Elizabeth Metzger, student and devotee of Lucie Brock-Broido, writes here about discovering Brock-Broido’s work, studying in her graduate seminar, and remembering her after her death last year. Of Brock-Broido’s influence, Metzger says, “I found my self, my voice, my poems within and against and of hers.”
Jessica Hudgins: Can you talk about how you came to know Lucie Brock-Broido and her work?
Elizabeth Metzger: I was writing my undergraduate thesis on silence and the posthumous in Emily Dickinson when I came across Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, which is, to use Lucie’s own term, deeply in “Widerruf” with Dickinson’s Master Letters. The poems were incantatory, disorienting, uncannily déjà vu to me, and uncontainably pained. I wanted to know Lucie—as morbid as it sounds, to work with Lucie felt like the only way in life to know and live with the dead.
I ended up at Columbia a couple years later, too intimidated to even speak a word to Lucie. She was magical in long black gloves and red velvet when we met. Her earrings were silver talismans and she seemed untouchable, ensconced in smoke, almost dangerous. At the same time I was drawn to her the way one might instantly draw an evacuation map in their mind during a bomb scare. She seemed to always have one hand beckoning, pulling each poet in her sphere closer to her. We all gathered one of those first disorienting “orientation” nights in her small office, window cracked for whatever cold we could conjure. I believe she had a teacup pig on her desktop screen, a million trinkets, a lipsticked cigarette, and a roaring laugh.
I was sitting a few feet from where she sat at the head. “Come closer,” she said, “are you scared of me?” “Yes” I said awkwardly, not catching the wink of her. “See me after class” she said, in a faux-stern tone. Terrified, I entered her office after our long late class—Lucie was nocturnal, but more impressively given her carefully calculated seasonal writing schedule (writing only in the winter months and leaving 1,001 days ritualistically between books), she lived outside of time, in what we, her students, called Lucie Standard Time.
In my first experience of this phenomenon, Lucie took me around her dim office, standing shoulder to shoulder as she showed me various artifacts, looking up a word in her favorite edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, showing me a “portrait of her” by Thomas James, and last, full circle, a drawing of Emily Dickinson—given to her by Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney—which now hangs on the wall behind my desk. I got to know Lucie on her red couch in the middle hours of the night for the three years I spent at Columbia, but in many ways even now after her death I feel I am still getting to know her, and I welcome more than ever the secrets her poems disclose, the agonies made amber, the mysticism, hilarity, and mammalian artery. A soul that spent her time on this earth offering asylum to the living, the dying, and the dead, Lucie lived a life of unimpeachable promises to seek out and protect the suffering, the odd ones out. She made me feel lucky to be one.
JH: There are so many things that jump out at me as I’m reading these poems. Her use of pronouns, her engagement with form, her sense of humor – What’s an example of something you’ve discovered in reading Brock-Broido’s poems, and have experimented with in yours?
EM: Yes! Lucie’s poems are full of idiosyncrasy, shockingly pop archaism, and most important to me in terms of my own journey as a poet, irony. In a way it’s hard to talk about discovering Lucie’s work and the elements within it because to some extent I found my self, my voice, my poems within and against and of hers—a way of being a poet in between the poems.
Also quite literally Lucie and her poems taught me everything—her way of teaching was truly selfless in the sense that she gave her self, her “secrets” away. She broke it down into lessons, topics, techniques: the terrible not, the numinous, the feral, cutting out the elephant. And she provided us with the material she herself took to the writing table: the poems, the letters, the images, even sometimes the music or hot cocoa or perfume.
Her teaching was invaluable I think for so many poets with such differing voices because the lessons were metaphorical themselves, often mystical. Like a poem, the technique was one the spirit often had to tightrope to understand. She taught me that “the line is a station of the cross” and to let the poem have its way with you. She introduced me to the conscious and unconscious conversation between whittling bone and “letting birds.”
I think I discovered the important balance, maybe even the lack of distinction between disclosure and transformation. The poem “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to this World” ends on the image of a marmoset in an ape suit, the smallest primate exiting the largest. It’s absurd and so vulnerable, the self confronting the self.
Lucie taught me half-gently half-teasingly when I was too drunk on her, as many of us were, and how important it would be “to kill her off eventually” She told me I was withholding when I didn’t know I was—that like an anatomy textbook a poem needs every system of the body to overlap to build an understandable human. She made the concept of transparency tangible. I discovered in “baring my soul” I wasn’t letting my sense of humor onto the page. I also learned for every rule of Lucie’s (her dislike of ragged lines or the word blank) it was all about earning it–by which I mean being religious enough to ritualize doubt—and constantly raising the stakes. She claimed she didn’t believe in “intelligence” but it is in her poetry, each book of it, that I have come closest to inhabiting another’s intelligence, a dark neural stained glass only as ornate as it is abnegating.
Elizabeth Metzger reading “Am Moor” by Lucie Brock-Broido
JH: “Am Moor” is especially strange and kind of exhilarating to me, I think because Brock-Broido uses all these rare, archaic, or technical words with a sense of playfulness. What are some of your favorite words or lines from these poems?
EM: “Am Moor” is full of mystery and playfulness and a fascinating example of Lucie using another persona or perspective as a lens to the self. There’s connection in loneliness. A lover of Georg Trakl, Austrian World War I poet, Lucie takes his poem, titled in German “Am Moor,” which translates to “On the Marshy Pastures” and uses the sound as a trigger for the music of her own being, the repeating “am,” blurring the biographical reality of Trakl’s life with her own multilayered identity. I love the persistence and variation of the “am” and “was” phrases with the “I” deleted, how it lets the I be multiple and multiplying. And it thrills me that this is a sonic rather than semantic “translation” of a German place. The mind can’t help but associate music into sense.
My favorite moments in Lucie’s poems feel intuitive and irrevocable. Their sense begins within the ear—I trust them though they can be full of bite or bomb. What seems beautiful is the next moment grotesque. What is absurd is the next moment obliterating. Anything full-frontal is later slanted. Language has the soul on a leash. It can be bold or skittish but the soul is always the tethered guide. A few of my favorite phrases from “Am Moor” are:
“wind at withins”: the consonance of wind that surprisingly makes the preposition within into a plural noun, playing with the abandoned farmhouse from Wuthering Heights (Top Withins) as the landscape of the interior.
The build-up of archaic music to the generic simple Saxon of “Was Andalusian, ambsace,/Bird.” I love the mixing of registers and the warning song of it. Sometimes I find the need for a dictionary means a poem stumbles or I am pulled away from rhythm or sense. Here it is textural. Understanding precedes definition, not unlike the feeling of holding a Dickinson poem.
I love inversions like “Am kept./ Was keeper of…” and “furious done god,” the blunt godly done of it, and admire the horror image of “was hospice/ To their torso hall.” Trakl did in fact see war horrors as a triage nurse to wounded soldiers in a country barn. I love the swerve with internal consonance of the medical “Am anatomy” into the I dare you to get away with this pun bloody lamb of “Am the bleating thing.” The word “thing” ends this litany of exacting diction! There’s this mischief to Lucie’s poetics of getting away with things, emotion so intense and attuned it permits extravagant word play.
The lines that give me actual goosebumps when I read or even think them: “…Am numb./ Was shoulder & queer luck. Am among.” It’s the rhyme of numb and among, the total loss of sensation that brings one together with. In her poems and her classrooms, Lucie brought the haunted back together. The poem is a self, and shareable.
And since you picked it out below, my absolute favorite line from “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to this World” (and one of my favorites she ever wrote) is “For whom left am I first?”
JH: I really like the line “For whom left am I first,” in “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” because it uses that “am” to connect the people who remain to the person who will be gone. Has Brock-Broido’s work influenced how you think about death?
Elizabeth Metzger reading “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” by Lucie Brock-Broido
EM: Lucie wrote Stay, Illusion after being orphaned, losing her mother. It just totally devastates me to think that, for many of us there comes a point in losing others (and Lucie traveled to death’s door with so many dear ones), we may no longer be the most loved for anyone left living. People go on to have their own children, marry, etc. Lucie didn’t marry or have kids but she could love (sisters, friends, cats, and students) as strongly and loyally as anyone I’ve met on Earth. The line also calls up that connection between the ones who leave and the ones who remain as you point out—the ones who have left and the ones that are left. There’s the sense of first to go and first in terms of significance.
From the start, my attraction to Lucie’s work and to Lucie’s mind has involved death. There’s a morbidity and terror that I recognized in her work. I think she found a way of including it visually in her lines, in the shapes of the poems in Stay, Illusion, but it’s all over all the books. Even in surviving loss, the speaker’s strength is in demanding everything of herself in language when language is impossible, when she lives near and within the unspeakable. This blurring of grief and death—surviving and dying—is also Dickinsonian: “Tell all the truth I told me when I couldn’t speak.” The following “Sorrow’s a barbaric art” makes that chaotic grief beautiful and cruel, composed and reckless.
Lucie’s art is made from sorrow obviously and I think I learned from Lucie that the moments and sensations when we are most deeply wrecked or wounded are the ones we must run toward, steep ourselves in, speak from, be transformed by. There is both fate and will in it.
Another line I love in “Stay, Illusion” comes from the first poem of the book: “The rims of wounds have wounds as well.” It is not optimism or healing that poetry brings but the wound made everlasting, boundless fear and pain made containable, sometimes even coy. More than once she described the form of the poem as an “alabaster chamber,” a coffin.
My relationship with Lucie was as much about death in the end as it was about poetry. I was losing my best friend, her astonishing student Max Ritvo, and then of course it was not long before Lucie herself had to face death. Lucie believed in heaven and it’s through this lens that her fear and fascination with death makes the most sense of her poetics: It is always worth decorating the darkness, laughing or tearing one’s hair into it, while cutting away any unsharpened excess, any aspect of living that doesn’t remember it will end. Lucie’s work teaches me that poetry and death are both omniscient and unknowable. I am no less afraid, and gladly.
Elizabeth Metzger is the author of The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the chapbook The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Horsethief Books, 2017). Her poems have recently appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, and The Nation among other places. Her essays have recently appeared in Lit Hub, Guernica, Boston Review, and PN Review. She is a poetry editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal.
Lucie Brock-Broido was an American poet and author of four collections: A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995), Trouble in Mind (2004), and Stay, Illusion (2013). She taught at several universities and served as the director of poetry in the writing division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her work received recognition from the Academy of American Arts and Letters, American Poetry Review, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Stay Illusion was a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Books Critics Circle Award.
Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.