Essays, Features

Emily Bedard: “Reading Lucie Brock-Broido in Mexico”

Seattle Arts & Lectures is delighted to be partnering with Poetry Northwest to be launching a series of original essays and reflections on some of the speakers in our Poetry Series. This first installation, poet and Writers in the Schools teaching artist, Emily Bedard, dives into the most recent collection by Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion. The piece is not a review, but rather a view from that book. A view from inside its textured covers. A view from a week spent traveling in the book, dreaming with the book, swimming in its inky infinity pools. Part travelogue, part meditation on the meditative poems of Brock-Broido, the essay shows, not tells, what is so richly compelling about the dream worlds of these poems.

We hope you enjoy this essay, and will join us for Lucie Brock-Broido’s reading for Seattle Arts & Lectures this Thursday, April 23, at 7:30 at Chihuly Garden and Glass. For a 15% discount on tickets, Poetry Northwest readers may enter PNW1415 at checkout.

—Rebecca Hoogs, Associate Director, Seattle Arts & Lectures

Brock-Broido

Reading Lucie Brock-Broido in Mexico

On the chair next to my packed suitcase the books are teetering in their tower. I know they cannot all go along, but at the moment I cannot choose between them because each one is my favorite child. In the days before departure, their spines stack up, swap out, rearrange themselves like parakeets startling off a branch and settling back down.

I get it, the husband says, the sweet husband who also loves to read and will carry my overflow books in his bag. But that book of poems? He points to my copy of Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido. I think you might be kidding yourself.

I know what he means. I love poetry, with its mix of thorns and down, with its disregard for boundaries and its refusal to truckle to the clock. But we are going to a beach resort for a week with a pack of in-laws and numerous small, loud children. Chatty, sunburnt people will sit on barstools in the pool and clip their towels to their chairs with big plastic bananas. It is not poem land. It is People Magazine land.

I study the cover of the book, and a 15th century rendering of a white deer stares back. It is clearly an imagined creature, but the cracks in its sides are real. I slide the book into the bag and draw the zipper until it stops.

*

So now I am in Mexico, reading Lucie Brock-Broido poems before bed and falling off a cliff of consciousness into the deepest sleep I have had in years. The balcony slider stays open all night, and the roaring hush of the ocean presses us to the mattress. The earshell on the pillow hears silence, the earshell toward the ceiling hears a ceaseless crush of water. The two sounds meet in the middle, in the sleeping brain, and draw a black velvet over the day. The smallest child has asked to be taken to where the waves begin. This is the place, small child. Here in this nighttime hollow, before the words waft up from the beach and slip around the scrim of cream curtain. Here, where the poems go after you read them.

*

During the day, it’s hola after hola after hola. It’s a beautiful word and breaks like a little breeze over us each time we say it. My approximate Spanish is a garden in my mouth: Is possible please to enter this villa? We go now for the small museum. In the book of poems, the poet roams a museum too. Also an asylum, a sanitorium, a fumatorium, an Abandonarium, and a Trepidarium. When the door closes on a room and there you are, inside it somewhere on the planet with your clear veils of memory and desire filling the air around you, that’s the noise the room is making. Like a hum that needs no breath to begin it: um.

*

The sleep comes every night to return me to the seafloor; the poems just before it feel like dreaming while awake. Not in the sense that they are unreal, but in the sense that they are hyper-real and then they are gone. Blinked out at the turning of the page.

*

Inside the book the animals swarm. They graze and nest and sing and perch and feed and circle and purr and flit and weave and cling. They await tanning. They go extinct in puff of thought. They wear suits of other animals. They huddle and struggle and sleep in the sun and die of thirst. They are kicked and caged and bled, they are having their eyes sewn shut. They are turning into gloves. They are not, we read with regret, leaning their foreheads into the poet’s hand tonight.

*

Kneeling on the pool deck, the photographer’s assistant places the large lizard onto the back of the little girl lying in the sun. The lizard rests his forefeet on her shoulders. His jaw juts past her damp ponytail. He is whispering into her hearing something she will never remember. Through the pressed air of the mangroves, the cry of the Mexican grackle drops like a singing knife.

*

By mid-week, the book of poems has become a foreign country in a foreign country. I am doubly traveling. Within a line, the poet stacks prepositions like nested jewel boxes. The last box opens. On its frayed silk lining lies a tiny bone from your own ear.

*

We leave the sunbaked resort to visit nearby Mayan ruins. The buildings are hewn rock walls with rough cylindrical storage wells and stairs that stack up and up to nowhere. They are ruins, so we do not touch them. That is, we do not touch the obvious, solid, mountable things. We can touch the space around them. Which is more real? The black words on the page or the white snowfield they are scratched into? On one low rumbled wall, a huge iguana lies in the sun, slitting it eyes and tossing its head, like an old man still feeling the ghost of a pill he can’t be sure went down. Nearby two more iguanas circle each other in a slow-motion stir of scales and claws. One lunges. We hear a snap.

A boy in red sneakers runs after the wiry park ranger with his full moustache. Señor! Señor! Did the Mayans have cemento? Señor, did they use mortero to make what is now only half with us? Is there, señor, a depredador of the iguana? No, he says. They eat the ferns, he says, waving a brown hand. The big ferns that have always grown here.

We are tired on our return bus ride. We lean our heads against the windows and look down at the young woman on the back of a motorcycle. She holds the driver with her thighs and arms, while the white skirt whips up around her hips. We stare: At the cheek resting against the sun-hot spine. At the hands reaching into the other person’s pockets.

*

Milk, milkmen, milkweed, milkmaid. Milk in a chowder-mug, milk in a metal cylinder, powdered milk, curdled milk, milk taken as a final meal on the eve of execution at the hands of the state. I look up from the book. The baby in shark bloomers is at his mother’s breast across the flashing surface of the pool. Her freckled chest burns in the sun.

*

The poems are covered in birds: owl, wren, swan, dove, quail, finch, lark, crow. Gull, lapwing, starling, robin, rook, and thrush. I put the book into the side pocket of my flame-colored bag and climb over the wall into the lap pool. The end of the pool tricks the eye so that I am swimming straight onto the horizon. I am scooping a me-shaped shape out of the water while the water fills in behind where I no longer am. There is no sign I will come back. Meanwhile, magnificent frigate birds wheel overhead. One ear turns to hear the laughter and the splash, one ear turns to hear the tumbling murmur of the pool jets. Then switch. Then switch.

*

When you read, what you read is not inside you. You cannot put it on like a sundress or a sandal. You cannot drink it like tequila. You can hold the book but you are not holding the story. The thing you read, you are passing through it. It is passing through you at the same time and leaving a sort of residue. Later, you will be able to feel what’s left behind, but it will be nearly impossible to communicate that to someone else. It is the same with travel. The other person has to read the poems herself, she has to feel the suck of the current at her own ankles. Like a bird that is so intricately wrought, twitching its glossy head to eye the smallest child’s crackers, sidestepping along the white armrest with its stone-gray talons, nothing is more real. And when it takes itself off again, nothing is harder to prove than that it was actually there.

*

On the airplane, snatches of chat in a muffle of engine noise like a crowd of voices pressed through a straw hat. The husband’s voice has started to go. I am darting around the inside of Brock-Broido poems like a fish chasing flickers of light. Little bits of words fall off and roll under the seats. Members of my species are joggling about in the airplane, plastic toy people in an egg carton. The smallest child is now yelling, but the poet swathes us in layers of silk and linen, in wraps of wool and flannel, in strata of velvet and crinoline and sailcloth and gauze.

*

Here is the language of the sky outside the jet window with its pressed sandwich of air: A band of crimson. Of vermillion. Of gold. Of palest yellow somehow becoming light blue without a breath of green. Below, the pulled peaks of cloud, covered in night, like black whipped cream. It is too dark to read now. But on the tray table in front of me, the pages are soaked in color, too: amber, orchid, mallow, and sepia, azure and mercury and mink.

Later the sky is a single blood-colored line under a blanket of dark green, above a black fleece of clouds. All goes dark as the plane tilts into a turn. That’s it: Color so rich it burns the brain. And then, just like that, black.

*

When I read Stay, Illusion again in Seattle, I am sitting in a car under a steady spatter of rain. Outside the window, young boys in purple shirts trudge through mud to meet their future selves. The poems in my lap give off a scent of lime and chlorine and surf. Except those scents are actually inside of me; they belong to the reader who read the poems. Or, rather, they belong to the reading itself, over now but indelible. The I that read them then and the I now recollecting, together we make a new creature. I think of that self, full of those words, trailing like a transparent cape. I turn the page, and she peers over my shoulder, half unearthly lizard and half lovely rider. We watch as the poems rise to us again, untamable, kicking to the surface, line by inky line.

Emily Bedard writes poetry, fiction, and collaborative screenplays with her sister. She has an M.F.A. from the University of Montana and has taught students from preschool to college age. Her freelance work is in print and online, and her poems have appeared in Indiana Review, Swivel, and elsewhere.