“The wingspan of your voice … / Cannot be taken down”

In Memory of Lucie Brock-Broido


Marc Woodworth

The morning I learned Lucie Brock-Broido had died, I listened to a reading she’d given with Derek Walcott and Adam Zagajewski at a 2009 festival called “Poetries of the Stranger” at Boston College. Not watching the YouTube video, only hearing her voice through my Bluetooth earbuds while walking a hemlock path in the weird light of an unseasonable early morning March snow flurry, I almost convinced myself that the sometimes otherworldly atmospheres of Lucie’s work had passed into the landscape and her revenant might appear — a woman seemingly out of time in a long velvet skirt, high collar and fingerless gloves.

But in truth I didn’t notice the snow or light as much as that voice, very much alive as were the poems Lucie was reading — very much alive but suffused with a mortal timbre given the work she delivered in her deliberate voice rich with hesitation and purpose. It had been some form of “queer luck” (her phrase), perhaps, that I’d unthinkingly chosen this reading out of the many that my search engine turned up. She began with an instance of her delicious humor (“Derek Walcott has been sitting on my hair off and on all night” — yes, Lucie’s extraordinary hair, always itself a Presence, as she might have capitalized the word). After absorbing the pang I felt registering the loss of her wit, I listened to Lucie read Thomas James’s “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” with its first-person after-death account of a royal Egyptian undergoing the process of mummification. How characteristically brave and generous to begin her own reading with a masterful longer poem by another poet, a writer, in this case, she had championed, as she had championed others (many of us first heard of Franz Wright because of her early enthusiasm for his work). And here was Lucie speaking via the recording after her untimely death in the voice of a woman herself speaking beyond death and written into existence by a poet who died at 27 in 1974 whose work Lucie had loved and resurrected.

Next was Lucie’s elegy for Liam Rector, “Freedom of Speech,” which contains a line which, the morning after her death, came through as a voice — mine, not mine —addressing Lucie herself: “You would like it now, this snow, this hour./ Your visitation here … not altogether/unexpected.” And then as if she had fed me words I might say about her: “I know/ The wingspan of your voice, whole gorgeous flocks of harriers,/ Cannot be taken down.” There it was, her wild scruple in a fresh form, prescient and devastating and on-going.

She wrote me a vivid letter when I told her I was teaching “Am Moor,” that thilling, disorienting set of charged lines that closes The Master Letters (1995). I relish the account of the poem she provided. It’s serious and revealing for all its playful restlessness: “Secrets to help Teacher,” she wrote, before offering that “Am Moor” is “just a Lyric poem, quite oddly autobiographical in fact.” She writes in a way so palpably Lucie that she immediately appears before me when I reread it: “well, it’s not been NINETY wounded men I’ve tendered to, but three or 4 at least.” “Am Moor” “is not in Trakl’s voice (many, most read it as a personae poem Galore). It is a girl who speaks & it is I. ” It is a poem, she writes, of “unstoppable fates, my own unstoppable fates.”

Along with being a friend of Salmagundi and to its editors (who published three of her poems in #141-142 that appeared in the 2004 volume Trouble In Mind), Lucie Brock-Broido taught for many summers at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore where she inspired students in her workshop and gave indelible readings of her poems each July to large and rapt audiences. I remember Lucie most vividly the day her friend Lucy Grealy came to visit her at the Institute. Even though it was a little case of bad form, the three of us lay on the floor in the very back of Davis Auditorium during the evening reading. We listened intently, flat on our backs and out of sight. That memory of hiding out there, Lucie’s caprice transforming a familiar kind of public event into an adventure, something secretive and intimate, reminds me every time I think of it of who she was and how she wrote. I won’t forget that: “The wingspan of your voice … / Cannot be taken down.”