Our poetry community has sustained some major blows of late — recent deaths of canonical figures have elicited shocked and painfully paid respects. “The great oaks are falling,” observed one poet, and indeed the metaphoric forest reverberates still with its emptying of towering heights — Mark Strand, Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, Adrienne Rich, and many more, a whole generation and beyond — brought down and lost forever.
Yet the death Tuesday of my friend Lucie Brock-Broido represents a sudden swift implausible descent in another part of the forest. Implausible not only because Lucie was 61, not as advanced in years as her poet elders, but because, like Keats’ nightingale, one thought of her as far too “alive” to die — or as the monumental Ode has it: “Thou was not born for death, immortal bird.”
Lucie was my friend from the time I taught in Columbia’s master of fine arts program in 1980, where I was colossally intimidated as a youthful poet-teacher by legendary colleagues Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky (now peering, fallen but restored, from their starry Nobel heights). I was an uncertain teacher back then, but I was deeply impressed by Lucie, who, from her time as a student onward, possessed a self-confidence that defied uncertainty (though she once claimed to have “stage fright”). She also possessed, from the start, an obsessively polished poetic style that in youth might have been dismissed as all glittering surface, pure precocity. But Lucie knew from the beginning what she was about as a poet. “I came to poetry because I felt I couldn’t live properly in the real world. I was thirteen in Algebra class. That was the day I decided I would be a poet for all time. I walked out of class and dropped out of school.” What also drove her poetic vocation was a sense of eerie prescience about life’s timing — even unto death: “Our brief generation/hasn’t even yet begun descent.”
Lucie’s friends all knew that she lived a life fueled both by eccentric passion and an absolute unrelenting committed rigor — her writing life was set in stone according to its “calendar”: She “dropped out” each year on John Keats’ birthday, Oct. 31 — and sequestered herself in order to write her poems. She usually traveled to Cambridge, Mass., from New York City (and her job as director of the Columbia MFA poetry program) with her beloved cats — returning like Persephone, in the spring.
Her friends also knew that Lucie lived like a vampire. A legendary insomniac, she stayed up, owl-ish, each night till dawn.
It was not unusual to receive, on either coast, a phone call at 3 or 4 a.m. from Lucie, revved up and ready to converse in and out of the wee hours, as if she were dialing up for an afternoon chat. She would finally retire, at first light — and sleep until noon or later. All her Columbia courses were scheduled for the evening at her spacious penthouse, a deep crimson color with panoramic views, just across the street from the university.
If this schedule sounds a bit bizarre, it set its own convention. Lucie ran the Columbia poetry program with perfect equipoise, taught her classes, held meetings, hired visiting poets — all on her own schedule.
Her eccentric energy informed her poems from her first book, “A Hunger” (1988), onward, a debut which critic Helen Vendler praised for “talismanic words” which “open into a magical territory of ‘Domestic Mysticism.’”
Lucie’s adaptation of her own life into “domestic mysticism” brought her “home” to another muse-figure, Emily Dickinson. With what felt like (to some critics) rather heady presumptiveness, Lucie titled her second book “The Master Letters,” meant to poach delicately on the territory of three mysterious letters left by Dickinson at her death — two addressed to “Dear Master,” the third to an unknown recipient. The poems in this, Lucie’s second book, were written as “verse-letters”: A random line from one offers a quick glimpse of her developed signature, a swift ecstatic style: “Invalid to sorrow — right half, left half, limbic & all/For memory or love — I am subject, subjugate, inthralled.”
The purposeful misspelling of “enthralled” reveals a great deal about the poet’s “misprision” (a seeming mistake) in linguistic play. “IN-thralled” is an exact “Lucie Brock-Broido” word-portrait of the self. The self is not caught up, “owned” by “thrall” — but is kept in thrall by the “in,” the interior life.
Interior life and the outside world were mediated by what she called “the skin” of poetry, which floated between inner and outer reality. Poetry was to Lucie a living breathing membrane, her messages to the world traveled through this skin and back.
Her language became intensely hermetic but remained nonetheless seductively accessible. In a review of her last book, the New Yorker critic Dan Chaisson referred to the collection, “Stay, Illusion” (2013) as a “grimoire.” A grimoire is a textbook of magic, an instruction manual, a how-to guide to spinning spells that create talismanic objects, amulets.
“Stay, Illusion” is her finest book, the attainment of rhetorical mastery. The title informs the mood that runs throughout the collection. “Stay, illusion!” is what Hamlet cries out, pleadingly, to the ghost in Act 1, Scene 1, of the play. When 13-year-old Lucie Brock-Broido walked out of her algebra class and into her future, she chose, in a sense, to forever honor illusion, to “stay” the illusionary power of poetry as every bit as authentic and alive as the so-called real world.
From her illusory world comes instruction even as to the “afterlife” — as if she has left us with a fluid monument of loss: “Take this road to arrive at its end.” Or: “What if I were gone and the wind still reeks of hyacinth. What then?”
What I believe is the response to that “What then?” resides in her own “snap” moment, from a haunting, musical high-jinksy poem called “Hello Babies, Welcome to Earth.” I “read” the last line of this poem about returning to a long-forgotten landscape of childhood as a farewell, but also an address to the future.
I read this poem to the poets in my graduate workshop the day after Lucie died. Let it be a talisman, I thought, let it be a message from wherever our beautiful lynx-souled sister is now.
In the poem’s ultimate line, she speaks to a baby — or a beginning poet? “Poppet” she says, “if you’ve anything to say, you should say it soon, I think.”
Muske-Dukes is a professor at USC and the former poet laureate of California. Her next collection, “Blue Rose,” will be published in April.