Interpretive Work by Elizabeth Bradfield
I confess: I judged a book by its cover. One look at the shining insects trapped on the front of Elizabeth Bradfield’s newest poetry collection and I was already squeamish. My New Year’s resolution had been to avoid nature poetry at all costs, and here it wasn’t even February and I was face to face with a field guide in end rhyme. Flipping the book over (or avoiding the inevitable), I found an imprint of one of Bradfield’s own poems in place of the usual litany of quotes by generous friends. Wittingly titled “No More Nature,” it was my first clue that there may be more to this suspect book than meets the eye.
Mildly intrigued despite myself, I opened the cover to an epigraph by Samuel Taylor Coleridge petitioning the reader to “awaken the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom... we have eyes, yet see not.” Now we’re talking. Grabbing a pair of binoculars, I set off into an unpredictable world where Bradfield’s very serious task is not to praise daffodils or morning dew (thank goodness), but to show “people what to see in what they see.”
Launching with her own creation myth, Bradfield pairs herself with the hormonally imbalanced female deer that unexpectedly grows antlers rather than produce young. This poem is an aperture into Bradfield’s dazzling undertaking, where she asserts the trained eye of a naturalist to reveal the mirrored and unprecedented likeness of the botanical, animal and human worlds. Her breathless, occasionally exasperated insights detonate our own mistaken identity of sight, scolding George Vancouver’s crew for misnaming thick-leaved madronas for magnolias or lamenting the tourists’ inability to see the logging humpback beyond the colorful brochure. Bradfield’s lyrical, neatly clipped lines seek to escape our misconceptions, as she hikes “to see anemones and saxrifage to get away/ from landscaping and what landscaping/ weeds out.”
If this still sounds like a critical field guide to you, don’t give up your compass just yet. While never abandoning her roots in the natural world, Bradfield begins a series of “Butch Poems” that negotiates an intimate, queer topography of the long-in-love, camouflaged in the politics of gender norms and institutional marginalization. Now we’re really talking. These poems cleverly defy the classifications of species, as in “Butch Poem 7: In the Mexican work visa office” where Bradfield debases the inadequacy of the masculina/masculino checkboxes.
My favorite of the bunch is “Butch Poem 6: A countertenor sings Handel’s Messiah,” in which Bradfield eloquently probes:
What is this high, sweet voice in a tuxedo?
I am transfixed. . .
He did not hide his face in shame. Through
these old words, he is making song
of the drag queen and dulldyke...
billed as high culture, this unsettlement,
this beauty is applauded at last.
Bradfield delivers her bruised truths through a quiet honesty that stands in ardent defense of mainstream normative expectations. A male singer has a woman's high, sweet voice, redefining beauty. A female deer grows antlers. A woman chooses to be child-free without regret. As a whole, these poems furtively suggest that the tourist on the sunset cruise ship misinterprets the cravings of humpback whales in the same way Bradfield’s family, neighbors and bureaucratic officials misunderstand love, sexuality and gender. Bradfield writes, "How little we would see if not/for context, or, more specifically, things/out of context."
Yet it is not until the crucial poem "Now You See Me" that Bradfield reveals the full history of why she is so enamored by sight. At her most heartbreaking, triumphant moment, she writes:
we don't kiss at the front door. Don't shout sweetheart
down the street. Don't flaunt and so can't
resent it when we're invisible here. Neighbor
if you put on the glass provided
with this poem, the neon
over our garage will be hard to miss. Now
you see us. And there are others,
houses all around you lighting up.
For all her infatuation with fireflies and magnolias, Bradfield is much more than a naturalist with a pen. Her poetry crosses and redefines boundaries, illuminating the silent, isolating misconceptions in the human narrative. At the same time, her task is deeply personal. She’s showing the world how to see so that the world will finally see her.
Interpretive Work by Elizabeth Bradfield
Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press
Jen Garfield currently lives in Somerville, MA where she likes to read poetry, cookbooks and Greek myths. She is the poetry editor for the online literary journal www.prickofthespindle.com and the recent recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award.