Nationality: American. Born: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 22 May 1956. Education: Johns Hopkins University, 1976–79, B.A. The Writing Seminars 1978; M.A. The Writing Seminars 1979; Columbia University, 1979–82, M.F.A. 1982. Career: Briggs-Copeland Assistant Professor in Poetry, 1988–93, and director, creative writing program, 1992–93, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; associate professor in poetry, Bennington Writing Seminars, 1993–95; visiting professor of poetry, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, 1995. Since 1993 associate professor and director of poetry, Columbia University, New York. Awards: Grolier poetry prize, Blacksmith Series, Cambridge, 1983; poetry fellowship, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, 1983; Hoyns fellowship in poetry, University of Virginia, 1984; National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, 1985, 1998; New Letters Literary award, 1987; New England Review Narrative Poetry award, 1987; Massachusetts Artist fellowship in poetry, 1988, 1996; Harvard-Danforth award for distinction in teaching, 1989, 1990; American Poetry Review Jerome Shestack prize for poetry, 1991; Harvard University Phi Beta Kappa Teaching award, 1991; Witter Bynner poetry prize, 1996; John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in poetry, 1996. Address: c/o Dodge Hall, Writing Division, School of the Arts, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027.
A Hunger. New York, Knopf, 1988.
The Master Letters. New York, Knopf, 1995.* * *
A Hunger, Lucie Brock-Broido's first book of poems, was published in 1988 by the major trade house Knopf. One of the more notable debuts of the period, the book had three reprintings between its initial appearance and the autumn of 1994. This is extraordinary given the proliferation of poetry volumes, the generally acknowledged (though much debated) shrinking audience for poetry, and the usual conduct of major trade houses toward poetry (publish a very small number of volumes, then remainder or pulp all but one or two high-octane sellers after twelve months). The commercial performance of Brock-Broido's first book is all the more astonishing when one considers that the poetry clearly evolves from the difficult model of Wallace Stevens. Intense, brooding, and complex, Brock-Broido's poems incessantly probe the terms and terrain of love, depression, friendship, popular culture, and art itself. Such qualities can be seen in these lines from "Domestic Mysticism":
When I come home, the dwarves will be long
In their shadows & promiscuous. The alley cats will sneak
Inside, curl about the legs of furniture, close the skins
Inside their eyelids, sleep. Orchids will be intercrossed and sturdy.
The sun will go down as I sit, thin armed, small breasted
In my cotton dress, poked with eyelet stitches, a little lace,
In the queer light left when a room snuffs out.
The speaker in this poetry, casting an almost too highly developed eye on detail, brings a merciless honesty to the task of painful witnessing. That the orchids will be "intercrossed and sturdy" is an unusual observation, and so is the speaker's attention to the cats' inner eyelids as they sleep. But most accomplished, and perhaps most revealing, is the narrator's description of herself as a small, vulnerable doll both threatened by and part of "the queer light left when a room snuffs out." Although aware of the consequences, the narrator will not avert her glance from the brightness of the sun. Rather, she stares, driven by a belief that the revealing calm resides always at the heart of chaos. She stares, but she does so with full awareness of the inherent danger. Thus, she shares a more than passing sympathy with the intriguing poet Thomas James, who published one volume of verse in 1972 before committing suicide. Brock-Broido acknowledges the bond by quoting one of James's most revealing lines—"I am afraid of what the world will do"—in her poem "The Beginning of the Beginning."
Brock-Broido is afraid perhaps, but her vulnerability is not the kind that herds its host into silence and passivity. Her weapon, the tool that separates the chaff from the kernel of truth, is poetry, a language that, though introspective, may lead to accessibility, understanding, and kinship with a larger audience. If we compare Brock-Broido's poems to those of her contemporary Jorie Graham (whose notes, wordplay, and obfuscation finally make us wonder what if anything such poems have to say), we find in the former a much more productive and meaningful use of the Stevens legacy. Like Sylvia Plath before her, Brock-Broido confronts urgent issues and does so in inventive ways that help her readers confront—and survive—them, too.