The first time I came across Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters was in Ed Brunner’s wonderful class, at SIU-Carbondale, on the book-length poetry project. When I opened it up, I noticed that he was thanked personally on the back page, and I probably started to read it based on a “hey, I know that guy” excitement, not really knowing anything about the book itself. And I don’t really know how the first reading impacted me, except that it probably demanded a second reading—not only the poems’ incredibly lyrical richness, or the mix of mystery and urgency in what they said, but some combination of those and more, that simply got me going back to it, and has kept it in my line of poetry vision since then, wonderfully and importantly resisting codification and attracting repeated readings through the MFA and PhD, and many other changes in between.
In 2004, visiting Carrowmore, I had the book’s first poem, with that name, not just in mind, but printed out and maybe in my pocket—not saying that to anyone, probably, because of not wanting to seem like a poetry nerd, but being one, anyway. It’s a megalithic cemetery not all that far from Yeats’s grave, and mostly humps of stone that might seem naturally set there if it wasn’t explained that they are graves. And the poem does some scene-setting, showing lambs “blotched blue, belonging,” running a root through the Romantic pastoral mode about as far back as one can go in the Western tradition, since lambs were a big deal back then, and goes in twists both dizzying and primordial through the presentation of a sacrificial victim, the speaker’s identification with her, and the fragmentation of attention and reference that make the poem bristle with referentiality that finally floats free of anchoring in any one statement, place, or persona. It wasn’t a lens on the cemetery, of course, being both about and not about so much more, but I walked around it getting fairly soaked in the fitting rain, and the poem’s mix of a seemingly peaceful surface and intentions with everything coming undone underneath, in lines like “my belonging I remember how cold I will be,” helped me accept the mystery of where I was.
The project that frames a lot of the poems, epistles mostly in prose and some in verse to a mercurial addressee who’s sometimes the Master, seemed at first like a way of reading Dickinson, until, again, those repeated readings that the poems seemed to demand, with titles like “And Wylde for to Hold” and “The Sleeping Hollow of His Face Shall be the Straight Pass of Surrendering,” with so many moments of mesmerizing lyricism within them—”fanatic against the vanishing,” “The thrushes sing at auburn dusk / Like parlor ornaments wound up,” “the fire’s leathern eye”—started to show me so much more. Maybe I had never seen intertextuality as a strategy to both build a poem, or series of them, and to make a sound that stays both surprising and amazingly cohesive, considering the intertexts, the references that go from Sappho to a famous execution in the “chair electric with bad news.”
One voice, and many voices, at the same time. Not the one getting subsumed into the many, like The Waste Land seems to me, or the other way that Whitman goes for me, but this balance, where the speaker acts as choir without losing that sense of an identity—a mystery of one, even a lack, but there, not only orchestrating but present throughout. Cracked mask after cracked mask, and the goal isn’t for the reader to delineate a face behind them, or to trace references through to a life story, at least for me—I started to find a play with language inseparable from a play with persona, that helped me see, really see, how much fun Shakespeare may have had, and to remember how much I definitely did as a kid with shifting from game to game that had their own costumes and parts to play, not as a way of hiding or even revealing, but connecting.
That’s another wonderful thing that I get from this book, and keep getting from it—a sense that the reader matters, is present for the speaker, but not stuck in a role, not fixed in any one place. Maybe the letters suggest that the reader is master in that reader-constructs-the-text kind of way, but “My Most Courteous Lord” and other addresses like it get dynamited out of any clear power relationship by the saying of the poems themselves, by a speaker who masters and, ha, remasters that leap from one persona to another, one setting and reference to another, and one urgent emotional register to another, even in the space of a single poem like “Did Not Come Back”:
. . . the best of them,
The slowest velvet suffocation of their kind, did not come
Whittled back by autumn, at an hour between thorn & chaff,
Not come riddled with oblivion, the crossing & a shepherd’s staff,
The moment between Have & Shall Not Want, we who have salt
Always know, that we who have—the best of us—did not come
The speaker, and the speakers, of these poems, are mastered by no one, but potentially connected to anyone, to me. And, maybe they argue, if they do argue anything—how can I not be?
Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry and Kenyon Review, and are forthcoming in Crazyhorse. His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo’s Snowbound Chapbook Contest, and was published last November.
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