In the far future, when the only readers who cherish and puzzle over Lucie Brock-Broido’s poems are those who never met her, those readers will surely try to imagine what she must have been like in person. Perhaps they will know that she was a charismatic teacher, that she made such an impression in the lives of her students that everybody who knew her (at Harvard, in Cambridge, at Columbia University School of Arts) said there was no one like her. And those readers of the future will try to compile her personal manner from her verse style: gorgeous, elaborate, allusive, sometimes Gothic or haunted, at other times able to revel in beauty, all of it driven by her “propensity for lavish / Order in certain seasons of the year.” She must have been (these readers will assume) an authority figure in an unusual way, a way that drew into itself so many styles—lacy, bejeweled, able to hide at whim, aware of mascara, given to ornament, catlike. She chose rhetoric, chose devices that much of the literary past (the parts of the past run by dudes) believed could not hold power.
Those readers will be right. The past, the patriarchal past, was very wrong, and Lucie was right about it. The future readers will quote her sentences to one another, smiling at their discoveries, and realizing how long the sentences continue, unraveling and reknitting themselves into the big closures that her poems so often find. Just to read the poetry is to see—in its hypermetric lines, its cliff-face line breaks, its “gathering / Of foxes oddly standing still in the milk broth of oblivion”—how there was more to her and more in the poetry, more to consider (before reflecting) beautiful, and more to gather into the self for reflection than most poets, and most poetry, have in store.
To see her as a classroom teacher—as I did in the early nineties, just before she came to Columbia—was to see her restlessly metamorphic, supernatural talent (supernatural, beyond nature, working with more than what we have been given) at work in real time. She had a generosity that few can show: she shared her energy with individual students, not one or two but all of us, in clusters as well as one at a time. Lucie (LB2, as she signed herself) gave all of us, in six or seven colors of ink (evergreen, tangerine, amethyst), more attention than our poems had ever received—along with access to cats and new coinages and sometimes tea.
She also gave us, before the Web and when Xerox machines were a very important thing, painstakingly compiled dossiers of poets to read and of poetic moves that we could emulate, if we so chose, more examples than we had ever before seen. I remember her telling early-nineties students, often for the first time, about Jane Miller, Denis Johnson, Frank Bidart, and on and on. I still have the photocopies, some divided into categories that she made up (for example, The Swerve). Some of the undergraduates who learned from those constellations of examples (again, this was before her Columbia era) are now grown-up poets with books of their own; others are doctors or legal scholars. Those future scholars (if they delve into Harvard’s files—I hope they do) will see how thoroughly Lucie’s noticings, as well as the models of her first books, allowed these young writers to become themselves. Watching her organize something or someone—an entire writing program, a classroom, the homeostatic arrangement of verse on a page, a single complex sentence, a young poet’s attitude towards this demanding, forgiving, personal art—you could see how much power her deliberately elaborate styles could hold and how much she could give away, how much she knew and how much she figured out about style and need and growth and fear and appetite and promises, and also about Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wyatt and Sumeria and Scottish ghost stories and the catastrophes of American carceral capitalism and the compromises that power involves.
I wrote about Lucie’s work in the late nineties, and I have written about it (perhaps not often enough) since. As much as I love The Master Letters, I think she got better with each book. She became more deeply and meditatively herself. Though I had the joy of teaching Columbia students alongside her a few years ago, even then I felt like more of a fangirl than a friend—and I liked the feeling. I am still a fan. When I reread her work—especially the twenty-first-century work, shot through with elegy as it is—I feel, Who would not be a fan? Who would not want to watch such beyond-astonishing performances as “Self-Deliverance by Lion,” in which she anticipates literary history by, in a sense, dying and raising herself, surrounded by literary lions, from the dead? Seen from one angle, it is a grim poem, a poem about the wish to be devoured. But it is also a poem about the way that the spirit survives:
I knew the excellent repair
Of night fell cruel and quickly where
The lions had the mastery of me—aware
Their mastery was by my will, and fair.
“I would be of doubtful authorship,” one of her poems concludes. It’s in keeping with her hauntingness, her sense of existence in many worlds at once, with this one, the world of the living, in this New York City, this Cambridge, this Pittsburgh, the least bejeweled; but it’s also a rare false or inconclusive note. Her authorship, her significance to the near future and the far future of American poetry, leaves me in very little doubt.
There is a paradox—or a high bar—involved in writing a memorial piece, or a just barely posthumous appreciation, for a poet so given to elegy, to memorial, and to the just barely posthumous voice herself. Parts of all her books describe an ineradicable appetite for the new, but also for the void, and other parts describe melancholia, grief that acts out forever, that will not end: “I was not ready for your form to be cold / Ever.” No one was ready. But her forms—her forms of attention, her Baroque and Victorian and Gothic and absolutely contemporary syntheses, her sentences that “bend / Back open like a mythic baring // Bird, backed up against a hawthorn / Bough”—they will not grow cold; future readers will keep them warm.
Subscribers to The Paris Review can read Lucie Brock-Broido’s “Periodic Table of Ethereal Elements” here.
Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. She is the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, including Advice from the Lights, which Graywolf Press published last year.