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Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido (review)
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Like Horatio’s plea to the ghost of King Hamlet alluded to in the title of the collection, the poems in Lucie Brock-Broido’s fourth book of poetry represent the impossibility of commanding images “uncalled for, but called forth” (“Extreme Wisteria”) to “Stay!” and “Speak!” Stay, Illusion is filled with ghosts—there are elegies for Brock-Broido’s father, the poet Liam Rector, executed death row inmates Ricky Ray Rector and Tookie Williams, as well as elegies for lost relationships, possibilities, and selves. However, Brock-Broido is shrewdly aware of not only the failure of poetry to speak to the dead (never mind to elicit a response), but also the danger inherent in attempting to “stay” an illusion through poetry. Throughout the collection, writing is represented not as a strategy that successfully command illusions to stay, but one capable of arresting the desire to issue such a command. After all, this is a speaker who counts among her illusions the “high editorial illusion of ‘control’” (“Extreme Wisteria”) and confesses that her true “heart’s desire would be only to desire, but not to grasp. / And not by yonder blessed celestial anything I swear” (“Lucid Interval”).

The first poem in the collection lays out the tenacity of the compulsion that drives a writer to exaggerate, bend the truth, and construct myths in order to grasp at what is, by definition, ungraspable. The material of poetry is like the “[s]ilk spool of the recluse as she confects her eventual mythomania” (“Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room”). Filled with an impossible mixture of verb tenses, “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room” explores the urge toward mythomania, understood both as a compulsion to lie, but also as a compulsion to rely on mythos as a way of telling the story of ourselves to ourselves. The speaker foretells a future when the compulsion will win out after a prolonged habit of bringing together, or “confect[ing],” mythos out of material as fragile as silk thread. In the mythos of this poem, the reclusive speaker becomes a double for a “violin spider,” also known as the brown recluse spider. The violin spider has “[h]as six good eyes, arranged in threes. / The rims of wounds have wounds as well.” The speaker confects herself as a double for both the violin spider, whose name has an explicit connection to lyric, and for the brown recluse spider, whose name recalls her admitted isolation. The problem of shaping mythos into meaning becomes apparent when, after describing the violin spider, the speaker abruptly halts and declares: “Sphinx, small print, you are inscrutable.” Like the markings of the violin spider, which are difficult to identify because they are so small, the signifying marks of writing threaten to dissolve into inscrutability. But, the poem insists, the barest signs still communicate: “On the roads, blue thistles, barely visible by night, and, by these, you may yet find your way home.” In essence, this opening poem presents the ars poetica Brock-Broido develops throughout the collection—that poetry communicates best when it does not insist on communicating fully. Many readers will have come to Brock-Broido through her last book, The Master Letters, published in 1993. The Master Letters took up the problem of poetic communication through what Brock-Broido calls a “refraction” of other voices, most centrally that of Emily Dickinson, whose posthumous letters to an unidentified “Master” organize the collection. As in The Master Letters, the speaker of Stay, Illusion does not so much an attempt to speak to the dead, or for the dead, but with the dead, stretching the possessive capacity of the pronoun:

Pronouns are not to be trifled with, possessive ones or otherwise.
(Mine is a gazelle, of course.)
I am of a fine mind to worship the visible world, the woo and pitch and sign of it.
And all that would be buried in the drama of my going on.

(“Dear Shadows,”)

The speaker returns again and again to the seriousness of the pronoun in Stay, Illusion. The constraints of the personal pronoun, in particular, recur, with a constant “[u]nspeakable anxiety about locked-in syndrome” (“Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room”). Locked-in syndrome...


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