Selected Poems 1946-1996
Black Sparrow Press ($16)
by Michael Wiegers
The poet and filmmaker James Broughton lives in a house in the woods on a dirt road with his partner and collaborator, Joel Singer. As one approaches the house hand-painted signs appear, beckoning the visitor thither. The signs are, of course, playful, making reference to two of Broughton's poems: "This is it!" followed further down the driveway by "This is really it!" Part Ram Dass, part Zen, part childlike babble, Broughton's poems, like his home, are all play and welcoming in their simplicity and centeredness. Silly yet serious, and unapologetic throughout.
The address on the door is 1234 54th St., an address seemingly made from a child's building blocks—ascending primary numbers. Their cat Catawampus runs through the door. Broughton's body has slowed with age and he doesn't get out as much as he would like, but his wit, enthusiasm, teasing nature, and intelligence are immediate. Inside the house the walls are adorned collages, including one in which James and Joel are costumed as angels cradling one another. On another wall is the collage that graces the cover of the Broughton's new book of selected poems, Packing Up for Paradise.
The collection is generous in its presentation of a voice that never fails to sing the triumph of the human body. Yet when confronted with nearly 200 poems that celebrate eroticism and the transcendence of the senses, one feels almost compelled to assume a defensive position; Broughton's career, after all, spans the years of nuclear proliferation, of suburban sprawl and environmental nightmares, of aids and the growth of the image-overloaded culture of the computer age. Despite this history, or rather, in the face of it, Broughton remains serious about play—not as a way to ignore an often brutal world, but as a way to conquer its dehumanization. And given the current state of poetry, which too often values the competitive, ambitious economy of degrees and awards, Broughton's poetry stands out as antithetical, even vulnerable, both for its stubborn refusal to succumb to negativity and for its wholehearted commitment to celebration.
Thus, one finds no political maneuvering, no cynicism nor detachment in Packing Up for Paradise. The Greek Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis once wrote that "tears unbecome the house of poets" and "that which disempowers you is unfit for your song." Although in his poetry and films Broughton pays homage more to the classical Greeks and their gods than to Greece's modern writers, he has consistently taken hold of the lyric sentiments behind Elytis's words and followed them on a similar trajectory. He has strived to be an ecstatic poet in its purest sense. He is also one of the few poets who carries on the courtly tradition of occasional poetry.
Broughton's is a poetry of revelation, not obfuscation. His primary goal is to share in the body's delights. Each poem is a celebration and a call to offset the putrefaction of complacency with a bit of devilishness, to undermine the inhumanity of habits and of numbed senses, as in his "Call for a Desperate Measure":
So are we all, in our labyrinths.
Is inert sorrow plugged in to stay?
A plow to break the otiose, please!
For a furbelow of freedom if nothing more.
No breathing room in these lap-dog kennels?
Merely speedier crutches of newer driftwood
to go hopping again around the mirrors
with a woodener pout to whittle at?
A little arson, please, a little aerification
to dare some miracle of small surprises!
At least a bauble, at least!
Or so are we stalled, in our labyrinths.
Some of his poems also double as narratives for his films. Filmmaking is to Broughton simply an extension of his poetry; as with his poems, his films often borrow the wonder and pacing of nursery rhyme and riddle. His poems and films cross paths and share titles, such as "The Gardener of Eden." And like his poetry, the films focus on the immediate, whether it's the primary colors of an infant in red cowboy boots and hat chasing a bright red ball or on the flowing of water or the blowing of wind through leaves. Despite this recurrent meditation on the elemental and on childlike playfulness, the images Broughton creates are far from parochial. There are, in equal measure, subtle references to the world's great art, be it the filmmaking of Satyajit Ray, the spiritual imagination of the Greeks, the poetry of Basho, or the Renaissance art of Michelangelo. For his filmmaking, Broughton has been given a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and has been designated the "Grand Master of Independent Cinema."
The language of Broughton's filmmaking and poetry is not a quotidian language per se, but it is a language which serves the body's experience, its every moment. He employs puns and double entendres shamelessly and repeatedly. "Poetry," he writes "like love and religion is a glorious conjunction of sense and nonsense." Ultimately, however, Packing Up for Paradise is a book of love poems in which James Broughton expresses not only his love for Joel, but for the moment, for the language of touch and experience, a love of words and jokes and ideas and salvation and the excitement of risking life lived at the tips of our fingers. "I believe in ecstasy for everyone."
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998