap our heads around the question of why our loved ones cease to exist, yet we our left to go on without them. Stay, Illusion is a book of disbelief, a book about trying to find sense in the senseless, which brings us, of course, to the books primary subject—O Death! How we poets love to ruminate on you until our blacks hearts just implode, but this time it’s different, I swear. Brock-Broido approaches the universal subject from so many angles. She shows the poignancy of grief for loved ones lost, but also meditates on her own past and her own place in the world. Yet, somehow through it all there still remains a sense that even though living is the hardest thing to do, it’s worthwhile because the world is too goddamn beautiful in spite of itself. It’s hard for a book to delve deep into the darkness and still end up uplifting. Brock-Broido does this by moving seamlessly between the personal, the political, and the universal.

Many of these poems are elegiac, spoken directly to lost friends and family. The speaker of these poems is not so much haunted, but living in dialogue with her departed. As she states in “Little Industry of Ghosts,” “In my single person tax-bracket of one alive, there are more/ Living here with me not alive.” The reference to the ubiquitous tax form that makes us account for ourselves and all dependents for the purposes of discovering our liability proves how the outside world does not recognize what we, as humans, carry. The departed never leave us, therefore the household while technically containing one, remains populated by an ephemeral more. This line shows how the ghosts haunting this book are not spooky or unwanted, but familiars that have just as much right to her residence as a friend, family member, or pet. As the poem progresses, the speaker addresses a deceased friend directly,

Look, the boy with a cane walks

Three-legged down our Avenue, three-quarters

Of a cur, but he’s as gifted limping as the elegy you wrote

 

For me and I’m still alive! It was a poem clear, here

In hindsight, as flounder flesh unwrapped from

 

Its bed of newspaper, unspoiled.

The address feels nostalgic, wistful. The use of the exclamation point not only expresses surprise, but also adds a tonal upshift to the line that one might experience when laughing with a long absent friend over a beer, or shot of whiskey, or wine, whatever your poison. The subject of an elegy is raised, one that the departed had written for the speaker who was not dead then and is still not, therefore, she balks at the irony that she should be the one to go on. Then we are given this curious image of a fish in newspaper, which I will return to in a moment. The poem’s nostalgic tone shifts in the end to a more mournful note. The departed is named for the reader and his permanent absence acknowledged as the speaker closes with the exhalation, “Would that we, erstwhile, will./Would that our Liam were living still.” The final note remains bittersweet, we are allowed access to this conversation between intimates, only to realize that it can never be realized again in our physical world.

The image of the fish in relation to the death of an intimate also appears in the earlier poem “Father, in Drawer”:

It was when the catfish were the only fish left living in the Monongahela River.

Though there were (they swore) no angels left, one was stillbound in

The very drawer of salt and ache and rendering, its wings wrapped-in

                                                By the slink from the strap

Of his second wife’s pearl-satin slip, shimmering and still

                                                As one herring left face-up in its brine and tin.

The title of the poem excerpted above already brings us into the headspace of grief. We can interpret it as a departed father who can be distilled into keepsakes and tokens kept in a drawer, or we can take it more literally as the actual corpse located in a metal drawer in the morgue or a marble one in a cemetery. I personally lean toward the latter interpretation. Either way, we are left with something large and important like a father reduced into a small insignificant space. In the passage quoted above, we are rooted in a place, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in the late twentieth century when nothing could survive the pollution of the dying steel mills, but a few catfish. In that world we are given the father, and angel in a drawer, a fish himself embodied by the “one herring left face-up in its brine and tin.” The small fish in the tin, a sad lonely image, becomes not just the father in the drawer, but also an objective correlative for the senselessness of death, the grief it brings and the stupefying effect it has on all of us. Fish have been used this way in literature before, and Brock-Broido proudly signs her name to a great tradition. Think about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, when the character Vardaman cannot understand his mother’s death and equates her with a dead fish, resulting in a chapter comprising only of the repeated line, “My mother is a fish.”

Now we can revisit the line from “Little Industry of Ghosts,” concerning the flounder wrapped in newspaper. Once we recognize the fish as an objective correlative for inexplicable death, we can identify the elegy Liam writes, which the speaker references as a message relaying his own impending death. It could even be a direct reference to another famous occurrence of fish/death symbolism. I speak of course of Santino receiving a dead fish wrapped in newspaper in The Godfather. When he inquires about its meaning, he’s told it’s a message: “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” The fish is not simply representation of death, but the shock death carries, the shock that never truly dissipates. What better emotion could this object correlative represent, consider, than the bugged-out eyes and a gaping mouth of a dead fish, it can only communicate one thing: utter and endless surprise.

While the speaker of these poems clearly uses personal experience as a medium, she also opens up to the universal and invites us to relate her experiences to our own. Many poems contain gestures that move outward to the universal. For example, from “Death, XXL” (another title that says it all), “The train passed slowly through every belt we know: Prayer, Tornado, Bible, Grain.//No matter what time it was, I will go on missing you again.” These lines represent a movement from the personal to the universal, referencing religion and nature, and different regions of America. Even though, as a reader, I don’t feel she has to exit her world, the movement to a shared realm adds an extra dimension to the collection. As a result, the more political poems involving the death penalty cases of Stanley “Tookie” Williams and Ricky Ray Rector become not just investigations into injustice but pleas for mercy because all life remains sanctified no matter how tarnished or mean.

This book is not just all doom and gloom though, far from it. Throughout the book, there exist moments of outright defiance, when the speaker clearly proclaims her existence, for example in “Two Girls Ago,” a rather dark list-style poem that catalogues a variety of horrors from suicide to cannibalism, the poem closes with “No threat, In the table of contents I’m not dead yet.” Even in the face of so much misfortune and violence, the speaker still expresses a desire to live. The speaker continually reasserts the importance and beauty of life. Even her images of grief and death are numinous and breathtaking, thereby the reader is left with (dare I say it?) a reaffirmation of life and a desire to go on.

I could go on too. I could write a book about this book, and I’m afraid I haven’t done justice to its complexity and richness of emotion and language. Each poem has something new to discover. Furthermore, this book provides insight into Brock-Broido’s previous volumes, thereby allowing me to discover humorous and poignant moments I had overlooked. I know it’s a cliché, but I actually laughed and cried when I read this book the first time, and then I was angry with myself for being so damn cliché. When I read it, I find myself reminded myself of something Liam Rector (the aforementioned Liam from the poem, one of the ghosts that haunts this book) once said. I took a seminar with him the year before he passed and several times over the course of the semester, he said the following, which I paraphrase: I never knew what poems were for until I found myself on my deathbed, then all of those lyrics from poetry and song that I had memorized came back to me and gave me solace. Poetry exists to comfort you on your deathbed. Mr. Rector survived cancer and spoke from experience alien to myself, but still it sticks with me. I feel like I’m always looking for the lines I will mutter when I depart this world. Ultimately, when I read poems, I want to delight in language and all the wonderful things it can do, but more importantly I want to be moved. I want to feel something is at stake as I read, and I want to feel gutted when I turn that final page. As I read more and more poetry, however, I find it becomes harder and harder for me to receive such emotional visitation. Common free verse line structures and repeated images of moons and birds have hardly any effect on me at all. Basically, what I am saying is that stuff that shouldn’t be considered cliché feels stale to me. Like an addict chasing a high, I need something different, something more potent, and rarely do I discover what I am searching for. It’s like they say about any venture, whether it be artistic, academic, athletic, amorous; the more you study it, the better you become acquainted with it, then the more cynical you become regarding it. You forget the joy that brought you to it in the first place. Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion appeals on so many levels, with its raw grief, its sly humor, its inventive language, it pleases both head and heart and reminds me why I love to read and write poetry.

As I stated way back in the beginning of this essay, decisions are hard and I don’t envy the job of the judges for the NBCC and later the Pulitzer, there exist many poets both eminent and deserving who wrote books in 2013 that you must pass over, but do this you must because Lucie Brock-Broido wrote the best book. All major awards have had travesties: Jason Alexander never won an Emmy for playing George Costanza; How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane; to this day, the Grammys have never gotten a single thing right. Academies, panels, judges, online voters, have screwed up time and time again, but you don’t have to follow in their footsteps, you can be on the right side of history. No other book of its year worked on as many levels stylistically and thematically. It’s clearly the work of an artist at the height of her powers pulling out all the stops for us. It’s funny. It’s intellectually stimulating. It’s heartbreaking.

It’s a fucking act of bravery. She deserves a medal.

*

Discussed in this essay:

Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido. Knopf. 2013. 112 pages. $19.

Matthew Pennock is the author of Sudden Dog (Alice James Books, 2012).

Photo: The Train Wreckers, Scene 4, 1905

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