In their ego-centered quest for radical originality, too many contemporary poets fail to keep in mind what Catharine Brosman reminds us is the poet’s primary obligation in every age: “to say the oldest thing in the world as though it had never been said before”…
A Memory of Manaus: Poems by Catharine Savage Brosman (102 pages, Mercer University Press, 2017)
A Memory of Manaus, Catharine Brosman’s eleventh full-length collection of poetry, confirms her rightful place in the front rank of contemporary American poets. Working skillfully in both traditional forms and in tightly controlled free verse, Dr. Brosman is among that very small number of poets who have written fine poems well into their later years and who, in so doing, have not simply repeated themselves but have broken new ground as age brings experiences and perspectives not available directly in youth and middle age. Such achievement demands persistence, courage, integrity, a bit of good fortune, and total commitment to one’s craft.
In the essay, whose title she takes from Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1568), Dr. Brosman argues that many contemporary poets have lost a wide general audience. The reasons for this loss include the modernist emphases on radical technical experimentation over clearly, memorably presented, sharable subject matter (the great perennial themes such as love, war, nature, death, religion); a deliberate obscurity or excessively private reference (often passed off as profundity or as “in-the-know” side comments to followers); a failure to master the craft (the “mystery”) of verse-writing, especially the rules and forms of traditional measured verse; a decidedly—and un-self-critically—leftist cultural perspective; needless and offensive vulgarity; a neglect of sound and rhythm in favor of the image; and a disbelief in moral absolutes, a disbelief that leads inevitably to a retreat from the obligation of great verse to “please and instruct” (Horace).
In their ego-centered quest for radical originality, too many contemporary poets fail to keep in mind what Dr. Brosman, quoting Willa Cather, reminds us is the poet’s primary obligation in every age: “‘to say the oldest thing in the world as though it had never been said before.’” And, as Dr. Brosman states in her own words, “Poetry offers knowledge, experience, morality, verbal beauty, and order. Those twentieth-century critics who suggested that form was everything went too far: matter counts also.”
Illustrating these principles by example, Dr. Brosman, in her poem “Ars poetica,” says that the poet must exercise judgment, moral choice, and selectivity: “In art I like verisimilitude—/ not slavish imitation of the real.” The poet should “direct / uncommon focus to a common theme, // by vision, measured understanding, tact. / . . . / use artifice to complement what’s true.”
Governed by the principles stated in her essay and poem cited above, Dr. Brosman’s poetry in this and other volumes ranges widely in setting: her native Colorado and other places in the American West; New Orleans, where she lived for many years, teaching French at Tulane; Louisiana more generally; Texas, where she grew up, earned her degrees in French at Rice, and lives today; Europe, especially France and England; South America; the Middle East; India; Burma; and places visited by way of wide reading or the experience of other forms of art.
Many of Dr. Brosman’s poems are personal, but such verse is always accessible to the reader who will find therein points of contact with his or her own life. Dr. Brosman’s poetic forms and modes include blank verse, rhyming quatrains, the sonnet, the epigraph and elegy, other types of occasional poems, and narratives written in longer lines of strictly restrained free verse.
Some poems are general meditations, at times the products of reading and research. Quite a number of poems are vividly descriptive, evoking things in the natural world not only for themselves (pure being) but also as mysteriously correspondent to human thought and feeling. This correspondence—so deftly woven in words and the metaphors they can contain—suggests the possibility of a purposeful, divine ordering of what may be called a “given” world so seemingly well fitted to the human heart and mind. (Not surprisingly, Dr. Brosman is a traditionalist, a conservative.)
One could say that the poems in A Memory of Manaus—as well as the verse in Dr. Brosman’s other poetry collections—may be seen and taken together as a kind of personal “book of hours” whose pages of illuminating descriptions, meditations, stories told, make up something like a calendar of Dr. Brosman’s life, though the poems are not presented, as a whole, in any kind of chronological order. One sequence of poems in A Memory of Manaus is called a “notebook”; another, an “album.” The last work presented, “From The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” (circa 1440), is a series of eight poems responding to pictures, in an actual book of hours, of saints, some of whom suffered martyrdom.
As noted above, many of Dr. Brosman’s poems reflect her extensive traveling. Even into their eighties, Dr. Brosman and her husband, Patric “Pat” Savage, who died in the summer of 2017, continued to travel, including taking a cruise down the Amazon through the rainforest to the city of Manaus, a city accessible primarily by water or by air. There, in Manaus’s famous European-style opera house, Pat breaks out in song—“a famous aria from Rigoletto” (“A Memory of Manaus”). Such trips can be dangerous, especially for older travelers. Disembarking at the Port of Málaga, in Spain, Pat falls down an escalator and is badly injured, thinking as he falls “This may well be it.” As Dr. Brosman muses, “Events / are strange arrangements, where our steps are caught, / and we ourselves but happy accidents” (“Falling”).
Even farther away, in Burma, Dr. Brosman feels the tension between the tour guide’s Buddhist advice to “’keep serenity’” and enjoy a famous pagoda and the unmentioned horrors of the Japanese occupation of Burma in World War II as well as the more recent imprisonment of a noted political dissident: “Since we don’t endorse / the New World Order, why not (some wonder) / simply stay at home? Yet this may be, if not Nirvana, / one stage—the test of caritas—in our enlightenment” (“Missing Mandalay” in “An Album from Abroad”) And though we may, in retrospect, regret the violence done to Native American peoples and cultures by such Europeans as the Spanish conquistadors, we must also accept a hard truth too many ignore: “history, / iniquitous from the beginning, was no better / in the New World than the Old” (“Desert”) —and perfect reparation and atonement, even if attempted, can never be made. (Nor was pre-Columbian America a Garden of Eden, as some would claim.)
Frank discussion of the differences between cultures and the consequences of the clashing of seemingly incompatible cultures is difficult in today’s environment of political correctness with its supposedly unquestionable doctrines of “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Yet Dr. Brosman bravely and uncompromisingly addresses this issue in an elegy for those murdered by Muslim extremists in the November 2015 attacks in Paris. The poem closes with lines of great power:
We see too well
how new attackers want the West to rot;
they’ll kill the culture with the infidel.—
It’s foolish to be nice. De Gaulle was not,
nor Patton, nor was Charles Martel, who drove
the Saracens from Tours, quite nasty work—
essential, though—nor John, the king who strove
for Christendom, and won, against the Turk.
Past errors stain us, but do not excuse
today’s; and suicide remains a crime.
The dead require a stand. Who could refuse?
Requite them, and save France, while there’s still time.
(“For the Paris Dead”)
Dr. Brosman has also encountered left-wing political correctness in her literary life. But she has not remained passive or silent in face of unjust criticism. One critic is called to account for accusing her of writing poems that reflect a knowledge of “the canon, / tradition, measure—enemies!” (“On a Magazine and Its Critic”). Yet, ironically, as Dr. Brosman argues, this critic’s PC viewpoint would, by its own fallacious logic of presentism, lead to a rejection of most if not all ancient writers by applying to their works and world contemporary standards concerning sex, race, slaveholding, etc. Such unexamined presumptions recall Ezra Pound’s opposition to the provincialism of time and C.S. Lewis’s critique of “chronological snobbery.” Indeed, as Dr. Brosman notes, today’s PC writers may very well be attacked by their own dubious standards in ages yet to come.
Dr. Brosman, by contrast, is fully able—through wide reading, imagination, and intellect—to enter, understand, and, if need be, judge (but only according to discernibly universal, timeless standards) the lives and works of other writers, many of whom lived in other centuries than our own.
Jonathan Swift and his complicated relationships with “Vanessa” and “Stella”; Charles Dickens and his strong, often negative opinions of America formed on his 1842 tour; Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll); and the French writer and World War II aviator, Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince)—all of these are described, analyzed, and, as appropriate, evaluated. Saint-Exupéry is praised both as an author and as a war hero who died in action. By contrast, Dodgson, though rightly commended for his highly imaginative book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is not excused from his strong sexual attraction to very young girls, many of whom he photographed nude, or seminude. And even though Victorian mores and social pressure kept Dodgson’s impulses under control in his own day, Dr. Brosman sees Dodgson’s proclivities as an early sign of a general decline in ethical beliefs and practices in modernity:
His fame was warranted;
odd whispers, though. Beneath them all, beyond
The century’s pale, ran rips of violence
and seismic faults, awaiting time fulfilled,
with sulphurous effluvia and fires.
(“Charles Dodgson on the Thames”)
Another way to enter imaginatively the life of another person is by way of translation—and Dr. Brosman, in addition to being a poet, is a master scholar of the French language and its literature. Thus, she is well situated to translate into English the poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Dr. Brosman’s “Five Translations from Baudelaire” reveals Baudelaire as a poet given to the darker side of human life and to what some would call the agonizing burden of human consciousness and thought. For Baudelaire, this burden could not be escaped even in sleep:
I thus dread sleep the way one fears a hole
agape with horror, vague and bottomless.
Infinity appears through every pane.
Pursued and haunted in my very soul
by vertigo, I envy nothingness.
Ah! numbers, beings, leave me, all insane!
Even the beauty of a sunset ends when “night, irresistible, reclaims the plain— / dark, humid, full of shivers, fatal den” (“The Romantic Sunset”).
Dr. Brosman is able intellectually to perceive and imaginatively to recreate in English Baudelaire’s dark vision of things, but, for her, the natural world, human beings, and the often intertwining histories of both nature and man usually provide much joy, beauty, and contentment—though there is evil and suffering as well—and many mysteries which evoke in heart and mind a kind of tragic joy.
Sitting with Pat in a famous tavern in Bloomsbury, near The British Museum, Dr. Brosman recalls Samuel Johnson’s saying that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life. Already in her early eighties when this poem was written, Dr. Brosman was then—and remains today— anything but tired of life. The poem closes with the old lovers still ready, as the British say, to “carry on” in life with what years are left to them.
We’re in our element,
preserved together by some prescient star,
both logophiles, with mutual consent,
and still in love, that strange if worn, conceit—
old actors, barely known, on history’s stage,
time’s artefacts, arranged around our feet
proclaiming the enduring worth of age.
(“At the Museum Tavern”)
Likewise, in a garden (as in the first garden), the well-ordered plants seem matched to human thought and well-being:
We’re in a private garden—Arcady.
Cool windmill palms, Cape jasmine, climbing rose,
live oaks, a fig, the archetype of tree,
magnificent magnolias: all propose
light, leafy thought, while scattered notes of dread
and pain, remembered, barely interfere
as being spins unceasingly its thread
out of our substance and the atmosphere.
The old lovers here have had much of the best that life has to offer, and so the poem concludes:
We have been happy, you and I! These hours,
a benefit of friendship, time, and love,
hang trellised, framed in foliage and flowers—
the meaning in the manner, hand in glove.
Perhaps Dr. Brosman would see herself as akin to the artist and writer born in California and associated with the American Southwest, Laura Adams Armer (1874-1963). Dr. Brosman’s poem on Armer ends with these lines about Armer in her later years: “The trail / continues to the Old Age River, bright, / ‘finished in beauty’ and in memories” (“Laura Adams Armer Leaves Her Hogan”). As Dr. Brosman explains in a note on this poem, “the phrase ‘Finished in beauty’ and its variants are common throughout Navajo chants and ceremonies, and are used by other peoples and by twentieth-century writers.”
That line, “‘finished in beauty’ and in memories,” could also be applied to many of Dr. Brosman’s poems in this volume. One kind of beauty not so far considered is that of sanctity and miracle. “Babieca,” a poem about El Cid’s stallion of that name, tells how Babieca once knelt before a mosque because he somehow knew that the mosque had been built on top of the remains of a church. El Cid is riding with the King of Castille:
El Cid, behind
him on his steed, named Babieca, passed
a small, unprepossessing mosque. The horse
stopped suddenly and knelt, in awe and prayer;
a holy light, miraculous, appeared.
For underneath the mosque lay vestiges
of what had been a Visigothic church
that Muslims had destroyed. Proof of the grace
of God, perhaps—the Christian warhorse touched,
illuminated, and his rider sure
of his salvation.
A Memory of Manaus closes with other illuminations: a sequence of eight poems based on images from a medieval manuscript. Each poem concerns a saint (who is sometimes also a martyr). In the first of these, “Conversion of Saint Hubert,” we see Hubert riding his horse to the hunt. As in “Babieca,” so, here, the horse—as well as Hubert’s dog—reacts to something unusual:
the steed pulls back.
The holy stag, its forelegs crossed, displays
a crucifix encircled in its rack.
A hunting dog, its paws together, prays.
The halo is already done, its gold
contrasting with the hunter’s smart attire.
The future and the past, the new, the old
to Christ are all one moment—spark, flame, fire.
(“From The Hours of Catherine of Cleves”)
Time blends into eternity as Hubert already has a saint’s disc of gold behind his head, even at the very moment of his conversion.
In one sense, all of Dr. Brosman’s poems can be seen as illuminations that capture, evoke, narrate, and try to understand important events, stories, and ideas from her personal life, her relationships, her wide reading and travel, or some combination of these. Not surprisingly, especially with her roots in the American South and West, Dr. Brosman, as noted earlier, is a conservative, a traditionalist, who has a profound respect for, and a wide knowledge of, American and European history and culture.
Both the light of intelligence and the warmth of feeling permeate these poems, the best of which, in the opinion of this reviewer, are permanent additions to American literature. Catharine Savage Brosman is most deserving of a distinguished place in the literary canon in which her poems are deeply rooted and to which they contribute something new.
Republished with gracious permission from the Abbeville Review (February 2018).
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