Loew's Triboro, by John Allman (New York: New Directions, 2004)
Tender Hooks, by Beth Ann Fennelly (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004)
Trouble in Mind, by Lucie Brock-Broido. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
What are poems about? The question sounds irredeemably naive. Much contemporary poetry manifests a profound distrust of the very notion of "aboutness," of a simple mimetic or discursive connection between poem and subject. This distrust can be traced back at least to Wallace Stevens, who famously proclaimed that a poem should be "part of the res itself, and not about it." Stevens expressed a similar disdain for what he called the "journalism of subjects," by which he presumably meant a kind of drably literal reportage of facts and experiences. In a notorious exchange with Robert Frost, Stevens accused him of "writing on subjects" to which Frost tartly retorted that Stevens wrote on "bric-a-brac." The division between a poetry that addresses concrete matters head-on and one that courts a more rarefied and oblique relation to the real continues to fissure contemporary poetics. Recently Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry Magazine, caused something of a stir when he suggested that Stevens's influence on American poetry has produced an unhealthy degree of abstraction from the physical world. The resulting outrage may be partly explained by the fact that he was addressing a conference on Stevens, but at a deeper level Wiman was challenging a whole climate of thought that views subject matter as boringly anachronistic. Readers of contemporary poetry have been taught to say that poems are about, if anything, themselves, the process of their creation, their relationship to language or tradition or culture, or something similarly abstruse. Yet there are signs that poems about more worldly matters may be making a comeback. Among these is a noticeable trend toward what could be called "single-subject" collections: books all or most of whose poems address a common topic or theme. Such books foreground aboutness, arraying themselves around a central point of reference and testing a variety of approaches to it. Recent volumes by John Allman, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Lucie Brock-Broido exemplify three distinct kinds of poetic material which for convenience may be placed under the headings of subject, occasion, and theme. In practice, these categories bleed into each other, but they provide a handy way to mark off significant bandwidths on the spectrum of aboutness.
John Allman's Loew's Triboro takes as its central landmark the long-defunct movie theater named in its title, an ersatz Mayan temple that once stood in the heart of Astoria, Queens, where the author grew up. The theater marks the intersection between personal history and collective fantasy, between a specific working-class neighborhood scarred by alcohol and poverty and the vaporous black-and-white dreamscapes of Hollywood film. Allman gives this disjunction a vivid prosodic form by dividing the book into prose poems ranging from two to five pages and verse poems made up of uniform five-line stanzas (these are unmetered but have a distinct visual pattern, with second and fifth lines slightly shorter than the rest and indented). What's most striking about this division is the allocation of content between the two forms. Whereas the verse poems deal exclusively with autobiographical matters, recounting often sordid memories of the poet's adolescence on the streets of Astoria, the prose poems for the most part offer streamlined accounts of particular movies. Why does Allman choose to frame actual events in the more obviously artificial form of verse, while treating fictional stories in the seemingly artless medium of prose? One might easily have expected the opposite alignment chunks of memoiristic prose broken up by explicitly aesthetic interludes but the result would surely have seemed more conventional. Allman instead uses the formal power of verse to bring shapeliness and elegance to the random mess of his own remembered experience, while letting the prose poem's undifferentiated surface blur the clean lines of Hollywood narratives.
The book is framed by two poems in boldface that memorialize the actual theater, one of those cavernous old movie palaces whose posh decor consorts oddly with a redolence of gum, cigarettes, and copped feels. In the first poem, called simply "Loew's Triboro," the poet recalls an excursion with friends to the theater's balcony that takes on the stealth and brutality of a military assault:
At the top of the screen, from behind a decorative
molding, we saw our neighbors sucking
Black Crows, rolling darkness in their mouths. And
we started. The eggs cool from Sonny's aunt's
refrigerator flew across
the night sky blinking down from light-bulb space. They
landed like doves breaking apart on Hank's
chest, a gooey wound on the girl's skirt. They slid out of our
hands like ghosts, uncle's loud jokes descending at his
sister's second wedding, groans
splurting in the night, a rifled mischief rotating in the air
concussed, spun by history's grooves,
while Jerry down there with his polio leg in a brace
raised himself on the splattered yolky arms of his seat
and roared, shaking his fist.
While the immediate motives behind this mimic battle remain obscure, it's clearly informed by news and images of the actual World War II, which these boys missed fighting in by a few years.
Within this context, Allman's language sometimes pushes a little too hard for epic overtones; the phrase "a rifled mischief" is awkwardly periphrastic, while "spun by history's grooves" comes close to bombast in its effort to assimilate a youthful prank to vast global forces. More subtle is the reference to one of the targets as "Jerry," a standard nickname for German enemy soldiers, though the association is ironically undercut by the disclosure that the boy in question, like FDR, wears a leg brace as a result of polio. Other resemblances invade this scene of egg-hurling, including ghosts, doves, and an uncle's bad wedding jokes, which evidently land with a splat. While Allman's attempts to place the lives of his protagonists in several contexts at once leads him to pile up metaphors in a way that sometimes feels strained, the
dissonances that result powerfully evoke the conflicting pictures of self and world these boys must negotiate.
The most insistent context in Allman's poems is not, of course, the war, but the movies. All of the book's autobiographical poems contain some reference, however glancing, to films and the places in which they're consumed. Often the cinematic world seems to be exerting a ghostly pressure on the words and actions of everyday Astorians, prompting them to speak and move in its stylized rhythms. Here a peculiarity must be noted: virtually all the works invoked in the book belong to the genre of film noir, or to its close literary cousin, the hardboiled novel. This may perplex some movie buffs; after all, while the years spanned by the book, the 40s and early 50s, were indeed the heyday of noir, many other kinds of pictures also played at theaters like Loew's Triboro. Where then, one might ask, are Gene Kelly, Betty Hutton, John Wayne, Abbott and Costello, Bugs Bunny, and their cinematic brethren? Those hoping for an encyclopedic account of Hollywood's output in this period must seek it elsewhere. Allman's book instead offers a record of how movies impinged on the consciousness and character of one boy-turning-man during the years when film noir emerged as the most seductive and addictive of genres. In fact the book is less about the power of movies per se than it is about the power of genre as a set of conventions and images that establishes its own reality. Noir in particular represents a sensibility, even an epistemology, that adolescent males at the time evidently found irresistible, on Allman's account at least. (Recent equivalents would perhaps include punk and hip-hop, though these styles are aimed much more overtly at youth audiences than noir was.)
But there is another genre that inevitably encroaches on Allman's book, one he hints at by titling a poem "Confession." While the ostensible reference is to the Catholic ritual of absolution, it's impossible not to catch a sly allusion to the Confessional mode of Robert Lowell and company. Certainly any contemporary poet mining autobiographical ore must contend with the precedents set by Lowell, Berryman, Sexton, and Plath. Many of the stock figures of Confessional poetry appear in the book, including the violent, alcoholic father, and the desperate, demanding mother. Yet while a number of his poems explore painful episodes from his past that share the feverish atmosphere of Confessional poetry, Allman firmly rejects its psychoanalytic framework, in which character is permanently shaped by familial tension and trauma. A poem teasingly called "So" shrugs off all reductive explanations in its attempt to pinpoint the fascination of movies for the young poet:
It wasn't just the war. Or wearing a little officer's uniform,
the leather strap across my chest
like a seat belt so I wouldn't hit my head on the future.
My sister turning so red from measles she lit up the dingy
back room where mother siphoned
electricity from the hall fixture. It wasn't poverty that
pulled darkness down. Maybe the slap
across the face, my mother's glasses flying across the
my father swaying like a branch some bird just left, flying
away from emptiness. But two nights
later, I'd hear grunting in the bedroom, so it wasn't homily
or forgiveness. That's not why
my eyes dilated against the light, against the laws of the
reason. Or why they opened wide in the cigarette smoke of
movie balconies. Seeing what wasn't there.
Allman coolly dismisses all the sociological and psychological predicates that might produce a satisfying "so," a syntax of causality, instead choosing to stress the metaphysical purity of the filmgoing experience. (We might contrast this poem with James Wright's famous "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," with its tragically freighted "therefore.") In this sense Allman consistently favors the noir over the Confessional, the narrative in which human actions remain fundamentally mysterious, at once radically free and radically fated.
Both the freedom and the fatalism emerge in the recurrent term "script," which captures the sense of playing a part already laid down for one. Thus the teenage egg-throwers are said to have a "script / flickering at our loins," their sexuality itself a screenplay inscribed in their genes. A poem called "The Script" raises the crucial question of authorship: can we write our own scripts, or are we doomed to accept whatever comes over the transom?
Another time banging on the door like the iceman, years
dripping from his shoulders.
What should I say in my fedora, what should my sister do,
rising from her couch all doped up? Mother nervously
sipping tea, in this movie we're suddenly
written into, the door shuddering to his blows, my father
locked out again.
By the end of the poem the speaker has rewritten his own part in this squalid drama: "How many people can you look after? Me, I'm just the moody / detective looking at my sister's photo." Here, as in many other poems, film noir provides the protagonist with a model of adult detachment and sang-froid that helps insulate him from the shocks of his environment. His performance in this role is greatly aided by certain props, chief among them the fedora, which later gets a whole poem to itself, and which serves as a signifier of manhood and tough-guy sexuality (ironically, as Allman notes, it was first worn on the stage by Sarah Bernhardt in the part of Sardou's Fédora). Several women in the book also take their personae from movie scripts, including Eleanor, a notorious local girl who gives handjobs to all comers in the back row of the balcony:
... Maybe it was the way a woman walked on screen,
how she leaned against a wall, waiting for a light, every guy
in a dark suit
coming up to her with his hand cupping fire.
The speaker's doped-up sister is haunted by her own melodramatic script, having been named for an aunt who disappeared in childhood ("The Kidnapping"). Even the neighborhood crazy lady, who periodically parades naked down the street, seems to be under the spell of movies, "the posters of rouged women who go all the way" ("The Stroll"). Occasionally Allman's cinematic references feel a bit de rigueur every poem has at least one or two shoehorned in but for the most part he paints a compelling picture of a community suffused by the poses and idioms of Hollywood, struggling to adapt them to the intransigent realities of their lives.
Allman's attempt to channel the noir sensibility manifests itself stylistically in his penchant for sentence fragments, which lend his lines a clipped, jaded tone. Without the animating current of verbs, people, things and places merely exist, discrete items with little agency or consequence. While this style accurately conveys the weary inventory-taking of a hardboiled observer, it eventually grows monotonous, leaving no room for
passionate investments or responses. As the book unfolds we follow its protagonist's aimless wanderings from "Hooky" to "Dropout," his weathering of family crises, his eventual journey across the country to California, but he himself remains something of a cipher, his outlines so overlaid by movie mannerisms that little particularity shows through. This amorphousness is reflected in the shifting grammar of the poems, which encompasses first person singular ("I"), first person plural ("we"), third person ("he"), even second person ("you"). This too seems in keeping with the perspectival slipperiness of noir, in which voice-over narration and omniscient camera often play against each other. The speaker emerges most vividly in a poem called "Bribe"; here we see both the studious, earnest young man reading Macbeth in night school and the would-be slick grownup who knows how to handle the cops. Returning from class, the speaker discovers that his drunken father has wrecked his car and fled the scene, terrified that his license will be revoked and he'll lose his livelihood as a truck driver. After paying off the police and moving the car, the speaker returns to his apartment:
I find my father, covers pulled up to his chin like a baby.
"Those fuckin' cops!" he says. "I took care of them," I say.
He smiles. The first time I ever did something he admires.
"Those fuckin' cops!" I feel really good for the first time in
weeks, my name not just a scribble on a page.
Presumably it's at the movies that the speaker has learned how to "take care" of the cops, not in night school. This knowledge is what enables him to assume the mantle of manhood cast off by his infantilized, emasculated father. The hint of regicide is reinforced by the earlier allusion to Macbeth, but is tempered by the father's frank admiration for his son's worldly competence. In this poem the forces acting on the protagonist crystallize, and we see with exceptional clarity his struggle to reconcile his impulse toward detached contemplation, the attitude of the moviegoer, with the swift, decisive action exhibited by film noir heroes all in the context of a family torn by addiction and poverty.
I haven't said anything yet about Allman's prose poems, which make up fully half of the book's contents. These seem to me less successful than the verse poems for several reasons, chief among them their lack of critical distance from the movies they evoke.
Where the best ekphrastic poems meditate on the complex transactions between the viewer and the work of art, Allman chooses to bracket this relation entirely. Most of his prose poems instead try to distill the atmospheric essence of particular films, presenting charged moments and images with little narrative ligature. Here, for example, is a paragraph from "Payoff," a poem inspired by Double Indemnity:
The policy for the husband's car. The husband busy in the oil fields. The maid out for the afternoon. The wife at the top of the stairs, refracting light in the insurance salesman's eyes where he stands in the tiled entryway, prickling to her shattered-glass voice, a cubist flow to her descent, the naked smoke of her cigarette. He doesn't ask if she loves her husband's slippery hands, now not in the study while he's looking at her ankle bracelet, legs bare under a white skirt, his hand with its swimmer's bleached knuckles resting on the rich wood table, next to the policy, while he talks about actuarial x's of suicide: the leap out the window, off the cliff, off the bridge; warm wrists reddening the bath. "Who's talking of suicide?"
The verbless style is carried over from the autobiographical poems, but here it serves to highlight the essential lyricism of film noir, its tendency to break apart into images and tableaux whose poetic resonance exceeds their function in a plot. Allman's diction in these prose poems is more sibilant and mellifluous than in his verse, and the effect is of glossy high-contrast black-and-white photography, with deep shadows and bright highlights but few gradations in between. The prose poems share a certain sardonic fatalism with the verse, but translate its seedy Queens particulars into sleek Manhattan archetypes. While some of them deal with desperate characters who might have come from Allman's neighborhood, like the small-time hoodlums on the make in The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle, even these are bathed in the purifying mist of Hollywood mythmaking. Perhaps the key difference is that the prose poems project a parentless world of adult autonomy at once lonely and exhilarating, while the verse poems dwell on the humiliations of adolescent dependency, of being an ineluctable participant in the life of a family, a street, a neighborhood. The prose poems represent the violent, glamorous fantasy life the teenaged poet longs to live; yet for just that reason they come to feel a bit thin and insubstantial, less interestingly textured than the films they recall.
Allman's movie poems raise other questions that may be endemic to the genre; for example, must one have seen the film to appreciate the poem properly? This becomes an issue because
Allman chooses to invoke some fairly obscure titles e.g., The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, I Wake Up Screaming, Phantom Lady, Detour all of them unseen by me at least. In fact the cryptic quality of the poems on unfamiliar movies makes them more intriguing than the recognizable redactions of films one already knows well. These tend to devolve into skillful synopses that lack the inventive wit of recent prose poems by Fred Muratori and Elizabeth Willis, for example, who take classic films as occasions for imaginative embellishment and extension beyond the boundaries of the plot. For the most part Allman also avoids any reference to the moviemaking apparatus directors, stars, et cetera though he does devote one poem to George Sanders's caddish persona. Within these self-imposed limitations, his prose poems do manage to capture the noir ethos with great precision; yet the book's heart belongs not to noir's moonlit alleys and highways but to the crowded sidewalks and apartments of Astoria, whose inhabitants live in a world compounded equally of celluloid and cement. (Toward the end of the book, some of the prose poems encroach on the autobiographical terrain of the verse, as though signaling a convergence between lived experience and noir dream.) In the book's closing poem, "Demolition," a verse elegy to the vanished theater, the speaker returns after years of wandering to the scene of his early epiphanies, only to find a gaping absence: "Gone, the Mayan revival exterior; torn down, the darkness." Here he achieves a final reconciliation with his own hybrid identity: "As if I'd come home with a vocabulary / half my own. Half ghost." Loew's Triboro is an eloquent meditation on the way mind, body, language, and desire get infused with the ghostliness of popular culture, stories and pictures inhaled in the dark.
Beth Ann Fennelly's Tender Hooks finds its central subject and occasion in the poet's motherhood, a state she describes with the wonder of a newly landed immigrant. Fennelly emphasizes the proximity of the poems' composition to the arrival of her first baby in the book's acknowledgments, which thank Knox College for "its humane policy of parental leave, during which many of these poems were begun." Where Allman writes of events and emotions from a distance of many decades, Fennelly is clearly responding to more immediate developments, as she negotiates the whirlwind of moods and phases through which both baby and mother are drawn. This gives her work a very different flavor, more diary than memoir, "occasional" in the deep sense of the word. The book's title is something of a red herring; while the natural impulse is to hear an allusion to Gertrude Stein, we're told by the flap copy that the title actually comes from Fennelly's childish mishearing of the word "tenterhooks." Still, the comparison to Tender Buttons is hard to resist, especially since the replacement of buttons by hooks nicely suggests the movement from sexual pleasure to maternal compulsion that the book limns. Fennelly's true precursor is not Stein, however, but Sylvia Plath, specifically the Plath of such surprisingly gentle poems as "Morning Song," "Nick and the Candlestick," "The Night Dances," "You're," "Balloons," and "Metaphors" (the last a whimsical look at pregnancy that Fennelly takes as a point of departure for a poem called "Riddle, Two Years Later"). "Hooks" is in fact one of Plath's signature words, occurring at least twenty times in her poetry, usually to suggest the violent, importunate demands of a hostile reality. We might say that Fennelly tenderizes the trope, infusing it with warmth without wholly negating its latent menace.
That menace takes a number of forms in Tender Hooks. Most tangibly, the poet's daughter, Claire, is a biter, as we learn in the book's first poem ("what fierceness in that tiny / snapping jaw, your after-grin"). In another poem that reads like a WWF blow-by-blow, Claire, now a toddler, "headbutts my jaw, then kicks my kneecap." The agonies and indignities of childbirth are also graphically catalogued in several poems. Pain and intimacy prove to be deeply intertwined in Fennelly's account of early motherhood, and not only at a physical level. Jealousy, dread, envy, terror, rage all make appearances in these remarkably honest poems. Fennelly does not shrink from voicing her resentment, for example, when Claire enters her Daddy phase and no longer responds to her mother's affectionate overtures. Most movingly, the poet returns in a number of poems to her lingering grief over the stillbirth of her first child, as she struggles to reconcile the sorrow of that loss with the joy she takes in Claire.
Yet despite these harsher notes, the dominant tone of Tender Hooks is sweetness and delight. Few writers have explored the intimacy between mother and baby with the fullness and sensuous particularity that Fennelly brings to her subject. At times that intimacy verges on guilty pleasure. In one poem the speaker tells of her addiction to tickling her baby, a practice of which her husband thoroughly disapproves; the poem slyly ends "Just two more days till he goes out of town" ("Interpreting the Foreign Queen"). The hint of clandestine trysting is developed even further in a poem called "Once I Did Kiss Her Wetly on the Mouth":
and her lips loosened, her tongue rising like a fish
to swim in my waters
because she learns the world
by tasting it, by taking it inside.
I desired it her learning my tongue that way.
While some readers may find these lines unsettling, they seem to me a wonderfully forthright acknowledgment of the carnal passion that parent and child may feel for one another a passion easily confused with sexual lust but that springs from a very different source (though Fennelly herself blurs the difference in the poem's closing line: "I, her first lover"). Another poem flirts with an even greater taboo than incest in its portrayal of the mother's hunger for her daughter's flesh: "Never again will you be so tender. / By your age, calves are slaughtered, / because, milk-fed, they have the best flavor" ("'If Only We Could Keep Them This Small Forever'"). The daughter happily reciprocates this cannibalistic impulse, chewing lustily on her mother after "having developed a taste / for my royal blood" ("Bite Me").
All of this blissful orality finds its most satisfying and socially acceptable form in nursing, to which Fennelly devotes a four-part sequence. Though "Latching On, Falling Off" gets a bit too cute at times, especially in its personifying of the speaker's breasts, the poem arrives at a lovely climax in its final section, which depicts mother and child as castaways on a remote island:
We didn't get many tourists, much news
behind the closed curtains, rocking in the chair,
the world was a rumor all summer. All autumn.
All winter, in which she sickened, sucked for comfort,
a cord of snot between her nose, my breast.
Her small pillows of breath. We slept there, single-bodied.
These lines beautifully convey the wordless tranquility that enfolds the two as their bodies merge. The languorous rhythms and floating syntax combine to establish a timeless space of undulation and ease. Even the inclusion of Claire's catarrh contributes to the picture of placid communion, her "cord of snot" recalling the umbilical cord that once joined them. Fennelly hints at the reciprocity of this ritual with the phrase "Her small pillows of breath," which seem to endow the child with phantom breasts, almost as though she were nursing her mother. Here as in a number of other poems and passages, Fennelly transports us to the extralinguistic realm of bodily sensation and gesture invoked by the book's epigraph, from Gabriel García Márquez: "The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point."
These quiet evocations frequently give way to louder, more rhetorical utterances, which sometimes break the delicate illusion of nonverbal intimacy that Fennelly seeks to create. Passages in which she addresses Claire as "daughter" or "child" and purports to tell her about childbirth or mortality seem stilted and stagey, especially in contrast to the scenes of purely physical communication between them. When Fennelly's voice moves into a more extroverted register, it often assumes a nervous jokiness that typically shows itself in reflexive punning and wordplay.
Puns in poetry can feel overdetermined and resonant; they can also feel gratuitous and opaque, as in Fennelly's labored attempt to play on the obstetric term "crowning" by invoking her "royal blood" ("Bite Me"). The title of a poem on religious themes, "Telling the Gospel Truth," has the glibness of a slick magazine article. Fennelly's compulsive wordplay takes on more psychological point in a poem about her first stillborn child, "Riddle, Two Years Later"; here the speaker's frenetic patter ("there was no punch line. / Or there was a sucker-punch line") recalls some of Lorrie Moore's narrators, who anxiously churn out gags to protect themselves from an unbearable recognition.
The weakest poems in the collection may be those addressed to other adults, including Fennelly's husband and her yoga teacher, an older woman named Ann. Without the special demands of rendering a wordless relationship in language, Fennelly's verse gets slack and talky, lacking a strong rhythmic or syntactical spine. Her more discursive poems also show a tendency to run metaphors into the ground; one of them rings endless changes on yoga postures to symbolize the collaborative bond between the speaker and Ann, while another ponders their shared experience of stillbirth by way of a tediously drawn-out mathematical conceit that never really adds up. The book's longest, most ambitious poem, "Telling the Gospel Truth," a meditation on the poet's ambivalent relationship to Christianity, contains some powerful moments as well as some self-indulgent rhetorical patches:
I want to womanize
the Bible, rend it, render it homey,
homemade, I lust to cut-and-paste.
The word- and soundplay here is clunky, and the insistent first-person verb phrases feel theatrical. Fennelly's attempt to offer a feminist revision of the Bible lacks a sufficiently solid grounding in the text and its traditions to be persuasive; what comes through is a vague if admirable desire to recover a language of affirmation without the intellectual or imaginative substance to support it:
I want to reclaim the optimism
of the grand old religions, I want exclamations,
exultations, belly laughs, shaking fists,
tears for all my friends, tears on the house!
Fennelly herself seems to admit defeat near the end of the poem, recalling her friend's criticism of an earlier poem about religion ("what would it take, / what would it really take, to engage with this subject"), and conceding that when faced with the question of mortality "I go shopping for shoes."
This last gesture epitomizes another of Fennelly's bad habits:
she often feigns a kind of humility or self-doubt that serves as a mask for self-congratulation. Thus in "Telling the Gospel Truth" she professes envy of her mother-in-law's simple faith ("Make me like her, bowl scraped of ego") while subtly conveying her condescension toward this woman's narrowly domestic world and a corresponding sense of her own richer, more complex emotional life. The most egregious instance of this maneuver comes in a poem coyly entitled "I Need to Be More French. Or Japanese" that verges on xenophobia in its implicit disdain for these rival cultures' refinement and subtlety, both of which are contrasted with the speaker's vital, earthy sensibility. The impulse to display her own foibles in the hope that they'll charm us leads to a diffuseness that is the book's largest flaw. A number of poems would have benefited from judicious pruning, and the book as a whole is probably too long by at least twenty pages. Here again Fennelly tries to disarm potential complaints by incorporating them, this time in the form of a short "found poem" based on a rejection letter from Richard Howard that asks for something "slimmer... sleeker, / tighter, less self- / consciously poetic, in other words." Presumably we're meant to find this obtuse (and perhaps sexist as well), but in fact it identifies a major problem in the poet's work.
Fennelly's true strengths are not discursive but descriptive.
Her metaphors are most effective when allowed to gather resonance without being vexed or elaborated. Among the most memorable passages in Tender Hooks are several that take birds as their focus. Here Fennelly approaches true negative capability, as her own ego moves out of the spotlight and the lives of her subjects emerge into clarity. The best section of "Telling the Gospel Truth" contrasts a poacher who shoots the wing off a bald eagle with a conservationist who finds the bird and takes it up in a hang glider so it can have a last experience of flight. In Fennelly's hands this story becomes a powerful allegory for the spiritual discipline of holding opposites in a single thought. In another strong section she describes a pair of backyard bluebirds whose eggs are repeatedly and mysteriously destroyed, yet who persist in nesting and mating. A poem that takes post-partum hair loss as an intimation of mortality ends with another avian avatar who teaches how to make the best of a diminished thing: "the house finch, busily weaving / with strands of long, red hair" ("Three Months after Giving Birth, the Body Loses Certain Hormones"). Like Claire, these birds dwell apart from language, and so help Fennelly to break out of the loquacious, slightly preening manner that mars some of her poems.
But of course it's in the poems about her infant daughter that Fennelly most fully immerses herself in
... that pre-speech underworld
where once we floated like deep sea divers
holding hands in that original buddy system,
eyeballing marvels vague and desirable,
all was gesture and guessture
and I was necessary as oxygen, I alone could translate,
my mothertongue quick to claim as a cat's
("Having Words with Claire")
Already a note of wistful nostalgia has crept into Fennelly's recollection of this lost underworld, in which mother and child were inseparable partners encountering nameless marvels. As the book ends she records other signs that, in the words of one poem's title, "Paradise Is Fayling": Claire's repeated thieving of her mother's lipstick, which Fennelly interprets as a precocious manifestation of sexuality; her return from daycare "smelling / like another woman's perfume"; her newfound attachment to her father and corresponding coolness toward her mother. All these indications that the bliss of their original bond has faded into the light of common day prompt Fennelly's final colloquy with a godlike interrogator, who taunts her with the certainty that she'll soon forget everything: "The infant is disappearing as we speak. She is more ours than yours now." To which the poet gives the defiant reply that concludes the book: "Fine, I say, not meaning it. I'll have another."
Where the books by Allman and Fennelly take easily recognizable subjects movies, motherhood as occasions for description and introspection, the matter of Lucie Brock-Broido's Trouble in Mind is harder to pin down. At one level its subject is stated quite plainly in its title: mental trouble in all its shades, from anguish to grief to ennui. Brock-Broido seems to have rigorously excluded the lighter emotions from her poetic palette, though whether for aesthetic reasons or because they simply don't play a significant role in her inner life is hard to know. (Ironically, the old song lyric from which she takes her title is comparatively upbeat: "I won't be blue always / Cause the sun's gonna shine / In my backdoor some day." Such sentiments find no place in Brock-Broido's poetry.) But while Trouble in Mind can be read as a poetic anatomy of psychic pain, it clearly springs from a very immediate and specific occasion. Brock-Broido dedicates the book to the memory of her close friend Lucy Grealy, who died of a drug overdose in 2002, though whether by choice or not remains unclear. Grealy was best known for her 1995 memoir, Autobiography of a Face, in which she recounts her struggles with a severe facial disfigurement and the many reconstructive surgeries she endured. Another intimate of Grealy's, the novelist Ann Patchett, recently published a moving memoir of their friendship entitled Truth and Beauty (in which Brock-Broido figures briefly). Patchett's book wonderfully conveys Grealy's ebullient spirit and capacity for friendship despite her nearly constant suffering. By contrast Brock-Broido makes little attempt to portray Grealy as a living person or to catalogue her physical and psychological afflictions; instead she treats her as a kind of mythological figure who embodies in extreme form a common fate.
Only two poems in the collection explicitly address Grealy, though her presence can be felt in many others. While the book's opening lyric, "The Halo That Would Not Light," does not name her, coming so soon after the dedication page we cannot mistake its subject:
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
Like Dickinson and Plath, Brock-Broido rejects classroom standards of consistency, finding in the clash of heterogeneous tropes a source of visionary electricity. The poem presents a swift succession of metaphors that dazzle even as they refuse to be resolved into a coherent pattern. The only literally descriptive phrase here is "your tiny body," which names one of Lucy Grealy's more endearing attributes (Patchett describes her love of being carried in her friends' arms). Brock-Broido takes this physical fact as the point of departure for a nightmarish vision of Grealy as a perpetual child exposed to elemental violence. Two fairy tale motifs are superimposed: the friendly stork that delivers the baby to its parents and the bird of prey that snatches the child from its carriage. Here the raptor appears to be returning the baby, yet the carriage proves to be a coffin or mummy case. "Scarab-colored" evokes Egyptian iconography, as do the linens, which morph phonetically into linden leaves. At the same time the tiny body is that of a finch being restored to its nest among the leaves. All of these images combine to form a palimpsest that simultaneously conveys terror and relief at the child-woman's fate. The rest of the poem traces out a haunted aftermath that mixes perpetuity and closure. The raptor is now replaced by the wind, but thanks to a subtle line break it shimmers into a ghostly wind hover, recalling Hopkins's falcon. The swings are empty, however, thwarting the bird's appetite for fresh prey. The image of red scarves "silking endlessly" from a magician's hat has bloody overtones as well, though I'm not sure its staginess mates successfully with the rest of the poem. But the endlessness of this spectacle prepares us beautifully for the poem's final bittersweet cadence, helping us to feel more keenly the release marked visually by the wide space between "your endless childhood" and that last weary exhalation: "Is done."
I've dwelt on this poem at length because it exemplifies both Brock-Broido's technical means, which are formidable, and her thematic preoccupations. The poem's title, "The Halo That Would Not Light" (echoed later in the book by "The Halo That Lit Twice"), may on one level refer to Grealy's doomed quest for physical beauty, but more broadly it suggests the poet's Gnostic vision of a world from which the possibility of radiance has been extinguished. In fact the title, like several others in the book, comes from the notebooks of Wallace Stevens. Brock-Broido has a penchant for taking over carapaces left behind by other poets. Her previous book, The Master Letters, was built on a series of enigmatic epistles by Emily Dickinson, incorporating bits of them into poems that are by no means pastiches, but establish their own distinctive sound. Similarly the poems in Trouble in Mind with titles discarded by Stevens are hardly Stevensian in tone and style. Of these, "The One Theme of Which Everything Else Is a Variation" comes closest to articulating the book's essential concerns. The poem begins with the story of an African schoolteacher whose hands are cut off for an unnamed offense, then proceeds to this grim aphorism: "Wisdom is experience bundled, with prosthetic wrists." Numbness and silence are the burden of what follows:
. . . When you delete a wing or limb
From a creature's form, it will inevitably cry out against
Taking, but in the end it will become grievously docile,
Shut; far gone old god, you have been plain.
The vision here is Gnostic, the god a spiteful demiurge, the state we find ourselves in one of inexplicable mutilation and enforced silence. It is the last condition that the speaker refuses to accept, lashing back defiantly in the poem's closing lines:
If I am lucky in this life, here, I will go on
Being whole, and speak again old god, I will be plain.
"Plain" is a word that gathers considerable resonance in the book; here it evokes both the plainness with which the speaker responds to the old god's tyrannical speech, and a stripping down of the self, which remains whole in spite of all that has been or may be taken from it. But this rebellious assertion is shadowed by the poet's concession that both wholeness and defiance are predicated on luck, not certainty.
As the title of this poem suggests, Brock-Broido is a poet drawn more to themes than subjects, universals than particulars.
While Lucy Grealy's death frames Trouble in Mind (its closing section begins with a poem called "Portrait of Lucy with Fine Nile Jar") and furnishes its most immediate occasion, it does not permeate the book, but simply provides an especially vivid variation on its central themes of mutilation and loss. A number of other figures are also mourned, including the poet's parents and her editor Harry Ford, as well as strangers like Jean Hill, who witnessed John F. Kennedy's assassination, and a nameless transient woman who committed suicide by climbing into a lions' den at the National Zoo. At times this elegiac strain widens to encompass larger events, including the destruction of the World Trade Center, the Palestinian intifada, and the invasion of Iraq, all of which are obliquely evoked in the course of the book. The register of historical occurrence, of names and dates, is set against a more archetypal landscape inhabited chiefly by animals, most of them heraldic or predatory or both. These include raptors, falcons, swans, lions, leopards, lynxes, oxen, bison, feral horses, and dire wolves (the latter an extinct species). A brilliant poem called "The Deerhunting" broods darkly on the Bush administration's bellicose policies while likening them to the seasonal thinning of deer: "Even the fawn bag limits have been reached, / And the lung shots shot & the harvesting / Of fallow deer will be done by Tuesday night."
At this point we might again recall Stevens's impatience with concrete subjects, which Brock-Broido seems in large measure to share. Some readers might echo Frost's response and complain that she too writes on bric-a-brac. Certainly her work is extraordinarily rich in ornament, despite her professed admiration for "plain-spoken elegance." That last phrase occurs in a poem called "After Raphael," in which she also invokes "the noir / Of ardor" as a principle of poetic utterance. Her noir is not the Hollywood genre celebrated by Allman, but a more essential darkness that sanctions a style bristling with strange words and startling images. Here we arrive at a basic tension in Brock-Broido's poetics what the literary radio host Michael Silverblatt has called a comedy of style versus a tragedy of content. Silverblatt also speaks of Brock-Broido's "Edwardian affectation," but in "After Raphael" she seems to align herself with a slightly earlier poetic moment, that of the late Victorian Pre-Raphaelites. Even as she speaks of "the impossible post- / Raphaelite world in which I live" (my emphasis), she implicitly declares her allegiance to the heady, melancholic aesthetic of the Rossettis and Swinburne, who strove to restore to poetry and art the quasi-magical atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Like theirs, Brock-Broido's poetry is shot through with a kind of neo-medievalism that shows itself in allusions to heraldry, falconry, and sorcery; though in her "medieval / Universe," as she calls it in one poem, the Rossettis' Catholicism has been exchanged for a purely negative theology.
The most audible influence on Brock-Broido's work is that of another late Victorian master, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I've already noted the spectral windhover in the book's opening poem (a kingfisher appears in another), but Hopkins's acoustic mark is everywhere in her densely patterned lines. Brock-Broido's diction leans decisively toward the archaic and the Anglo-Saxon; she has a special fondness for the family of words that includes "harrow," "yarrow," "marrow," "fallow," "tallow," and their kin, all of them redolent of the English countryside. Her landscapes too tend to be English or northern European, dominated by moors and woods. Indeed her style and imagination are in some respects more English than that of many contemporary British poets. Despite her invocation of such American patrons as Stevens and Emily Dickinson, her sensibility seems closer to Emily Brontë's. Except in brief flashes, her poems lack the American tang of the colloquial, instead occupying a plane of emotional and visionary intensity too high for casual banter. Even small graphic details reinforce this sense of lofty purpose; Brock-Broido must be among the last contemporary poets to persist in capitalizing every line of her poems. (Her use of ampersands might seem to represent a concession to the modern, but I suspect it owes more to Blake than Berryman or the Beats.) For all its insistent archaicism, however, Trouble in Mind contains enough moments of contemporary reference to ground it in our own time the time of chat rooms, thermoses, and aspirin, all of which make brief appearances in the book.
Critics of Brock-Broido find it difficult to resist the puns embedded in her name baroque, brocade, embroidery, all of them terms that might be used to describe her intricately woven art. She is without question a spectacular stylist, comparable in originality and extravagance to her near contemporaries Jorie Graham, Alice Fulton, and Anne Carson. (Why women have taken the lead of late in expanding the language of poetry is an interesting question beyond the scope of this review.) At times, to be sure, her rhetoric verges on the kitschy, a danger of which the poet seems well aware. Another title borrowed from Stevens, "Basic Poem in a Basic Tongue," provides an ironic counterpoint to an over-the-top exercise in flamboyant diction that's surely meant as self-parody ("A sullen pity-craft before the fallows of Allhallowmass"). The book also contains a series of poems with blandly prosaic titles like "Leaflet on Wooing," "Brochure on Eden," "Pamphlet on Ravening," slyly mocking the discursive impulse toward aboutness; needless to say, these poems are just as verbally and imaginatively exorbitant as all the others. Yet as I've already noted, Brock-Broido's outlook is unremittingly bleak, leaving us with a puzzle. Where poets like Celan, Merwin, and Glück unfold a stark vision in an equally stark style, Brock-Broido brings a rhetorical exuberance to her avowals of despair that produces something like cognitive dissonance. Unlike Allman and Fennelly, who balance their darker perceptions with affectionate accounts of worldly pleasures like movies and babies, Brock-Broido's only comfort seems to lie in the poetic medium itself, which she embraces with a kind of desperate glee.
Finally a word must be said about the poet's hair. This may seem a purely extraneous matter, but in fact Brock-Broido has gone out of her way both to display and to trope upon it, much as Whitman did his beard. The front cover of Trouble in Mind bears a detail from Carpaccio's "The Dream of St. Ursula," featuring a woman with tightly-plaited tresses asleep on her pillow. The back cover carries a photo of the author in which her resplendent blonde mane courses freely down her shoulders. The implicit contrast between form and freedom, constraint and wildness, is further illustrated in the book itself by a pair of poems entitled "Self-Portrait with Her Hair on Fire" and "Self-Portrait with Her Hair Cut Off." The first is an avowal of passion in which the speaker declares "I will go on loving as I love the backs / Of things and the invisible"; the second is a study in self-curtailment whose speaker counsels "do not strive to be exceptional." These alternatives of flaming affirmation and clipped resignation come together explosively in the book's closing poem, "Self-Deliverance by Lion," which tells of a woman found dead in a lions' den at a zoo, having apparently climbed into it by choice. She too possesses a noteworthy head of hair: "Her hair was a long damp chestnut / River-pelt spilled after an enormous / And important rain." If hair represents potency, then this woman has taken on the power of the beasts that have slain her, as the closing lines suggest: "The lions had the mastery of me :aware / Their mastery was by my will, and fair." The power to choose what destructive force to yield to is, in the end, the only human power Brock-Broido recognizes, but it surges through her work like a river.
All three of these books contain subjects, occasions, themes, and even bric-a-brac; in this respect they probably resemble all other books of poems. But distinctions can and should be made regarding the degree to which a collection of poems chooses to push its subject matter to the foreground, to declare itself "about." I think we have now entered a period in which poets are more disposed to organize poems and books around recognizable topics, whether pieces of cultural history, categories of experience, or metaphorical nodes. There are pitfalls in this practice, of course, including dangers of monotony and repetition, but the time may be ripe for poets to reclaim an authority long ceded to other genres. Poetry may be an irreducibly aesthetic medium, but it is also potentially an instrument of knowledge, perception, and understanding. Perhaps we need poems that are not just part of the res itself, but about it as well.
Michigan Quarterly Review
Editor: Laurence Goldstein
Managing Editor: Vicki Lawrence
Copyright © The University of Michigan 2005
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.
Poetry Daily / Amazon.com
Selected books by Roger Gilbert:
Considering the Radiance: Essays on the Poetry of A. R. Ammons, David Burak and Roger Gilbert, ed.s Hardcover