Trouble in Mind
The abuse of one’s talent: To whatever degree such a thing is possible, we judge the act harshly. Whenever I hear tell of an Artist Who Has Abused His or Her Talent, I picture one of those little Keebler elves, bent over a cauldron, manipulating chocolate via elven magic, contriving chocolate that will then go forth to, oh, I don’t know . . . turn to alum in the mouths of trick-or-treating innocents? Something evil.
I think it more likely and more common that our talents abuse us: In this imagining, I recollect those old Warner Brothers cartoons in which the diminutive characters prove unexpectedly puissant: The chicken hawk smashes the rooster, first slamming him to his right, and then his left, and then to his right, all the while betraying not a jot of effort or even interest.
I offer this distinction between talent well-spent and talent on a spending spree of its own to clarify my mightily mixed feelings about Lucie Brock-Broido’s Trouble in Mind, which poses a number of problems, for all that it poses them prettily. And I illustrate the distinction with Keebler elves and Looney Toons because these are the kinds of things absent from Brock-Broido’s poetry: Her worlds lack the texture of the manifestly quotidian. Processed food products do not defile the Broidoverse, and while I have absolutely no objection to this absence per se, these types of absences, this abdication of internal compass or contrast, begins to leech something vital from Trouble in Mind. The book presents a dilemma: a set of perfectly distinct properties which somehow become indistinguishable.
Brock-Broido’s poems are, even at their least and slightest, remarkably fertile—the musicianship of her language is such that even apparently careless constructions constitute true beauty. This beauty, however, can both happily and unhappily obscure the consequence of her perhaps haphazard choices. Brock-Broido suffers from a version of Midas’s gift: All language blooms under her attention, but the blooming thereby made so overgrows the poems themselves that the shape of the garden beneath becomes lost. We do not need to distinguish between garden and jungle to appreciate the scent and texture of full flora, but such confusion obscures indiscriminately—archaic or facile barriers disappear, but so do poetic distinctions within the poems themselves. This book thus creates a hothouse closeness, but without the reciprocity of exchange—whether you read it as a superabundance of oxygen or of carbon dioxide, the book is chemically imbalanced. Something in the mix proves unnervingly and claustrophobically out of whack.
In other words, I loved the language of Trouble in Mind without having much memory of the actual poems in which that language is cast. Its omnidirectional variousness—its nothingness by way of its myriad individual somethingnesses—casts Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters in an ironic light. Many complained that Letters so exaggerated its own density that it became indigestible; readers were heard to claim that they had to read the poems again and again before any measure of meaning revealed itself. I recognize that density, but never thought of it as a problem—there was something deeply satisfying about poems thick enough to require effort to fully savor. these poems were layered, not obscure. Some resisted that weave, but Trouble in Mind now indicates that texture may be the means by which Brock-Broido achieves the equivalent of structure. In its absence, petals of her language unfold to wonder, but sometimes fail to describe or induce unities.
I’m going to rely on the book-object itself, not just the poetry but the prose descriptive of the project and the poet, to supply the means by which to discuss this poetry. Now, God help those unfortunates upon whom falls the task of writing jacket copy, but there’s something about this copy that hints at the difficulties Trouble in Mind engenders:
“With Trouble in Mind, her long-awaited third collection, Lucie Brock-Broido has written her most exceptional poems to date. There is a new clarity to her work, a disquieting transparency, even in the midst of wild thickets of language for which she is known.”
A “new” clarity! To what does this refer, save the reader’s fear that this book will ask of them the same labor Letters did? And what in particular about her transparency disquiets, and how does transparency manifest in the midst of “wild thickets”?
Well, Trouble in Mind does provide poems that apply a classical self-containment:
No one is bored, just barbaric
Anymore. Ash admixed with rain, which cooled
The air. How much longer will this beauty
Of yours last?
As if even the idea of the city
Has been lost for twenty centuries.
Don’t quail like this; go
The room like a lesser god stopped still
In the middle of a bath of oil & umbrage in
The exquisite hour.
No one is
Exquisite anymore. The river is so small now
It will be hard to drown
In it. And still this world’s a pretty one.
Okay, transparent, fine—a good poem, but also conspicuously thicket-free.
“A poet ‘at the border of her own allegory,’ Brock-Broido searches for a lexicon adequate to the extremities of experience—a quest that is as capricious as it is uncompromising. In ‘Pamphlet on Ravening’ she recalls, ‘I was a hunger artist once, as well. / My bones had shone. / I had had rapture on my side.'”
Of what use is this? Such a description suggests that the poet herself, her own extremities of experience, describe the primary font of the poetry’s power. Such a claim, specious as it, does not profit from the lines quoted: hunger artist, bones, rapture—these are affectations, the poetic tokens of someone who eats ether and shits silk, and they do not fairly represent either the poem cited or the poet’s work. So what, you might ask, it’s just jacket copy. But the problem is that certain elements of the poetry could lead the reader to imagine such faery fantasticals. Consider the following samples, plucked from context but meant to communicate the degree and intensity of such affectation:
And I, the mother of nothing, mother / Of nothing at all
The improbable thoracic cavity of me
My medieval / Universe where love lies / Over the law
All-bearing / Nature was my fictive frame
He had an empty cloakroom / In the chest of him.
You will find me then, / A little damp, in / My small Madrid of shame
My torso is a cedar chest I the brief closet / Of the middle of a
When she died, it might as well have spooned the quince- / Shaped heart from me.
I do not want to be a chrysalis again.
I was turning over the tincture of things
Now, in each of the poems from which these are drawn, one can also find fabulous riches of association and music. No one poem is so subject to affectation that it induces a wince as might the lines quoted above. So what are these lines doing? How do they maintain against the likes of “Still Life with Feral Horse”—
It is love and its relinquish
I am discussing here,
A sorrel horse loosed
On a salt marsh island
Pelted by high storms,
And furious. He will not
Be handled by human
Hands, not in this given life
Of gratitude and tallow lamps
And famous churlishness
I have heard tell
That you know how
To kill a man.
Or “Another Night in Khartoum”—
A sack of bees
Like a cataract
Opens, tangling its skein, filling the room
With the heavy machinery
Of honey and anatomies, and light.
Now the old silt
And the waterwheel of work, in cools of cave,
On further shore.
When the potter wasps gather
In their nests of clay, they will make a noise
Inconstant as the White Nile
Where it meets the Blue one
In the ruined evening of Khartoum,
Where a king’s mouth fills with
It is not enough to have
The very thing you love
Just for an attendant while, not even in that place
Where you could not stand
To be civilized.
“The book is laced with sequences: haunted, odd self-portraits, a succession of poems provoked by discarded titles by Wallace Stevens; an intermittent series of fractured and beguiling lyrics that she variously refers to as fragments, leaflets and apologues.”
That list of items on the other side of that colon: they aren’t sequences, because sequence mandates order, and these collections—as delightful as they sometimes are—largely deny order in that they privilege no one idiom, approach, placement, or tone over another. Hooray for catholicity, but descriptive inaccuracy here corresponds to an anxiety of the book entire, which is that it reads like an assemblage of a lyrical genius’s poetic fragments. The undisputed brilliance of the language does not justify the diffidence of the assembly, nor does such diffidence require justification, if the poems act more lucidly on their associative instincts. As a reader, I won’t seek structural meaning unless the poems ask me to; many of these poems seem to ask this of us without really betraying much of an inclination to reward the request. Regard “Leaflet on Wooing” —
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.
This one will be guttural, this war.
How is it possible to still be startled
As I am by the oblong silhouette of the coiling
Index finger of a pending death.
No longer will
Wooing be the wondrous
Thing; instead, a homely domesticity, constant
As a field of early rye and yarrow-light
What one is fit to stand is not what one is
Given, necessarily, and not this night.
“Wooing” contains a phalanx of gestures. The poem need not arrange them to achieve neatly sewn meaning, nor need the poem decrement to the suggestiveness of loose mosaic style. But I cannot help but think that the weakness of this poem derives from Brock-Broido’s movement away from “density”: the savories of the poem sit in a pot, neither strategically arranged nor transformed to soup or stew. Where once Brock-Broido depended on sheer weight of language to heat and alchemize her poems, this newfound “transparency” reveals the language as too often abandoned.
“Trouble in Mind is a book that astonishes us afresh at the agility and the uncanny will of language, which Brock-Broido is not afraid to follow where it may lead her: ‘That the name of bliss is only in the diminishing / (As far as possible) of pain. That I had quit / The velvet cult of it, / Yet trouble came.’ Even trouble, in Brock-Broido’s idiom, becomes something resplendent.”
There is much here that astonishes, and earns its keep though force of imagination. But the “uncanny will” of language must be met with some mode of deliberation, of discipline; the poet must marshal its agility to maintain motion, lest the undirected grace of the language lose focus. Reading Trouble in Mind sometimes feels like watching a gazelle trip; one can marvel at the animal’s power and posture while simultaneously wishing it greater coordination. I agree that Brock-Broido will follow language where it will lead her; I just wish she would lead it in turn. And that trouble become resplendent means little if all features acquire equal resplendence; such glimmer and life becomes dim indeed when the poet will not decide to what light her talent best be turned.