Engaging the Mystery: The Anagogic Poetry of Lucie Brock-Broido

Eric Farwell

Dec 09, 2019

Last March, Lucie Brock-Broido died at the age of 61. She left behind four collections, and the work within was characterized as “spooky,” “haunted,” or some version thereof when she was eulogized in every publication from The New York Times to The Paris Review Daily. Terms that circle around the idea of the spectral or occult have plagued Broido’s work since her first collection, A Hunger, over thirty years ago. This is primarily due to the fact that though she was raised Jewish and identified as such, her poems often make deep references to the arcane (Stay, Illusion’s reference to an old fasting recipe in “Carpe Demon”), or seem to melt time, folding memories in on themselves thoughtfully and deliberately (A Hunger's “Domestic Mysticism,” to name but one). In the 1980s, when she began teaching poetry at Columbia, her syllabi included Christian mystics like Hildegard and Julian of Norwich, and she was also fond of pet psychics and ouija, which served her desire to inhabit a spiritual space that she would call “magical.” However, while there are a great deal of occult references in her work, it’s important not to overlook how anagogic her poems often were, reckoning as they did with the past, traditional Christian faith, and an overt interest in realms beyond the veil. 

     © Marion Ettlinger

Brock-Broido’s 1997 collection, The Master Letters, takes its name from three mysterious letters Emily Dickinson wrote to an ambiguous “master.” The tone of these letters, simultaneously intimate and reverent, has caused scholars to debate whether they’re romantic, or if they’re addressing a deity. Brock-Broido uses this ambiguity as a starting point to experiment with language, explore the overlapping relationships between man and God and poet and muse, and pay homage to the history of poetry. In her assessment of the collection for Boston Review, Bonnie Costello remarks that “Brock-Broido's fertile similes and metaphors do not turn to the familiar world, or to a mythological subtext, or to the self of the poet. Rather, they turn inward, in an infinite regress toward God or whatever absence answers to their call—we might even name it the Muse.” Indeed, many of Brock-Broido’s poems struggle with conjuring, understanding, and communicating with something greater than herself, and this relationship remains central to her poetic work. 

In early work like The Master Letters, there’s a reverence akin to ritual prayer that makes the questioning of what exists in the afterlife seem unimportant. Her poem, “Also, None Among Us has Seen God,” begins with an address (My Most Courteous Lord —), before saying:

The Teutons have their word for keeping Quiet which our blessing
Language does not have. To say nothing of —Agone, to say nothing 

Of the monk who set himself ablaze, in autumn hair & all, the ravish
& the wool of him, the mourning & the sweetest smell of him —Alive—

How did you teach the learning of this Holding & the holding
Back [...]

Here, Brock-Broido is “engaging the mystery,” asking questions of the unquantifiable God in order to learn this “holding” better and find connection in her poetry between herself and the divine. By the time Stay, Illusion is released in 2015, Brock-Broido has an ease with her lack of knowing, and a confidence when imagining what the next life or reality might be like. The timid reverence is gone, but an implicit trust in the unknown allows her to find more joy and elasticity in the work, one of the qualities that has led critics to attach spectral prescriptors. In “A Meadow,” the lines “if there is a God / he is not done,” appear toward the end of the poem. There’s still engagement with the beyond, and, at times, a certain desperation to know (her plea at the end of “A Meadow” to know that such a quiet place exists in death) but the clear-eyed view Brock-Broido has of her limitations allows her to best marry her quest to understand with her ability to tap into some unnamed source of creativity, finding as close an alchemy between the poet and her muse as she was able to get to in her work. 

There is an almost startling disconnect between the way critics viewed Brock-Broido’s poems and the way she viewed them herself. In keeping with their “spooky” prescriptors, critics saw her work as either rooted in the Dickinson tradition, or incredibly ultraist, while Brock-Broido herself saw the poems as almost confessional. In an interview for Poetry in 2012, Brock-Broido confided, “I know my work can be quirky, but in my mind’s eye I am almost transparent—nearly naked!—exposed to the point that I could be taken as just a player in the most extreme sport, called the Running of the Nudes.” In the same interview, she soberly unpacks a good deal of her work, with most of it originating with the death of her father, along with other losses and struggles that shaped her poetic expression. Brock-Broido’s work is anagogic, and in poems that ruminate on death and grief, this becomes clearer. 

As spectral or metaphysical as some of her wording might be, Brock-Broido always roots her writing in the concerns of daily life. In A Hunger’s “Domestic Mysticism,” the poet imagines herself returning “thrice in 10,000 seasons” wearing a cotton dress, her return indicated by quivering saucers and cats that “swarm on the side/ Porch & perch there, portents with quickened heartbeats.” Here, the poem mentions the “witch’s number” of three, and cats serving as conduits to the supernatural, but more importantly, it plays with the idea of how the poet might return. There’s a confidence here at play, a seriousness that drops out in “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Rooms,” where she poses questions about her post-death state, asking:

What if I were gone and the wind still reeks of hyacinth, what then.

Who will I be: a gaudy arrangement of nuclei, an apple-size gray circle

On the tunic of a Jew, preventing more bad biological accidents

From breeding-in.

When considering the afterlife, Brock-Broido’s poems move cautiously from the idea of the soul as self, to an interesting marriage between Buddhism and Christianity when considering forms. In “Giraffe,” her last poem to run in The New Yorker, she literally goes through the many reincarnations of a giraffe. However, rather than imagine the different forms it might have taken in each life, she tracks its changes via degradation of social status, explaining that the giraffe went from being revered and loved in its natural habitat, to being relegated to zoos, and ultimately exhumed so that future zoologists could understand its physiology. In this way, the poem also functions as a thorough and vivid reverse-anagoge, with Brock-Broido writing the animal’s singular history, and raising ethical concerns over how exotic animals are treated today. Brock-Broido, refusing to speak for the giraffe,brings the animal’s historical reputation full circle with one small moment where the creature looks at the environment that used to welcome him while stuck in the zoo habitat, saying, “In that moment was he looking at a gray, cobbled / Steeple in the middle distance of a dome.” 

It’s curious that Brock-Broido views the concept of reincarnation as a consistency in form in “Giraffe,” but vacillates in its possibilities elsewhere. More curious is the fact that she seems to allow herself play when considering her own fate, but deliberately mines for elegiastic tones when writing of her father, lovers, mentors, or animals. Though she claimed not to have a stoic bone in her body, Brock-Broido’s restraint on the page allows her dealings with death to seem reverent. If God haunts her work throughout all four collections, he’s more absent in poems regarding her own mortality. Reverence, in regard to faith, is comfortably, almost dutifully applied to anyone and anything that is not Brock-Broido herself, as she gives herself permission to delve into the unknown and make space for the possibility of loneliness, something more sublime and fantastic in the next life. 

For example, Trouble in Mind’s “Still Life with Aspirin” depicts Brock-Broido’s mother visiting her in death as a ghost, “an unbearable detail/ Of the supreme celestial map.” Brock-Broido admits just five lines in that she had been taught that no such entity or form exists, and spends the rest of the poem giving into the conceit, marvelling at her visitation, and asking to be held in memory as her most ideal—and true—self. There’s no whiff of doubt, no interest in winking at the reader or brazenly suggesting that it’s possible there is nothing beyond, or that her beyond contains multitudes, and it’s possible she’s making this up. Yet, in poems like Stay, Illusion’s “Lucid Interval,” which begins with the warning, “Tread very gingerly; you’ve used up almost all the words,” and continues with a focus on being close to death, Brock-Broido is clear-eyed about this life, but uncertain about the next. In “Dear Shadows,” the speaker embraces this mystery of the afterlife, proclaiming “I am of fine mind to worship the visible world, the woo and pitch and sign of it. / And all that would be buried in the drama of my going on.” These later poems seem to reach an ease with death, and while they may be reverent, there’s also a sense of exuberance that stands in contrast to her earlier work. In The Master Letters, she populates her poems with small, scared questions like “Does God take care of those at sea?” (“Into Those Great Countries of the Blue Sky of Which We Don’t Know Anything”) or “Do you know how cold I am?” (“Like Murder for Small Hay in the Underworld”). The ways she might come back and the questions she has in these earlier poems suggest, if not doubt, then a certain personal unease with dying, and the status and form of the soul. 

In her work, Brock-Broido seems to be shepherding her losses along in ways that give herself closure and comfort, as well as room to ruminate and struggle with her own spiritual values. John Berryman’s Mr. Bones and Henry come to mind, as does Berryman’s note that prefaces his 1969 work, The Dream Songs, which includes the line “The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry.” Brock-Broido makes no such claims that her narrators are separate from herself, but her work can be interpreted as a permission to explore the interior of the self, and to overturn the darkness in order to map one’s beliefs. For Brock-Broido, these concerns are intertwined with her losses early in life, and however pagan or engaged in creating new images her work can be, there’s a real interest for Brock-Broido in examining her past in an effort to understand how she came to be the poet she is, and to project or forecast what her next life might be. 

In a 1995 interview in BOMB, Brock-Broido said that her own manuscript for The Master Letters wasn’t “a narrative arrangement, but what Stanley Kunitz calls "that state of knowing becoming gradually luminous." In many ways, her poems are a lifetime commitment to that idea, with uncertainty present at the edges. Each book brings her closer to reckoning with the epitaph of Edward of Woodstock, who was the eldest son of King Edward III and died before he could take the throne. His epitaph begins: Such as thou art, sometime I was. / Such as I am, such shalt thou be, and Brock-Broido, struck by its beauty, carried it around for years. This reckoning with the self and faith seemingly occurs in ways she believes her parents would have wanted, which is why her poems often hew toward the direction of the traditional Christian thinking, even as they play with perspective, or invite things like ichor and noctuaries into their lines. Take, for instance, The Master Letters poem  “Moving On in the Dark Like Loaded Boats at Night, Though There is no Course, There is Boundless,” which contains these lines about her father’s death:

[. . .] When he died, he went on like a loaded

Trout stream—toward a Body larger than this one
Is, wading hip-high in the loaded

Dark of boneless water, moving On. 
After Pennsylvania, I couldn’t breathe.

Why would what died once keep on dying off
Over & over like a seam in an old velvet coat

Even with its questioning, the poem clearly roots itself in the idea of the soul moving on toward something brighter after death. Here, the way the lines propel the idea of death as Elysium, and waiting for the chance to join loved ones in that beyond, really showcase how closely anagogic concerns are mirrored in the forms her poems take. 

While Dan Chiasson claimed that Brock-Broido offers up autobiography not as memoir, but grimoire, in his review of Stay, Illusion for The New Yorker, it’s often the opposite, with occult elements in the work typically serving as artifice. Poems like  “A Brief History of Asylum,” “Supernatural is only the Natural, Disclosed,” and “Obsession, Compulsion” all blend the occult with Christian tradition in a seeming attempt to demystify or suggest sameness. Subtle references are blended into her use of melting time, suggesting allegory and casting shadows on a wall already chock full of them. “A Girl Ago” and “Two Girls Ago” see Brock-Broido taking stock of her life and beliefs, with “a Girl Ago” suggesting she’ll soon be joining the flickering swarm of fireflies in Appalachia. “Carpe Demon” is an elegy that moves from childhood to suicide via antifreeze in just a few lines: “In the orchard at the other end of time, you were just a child in ballet slippers / Your first poodle skirt, your tortoiseshell barrettes. As the peach tree grew more / Scarce each day, you kept running out to try and tape the leaves back on their boughs.” The poem, which is about a sister or friend, quotes her as saying that she “was born to be a turtle, swimming down.” Just like in “Moving On in the Dark Like Loaded Boats at Night, Though There is no Course, There is Boundless,” animal imagery suggests an easing into the afterlife, a kind of swimming or moving toward a sense of heaven. All of this melancholy and concern precedes the mention of “dandelion, burdock root, and clay,” which are ingredients for a pre-Christian elixir that combats illness and dispells toxins (or antifreeze). 

Inhabiting such scenarios, or, more accurately, such language, allowed Brock-Broido to examine mortality as something both personal and universal. Her poems were small, but her concerns were bigger than any one work could handle. It’s been just over a year since her death, but I hope these occult labels start to be seen for what they are: a way to suggest that life is full of mystery and surprise, and death, no matter what form it may take, might as well be something we like, a proper strange send off to the strange lives we lead.