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Rocky Mountain Epigrams
Chained Tree, Chained Owls
By Catharine Savage Brosman
(Green Altar Books, 2020)
Catharine Savage Brosman stands, for certain readers, as one of the greatest poets of our age. For most of her career a professor of French at Tulane, she distinguished herself decades ago as a critic of that language’s literature, publishing volumes on Gide, Malraux, Sartre, and Camus, among others. In 1972 she published Watering, a volume of poetry; nearly two decades passed before a second appeared. Since the turn of the century, however, she has published eight full-length collections, in addition to volumes of travel writing, essays, short stories, and guides to southern literature. In all her efforts, we find a great historical vision, a concern for the whole work of an author, the life of a full tradition, rather than the scrutiny of the narrow, particular, or pedantic.
This has been as much true of her poetry as of her scholarship. When Brosman’s Breakwater appeared in 2009, I hailed its ambitious architecture, which drew into a single form meditations on the love found in a late remarriage to her long-estranged first husband, Patric Savage, alongside sketches of literary figures such as Mina Loy and D. H. Lawrence, whose troubled relationships with eros have much to teach us about where individual lives and entire civilizations go wrong. I had rarely seen a contemporary poet capable of entering so deeply, sharply, and unsparingly into that universal mystery of human life, the persistence and folly of romance.
Brosman’s subsequent volumes were similarly grand of vision. As the poet and novelist Paul Lake justly observed about Under the Pergola, published in 2011, Brosman has recovered for contemporary poetry a concern for the essentially human and universal within a romantic poetry of reflection that will remind many readers of William Wordsworth. Sitting outside on the Bayou, in the opening poem of that volume, Brosman takes in the world with a gently rolling blank verse that is itself akin to Wordsworth’s:
The sky’s the same as in the summers past
along the bayous and the saline lakes
which edge the Gulf—a haze that bleaches out
the sun, this seamy air, a chance of rain
suggested, farther off above the pines,
by grumpy clouds. Across the bayou, deep
and narrow at the bight, then broad downstream,
the bearded cypress heads, unkempt, look down
at what I see, or dream, along the banks—
a play in ripples, adventitious wind
at ease, and pleasantries of grass. A band
of egrets scatters, circles, then returns;
two water skiers at the farthest bend
make buzzing noises. All the rest is still,
fulfilled, perfecting in its indolence,
the human currents hidden in the dense
and coffee-colored being of the stream,
the world sufficient to itself.
Brosman’s preferred form is meditative blank verse of this kind, but she frequently lengthens her lines along with her roving vision, as happens in “Valderice: the Sea,” which begins,
In Palermo yesterday, we were besieged by the sirocco,
Roaring out of Africa, burning, shaking shutters,
Tearing palm fronts, sanding down the pastel houses
And our skin, its desert breath as dry as mummies
Of the Capuchins, as the Sagesta ruins, baked in time.
The result is a poetry that is by turns cosmopolitan, tasting of a broad range of places and landscapes, and steeped in the American south and southwest, where Brosman has lived much of her life. What makes such poems a pleasure to read is the way they invite one into an entire world, not just wide of breadth but also rich in depth. Most contemporary writers seem superficial and small-souled by comparison.
In the same volume from which I have just quoted, however, we do find miniatures of a deliberately narrow scope. A series of her poems takes trees, fruits, and vegetables for subjects and carves them with a sharp knife in fine rhymed stanzas. “Watermelon,” for instance, begins,
There is perfection of its kind,
And here’s a knife. A cut, to start,
A long incision down the rind,
A crack, a breaking of the heart.
The pulp is ripe in its estate,
The edges glistening and pearled,
And pinkish water fills the plate,
The overflowing of a world.
These two stanzas have a great wit in small compass, yet the poem continues. Brosman accidentally swallows a seed, imagines it growing within her, and then proceeds to reflect on Christ on the cross as the dead seed that will grow to bear “bleeding fruit.” Other poems similarly move between literal and figurative levels of “vegetable desire,” from the literal tray of hors d’oeuvres to the grapefruit tossed in the air that becomes a “golden planet” in the hand of a god.
While I think Brosman has probably most distinguished herself with the work of wide ambition and scope, those diminutive subjects, so cleverly chiseled and witty of rhyme, are masterpieces indeed. It should not have been a surprise, then, to open her latest book, Chained Tree, Chained Owls, and find an entire volume of poems characterized by brevity and constraint.
Each poem consists of a single cinquain or cinq rhyme, a five-line stanza rhyming in the scheme ababa. Brosman ranges over a number of subjects, most of them familiar from other volumes, including poems on architecture, scenes from literature, from travel abroad and, in greater number, western landscapes (three of which were first published in Modern Age). A short series of poems offer elegies for Patric, the late love who inspired Breakwater but who has since passed beyond the veil.
The result is a volume various in matter but held together by the classical qualities of the epigram: the short poem of austere wit and definition. Where Brosman most succeeds is in those poems that embrace the spirit of the epigram in full; where she succeeds least are in those poems in which it seems she has tried to take one of her expansive poems of meditation and to circumscribe it within too narrow a bound. Sometimes, however, the poems thrive on the tension between form and subject, as in the poems for Patric. He died during Hurricane Harvey and so could not be buried promptly. The following note results:
All Houston’s watery from the hurricane
last week. And Pat lies uninterred; the flood
stopped all but death. To whom might I complain?
Can men dig graves in sodden grass and mud?
He waits, indifferent to love, to pain.
The indifference of the seasonal storm to the seasons of our lives; the rhetorical question that wishes it required an answer; and, finally, the contrast between her lively questioning and the late Patric’s indifference create together an image of grief and detachment, sorrow and dark wit at once. This is what lyric poems do at their best.
Epigrams, however, are not generally lyrics. The form imposes different demands. Brosman thrives in the comic wit of her poem of preface and also in the poems on architecture, which, she tells us in the introduction, were the original occasions of her adopting the cinquain form:
Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—
three orders left to us by genius Greeks—
hold up the temple sky, the mind of man,
harmonious.—Here’s sunset, with great streaks
of mauve. Love beauty, mortals, while you can.
This is definition at its finest and wit at its most pithy, especially in that chilling, almost minatory, final imperative. A sequence on “Monuments” stands athwart the “insane” iconoclasm that has overtaken the United States these past two years. This is an ideal subject for the epigram, but Brosman does not always successfully turn them as sharply as they need to be. A good exception is one that contrasts Robert E. Lee, whose name lives on though his statue be taken down, and Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, who ordered its removal. Brosman writes,
But Lee, at least, will always be a name;
We cannot say the same of you, Landrieu.
If the mayor might not feel the force of that brief demolition, it would only be because he belongs to an age that has forgotten every salutary conception of glory, from the beatitude of the Christian soul to the deathless name sought in the stoic ethics of honor of the Old South. We, however, feel it.
Brosman’s poems on landscapes, namely those natural monuments of the Rocky Mountains, are also memorable and well-wrought. The cinquain is not her strongest form. I remain convinced Brosman’s greatest strength is in a thematically and formally expansive poetry that sweeps us up into the life of her thought. But after so many good poems of that kind, it is admirable to see her turn her hand to these poems, so many of them about stone, natural and artificial, and chiseled—as the word epigram means—in the terse brevity befitting inscription in stone.
James Matthew Wilson is the director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, and poetry editor of Modern Age.
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