Trouble in Mind by Lucie Brock-Broido
I came to Lucie Brock-Broido the way I think a lot of young readers did: through The Master Letters, Brock-Broido’s 1997 collection, loosely structured around Emily Dickinson’s intimately mysterious letters that address an unknown “master.” The book is sexual and shackled and bodied. Many of us read this book as a sort of tome -- how to respond to another writer by entering into an etherized conversation of poetry. And many of us also saw it as further evidence of Dickinson’s deserved return to hip-ness in schools and poetry circles. Lucie Brock-Broido, of course, would be foxily attuned to the chic of it. In the extensive notes of this book (I know now, having read all three of her books, that notes are a favorite trick of hers -- a second text to overlay on the poems), Brock-Broido mentioned a nasty review in the Washington Post Book World (1988), in which the reviewer identified her aesthetic as “haute couture vulgarity” -- a term she smartly re-appropriated for its wit. This idea, though, as it pertains to what some readers perceive as the flashy flaw of Brock-Broido’s work, is really the reason I keep reading this stuff. It’s so hot. And decadent. And deliberately forbidding, revealing.
There are several trends at work in Brock-Broido’s poetics: the aforementioned decadence (“haute couture vulgarity”); a brilliant ability to parlay that tendency into a mode of metaphor that is one part self-mythology and one part surrealism; and a willingness to truly put the things of the world into the text. What I gather from critics’ comments about Brock-Broido’s “difficult” or “thicketed” language is that some readers refuse to embrace Brock-Broido on her own terms, that is: through the gauze that these trends combine to form. Readers who attack the work for its unique gestures don’t have any interest in living outside of physical reality. And that is a problem for writers like Brock-Broido. I recently read a poetry book from a new press, more avant-garde than most (certainly more avant-garde than Brock-Broido’s is generally regarded as): The Hounds of No by Lara Glenum. The aesthetics of this book and Brock-Broido’s don’t seem an obvious pair, but consider this bit, from a “manifesto” at the end of Glenum's collection: “Realism is the bordello of those who would have their perceptions affirmed rather than dilated. When the door of fascism is opened, Realism will be seen lounging like a whore in its inner sanctum.” Now, consider these trinkets of Brock-Broido’s: “[A]nd like my Captain kept/ My men a little hungry on a diet of mirage and pumpkin,” “When she died, it might as well have spooned the quince-/ Shaped heart from me,” “That I had quit/ the quiet velvet cult of it,” “Now that you have gotten these things off/ your barrel chest, it is time for you to merge into the sobbing/ Rain, like a one-room scene in Appalachia, smeared/ By fog...” Lucie Brock-Broido likes disease and luxury and forlorn things, wild animals, wayward weather, classical instruments tightly strung. She’s got an artful snobbishness that I think some readers mistake for messiness, intentional obscurity. The way in which she chooses language and uses it, with objects and their connotations, to build tone is again, a thing unique to her voice.
When, after many years, the raptor beak
Let loose of you,
He dropped your tiny body
In the scarab-colored hollow
Of a carriage, left you like a finch
Wrapped in its nest of linens wound
With linden leaves in a child’s cardboard box.
Tonight the wind is hover-
Hunting as the leather seats of swings go back
And forth with no one in them
As certain and invisible as
Red scarves silking endlessly
From a magician’s hollow hat
And the spectacular catastrophe
Of your endless childhood
How is that wind can go hunting its own hover? And how is it that such a possibility amps the sadness of its home, the poem? This one is dedicated to Lucy Grealy; in fact, the book Trouble in Mind is dedicated entirely to Grealy. Grealy was a writer who suffered in childhood from a rare form of cancer that took most of her jaw. This fact, coupled with the circumstances of her death (a heroin overdose) and some catty controversy that seems to surround the publication of a close friend’s memoir, make her an interesting ghost to have looming over the book. Clearly, Brock-Broido was a close friend, as well, though you don’t get a lick of gossip here. Her mourning manifests as wickedly and as elegantly as a Hollywood widow in dark glasses, a bottle of Valium in her clutch. I don’t say this, though, as a criticism. Lucie Brock-Broido stays true to her vision of what poetry can be -- an alternate realm in which writer and reader alike may exist. And, it is fair then, that she suits the realm to her tastes. “Lady with an Ermine":
In the snow, white noise, a gathering
Of foxes standing still in the milk broth of oblivion.
In the keep at Castlestrange, an ermine pelt in the shape
Of an ermine animal, but empty, slung over the carved
Oak chair, carelessly & keeping no
These tricks of decadence, it turns out, are simply a motion towards creating a place in which the poet’s life is mythologized (coded, rearranged, suggested, veiled, sung) and a place in which the reader can see familiar things of this world, through an opiate of a kaleidoscope -- multi-faceted and bizarrely colored. Brock-Broido does this with simple juxtaposition-style metaphor (“Wanting is reposed and plump/ As the hands of a Romanov child/ Folded in the doeskin sashes of her lap,/ Paused before the little war begins”) and through her wild and undiscriminating use of outside sources. Those notes I mentioned above are well worth the read, as Brock-Broido takes all sorts of material for imagery, for language, for rareness. An example: the last poem of the book takes its bone from a news story about a woman who killed herself by scaling a wall and entering a lion’s den to be mauled. In past books, Brock-Broido has relied on baby Jessica in the well, Bette Davis’s lines in All About Eve, and articles from People magazine. All of this technique suggests an engagement with the world that is earnest, longing, and clever. There is certainly no fault in building a poetics out of the thrilling marriage of collective and singular living experiences.
(Please note: All quoted material comes from Lucie Brock-Broido’s most recent book, Trouble in Mind. However, the other two books are still in print and seem almost necessary companions to the third. In fact, Knopf has re-issued the 1988 A Hunger in a lovely paperback that directly complements Trouble -- the shared cover painting suggests a series, of sorts.)
Trouble in Mind by Lucie Brock-Broido
Alfred A. Knopf