If you haven’t read Lucie Brock-Broido, you’re in for a surprise — lots of surprises. Like items in a curio-shop, the vast catalogue of images in Brock-Broido’s poetry creates a fantastic (if sometimes frightening) experience of wonder and loss. Underlying a sorceress’s ability to compile an eclectic visual inventory and animate its many moving parts is Brock-Broido’s ear for music. Recently longlisted for the 2013 National Book Awards, Brock-Broido’s fourth collection of poetry, Stay, Illusion, is a universe where the ghastly and gorgeous play side-by-side in a symphony of the sublime and truly felt — the poet’s sheet music a snowstorm blotted with hoof prints.
In Stay, Illusion snow is everywhere. Indicators of temperature and texture are signature to Brock-Broido’s work (predominantly types of fabric and cold weather patterns) and call to mind the the surrealism of Andre Breton who once referred to his favorite technique as “special snow effects.” In a couple of poems, Brock-Broido describes these conditions as “Novembering,” and “wintering.” Textiles are also a Brock-Broido trademark. With the deftness of Arachne, she weaves together cashmere, wool, tweed, chintz, flannel, silk, satin, velvet, and hair into a tapestry revealing motifs of larger proportions: spiders, wolves, snow leopards, lions, and especially horses. Says Brock-Broido in the poem, “Misfits,” “To life: I thought the horses beautiful.”
Despite its strangeness, Brock-Broido’s landscape is not exactly surreal, and though she transports us to places distant (Normandy, Venice, and Vienna), cerebral: “the green rooms of the Abandonarium”, and impossible: “you were a seed still in Darwin’s left breast pocket”, its center is unmistakably local: “I was made American. You must consider this.” In “Misfits” there is a dream of American girlhood lost, “When I grew up in blue, before the rich red seasons of American, / I had thought everything would always / Go our way — save Marilyn Monroe weeping / On the dry plains … ”
The predominant colors in Stay, Illusion are red, blue, and white (if you count all the snowing), and references are made often to American figures including Isadora Duncan, Kurt Vonnegut, and Shirley Jackson. But if the work can be called Americana, its more of a David Lynch Twin Peaks brand of the genre than anything else. The poem, “Of Rickey Ray Rector,” invokes a death-row prisoner from Arkansas who essentially lobotomized himself with a gunshot to the head after shooting a police officer. The poem mentions Bill Clinton; describes a last meal of steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid, and pecan pie; and alludes to Geraldo Rivera in the poem’s final lines, “I love you mother in your queen Anne’s chair / Geraldo thank you for your company on TV / Bird of prey, waiting like a hearse from outside when I’m alive.”
Death is central to the concerns of Stay, Illusion. In “Uncollected Poem,” the poet writes to her subject, “Reveal your form, illusion / Stay—a cut sewn up by the quartet of sad-stringed / Instruments made of cat-gut ligatures still used / In certain open-hearted surgeries.” Brock-Broido’s task is to conjure and reconstruct that which is absent, hallucinatory: either gone, or never there in the first place. In “Father, in Drawer,” the poet elegizes her father, “Mouthful of earth, hair half a century silvering, who buried him. / With what. / Make a fist for heart. That is the size of it. / Also directives from our DNA. / The nature of his wound was the clock-cicada winding down. / He wound down.”
Using medical language (DNA, stem cells, mitochondria, hemorrhages, nuclei, membranes, and scars) alongside more sentimental observations (“sentimentia,” as she might call it) Brock-Broido implies the trouble with words when it comes to discussing mortality. Although she acknowledges the modern way we talk about death, the poet doesn’t settle for any predetermined mode of speech, nor does she dwell on morbidity. In “Freedom of Speech,” Brock-Broido writes, “I know / The wingspan of your voice / whole gorgeous flock of harriers, / Cannot be taken down. You would like it now, this snow, this hour.” In lines like these, the reader experiences that which the poet does best. When she (or we) are at our least consolable, Brock-Broido reaches for an epiphany from the natural world and pins it down delicately for us, where we can observe (for as long as we need) an instance of truth on perfect, transparent display.
With a collection of language and artifacts taken from the singularly chilly territory of American experience, Brock-Broido, through cobwebs and frosted windows, shows us the realness of disappearance through that which can be retrieved. Stay, Illusion is an October read guaranteed to give you the shivers.
Stay, Illusion will be released on Tuesday, October 15.