Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lucie Brock-Broido, _The Master Letters_

I BOUGHT THIS about five years ago when a friend expressed surprise that I had not yet read it; it has occupied a variety of to-be-read-soon piles in the intervening time, but it was Helen Vendler's review of Brock-Broido's most recent that finally gave me the shove I needed. Very compelling, I have to admit, once I got well into it.

Read from one direction, The Master Letters is a self-consciously literary project, a kind of poetic fantasia on the three draft letters, possibly never sent, written by Emily Dickinson to a possibly married possible clergyman. We know nothing about the circumstances in which they were composed, but their emotional megatonnage is no whit injured by that ignorance. Their power is such that you almost hope the poor New England schlub never received them--they would have vaporized him.

Brock-Broido's poems partly imagine their way into those circumstances, not so much filling in detail as elaborating upon them in something like Dickinson's own vein of audacious figuration, reimagined syntax, and stop-start rhythms. For the most part, there's not a word in here unknown in the 19th century...

...but then there's the occasional "janitor / Sweeping alone at night with his orange // Push broom in the fallout shelter." At such odd moments, the frame of reference becomes contemporary, and we think we hear the poet herself. So, read from another direction, the book has a confessional voice whispering within the Dickinsonian voice. One letter to the Master is signed "Your, L"--Lucie, one supposes.  Another evokes her father, "unlucky / In the little aristocracy // Of Homestead, beside a century / Of other Jews with ruined // hearts [...]". Another quotes and responds to a vituperative review of one of Brock-Broido's previous books, which someone called "Haute Couture Vulgarity" (sounds like William Logan, doesn't it?  Just a guess.)

The friend who was sure I would like this had a very just notion of what I like--it's just elegant enough, just mandarin enough, just witchy enough, just musical enough for me, without ever being too much of any of those things. I will be reading more.

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