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Breaking Bad

The Outlaw Stylings of Brock-Broido, Cushman, and Wright

ISSUE:  Fall 2014

Poetry is broken language. Even in its “prose” incarnations—proems, prose poems—when lineation is not formally observed, poetry works the break. It interrupts, truncates, burglarizes. Poetry ruptures and ameliorates. Hardly ever housebroken, it often acts as a breaker box for the incendiary currents coursing through us. Poems break hearts. They break the news, however difficult. Rarely garnering for their makers fame and fortune, poems may nonetheless embody—in their breaching and bridging of the large distances—a stroke of luck, a stroke of mercy.

Lucie Brock-Broido, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, slipped out of the Rust Belt to fashion for herself and legions of admirers a poetry of recherché beauty and arcanity in a language so baroque, damasked, and original as to sound at times like a translation of a foreign tongue. Brock-Broido has called her style “feral,” and her first three books are rife with intensely rendered embellishment: syntactic blandishment, exotic diction, provocative use of white space, allusive sampling from other texts, and an obsession with glossing (the endnotes that accompany The Master Letters make a new genre of the form). 

In an essay about the elusive, oneiric rocker Kate Bush in the London Review of Books, Ian Penman describes the title song of Bush’s iconic album Hounds of Love as “at once pained and lost and powerfully erotic.” Penman urges readers to “[l]isten to the closing minutes of ‘Running Up That Hill’, with its muted chorus of multi-tracked Kates: screaming, grieving, witchy, shattered, a sonic foam rising above the song’s jagged tribunal. It’s a very odd song indeed. At the very least, it claws and rubs at the dissolute line between ecstasy and abjection.” What Penman says about Bush characterizes much of Brock-Broido’s work, and might explain the powerful hold her poems—private, even gnomic, but offering tantalizing lures into popular culture and attar waftings of emotional truth—have had on readers. For example, “Fame Rabies” takes delicious potshots at the destructive romance of notoriety, especially for artists who have worked hard to reinvent themselves:

In the story, your life was young,
Would last. In the east you made
No memories. In the west you never were.

In the middle of the country, once
In a large, aspiring, opaque crowd,
You could barely wait to be visible.

In two thousand years, malaise
And foaming, hydrophobia—
The diagnosis is not possible

Before the Posthumous. Don’t pout.
                    What animal, do you think,
Would velvet be the pelt of?

From the start, Brock-Broido’s “project” has been, in part, about breaking through expected textures of semiotics, and making language animal. Her poems can seem encoded and difficult, but they are really about breaking code in acts of enthralled conversion.

The title Stay, Illusion, spliced by a comma, creates caesura, a stutter that forces the reader to attend to both the title’s power (as in the command one might give a domesticated animal) and its vulnerability (as in wondering if the “stays” of a corset, or any sense of control, can be only artifice, illusion). This nexus of dominion and surrender, violence and tenderness, has always barbed the heart of Brock-Broido’s mystery, and perhaps never more so than in this new collection, which is more simple, directly autobiographical, and forthrightly elegiac than her previous work.

Touchstone Brock-Broido stylistic moves abide. The language is gorgeous, rich. And although they are less overtly acknowledged, ghosted phrases from everywhere, especially the poets and artists Brock-Broido loves—Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Liam Rector, William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Glenn Gould—stalk the poems, whose landscapes are often halfway sites of precarious danger—part Old World circus, part Waffle House—among them hospitals, castles, cookie jars, teacups, drawers, barns, heaven, the “curdled theater” of home, a broom factory, European cities, places from children’s books, and an array of Latinate, portmanteau states of mind, “mental museums” with names like Trepidarium, Abandonarium, and Silentium. 

As the poet comes to terms with aging and its attendant losses (father, lovers, friends), she returns with a vivid directness to her own girlhood. The series of elliptical self-portraits in Trouble in Mind (“Self-Portrait with Her Hair on Fire,” “Self-Portrait with Self-Pity”) finds amplified expression in poems like “Extreme Wisteria,” a self-portrait in which Brock-Broido plays in an aware and darkly humorous way with her distinctive mesh of wistfulness and hysteria, and in which she admits openly to the terror that has lurked behind her stylistic stance:

                                          Extreme hyacinth as evidence.
Her single subject the idea that every single thing she loves
                                                                    Will (perhaps tomorrow) die.

An alter ego, Dove, flits in and out of the cages of these poems, whose fragmented syntax reinforces the sense of the breaking down and delicate reassembly of a self. Consider these lines from “A Girl Ago”:

No milkweed blown across your pony-coat, no burrs.
No scent of juniper on your Jacobean mouth. No crush
Of ink or injury, no lacerating wish.
                                               Extinguish me from this.
I was sixteen for twenty years. By September I will be a ghost
And flickering in unison with all the other fireflies in Appalachia,
Blinking in the swarm of it, and all at once, above
And on a bare branch in a shepherd’s sky.     No Dove.
                                                          There is no thou to speak of.

After a series of anaphoric, negative phrases announcing (or perhaps mournfully renouncing) a series of the speaker’s former romantic characteristics, the speaker admits that her protracted, fabular adolescence cannot continue. The phrase “No Dove,” like the book’s title, is fruitfully and paradoxically ambiguous, especially rhyming, as it does, with “above” and “of.” On the one hand, it could be an expression of self-comfort, in which the narrator, referring to herself as “Dove,” finds consolation in that steadfast core of self despite there being no other “to speak of.” Or the phrase could be declarative, a statement in which Dove is conflated not with the speaker but with a “thou” (a lover, God, the extinguished girl) whom the speaker longs for, but who does not exist—or who, at the very least, is beyond the reach of speech. 

There is much to admire in this new book, not the least of which are the poems about animal cruelty and the elegies for departed poet friends like Rector, Stanley Kunitz, and Jason Shinder. But it is Brock-Broido’s willingness to confront what Dickinson called the “Vision of Language!” as both ingenuous and ingenious that provides the engine of the collection and moves it, and the work, forward: “For example,” she writes in “Non-Fiction Poem,” 

My extravagance of gesture;
The maize field fallowed from simplicity; redundancy,
                         The green wind of reckoning.
Did you say I’ve said “Lark” for the last allotted time?

Have I ever—even once—been disingenuous, not told you
                                               Of the truth and nothing but.

Stay, Illusion confirms Brock-Broido’s magic is more than a lavish swan-, mane-, and minx-haunted moor of linguistic smoke and mirrors. So what, as she writes in “Cave Painting of a Dun Horse,” that “in the years, most of what I made I made up”? One privilege of reading an original stylist over time is the truth, for the artist, speaking for us all, that “[t]he smaller the light to write to becomes, the more /
I have to say to you.”

Like all great long poems, Stephen Cushman’s Red List should be read at one sitting. Haibun-haunted—comprised of long-lined and often headlong “meditative” passages punctuated by haiku (there are few periods throughout the book-length poem, except at the ends of the haiku)—the collection is broken into two parts. Part 1 begins in late August, passes through autumn, and takes the reader just shy of the winter solstice; Part 2 commences in the new year and moves into Lent, daylight saving time, and Holy Week, culminating in May, although the poem ends with a detail remembered from the recently passed, full-moon Maundy Thursday, a liturgical day in the Christian calendar commemorating Christ’s betrayal at Gethsemane that offers, to the poem’s speaker, an unlooked for, phenomenal epiphany.

The Red List, which takes its title from the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, depicts a hard year in the life of the speaker, who must face and attempt to come to terms, all at once, with the emotional breakdown of a young-adult child, the recent death of a parent and loss of a long-beloved family property, and the accompanying threat to systems of domesticity, nature, success, the future, ways of using language, and even notions of a coherent self that he has come to rely upon and now must break from in order to survive. On one level, the poem is a petition for the safety of the speaker’s suicidal son, for whom he exhibits helpless empathy: “What’s someone luckless expected to do, lonely, despairing, / constant heartache that’s not metaphoric but chronic anxiety, / its snug anaconda squeezing him tighter with each exhalation?” But with its mix of high and low diction, its manifold, prodigious references to the Bible, American literature (Cushman knows his “yankee sage[s]”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Dickinson, Herman Melville), popular culture, mythologies and belief systems of the East and West, technology, history, etymology, politics, the environment, the weather, patterns, seasons, travel, time, and the terroir of the aging body, the poem touches on all manner of endangerment. Here’s a passage in which the speaker traverses a Dantean netherworld that looks a lot like a place he’s lost in “real” life:

Move forward move forward, but it’s hard to know
where forward is down here, now a shore, a rocky stretch,
this bitch of a beach where urchins and barnacles
can slice the shoeless and ocean’s so cold
heads hurt, privates burn, but no swimming like it
for a saline facial, a salty rubdown that sloughs dead cells
and when you get out in a fresh west wind it makes your skin feel
as if you’d taken communion on the outside: thus spake
the shivering imp, yellow-haired elf, blue eyes and goose bumps,
laughing tongue of laughing fire. Not every day
includes eagle-sighting or should, if it’s special
and meant to stay so; not every place, no matter how real
the health it restores, the spirit it resuscitates,
or how thin the membrane between its trees and sacred emanations
is more than real estate in someone’s eyes. One owner dies,
one survives, wants to sell, and just like that
it’s gone, though still on the tax map and under surveillance
by satellites taking the very long view, gone, gone,
and if you’re kin, even if distant, to airborne Antaeus
and needed your feet firmly on that ground or your face
in that water or your eyes on that eagle, then my poor friend,
you’re one step closer, one giant’s stride closer,
to being gone too. The Greeks got it wrong:
Mnemosyne’s queen of the overstuffed underworld
where places go to be with people.

Been flipped the finger?
Only a prosodist can
give you the dactyl.

Diatribe, paean, talisman, irreverent incantation, prayer, The Red List is a cosmos. It talks back to similarly ambitious American long poems—William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, for instance, or A. R. Ammons’s Sphere: The Form of a Motion (Ammons makes a cameo appearance while the speaker is traversing the Underworld, and it’s clear that the elder poet has been a kind of Virgilian presiding spirit for Cushman), but the poem’s obvious ancestor is Song of Myself. Cushman shares Walt Whitman’s acute attentiveness, love of nature, and penchant for restless cataloging. The poets partake of similar anxieties, as well: heightened awareness of others, a sense of life’s precariousness, of the fragility of self and self-governance, and of ever-present imperilment. Cushman is his own poet, however, and he never resorts to Whitman’s bravado and hyperbole in the face of his grief and anger. The Red List allows the personal into the mix in a way that Whitman avoids, and a Shakespearean acoustical layering—monologues, subplots, swerves into high and low registers—allows Cushman to play the part of the Fool, a kind of Mad Tom narrator on a wild ride through a notched maelstrom of a year. His humorous, quotidian “songs”—

Why does the stink bug
push his luck and reappear,
the crushed smell not bad?

and later,

The stink bug who passed
last night in a water-glass
got swallowed first thing

—only make more powerful the poem’s passages of despair: “[I]f I didn’t know better I’d have to admit / my false self is dying, there, you said it, was it so hard, my false self is dying / a slow smelly death, not a strong good one, as Stoics would have it, nor is it dignified / by learned last words, or quotable wisdom others could live by, what’s even worse / I’ve signed the directive, cut off all life-support, the drives for survival, / affection, esteem, the big respirators, reward, recognition, nothing is left… .”

Nor is Cushman shy about training his perspicuous lens on himself:

                       Now don’t you feel like a jerk for complaining?
Now don’t you wish you’d left lamentation
up to the soul-crushed who really have earned it?
Boo-hoo, so you’re banished from the land of the eagle,
boo-hoo, so he’s sick inside his handsome head,
boo-hoo, you can’t travel and leave him alone,
boo-hoo, you can’t sleep, boo-hoo, your shoulder aches,
boo-hoo, there’s no raise, boo-hoo, you’re always older,
boo-hoo, so your work has suddenly come to nothing… .

The Red List offers a glimpse into a very particular, genuine, and generous mind the likes of which might become more and more, well, rare in the coruscating forces of our moment: dizzying changes in technology, communication, education, and the ecosystem, as well as the personal travail each of us must endure as best we can. “This is how the last year’s been,” Cushman writes near the end of the poem, “hefty slabs of erstwhile self just sloughing off and making fat splashes… . // But maybe a self’s not only fiction / but obsolete too.” Maybe so. But the velocity and agility of mind and the stalwart tensility of spirit evinced in The Red List powerfully and redemptively suggest otherwise.

Certainly being named poet laureate of the United States must be construed as a “big break,” but Charles Wright, who turns seventy-nine this year, has earned the 2014–2015 honor through many decades of what he calls “looking around” and “trying to get it right.” Emerging young poets, anxious about their “careers” and time to publication/awards/teaching jobs/what have you, would be wise to consider Wright’s trajectory. Coming to poetry relatively late compared to the fast track of many of today’s poets, Wright’s first full-length book, The Grave of the Right Hand, did not appear until 1970, when he was in his midthirties. That he has gone on in the years since to publish prolifically—and to win nearly every major poetry award, including the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bollingen—is testament to the realized promise of years and years of paying attention, as well as to his agile adherence to the development of a unique, Wrightean style. In an often-cited interview with J. D. McClatchy in the Paris Review, Wright touts the importance of style, calling it “not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it.” Later in the interview, Wright says, “Clarity. Faith, hope, and clarity. Some things are more difficult to clarify than others, aren’t they? Great clarity is great style, however hard it may be.”

One does not come to a new Wright collection, then, looking for varied, wildly experimental departures from his signature cocktail: long, lean, cleanly terraced lyric lines spiked with surprising descriptions of the natural world, the language of slang, spirituals and other songs, and popular culture appropriated to tease out metaphysical negative epiphanies, all served straight up with dry understatement and wry humor. To paraphrase Whitman, does Wright repeat himself? Very well, then, he repeats himself. But just as each crafted martini, each familiar walk, each sung hymn is new each time it is experienced, Wright’s poems in Caribou traverse his old road of rue, desire, and melancholy with a fresh and irresistibly renegade moxie. “It is a grace to be a watcher on such a scene,” he writes in “History Is a Burning Chariot,”

So balance me with these words—
Have I said them before, I have,
          have I said them the same way, I have,
Will I say them again, who knows
                       what darkness snips at our hearts.

Darkness snips increasingly at the heart (“The old have no hiding place,” Wright says in “ ‘Well, Roll On, Buddy, Don’t You Roll Too Slow’  ”), and as a result the poet looks and listens harder, which may account for why his poems seem to get better and better. Caribou Mountain is a few miles from Wright’s Montana ranch, and it signifies for him, as mountains did for the likes of Han Shan and Wordsworth, the mystery “where words end.” Wright breaks Caribou into three sections—Echoes, End Papers, and Apocrypha—each signifying what he calls “[i]nvisible, inaudible things.” That many of the titles in Caribou refer to old songs (“ ‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted …’ ” or “ ‘My Old Clinch Mountain Home’ ”) suffuses the poems with a deep nostalgia that Wright is careful to keep from lapsing into sentimentality, as in “ ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee,’ ” in which he writes, “But not too close, man, just not too close.”

The poems in Caribou also possess an intimacy and undeniable ardency that is certainly not new in Wright’s work, but which is more prevalent in this collection than in previous books. His frequent asides to an array of listeners (pal, Jack, boys, Lord, Jim, young soldier boy, young sailor) remind us that although this pilgrim is solitary on the via negativa, he’s always communing—with himself, with us, God, with whatever’s out or not out there. The nearer the speaker of these poems comes to what lies on the other side of this life (“This is the story of our lives, a short story, a page or a page and a half. / Eight days after the summer solstice, / Hard frost this morning, my life just past my fingertips, drifting, drifting” from “Drift Away”), the harder it is for him to surrender to the apophatic way (“Would that detachment were mine, Lord, O would it were mine” from “Chinoiserie II”). Emptying the self of the self and its attachment to the world is difficult for one attuned to the “sexual energy of the evergreens” and in love with the dust of the road. The “[d]ark understory of desire,” he writes in “Ducks,” is “where we should live, not in the thrashing, dusk-tipped branches.”

Nonetheless, Wright is the poet of light. In “ ‘I’ve Been Sitting Here Thinking Back Over My Life…’ ” he says,

I’ve always wanted to be elsewhere,
Hair on fire, a radiance
My shoes golden, my heart tucked away
                                                      back under my shirtsleeve.

But the truth is that this poet often wears his heart on his sleeve, carrying along burdens of regret and longing, which makes all the more remarkable the revelation of these closing lines from “Ancient of Days”:

This is an old man’s poetry,
                      written by someone who’s spent his life
Looking for one truth.
Sorry, pal, there isn’t one.
Unless, of course, the trees and their blow-down relatives
Are part of it.
              Unless the late-evening armada of clouds
Spanished along the horizon are part of it.
Unless the diminishing pinprick of light
                                                     stunned in the dark forest
Is part of it.
           Unless, O my, whatever the eye makes out,
And sends, on its rough-road trace,
To the heart, is part of it,
           then maybe that bright vanishing might be.

There may be a couple fingers more valedictory liquor in these poems than in those of earlier collections, and while the reader believes the speaker when he says, in “Lullaby,” that “I’ve said what I had to say // As melodiously as it was given to me. // I’ve said what I had to say / As far down as I could go. // … . Time to go … ,” these poems embody an élan vital that is far from diminished. They seem less worried than earlier poems about the impossibility of salvation and are the record—as is the new work of Lucie Brock-Broido and Stephen Cushman—of a poet-prophet-pilgrim, a “last chronicler of twilight, and its aftermath,” moving with grace, humor, and humility into the break/brake of Light and “the deep desire of distance.”


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