Lucie Brock-Broido’s third volume of poetry marks the return of a familiar yet altered voice—a vivacious blend of childlike lamentation, love lyric, and elegy, all spurred into expression by the death of parents, entry into middle age, frustration with the postures of art, and timeless agonies of time’s passage. The imperious and the infantile, clasped together throughout this five-part collection, work to create a jumpy, brooding, highly charged poetry—the same poetic “animal” we encountered in A Hunger(1988) and The Master Letters (1995), only now it is brandishing a stripe. “The Halo That Would Not Light” introduces us to the middle-aged child, the child who has had to live through “many years” in the clutches of the “raptor,” only to be dropped and born anew:
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
Whatever life had been lived with the raptor segues into the wrong new life, wrong because it is “hollow,” wrong because it was adopted by a human child, wrong because the “leather seats of swings” are empty. “As certain and invisible as / Red scarves silking endlessly // From a magician’s hollow hat / And the spectacular catastrophe // Of your endless childhood / Is done.” This last gesture is a blatant untruth, a childlike exaggeration for effect, for self-pity—a brag of sorts, because the “endless childhood” is never done, and certainly not here in this impassioned book that smacks of the poet smack in the middle of a tense encounter with her own reinvigorated imagination. Her fearless use of repetition (“celestial” modifies throughout the book) and her transparent use of sound-chain (from “Fata Morgana”: “And the limes. In a time / Of scurvy and especially at high sea, let me die here”) both point to the rawness and newfound innocence of the poetic that insists on the continued child, insists even on its own insistent plainness: “I will go on / Being whole, and speak again old god, I will be plain.” And yet, in spite of this declaration, the speaker can’t not submit to the automatic elegance of a poet at the height of her powers:
Have you risen wild
From your bed of straw floating on the
Of your room, descending sleek
As a demi-god assuming the form
Of a pigeon hawk, late, in a
I am so moved by you I cannot help but
(“Common Swan on Ornamental Pond”)
It is the duel between the voices of “endless childhood” and exceptional poet, conveyed through the back-and-forth of stylistically opposed lines, that gives Trouble in Mind its clashing, lance-flashing quality. From this friction an invaluable urgency is sparked, and urgency, to my mind, is the single quality that most makes reading poetry worthwhile. In Brock-Broido’s case, what is made urgent is not just the need for one voice to vanquish the other and thus quash the confusion, settle the spar, but for the human poet to redefine herself, to find herself anew.
The theme of continuation invoked by “The Halo That Would Not Light” (a title that also extends the aforesaid theme: a halo that will not light is a halo that will not burn out) is expanded upon in “After Raphael” (the book’s second poem): “First, my father died. Then my mother / Did. My father died again.” The poet is not hinting at reincarnation but at the perception that we live and die through those who live and die—in our imaginations. The father dies again because the mother died. He had stayed alive through her imagining of him, then died again with her when her mind went out. And so the speaker, in spite of her claim and query (“I was little; I am middle. Will I not // Grow old, not final”), undermines her own question. She will grow old, she has already grown old (through her parents), old, but “not final,” never final, never done, because it all starts over again, “Opening, and folding in / The smaller rain.” We can hear the child’s voice taking over the poem’s latter half:
No one can read incisions sanserif; I can.
The ghostpipes bloom at night
When no one can imagine them that way;
I can. I am awake
Now, I can see them heathering the moors.
The intrusion of “I can” into the text, its flurried repetition, and its subsequent disappearance remind my ear of the solitary child’s forced bravado in the face of something painful. The emphasis on “no one” captures the self-versus-world dichotomy frequently felt by children. But the child’s voice never stays for long, only intruding periodically as part of the vocal duality that characterizes the speaker throughout book: “No one is bored, just barbaric / Anymore” opens the poem “Herculaneum,” furthering the echo from “After Raphael” while also reminding one of Berryman’s poutish Henry in “Dream Song #14”: “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” In fact, Trouble in Mind is at times more akin to the schizoid tonalities of The Dream Songs than to the lush Wallace Stevens, whose notebooks inspired many of the poems and from which Brock-Broido drew at least nine titles.
Section I contains those poems that deal most openly with death, both literal and spiritual, and like the raptor from “The Halo That Would Not Light,” it drops us into the world of the next four sections, where we work with the speaker to piece things back together. (As with The Divine Comedy, it is the first section that stuns the most.) “Some Details of Hell” consists of an inventory of surgical instruments: “wires & catheters,” “tiny scissors used / To cut out tissue in a human,” “A diaphanoscope, catastrophic as the good love,” converting the interior of the human body into a kind of hell, presumably a dead (“nearly // Warm-blooded form”) but not malevolent one. The hell is in the hanging on. The instruments, having “spent time in someone / Else’s heart,” are “contaminant and // Ruined.” They get “cleansed // And sterilized” and go right back in. “Hell is a world of its own, with its own / Towns and country-side.” In a Bachelard-like move, the speaker places herself there, beside the dying body, but also inside it: “like a brook mink in the clutch / Of a slightly larger animal.” The simile brings her into the hell of the dead body within the countryside of a hell that is simply the human interior magnified—one easily imagines the “brook” that describes the mink as “someone else’s marrow,” and all the boundaries are collapsed, and the speaker’s statements are undercut once more: Hell is not a world of its own. Hell is ours.
One of the strongest, most surprising poems in Trouble in Mind is “Death as a German Expert,” which closes the book’s first section and is cited below in its entirety. The poem demands much of the imagination, and rewards more. There is little room for explanation in this poem; the imagination either ‘performs’ the poem or doesn’t:
The North Star hanging
Like an umlaut over all of us, causes
(even brittle) me to bend.
The weight of everything, bleak as
babies in baskets
Rushing down the River Sauer toward
their celestial misery.
I remember everything: my sister and I
calling our mother person-
To-person in the afterlife. Always the
dead will be lined as sad
And crookedly as fingerling potatoes in
root-cellars dank enough
For overwintering. In Luckenwalde a
young girl slides a needle
In the turnip-purple soft fold of her
inner arm and this, too,
Transfigures to a kind of joy. Expertise is
Angel, extinguish the tallows of the elder
trees. (And he does.)
Like another spotted foal born on the
barn’s cold floor,
Spindling to stand, and he does.
The poem exposes not only Nazi horror, but also the history of horror—the baby Moses image, pluralized here perhaps to recreate an image from the recent Rwandan genocide, the mirroring established between the “celestial misery” and the North Star as umlaut: the cause, the “father” cause, calling his dead home. The juxtaposition of the mass grave image, corpses as potatoes, with the young German heroin addict is a harrowing combination, made explicit by the “this, too, / Transfigures to a kind of joy. Expertise is everything.” The implication that the mass killing was a high is devastating. The girl’s “turnip-purple” arm is likened to “fingerling potatoes,” but the death impulse now turned inward is no less frightening: it still travels, and here it is now in the form of a “spotted foal.” The connection between the extinguished “tallows” (candle matter made of animal fat) and the newborn foal creeps with the revelation that the substance of death is omnipresent, that killer (death as foal) and killed (fat from a deceased foal) are materially unified.
All the poems in Trouble in Mind depend on the reader’s active imagination; in fact, they read as instructions for it. It is no accident that we find titles like “Basic Poem in a Basic Tongue,” “Brochure on Eden,” “Fragment on Dissembling,” and “Pamphlet on Ravening”: “authorial instructions,” as Elaine Scarry suggests inDreaming by the Book, “[get] us to imagine vividly. . . . pictures in the book seem simply ‘to arrive’ in our minds the way sensations do, even though we have of course constructed them (at someone else’s suggestion).” Brock-Broido’s “Leaflet on Wooing” asks us immediately to start with an almost Dickinsonian mental gymnastic: “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.” The little war, not the revolutionary war. The little war that “wanting” awaits. “This one will be guttural, this war.” And how does the imagination manage this poetic arrangement? Back to Scarry: “Images Stretch More Easily Once They Are Made Handleable,” asserts one of her subsection titles:
Quite apart from the compositional instructions that great writers give us, we can, simply by carrying out certain mental experiments, observe the way a heightened attention either to the material of an image or to a suppositional intrusion of the hand makes the image move more easily.
In the above quote from “Leaflet,” Brock-Broido utilizes both material and hands, and sure enough, upon close examination of the book, we find the text teeming with material and hands—especially material, as seen here in the first stanza of “Morgue Near Heaven”:
If I imagine him healthy in his distressed Leather coat on
someone’s Sears plaid
Couch some years ago, then I will know
All the nouns for shame
In the penultimate stanza, the speaker posits: “If I keep his small triangle of a letter in his own / Hand close to mine, then” we get the two hands in an eerie communication. Although Scarry’s “hands” are more intrusive than these two, what writer isn’t deeply psychically aware of the power of the hand? The hand is what delivers the imagination to the page in the first place. What is the obsession with material—can it really be a device? In Alice Fulton’sFelt, for example, it was very natural, expected even, for the poems to contain reveries on fabric. Perhaps the answer lurks here, in Brock-Broido’s marvelously woven “The Insignificants” (which refers imagistically back to “Death as a German Expert”):
Tell me the story now in such
A way that I can hear it and still
Catch my breath. Rage is an aneurysm of
the old animal
Brain, the reptilian gorge where nothing
But the body’s urge & its boudoir
Of sulk and felt and shame.
The poem has “a gauzy / Metal mask,” and “the floating poplin // Smocks of dusky, spoony girls,” and yes, because of these material descriptions, the imagination has shape and feel to stretch with, which is exactly what the imagination needs, being such an abstract engine. Maybe, then, this material relationship is as old as the oldest past, when the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters to give His own face shape and feel, or when Satan slipped into the serpent’s skin, to make evil slithery, and maybe it is as new as the future, when the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, will appear to us in heaven. Whatever the case, Brock-Broido taps into this sensational image “stretching” and, like a master masseuse, leaves our cramped imaginations divinely readjusted.