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Of the many words that might describe her—remarkable, incomparable, unusual, rare, wondrous, strange—I would choose extraordinary, since the antithetical ordinary, the substrate of being merely human, is still legible in it. From the ordinary fundamentals we all share—active heart, bellows lungs, a brain that registers and responds to the world through gesture and language—she crafted a poetic self that was one with her social self. She legally changed her given name, Lucy, to Lucie (no nicknames allowed) and fashioned Brock-Broido from her father’s last name and mother’s maiden name.
For Lucie Brock-Broido, there was a ‘real’ more profound than the quotidian. She believed that language could illuminate whatever was beneath the ordinary.
For those who didn’t know her, and now never will, her complexity can be inferred from her poems, from the extravagant manner in which their baroque contingencies insistently play across registers and lexicons. Their intricate rhetorical surfaces, the inspired reach of her inventive word choices, the expressive use of patterned sound, all combine to create a fever-pitch state, the likes of which had not been put so boldly on display in poetry since the metaphysical poets. Of those, she is closest to Gerard Manley Hopkins—him and his “terrible crystal,” a term used by his friend R. W. Dixon in a letter to him: “Your writings have a rare charm . . . something I cannot describe but . . . which goes to the point of the terrible, the terrible crystal.” She taught all of her students that term. She believed that language could illuminate whatever was beneath the ordinary. The ordinary didn’t interest her.
In many ways, her position was heretical in an era where everyday particulars in poems were being used to argue that one’s life was “real” and therefore distinctive. For her, there was a “real” more profound than the quotidian. In order to access what was deep and lasting, one had to pare away whatever veiled the crystalline essence. To that end, she taught us, her students, the sorcery of transfiguration. She taught us to translate our deepest selves into language. She trained us to find in an early draft the buried self and breathe life back into it. Her belief in the ability to do this was quasi-religious (think Lazarus and “Lady Lazarus”) and deeply Gothic (think Mary Shelley’s “creature”).
Using our poem drafts, she demonstrated how to surgically carve into them to find and extract the language that reflected what was uniquely individual about each of us. Sensing my early timidity, she once said to me, “Go toward surrealism.” My face must have registered my perplexion—What would that look like? And, wasn’t surrealism so over?—because she quickly added, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll never get there, just go toward it.” She also said, “Expand your idea of what does and doesn’t belong in the poem. And expand your lexicon.” I typed that in forty-eight-point Times New Roman and taped it on the wall above my computer. It’s no longer on the wall because it doesn’t have to be. It’s imprinted in my synapses. I live with it.
In 2008, in her introduction to the reissue of Thomas James’s 1973 Letters to a Stranger, the poems she credits with having taught her to write as she did, she wrote, “If I had come into this world a bit earlier, if I had been a boy, if I had been gay and raised Lutheran, if I had been born in Joliet, Illinois, Letters to a Stranger—Thomas’s first book, last book, only book—would have been my book, my ‘First World,’ the one first book I would have written in some other life.” The actual first book she wrote was A Hunger (1988), a book as confident as the one James wrote but less indebted to Plath than his. Or, indebted to Plath in a more subtle way that left sufficient room for the enormity of her own talent.
It was, however, her second book, The Master Letters (1995), that established her inimitable poetic genius. There is no other book like it and there will never be another. The mechanics of it, combined with its daring, have indelibly influenced the vast landscape of contemporary poetry. The books she has written since are all offspring of that book. It was in the poems of The Master Letters that she found a voice that cannot be imitated without conjuring the equivalent of a theater marquee with her name on it.
Her genius was to write poems that gesture toward the experience of being human at the dizzying center of a spinning globe.
In appearance, she cultivated a delicate, ornamented, Victorian femininity—midi-skirts, velvet weskits, gathered lace cuffs, fitted leather half-boots, cascading hair “radiant as the tresses of Aurora” (Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a letter to his sister Christina). And yet, in spite of her sartorial splendor, there was also something austere about her, something that exuded strength and steely independence and undermined any notion of daintiness. She was flamboyant indulgence plus strictness, scrupulousness plus irreverence, refinement plus teasing impudence, and for those who were close to her, there was a devilish sense of humor that exceeded the prim and overly-proper.
Behind that luxuriant exterior there was also a fragility that got incorporated into her poems. The savvy reader could fathom the sense of an ongoing tug-of-war and, if they were open to tracing the gorgeous waves of tangled language, they would empathically connect with the speaker of her poems in one of the many kingdoms delineated in “Domestic Mysticism,” the poem that begins A Hunger: “Kingdom of After My Own Heart. / Kingdom of Fragile. Kingdom of Dwarves. . . . / Kingdom of Trick. Kingdom of Drug,” “Kingdom of Kinesis. / Kingdom of Benevolent.” This, for her, was the lyric contract. In the rectangular social space of a page, the poet gives the reader permission to be both her own self and to momentarily dress in the costume of the other and stand on stage. Let the points of correspondence touch where they may.
Her work and her person gave us permission. The license she credits James with having granted her, she transmitted to us. Had I not encountered her, I would not be the teacher, poet, person I am today. In a lifetime, one can say that very few times. Her genius was to write poems that do what the lyric does best: exploit the natural ambiguity of language to create heady associative leaps—modeled after the ever-firing electric brain—in order to gesture toward the experience of being human at the dizzying center of a spinning globe. The final words should be hers:
This work of mine, the kind of work which takes no arms to do,
Is least noble of all. It’s peopled by Wizards, the Forlorn,
The Awkward, the Blinkers, the Spoon-Fingered, Agnostic Lispers,
Stutterers of Prayer, the Flatulent, the Closet Weepers,
The Charlatans. I am one of those. In January, the month the owls
Nest in, I am a witness & a small thing altogether. The Kingdom
Of Ingratitude. Kingdom of Lies. Kingdom of How Dare I.
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