“To paraphrase Kenneth Rexroth: A Bug is not an Entomologist.”
—Lucie Brock-Broido, “Poetic Statement: Myself a Kangaroo Among the Beauties”
The first time I read Lucie Brock-Broido’s fourth and newest book, Stay, Illusion, I was giddy, content as a tawny Maine Coon licking my paws, curled up at the poet’s feet. Because I’ve loved Brock-Broido’s work for years. Because the book had recently been long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry. Because, by reviewing it for MQR, I received the handsome, doe-adorned, gold-gilt volume one whole month before its official release date (October 15, 2013).
The second time I read the book: foreboding, bad weather, doubt. After the aforementioned superficial pleasures wore off, I realized I didn’t actually—though I had been certain I would—love Stay, Illusion the way I adored (wildly, bodily, completely) Brock-Broido’s first and second books, A Hunger (1988) and The Master Letters (1995). (My feelings towards her third book, Trouble in Mind, are complicated, another story for another time. See Ray McDaniel’s sharp and insightful review of the same at The Constant Critic.) What I go nuts for in her first two books is her tangled language, the layering of image upon dizzying image, the density of her music, the intoxicating rabbit-hole of her logic. A stanza from “Unholy” in The Master Letters:
As I explained, there is no Harm in Contrivances; there is little left to speak of save the long Unarcking Moment of post-coital estrangement, the untwined two blinking into the raw mottled air of a dim bedroom, uncoiling like that, windless, little left to say in a Terminal Voyaging. Let us say, for instance, there are but six things left to feel in the world, six things left to put your mouth on: Bliss & Loss—for two, Trembling & Compulsion—four, Desire & Disease—you see? Gerbil! Noodle! Little One.
In the new book, Brock-Broido subordinates these strategies to others. She floats poems, lines, and images in wide seas of white space; irons out her once wily syntax; and values, above opulence, directness of tone, delivery, and even, to my surprise, sometimes message.
I’ve heard that it’s impossible to fold a piece of paper in half more than eight times. But Lucie Brock-Broido can do it. In her earlier work, especially The Master Letters, she folds language in on itself, well past its limit of pliability. We trace the edges and deep creases in each of her poems. And though we might try, we cannot unfold the impossible object. Stay, Illusion doesn’t perform this kind of magic, but it is, as I came to understand midway through my second read, interested in it.
Stay, Illusion became exciting to me when I realized that it comments on the un-unfoldable strategies and language of Brock-Broido’s earlier laden, ornate, brocade work. True, many of these latest poems take on non-writing issues as primary subject matter—illness, loss, horses, etc.—but many (most) of them have also swallowed a healthy dose of ars poetica. From “Meditation on the Sources of the Catastrophic Imagination”: “Most of my life, / I had consorted with the unspeakable, longing to put my mouth / On it.” Poetry as a last-ditch effort to speak the unspeakable. The mouth as metonym for the impulse towards poetry, the origin of a poem.
In Stay Illusion, Brock-Broido is a poet writing about writing. Take the title of the book. I don’t think it’s incidental that after I first learned of the title, I misremembered it as Stay, Allusion. Allusion: a pet strategy of Brock-Broido’s, of which the title is a perfect example (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1. Horatio to the ghost of Hamlet’s father).
Brock-Broido might resist these claims: “A Bug is not an Entomologist.” When she says this, though, I think she’s being slippery, coy. She’s bobbing, feinting, and weaving as she does in her poems. In Stay, Illusion poem after poem takes on poetry as its subject, as its source of anxiety and tension, as its beating heart, its root. Throughout the collection, she names poems after writing-world speak: “Selected Poem,” “Contributor’s Note,” “Uncollected Poem,” and “Non-Fiction Poem.” In “Contributor’s Note” she writes, “What if it is true now / I do not want to speak of that / Which has been given me to say?” But in refusing to explain herself, in refusing to become an authority on her own work, Brock-Broido teaches us how to read it. She asks us to confront her poems on their own terms, to resist the urge to simplify, narrow the scope, and limit the potential of “I.” “I” in a Brock-Broido poem is a shape-shifter, a mirage, a masked performer.
In a 1998 essay, critic and poet Stephen Burt names Lucie Brock-Broido an Elliptical Poet:
Elliptical poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisionally in identities (in one—or in at least one—“I” per poem), but they suspect the I’s they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how a little can go a long way. Ellipticists seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don’t believe in, or seek, a judicious tone.
And if Brock-Broido is an Elliptical Poet (and for our purposes, let’s just go ahead, give Stephen Burt two thumbs up, and say she is), then Stay, Illusion, is, in large part, a book about being such. In the poem “Attitude of Lion,” a personal favorite from this collection, she writes, “Home is the curdled theater where I’m safe.” Here, performance, theatrics, attitude, and the striking of a pose become subject matter, not simply strategy. In the same poem, she writes, “I am like you, eyes closed, head low, resting on forepaws as if / In sleep, as if asleep.” Here the voices of poet and cat cross, exposing a mind at work, alert, agile, feigning rest, behind closed eyes. In other words: “We have come to terms with our Self / Like a marmoset getting out of her Great Ape suit.”