How Can It Be That I Am No Longer I: One Student Remembers

Jennifer Franklin

—For Lucie Brock-Broido (1956-2018)

1.

Jennifer Franklin
Jennifer Franklin

I am not the student who knew her the best or the one who knew her longest. I am nowhere near the most accomplished or well-published of her protégées whom she mentored over her decades as a professor at Columbia’s MFA program and, before that, at Harvard. I was certainly not one of her favorite students. I was unsure if I should be the one to write a tribute because I believe that there are people better suited to discuss her work. I have been an avid reader of Lucie’s poetry since I was twenty years old, I knew her work before I knew her. And I have continued to read her haunting poems throughout the past twenty-five years.

The first time I met Mark Doty, he asked me how I remained a lyric poet as a college student at Brown University where the work of Mei-Mei Brussenburge, Susan Howe, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Robinson, Bernadette Mayer, and Leslie Scalapino reigned. The answer was that I had apprenticed myself in my little monk-like dorm room to his work, and that of Michael Harper, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, Laurie Sheck, Elizabeth Alexander, and Lucie Brock-Broido. I discovered Lucie’s work through Kevin Young who was studying with her at Harvard and whom I had met when I was living in Dublin after my sophomore year, researching James Joyce. Modernist literature was my concentration at Brown, but I had decided that I was going to become a poet when I spent the summer studying Keats in Princeton shortly after I turned sixteen. My first kinship with Lucie’s work was the devotion she felt to Keats. I devoured A Hunger. I remember sitting in my first-floor dorm room reading “Ten Years Apprenticeship In Fantasy” out loud over and over to myself. The luxurious sensuality of her language intoxicated me. Not since I read Plath alone aloud in my room as a high school student had I experienced such a visceral reaction to poetry. Eliot wrote, “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” and this has often been my experience with Lucie’s work. There are lines that give me goosebumps, lines that speak to me as if she were reading my mind. One of Lucie’s great powers as a poet, as she is in command of many, is that she can make her readers feel as if she were describing their hearts to them even when her lexicon and her descriptions are so far removed from their own experiences.

Aizenman-Lucie-Brock-Broido-from-The-New-Yorker-archive
Lucie Brock-Broido

I first met Lucie when I was a twenty-one-year-old graduate student at Columbia. She floated into her famous “Practice of Poetry” seminar the first week of classes in September of 1994. My twenty-five-year-old mother from childhood memories was the only more beautiful creature I had ever seen. Like my young mother’s, Lucie’s long hair fell far below her waist. And where my mother was a dark Italian beauty, Lucie looked like a hybrid of Botticelli’s Athena and Venus that I would see the next summer in the Uffizi as well as the wooden statue of Mary Magdalene that I would be reprimanded for photographing at the Louvre. Though I must have read A Hunger dozens of times before I moved to NYC to study with her, I had never heard her voice before that night. She handed us each a copy of the thick photocopied anthology for the class which has grown and evolved in the decades since but even in the mid-90s was a formidable document. She began the class by reading the definitions of poetry she compiled from her favorite writers. I will never forget her saying that every poem is an utterance to God, “Dear Lord—pay attention to me!” Since poetry had already been my religion for years, I was primed for a priestess. And there she was, in velvet, with hundreds of lines of poetry memorized, a melodic and haunting voice that was as cutting as it was soothing. She seemed at the same time deliberately crafted artifice and completely authentic.

I have had mentors who have taken me under their wings and nurtured my work more than Lucie did. But it’s Lucie’s voice I hear in my head when I teach my students, and it’s Lucie’s voice I hear when I revise my own work. I still use everything I learned from her: the importance of juxtaposing origin and ash (an abstraction next to a concrete image) and lily and pigeon’s claw (a beautiful image followed by or preceding an ugly one); a list of words that are difficult to use in poems in the late 20th century and after—rainbow, unicorn, smile, soul, and shard. And the rule that each poet gets one or two exclamation points in his or her entire career.

It was an exciting time to be Lucie’s student. She had almost finished Master Letters, the book I am still most partial to, even now after reading and loving her late work. She adopts and adapts Dickinson’s voice in the three fascinating and mysterious Master Letters where Dickinson confides her deepest and unexpected desires. Even in love she told the truth but told it slant: “What would you do with me if I came “in white”? Have you the little chest—to put the Alive—in? I want to see you more—Sir—than all I wish for in this world—and the wish—altered a little—will be my only one.” It is this voice, mixed with Lucie’s own, that inhabits the poems of her second, highly anticipated second collection. Lucie loved teaching, reading, and assigning persona poems. She would tell us that the best persona poems were a linguistic and emotional marriage of the imagined character and our secret selves. That same autumn, she began a correspondence that would lead to editing Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James (Graywolf Press), a book that had meant so much to her from the time Richard Howard introduced it to her when she was a young graduate student

One of the many gifts that Lucie gave her students was the conviction that poetry was a powerful potion that, if practiced intently and devotedly, would yield surprising and rewarding results. She was right. Recently, I was in Rome and made a pilgrimage to Keats’ grave and the room where he died. It was a trip I had planned to take for twenty-nine years. When I sat on the floor of the little room where Keats had lived his last months (and died slowly and painfully of tuberculosis), I thought about how he suffered too much to write from the time he arrived in Rome the November before he died. I thought about how little the doctors could do to help him and how devoted he was to his craft and his conviction in his work. I pondered how my love for reading instilled my life-long passion to become a writer from the time I was four years old. How my summer studying the Romantic poets convinced me that I needed to become a poet. That there was no other path I could reasonably take. I remembered my cancer treatment and the way that reciting poems I memorized got me through the grueling, painful seven-week process of radiation therapy, living only on Orgain shakes and iced coffee. I thought of Sylvia Plath, whose incredible talent and love for poetry couldn’t save her, and of my friend Max Ritvo, who wrote poems and letters up until the end as he died of cancer when he was twenty-six, and of Lucie and the way she died far too young even though she epitomized the life of a poet. As I was alone, on my knees, on the cold stone floor, I was awash with emotion. I allowed myself to feel everything. The pain of these poets, how each had suffered so much. But also the tremendous gift that writing poetry had brought to each of our lives. My student Wayne L. Miller reminds our class that Paul Muldoon says we go to poetry readings to “discover what is possible.” Being in Lucie’s presence, hearing her talk about poetry, listening to her recite poetry—hers and the work she admired—showed all of us that it was possible to be a poet in the 20th and 21st centuries. Perhaps not since the wartime horrors of the middle of the last century is there a better time to wield words and prove that they still matter.

Lucie Brock-Broido, New York City, 2004For Lucie, words mattered, possibly more than anything other than her love of animals, especially her gorgeous blue Maine Coon cats. You did not have to know Lucie to appreciate the sheer reverence she has for words—the Proustian power of them, the visceral force, the ritual ecstasy that they can produce when one chooses “the best words in the best order.” If there is only one thing that every poet should try to learn from reading Brock-Broido’s work, it is the way she makes her readers feel that she is whispering into their ear and talking only to them. In some magic trick of lexicon-flexing and wordsmithing, Lucie teaches the apprentice poet how to continue writing into the void in a way that allows him or her to translate personal experience into universal feeling. Poaching the title, “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” from Kafka’s notebooks. The poem begins:

Tell the truth I told me                                When I couldn’t speak.

Sorrow’s a barbaric art, crude as a Viking ship                Or a child

Who rode a spotted pony to the lake away from summer

In the 1930s                                       Toward the iron lung of polio.

According to the census I am unmarried                And unchurched.

We are with her completely. When I read Lucie’s work, I often think of Eliot’s famous quote (that has been misquoted all over the internet) about poets borrowing and stealing. Lucie uses Kafka’s words as a launch pad, as she does with so many of her borrowed titles. But she is off in her unique description of sorrow. And even if the reader is not “unmarried and unchurched,” she feels as though she is while reading the poem.

2.

Although Lucie wrote long poems, she reserved the highest admiration for the short successful poems that were so crystalline that there was no choice but for the reader to be awestruck. “A poem is a short thing,” she often admonished when we were being too self-indulgent or when our lines weren’t doing what we thought they were. Lucie’s “Carrowmore” is one of her rare short poems. The first poem of Master Letters and originally published in The New Yorker, its execution of mother love and existential crisis grabs the reader by the throat and says, remember, someday, I will be dead, you will be dead. We need to live each day with that knowledge close to our hearts. At the end of “Carrowmore,” Lucie writes:

I remember how cold I was, the botched
Job of traveling. And just so.

Wherever I went I came with me.
She buried her bone barrette

In the ground’s woolly shaft.
A tear of her hair, an old gift

To the burnt other who went
First. My thick braid, my ornament–

My belonging I
Remember how cold I will be.

What a genius line break to include both the admission that “I remember how cold I will be” and the command to all her readers who come along for as long as the poem is read: Remember how cold I will be.” My new collection, No Small Gift, is much more indebted to the brevity and straightforward language of “Carrowmore” than my first collection, Looming, was. Looming was, in part, an homage to the brocaded, lush, ornamental velveteen cadences that I worshiped in Lucie’s A Hunger and Master Letters. While writing “Hubris,” about my physically beautiful but neurologically impaired daughter’s conception in Venice, I held “Carrowmore” close to my ear and my mind.

Hubris

We flew to Venice
to conceive you.
Now I realize

the folly—to create
life in an unreal
city, burdened

by sinking churches.
I wanted you to begin
like a gold mosaic,

folded in Vivaldi—
like cherub-wings.
My punishment’s simple—

your legacy mirrors
that of obsolete
palaces, every lit

window, wide open
to the Grand Canal. All
the exquisite rooms, empty.

3.

“How Can It Be I am no longer I” from The Master Letters is one of the most vulnerable poems in the collection. I did not often bump into Lucie in the neighborhood, but on my birthday in February of 1995, I was at the movie theatre waiting for Farinelli to begin, and I saw Lucie swoop in in burgundy velvet. Perhaps in that dark theatre, Lucie’s ability to commune with the long dead enabled her to write the lines,

To be damaged is to endanger—taut as the stark

Throats of castrati in their choir, lymphless & fawning
& pale.

But it is not until close to the end of the poem that the reader starts to feel the beating heart of the piece. The fierce devotion the speaker has for a few people who are still alive. And the fear that she has for how she will respond to their deaths. She must steel herself to their passing. As every writer knows, this is how we go through the world, holding in mind the knowledge that it can all be taken from us in an instant. As Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” As Lucie writes in “How Can It Be I Am No Longer I”:

How flinching
The world will seem—in the lynch

Of light as I sail home in a winter steeled
For the deaths of the few loved left living I will

Always love.

When my class studied with Lucie, she was still revising The Master Letters. She told us a lot about her process. She called herself vampiric—she only wrote in the middle of the night—and autumnal. She did not write in the summer but began in the fall, in earnest on Keats’ birthday. She read a few of the poems to us before the book was published, and “How Can It Be I Am No Longer” was one of them. I remember the passage that inspired it, this time it was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Little did I know, at that time, that this book would become one of the most important of my life. That I would read it while getting treatment for cancer, and it made me determined to fight, to be able to publish Looming, 80 percent of which I wrote in Lucie’s thesis class.

merlin_135242928_70fe20ca-848e-499f-910c-f39e66326189-superJumboIn the autumn of 1994, I had not yet read Frankl: “We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles—whatever one may choose to call them—we know: the best of us did not return.” That quote and Lucie’s poem inspired by it stayed with me and both frightens me and acts as a koan to meditate on courage. What would any of us do if put into that unimaginable and dehumanizing situation? Unfortunately, those of us who have wondered what we would do if we were citizens of Nazi Germany do not have to wonder anymore. We are living in a time when children are being ripped from their parents at our border, being told that they are being taken for baths and being numbered and caged. Lucie’s poems make us examine our humanity, reach into us to implore us for empathy. Like Keats, Plath, and James before her, she uses intoxicating and beautiful words to describe the horrors of the human condition. What people are capable of doing to each other. Always the poet, she keeps her eyes transfixed on the train wreck. She doesn’t allow us off easy. There is no reprieve, no easing of our conscience. She has transformed us into the same voyeur that she is. Not to romanticize violence or brutality but to show how it’s possible. How every human contains the capacity to inflict cruelty. For example, we see this in the opening lines of “Did Not Come Back”:

In the roan hour between then & then again, the now, in the Babel
Of a sorrel ship gone horizontal to a prow of night, the breach of owls

Abducted by broad light, but blind, in the crime, the titanesque of rare
Assault—we who have come back—petitioning, from the chair

Electric with bad news, from the stunning, from the narrows
Of an evening gall, from the mooring of an hour slanted on the follow

Bow, she rose from a bed of Ireland like a flyted trout, a shiny
Marvel on the sailor’s deck, an apologia—divining—

As once, as at a salted empire port, he washed
Her fleeted body & they lied, the best of them, the cream & crush

4.

The first thing I thought when I finished reading “Giraffe” is that Lucie had managed to write her own version of Thomas James’ beloved masterpiece, “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh.” In her sensitive, detailed, and sensuous rumination on famous historical giraffes, especially Marius, the healthy eighteen-month old giraffe in the Copenhagen museum that was shot, dissected in front of a crowd of on-lookers, and fed to the lions in 2014 because he was not considered optimal for breeding. “Giraffe” ends:

 Do you think I made this up?
The attending veterinarian, Mads Bertelsen, shot him only once.
He needed badly to be culled—his genetic type and character
Replicated quite tidily enough already there, said Bengt Holst,
Director of the Zoo.   On that same day,
After mid-noon tea and biscuits at their schools,
The Danish children were ushered to the habitat in the Gardens,
So they could learn firsthand   About anatomy.
The keepers cut him open to reveal his neck, his tongue, his heart
(Which weighed just shy of twenty pounds).
The children, wound in down, bound in bright wool scarves
Which covered their open mouths with horizontal stripes,
Were mittened, wide-eyed, curious.
 Do you find me curious as well?
When the Nordic dark settled in, so early,
The children, blanketed in white, began to fuss at sleep, and cry.
It would not snow that night.

This long lyric poem is a subtle poem of resistance to objectification and cruelty. All leading to the question that is too large for a question mark:

What is it in me       Makes me tell you of these sights.

The fact that this poem was published in The New Yorker shortly after Lucie’s funeral seems appropriate both personally and poetically. The piece marries her chief concerns as a writer and as a human being—the incomprehensible cruelty of humans to animals, the long reach of history and the way fragments from history weave in and out of the narrative of each of our lives, the way the person or animal who is unique is always otherized and objectified, often to a fatal degree. Perhaps most of all, the poem depicts the human capacity for awe at both the beautiful and the horrific and how there is often a thin veil between the two.

Writing Prompt

It is appropriate for Lucie to have the last word in this essay about her poetry, but I imagine that it would make her very happy to know that her readers and students are still apprenticing themselves to her work. Lucie did not really give “prompts” in the usual sense of the word, but in “Practice of Poetry,” she gave us a packet of work to read that addressed elements of craft and mystery (e.g. the numen, duende, the leap, persona) that she hoped we would incorporate, in our own way into our work. If pressed, I would argue that Lucie’s greatest talent was wrestling the myriad of voices that compose a complex self, and assembling those voices into lines and stanzas that somehow represented a nuanced whole. In homage to Lucie’s work, one might choose a persona from history, current events, art, or literature to depict in verse. Keep in mind what she told her students—the best persona poems marry your voice to the imagined voice of the other. May the mystery and astonishment that Lucie felt inspire you in your writing now and for years to come.


Jennifer Franklin

Jennifer Franklin is the author of No Small Gift (Four Way Books, 2018) and Looming (Elixir Press 2015). Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Boston Review, Gettysburg Review, Guernica, The Nation, Paris Review, “Poem-A-Day” on poets.org, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She holds an AB from Brown University and an MFA from Columbia University where she was the Harvey Baker Fellow. She teaches poetry workshops and seminars at Hudson Valley Writers Center, where she serves as Program Director and co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. She lives in New York City.