Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Trouble in Mind

Lucie Brock-Broido

Alfred A Knopf ($23)

by A. A. Farman

There are at least two things to be thankful for in Lucie Brock-Broido's burnished book of new poems, Trouble in Mind. First, that it has finally appeared. Second, that it has taken so long to appear. Brock-Broido takes her time, publishing a volume every seven to nine years, as though to reprove the careless promiscuity of poets who issue progeny every nine months or so. Her words, her lines, even her line breaks, appear so masterfully wrought they call on you to pause and bend close to them, the way you would in an antique store, hovering over the glass case or turning the carved amber under the light to see it refract at different angles. Yet that is also the book's weakness—the cumulative effect of all that awe makes Trouble in Mind feel somewhat like the tsar's Amber Room, overly opulent, almost courtly, striking more for its craft and color and breeding than for its wit or wisdom or vitality.

Brock-Broido secured a reputation with her surprising first book, A Hunger, which was quickly declared by Helen Vendler as the new miracle in American poetry. Brock-Broido was thus anointed in 1988. Fifteen years later, Trouble in Mind, only her third book, echoes with concerns she brought into the world with A Hunger. The child, always "astray," punished, hungering, haunting adulthood through history; the language, luxuriant but not timorous, confronting and enfolding the harsh, unforgiving parts of life—"a young girl slides a needle / In the turnip-purple soft fold of her inner arm" ("Death as a German Expert") or "alive // And lithe as tiny scissors used / To cut out tissue in a human which had gone wrong" ("Some Details of Hell"). In this book—and the title reflects this—there is a more personal and consistent nervousness about death, not as a poetic idea, but as an event come into the poet's world, entered into an actual relationship with her life. In one poem, "A hearse moves through the city like a herd of / One... / and someone is telling you: / She is not here, she is not anywhere, you see." In another, she wants to keep company with the dead person: "The hours between washing and the well / Of burial are the soul's most troubled time.... / I would have made of my body / A body to protect her, anything to keep // Her well & here—in the soul's suite / Before five tons of earth will bear // On her..."

Though Brock-Broido's poems are thankfully far from the confessional, such personal intervals are welcome. When she writes, "I do not want to be a chrysalis again. / How long will I have to live here quickened in // My finespun case", the query contains a genuine moment, the lyrical impulse of a poem, which in most other places is lost under the medieval masonry of her writing. "the clenched astronomer // Hunched at table, considering his vexed / Celestial map, illegible as the flinch // Of needles falling on the blanched / Rye fields in pentagrams." Each element here is interesting, well-wrought, original even, on its own—the clenched astronomer, the flinch of needles, the blanched rye—but all together they are too much; vitality is sacrificed for dexterity. In a few places, this is taken so far as to make the image or metaphor senseless. In the opening poem, for example, the poet writes of a "scarab-colored hollow," but scarabs come in all different colors, so the line doesn't evoke anything more than its own musicality. The concreteness of the words deceive, obscuring the fact that they are deployed as total abstractions, connecting the reader to nothing in the sensual world.

The poems in Trouble in Mind can possess you with calculated magic, but once you look into the "magician's hollow hat," to use Brock-Broido's own words, the sentiments fail to live up to the appearance of delicacy and complexity. "I will go on loving as I love the backs / Of things and the invisible, // As I love the hideous or an attention / So attentive it is next to worshipping." This is fine, but morally predictable—the expected posture of a poet.

Of course, there is much to value in this book. Brock-Broido's search for the original image, the surprising word, or the odd juxtaposition, as well as her considerable knowledge of poetry, are invested in every poem, and so in every poem there is some pay off. She has worked vigilantly, like the fairy Morgan in one of her poems, with "a taxidermist's patience." The trouble, in my mind, is that the task of the taxidermist is to make something appear alive, while that of the poet is to make it come alive.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents