Mistaken for a Churl: Lucie Brock-Broido's Stay, Illusion, by Barbara Duffey

Lucie Brock-Broido’s latest poetry collection, Stay, Illusion, confronts me with my two greatest fears—not being smart, and not being beautiful. I know I’m not the latter, so it shouldn’t really be something I fear, and it’s perhaps because of that fear that I cling to an irrational (and therefore ironic) belief in my own intelligence. I also hate reviews of poetry that complain about not understanding it. Either make an effort to understand it, or don’t review it, I feel. But I also feel I need to be honest with you and with myself—at first, I worried that I wouldn’t get it, and that made me upset. At first, I thought my unease arose from Brock-Broido’s expansive vocabulary—what the speaker of “Misfits” calls “my usage of exotic words (chimerical)” (line 12). I must admit I love it, though. I love being in the company of all these words. Why read, if not to encounter words we usually don’t encounter? To bask in them? And that line 12 showcases one of Brock-Broido’s best tools, ambiguity. “Chimerical” could either be an example of one of these “exotic words,” or a modifier for the noun “usage”—her usage of these exotic words comes in and out, or is itself fantastic—both wonderful and not always true. 

In what ways is it not always true? Moments of Stay, Illusion arrest us with their bald sentiment—“Death, XXL,” includes the line, “He is not gone, I asked. Shot self. My love” (18). We aren’t even privy to the noun to which the reflexive pronoun “self” refers, though that self is the speaker’s “love.” The line is fear and grief cut back to the quick, to its simplest expression. “Little Industry of Ghosts” ends, “Would that our Liam were living still.” That poem’s most difficult vocabulary might be “cur,” or “reparable.” Its contains the beautiful and “clear” simile, “It was a poem clear, here / In hindsight, as flounder flesh unwrapped from // Its bed of newspaper, unspoiled” (12-14). The energy of Stay, Illusion arises in part from the interplay between complex, precise vocabulary and clear, equally precise diction—they power a pattern of crests and troughs that propels the reader forward in the collection, never hitting a wall of inaccessibility but never, ever being bored, either, even on the granular level of particular, single words. 

When, then, do these difficult moments confront me? In the first section, as I encounter the first-person pronoun in all of the first six poems, I attempt to determine if each I is the same I, or to what extent each poem can be seen as its own persona poem, though, as the New Critic I was taught to be, I do recognize every poem is, to some extent, a persona poem. The recurring topics here suggest the obsessions of a singular consciousness. This poet is concerned with locked-in syndrome, with later “lucid intervals” (states in which patients suffering with traumatic brain injuries seem to be better, and the title of two poems in Stay, Illusion), with comas and suicide and animal rights. With high culture (Sebald and Kafka and Alberti and Cortázar and Shirley Jackson). I am asked to discern the characteristics of this consciousness, what it is she might be saying about her obsessions. 

The poem “Meditation on the Sources of the Catastrophic Imagination,” after Sebald, articulates Brock-Broido’s frustration at the mismatch between the aims of poetry—“the unspeakable” (line 10)—and its vehicles in the material world—“longing to put my mouth / On it. I was just imagining” (10-11). First, the metaphor for this process is that of a body perhaps in a vegetative state, perhaps in the imagined “locked-in syndrome” the speaker worries about in the first poem of the collection, “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room” (the title itself perhaps a figure for the poetic imagination, a kind of inward turning of Romanticism). In “Meditation on the Sources….,” the speaker asserts, “I can be // Resumed” (11-12). That sentence’s parallel structure with “I had consorted with the unspeakable” and “I was just imagining” suggests a metaphorical linkage among the unspeakable, the imagination, and resuscitation. The speaker continues, “Some nights, I paint into the scene two Doves, / I being alternately one and then the other, / calling myself by my kind” (12-13). With no explanation between this sentence and the word “Resumed,” the syntax invites us to imagine the painting of the “Doves” as proof or example of how the speaker can be “Resumed.” In that case, the book itself becomes a metaphor for resuscitation—it contains two poems with doves explicitly mentioned in their titles, “Dove, Interrupted,” in the first section, and “Dove, Abiding” in the second. I propose that we look to those poems for clues as to how we should proceed in the reading of this collection—the structure of the book itself seems to teach us how to read it. We are looking for how the speaker “paints” these doves “into the scene,” and we know that she herself is “alternately one and then the other.” What are the natures of these doves?

“Dove, Interrupted” appears two poems after “Meditation on the Sources…” The speaker seems to be speaking to someone about to die—“Don’t do that when you’re dead like this, I said,” it begins (1). What is “that”? It could be the next line: “Arguably still squabbling about the word inarguably” (2). Brock-Broido leaves the quotation marks off, so that we can read “inarguably” as the word they were arguing about, or we could read it as an adverb modifying the squabbling (albeit, with a slightly dangling modifier), suggesting that the word they’re arguing about is never mentioned but they’re definitely arguing about it, revising the line’s earlier “arguably.” It could also be modifying the speaker herself, what she’s doing as she tells the addressee how to act when he is dead. In any case, this speaker is one who “haunt[s] Versailles" and notices “a chalice with a cure for living in it,” (6), extending our argument for resuscitation and suicide as central motifs of the book (“a cure for living” could mean “a cure that will cause you to live” or “a cure that will take care of the fact that you live,” i.e., kill you). This resuscitation, however, is just so much detail in a royal milieu—“We step over the skirt of an Elizabeth” (7). If the images seem impenetrable, perhaps it is because “No one wants to face the ‘opaque reality’ of herself,” (12), here with quotation marks around the phrase in question, as if it were spoken by someone else—perhaps Sartre, who said that “the I is presented as an opaque reality whose content would have to be unfolded” (Sartre, p. 155). Perhaps Stay, Illusion endeavors to be opaque so that I must do exactly the kind of “unfolding” that I’ve been doing.

Still, we are looking for what kind of “Dove” this one might be, if the speaker is alternately one dove, then the other. This dove claims, “I was made American. You must consider this” (line 14). I start to consider the traditional “American” associations with the dove—peace, a reprieve handed down by God. However, the poem turns in the next line: “Whatever suffering is insufferable is punishable by perishable” (15). The surprising syntax of this line suggests to us that we should pay close attention—perishable what? We haven’t gotten the noun we expect, so perhaps “perishable” is a substantive adjective, an adjective working as a noun—punishable by perishable [things]. A lash perishes as soon as it punishes, after all. Or, alternately, the line isn’t supposed to make grammatical sense as much as play with the root words and their combinations—after all, “insufferable” can mean “unable to suffer,” as in “unbearable,” but it can also refer to a particular type of annoyance—not something that can’t be borne, but something that is grating on one’s patience. In that case, we might be reading “perishable” as a play on “punishable,” as in, you are made perishable as a punishment for whatever suffering you can’t bear—a fairly Christian idea, since Christ should have traded himself for your suffering, made it bearable. If you feel your suffering has not been borne by him, then his sacrifice is not for you, and you will not benefit from eternal life—you will be perishable. 

Lest we stray too far into metaphysics, the poem turns back to the quotidian: “In Vienne, the rabbit Maurice is at home in the family cage. / I ache for him, his boredom and his solitude” (16-17). This dove perhaps feels the world too much with her, is too busy. The poem turns, if not metaphysical, then at least philosophical, again: “On suffering and animals, inarguably, they do” (18). The syntax here is key—first, we get the topic, “suffering and animals,” and we immediately see the reference back to what is “insufferable”—can animals suffer more than we? Then, we are reminded of our friend “inarguably,” so we are about to receive a fact that the imaginary addressee at the beginning of the poem can’t contribute to the argument with the speaker. Inarguably, what? “[T]hey do,” as in, “they do suffer, inarguably.” The delay of reaching “they do”makes it read almost like a marriage vow, that the condition of the animals is to be betrothed to suffering. The speaker herself seems wedded to that idea—she ends the poem, “I miss your heart, my heart” (19). We could read this ending two ways: One, that the speaker refers to the addressee as “my heart,” certainly not uncommon—in fact, that was my mother’s pet name for me when I was a child, “my heart.” Second, the speaker could be talking to her own heart, to the center of her being and who she is, or to her emotional core—in that case, she misses the heart of the very heart of herself. She is, first of all, a dove who either misses its beloved, or a dove who misses the heart of her own being. What have we found in the dove’s “unfolding”? She is someone who longs for deep connections to animals and to other people, but also to herself, a self that is “opaque” even to herself. The poems, then, serve as a way for the speaker to unfold herself for her self. 

In “Dove, Abiding,” in the third section of the collection, I begin to wonder if the dove is really supposed to be the speaker, or, perhaps, the addressee: “Don’t be coy with me. You // Were mean and you were plump. Dove, / Mistaken. You are not good” (4-6). At that point, it’s still ambiguous. The speaker goes on, “I have heard you did not care / For me. You were well-propped in your Tudor // Bed” (13-15). We learn one reason why the addressee might not be “good,” and the stanza break between “Tudor” and “Bed” allows our imagination to fill in many Tudor indiscretions—infidelities, heresies, bad American knock-off architecture, tyrannies. The resurrection motif recurs—“Your convalescence that went on and on” (17)—but is veiled—“No one was permitted to know the nature // Of your wound” (18-19). The speaker then seems to challenge the addressee, call him the “Dove”: “I have heard / There will be war. Dove mistaken for an abject churl” (19-20). The addressee certainly seems like this “churl,” “not car[ing]” for the speaker and not telling anyone about his wound. If anyone in this poem is to be “mistaken” for a churl, it would be him. Also, if he is “abiding,” that would fit in with his “convalescence that went on and on.” The poem ends, “I’ve heard pink underwings of prior / Wives will not be welcome in your home, // Like spores. I have heard you do go on” (23-25). If the “you” “do[es] go on,” the you is then “abiding,” shunning the “prior [w]ives” like spores, or, as the dangling modifier lets us read, in his home that is like spores. He could be this dove. Of course, so could she, abiding him as he goes on and on. She, mistaken about him as we might imagine all these prior wives were. Somehow, he is not so churlish. The dove in “Dove, Abiding” allows us to read the speaker as one who is inhabiting roles but also empathizing, to a certain degree, with those she speaks to, allowing her identification in the poem to be all wound up with his. The result is a poem about rejection that comes across not so much bitter as fair and yet still negative, somehow both confrontational and plaintive. 

Not surprisingly, this poem also deals with that idea of beauty I told you earlier would bother me. A “Miss X” has “had a vision” that is, “like the Rockettes,” “Singularly beautiful but all together hideous” (8, 10-11). The speaker adds, “There is no single flower that is not singularly // Beautiful I’ve heard” (12-13). We get this affirmation of the beauty in originality, of the singular, right before the revelation that the speaker has heard “you did not care / For me” (13-14). The beauty seems almost a bulwark against the addressee’s failure of affection—you did not care for me even though I was, like any single flower, singularly beautiful.

Elsewhere in the book, the speaker affirms that beauty is tied to life: “How many minutes have I left, the lover asked, To still be beautiful? / I took his blond face in my hands and kissed him blondely on the mouth” (“Currying the Fallow-Colored Horse,” 12). The surviving polar bears are “big beautiful / blubbery white bears each clinging to his one last hunk of ice” (“You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” 7-8). She says, “I have made promises I may not keep, go on with my / Soliloquy and was some kind of beautiful” (“Selected Poem,” 14-15). In “Extreme Wisteria,” she addresses the “Beautiful cage,” perhaps in apposition with “Abandonarium,” telling it to “asylum in” (7-8). The speaker of “Misfits” “thought the horses beautiful” (10). The eighth of “Eight Takes of Trakl as Himself” says that it is “beautiful” to “walk in the misbegotten shadows / Of the chalk deer […] with you” (43-44, 47). But it is also “Beautiful bright weapons / In the Novembering, Without you I am even fewer, less” (“Mental Museum,” 10-11), in a poem that begins, “There is no getting around the gun / In your mouth and the aftermath” (1-2). Speaking to the canary in a “glass case” in “Ruby Garnett’s Ornament, Circa 1892,” she says “You are beautiful, grotesque” (11-13). The first section of “Attitude of Lion” says, “One leaned his beautiful face against the wrought-iron cage and / Did not give in” (1-2). What is “beautiful” in Stay, Illusion is intimately tied to the animal experience of inhabiting a living, breathing body, of being, literally, an animal. Only when that body is dead does it become “beautiful, grotesque,” as opposed to merely “beautiful face.” But what can take away life—the “bright weapons”—are also “beautiful.” The beauty here seems tied to the ability to live and die, that line between both states. The liminal moment, the moment of transition between life and death, is always singular (even if one’s convalescence goes on and on), singular and therefore beautiful. My concern for personal beauty is therefore beside the point—only the generic is ugly. Any of us who is singular or who experiences that singular moment of dying is in this taxonomy beautiful.

I said that the book itself would teach us to read it—its expansive diction, its redefinition of central metaphysical concepts, its emotional honesty and directness, all combine to explore the ambiguities of being human in a world threatening to human and non-human animals on the large scale and on the individual level. By the time we get to the poem “A Girl Ago,” the dove shows up but is negated: “No Dove. / There is no thou to speak of” (12-13). In the next poem, we learn that the dead do not come back (“Two Girls Ago,” 2). The collection ends, “It is not volitional” (“A Cage Goes in Search of a Bird,” 26). Even the “it” has an indefinite antecedent—the condition of being a cage? Of being “alive now” (19-20)? Of acting “lemminglike” (24)? Of “disassembl[ing]” (25)? The entire book itself? Stay, Illusion asks us to live in ambiguity and be OK with it. It holds these ambiguities together, requiring us to believe all possible meanings at once. That both throws our attention back on the specific matter of the words themselves—“There is no world I know, without some word of it,” ends “Gouldian Kit” (16)—so that we follow the language play of “punishable by perishable” and “arguably inarguably,” and also calls our attention to that singular moment of beautiful transition into death, after which the speaker has been told “there is / A meadow” (“A Meadow,” 29-30), though the “he” mentioned in that poem was only “half-beautiful” (6). I earlier suggested that the book makes an argument for itself as a metaphor for a resurrection, and these characters—the churl, the man with the beautiful weapons, the polar bear, the lion—they are resurrected in the reading of the book, and, because of its ambiguities, are never tied down or dead. The living, complicated picture of their “beautiful faces” lives on.

Works Cited 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings. Ed. Stephen Priest. New York: Routledge, 2001. Web. 

Barbara Duffey

Barbara Duffey is the author of I Might Be Mistaken (Word Poetry, forthcoming 2015). Her poetry has been published in Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets 2009, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction at The Collagist and in CutBank. An assistant professor of English at Dakota Wesleyan University, she lives in Mitchell, SD, with her husband and son. You can read more at 
www.barbaraduffey.com and follow her on Twitter @BarbaraNDuffey