Q&A: Lucie Brock-Broido
Both of your poems recall Emily Dickinson’s #772, which features a dead lady’s drawer and also rose attar (essential oil) as the “gift of Screws.” Would you agree that Dickinson’s poem plays a role in your own work here?
Dickinson’s poems still hold for me their mysteries. Her letters are another story. I’m in cahoots with those.
But I have been in Widerruf with Dickinson for decades. This is not a term that exists in any known literary theory, save one mention of this phenomenon in an introduction to Paul Celan’s Last Poems:
Celan was the skilled practitioner of the art of the Widerruf, the refutation of a given poem (often Rilke’s) by one of his own. The late poems begin to dismantle even that scaffolding ... By forcing the flood of colors, images ... through a series of nar- rowing locks, [he] creates a parallel universe of language ... in which a stylistic devolution “creates out of its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”
That is to say, I think we’re all in conversation on the page with that which came before us, or even during us. We inherit whatever canon we’re in the midst of, a great collective influenza.
In the very poem of Dickinson’s you mention, “Essential oils—are wrung—/The Attar from the Rose,” there is some fair- ly clear evidence that she herself was in Widerruf with a particular Shakespearean sonnet. After summer’s “distillation,” he writes, a flower is extracted into “a liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” An attar in a vial, concise.
I had to do some research to come up with that—for instance, Vendler’s Dickinson.
As for your inquiry regarding the “lady’s drawer,” I confess I was hoping it may have been an orchid, akin, let’s say, to a lady’s slipper. So I set myself online. I came up only with steamer-trunks full of details about lingerie.
What I mean to say is that, in my own work, often, I may have been with Dickinson, but she was not with me.
“Father, in Drawer” comes across as both stoic and emotional, a really exquisite balance for an elegy to achieve. From your perspective, which particular elements of the poem help it to walk this line?
I don’t have a stoic bone in my body. Would that I could conjure even a feigned indifference to—anything. To the contrary, I am different to everything. In real life, emotion is easy; holding back is tough. On the page though, it’s the opposite: that’s what I strive for — the chill (of course), the stupor (a necessity), but never quite the letting go.
A backdrop for “Father, in Drawer”: My father, David Broido, was forty-four years old when, in Philadelphia, he died on the morning of the Fourth of July, 1968. He was alone. By noon of the fifth of July, I was in the middle of writing a love letter to him. Strange how someone is always alive until you know otherwise. I had no idea what we were in for. That letter that I posted—wound up: where? Later that afternoon, my sister and I were told that he was gone. We were inconsolable.
I think poetry is a cold art with a big heart of all heat. Almost half a century later, the willful “affect” of that colder self, on the page, pre- vails. I wrote the poem, intentionally, with sharp edges and all hope of innocence in ruins. My father’s father died at the age of thirty-nine, also on the Fourth of July (already a loaded day to us), also of a massive cardiac event with no warning. The poem is, in part, about the mandates of a destiny.
Turning, as I am wont to do, for a moment, to the untimely demise of Michael Jackson—when his brother Jermaine (who had announced that death) was asked how he could accept such a loss, he said he did not know. I believe he said five words: It is what it is. Every time I hear a person say this phrase (especially if they mean it), I’m stunned anew. For me, I don’t think I’ve ever simply accepted that anything — is what it is. I’ve no such calm to speak of.
There are some intriguing place-names in this poem. Could you say some- thing about the Monongahela River, and also Brod?
There are many small villages in eastern Poland called “Brod,” thus (perhaps) the name Broido. My family came also from Russia, Lithuania, so it may have been something like Broydovsky.
My father was brought back to Pittsburgh to be buried; it’s where we grew up. Two rivers — the Monongahela and the Allegheny meet there to form the Ohio. This is the city of Jack Gilbert’s “Refusing Heaven,” where he writes of the ninety-two bridges that crossed his youth.
The stepmother in the poem was my father’s second wife. She was slinky, unnerving, and divine: our own private Elizabeth Taylor on our own hot tin roof. Family lore has it that my father taught Miss Taylor (the real one) how to water-ski. On the Monongahela River.
The poem is heavily populated by fish! But the daughters, with their de- scending “tinsel” scales, finally seem more definitively fishlike—and in some ways, more transformed — than the deceased father. Could you say something about this?
Our father, on that one day when his life ended, had no chance left for transformation. Then we were the only ones left for that.
When you’re that young, and you experience your first death, the world — which was massively colorful — goes black and white. In the poem, the two daughters become selkie-like—they must shed their skin to become human, to live on land. That’s why, near the close of the poem, the sisters begin to lose their rainbowed mermaid scales, which, in turn, wash into the ever-yellowing confluence of the two rivers (Ohio-bound); real life sets in.
Back then in Pittsburgh, the rivers weren’t toxic yet, and we were taught to swim and fish there. There were mooneyes and ghost shin- ers, but I was fixed only on the catfish—it had whiskers and a tail.
“Extreme Wisteria” contains “extreme” hyacinth as well as wisteria. Are extreme flowers like extreme sports — i.e., are they dangerous?
Flowers do not tend to be dangerous. Poems, in my opinion, always are.
Wisteria is, first: a hardy, deciduous, capable-of-earnest-grasping shrub which bears small flowers. After that, it can be pressed (violently if you will) into an attar of its former self. In this poem, wisteria is also a state (of mind), the place one heads toward when feeling wistful. There are other states—such as “Irrinois”—that district somewhere between Annoy and Irritate. Or the state the poet Liam Rector dreamed up, called “Sentimentia,” the place where sentimentality bleeds into dementia, and the result is extreme truth on the page.
Attar of hyacinth is the scent I’ve worn all of my adult life, the only scent in fact. (I eschew change.) So consummate is this pressed oil, though, that on more than one occasion, I’ve been told of the lingering presence of my absence in rooms I’ve been in. The man who runs the elevator in the building where I live once told me that, were I to commit a crime, I would be apprehended instantly. Hours after I am gone, he told me, the evidence of hyacinth goes up and down with the elevator all night long.
Are extreme flowers like extreme sports? What I know of extreme sports: my favorite is called “Extreme Ironing.” You think I’m making this up. Participants take baskets of heavily wrinkled clothes, their boards, their irons (electricity, not portable, seems to get there once you do). The sport is played in radical settings; at the edges of cliffs, or hanging from high bridges. The athletes are called “Ironists.” I am one of those.
Both of these poems, but particularly “Extreme Wisteria,” use the sentence fragment to significant grammatical and poetic effect. Could you say more about this choice?
On fragmenting: I’m in love with the idea that a poem should always try to be smaller than itself. The white space should be as detailed and passionate as that which is said aloud.
A beautiful assertion from Brodsky: “The more invisible something is /the more certain it’s been around.”
We’re very interested in the “Abandonarium” (and its attendant capital- ization)! What is it?
This would be the place you go (or where they put you) when you’ve been—abandoned: jilted, left, forsook. The “green rooms” are where you wait before your vitals are assessed—much like the back- stage antechambers where they put you before a performance, where you sip bottled water, or if you’re nervous you take tiny Ativans, re-fluff your hair.
There could be other “asylums.” The “Sanctimonium” — the room you’re carted off to when you’ve been unbearably self-righteous. The “Pandamonium”—where you mingle with mortally adorable Asian bears. Or there is Franz Wright’s brilliant enclosure: the nicatorium, that Lucite booth in Midwestern airports, almost now extinct, where smokers are condemned to breathe amid each other’s fumes between connecting flights.
The poem describes a vivid personality or archetype but is careful not to give us too much identifying information. Was the poem inspired by a particular person? Why does the poem omit this information, if indeed it does?
The third person speaker of “Extreme Wisteria” is a biographer, in- deed, an autobiographer, who annotates the account of the history of a life—a life of my own, in fact.
On the page, I am more than accustomed to being misconstrued as a thirteenth-century monk lucubrating in his dark anchorage. Or a pre-lingual child singing from the bottom of a well where she fell in Midland, Texas circa the “Me Decade.” All that is my own fault. I brought me up as a ventriloquist, and in my early twenties I swore to god (in an extreme anti-Plath moment of my life; I have since come back to the fold) I would never stoop to speak in my own voice on the page.
I’m done with all that now. No matter what mask, it is I (it is I, not the wind) who speaks. I prefer to be legible. It’s time to get simple here.
Though I am wildly capable of certain linguistic fabrications, I am in it for the truth. OK: a truth. I am no longer interested in the hokum-pokum of the dramatic monologue. In “Extreme Wisteria,” there is no detail that does not contain some hank of truth. It is I who has a one-horse open sleigh in my living room.
It is I who fancied myself Cleopatra for a spell at the age of five, especially at Halloween. It was those gold sandals I longed for, the one-shouldered white drape of a sheet.
There is one affixed irrevocable truth at the center of the poem, and that is the declaration that Brock-Broido’s “single subject is the idea that every single thing she loves will (perhaps tomorrow) die.” That’s a riff on what the poet Peter Davison once wrote in a review of my work. I don’t think that review was much of a rave, but—so fully-fathomed did I feel, I wrote him a fan letter. His crystal summary was exact, concise, and I thanked him for his “surgery.”
I will admit to two fabrications in the stockpile of objective correlatives in this single poem. One: on scarlet fever: if I were a more reliable autobiographer, a more open book, I would have said strep throat, or even the mumps. But the poem didn’t have any sonic room for “mumps.” Two: I’ve never lived with a lemur. I just liked the sense of the ridiculous of that.
If I’ve obfuscated the “vivid personality or the archetype” first, I wanted to rough me up—I always do. A great percentage of my tenderness occurs in real life, not on the page. But I do have some re- gret about the perceived extravagances of my Supposed Persons. As Dickinson wrote in an early letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:
“When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” I never mean to be opaque. I say: take me at my word. No one believes me.
I know my work can be quirky, but in my mind’s eye I am almost transparent—nearly naked!—exposed to the point that I could be taken as just a player in the most extreme sport, called the Running of the Nudes.
On the speaker: as Miss Earnshaw said with her passion and its violence: I am Heathcliff.
Lucie Brock-Broido was born in Pittsburgh, was educated at Johns Hopkins and Columbia University, and taught at Bennington, Princeton, Harvard (where she was a Briggs-Copeland poet), and Columbia. She was the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as awards from the American Poetry Review...