- Breaking Bad:The Outlaw Stylings of Brock-Broido, Cushman, and Wright
Poetry is broken language. Even in its “prose” incarnations—proems, prose poems—when lineation is not formally observed, poetry works the break. It interrupts, truncates, burglarizes. Poetry ruptures and ameliorates. Hardly ever housebroken, it often acts as a breaker box for the incendiary currents coursing through us. Poems break hearts. They break the news, however difficult. Rarely garnering for their makers fame and fortune, poems may nonetheless embody—in their breaching and bridging of the large distances—a stroke of luck, a stroke of mercy.
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Lucie Brock-Broido, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, slipped out of the Rust Belt to fashion for herself and legions of admirers a poetry of recherché beauty and arcanity in a language so baroque, damasked, and original as to sound at times like a translation of a foreign tongue. Brock-Broido has called her style “feral,” and her first three books are rife with intensely rendered embellishment: syntactic blandishment, exotic diction, provocative use of white space, allusive sampling from other texts, and an obsession with glossing (the endnotes that accompany The Master Letters make a new genre of the form). [End Page 214]
In an essay about the elusive, oneiric rocker Kate Bush in the London Review of Books, Ian Penman describes the title song of Bush’s iconic album Hounds of Love as “at once pained and lost and powerfully erotic.” Penman urges readers to “[l]isten to the closing minutes of ‘Running Up That Hill’, with its muted chorus of multi-tracked Kates: screaming, grieving, witchy, shattered, a sonic foam rising above the song’s jagged tribunal. It’s a very odd song indeed. At the very least, it claws and rubs at the dissolute line between ecstasy and abjection.” What Penman says about Bush characterizes much of Brock-Broido’s work, and might explain the powerful hold her poems—private, even gnomic, but offering tantalizing lures into popular culture and attar waftings of emotional truth—have had on readers. For example, “Fame Rabies” takes delicious potshots at the destructive romance of notoriety, especially for artists who have worked hard to reinvent themselves:
In the story, your life was young,Would last. In the east you madeNo memories. In the west you never were.
In the middle of the country, onceIn a large, aspiring, opaque crowd,You could barely wait to be visible.
In two thousand years, malaiseAnd foaming, hydrophobia—The diagnosis is not possible
Before the Posthumous. Don’t pout. What animal, do you think,Would velvet be the pelt of?
From the start, Brock-Broido’s “project” has been, in part, about breaking through expected textures of semiotics, and making language animal. Her poems can seem encoded and difficult, but they are really about breaking code in acts of enthralled conversion.
The title Stay, Illusion, spliced by a comma, creates caesura, a stutter that forces the reader to attend to both the title’s power (as in the command one might give a domesticated animal) and its vulnerability (as in wondering if the “stays” of a corset, or any sense of control, can be only artifice, illusion). This nexus of dominion and surrender, violence and tenderness, has always barbed the heart of Brock-Broido’s mystery, and perhaps never more so than in this new collection, which is more simple, directly autobiographical, and forthrightly elegiac than her previous work.
Touchstone Brock-Broido stylistic moves abide. The language is gorgeous, rich. And although they are less overtly acknowledged, ghosted phrases from everywhere, especially the poets and artists Brock-Broido loves—Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Liam Rector, William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Glenn Gould—stalk the poems, whose landscapes are often halfway sites of precarious danger—part Old World circus, part Waffle House—among them hospitals, castles, cookie jars, teacups, drawers, barns, heaven, the “curdled theater” of home, a broom factory, European cities, places from children’s books, and an array of Latinate, portmanteau states of mind, [End Page 215] “mental museums” with names like Trepidarium, Abandonarium, and Silentium.
As the poet comes to terms...