“I really like writing recipes for baked goods because I like codes and patterns and proportions, so there’s probably some similarity in poetry.” Molly Brodak, in an interview at the Vouched Books website.
Molly Brodak left us in 2020, but her poems remain, authoritative equivocations, lines multiplying down the page, surreal accumulations of data, mobius strips of sensations, information, and images. One might conclude she is trying to home in on what’s true or useful for living a difficult life. Still, as Brodak put it in an interview (online, in Fanzine), in reference to her 2016 book of non-fiction, Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir, “The broad conclusion of this book is that broad conclusions are useless to dealing with human nature.” That is certainly true for Brodak’s poetry as well. But to merely say it’s nuanced seems reductive.
Brodak’s poems are obviously intricate and detailed. But the poet also learned how to allow the world to flood her consciousness, a way of being everywhere at once, in all-places at all-times. She learned how to write the way the Abstract Expressionists painted, using an all-over technique, especially in her later work. Indeed, Brodak’s poems whirr with an all-over intensity, roving the landscape, looking for what throws off sparks in the darkness. It’s an all-consuming way to travel without leaving one’s desk, an uplifting displacement. A way to push away the gloom. The only problem is eventually one must suffer arrival. From “Shore”:
… forgeries of godliness. Words for them, forgiveness. Comedy is one. In one country how to say black was blood-is-dirty. Also early sky, late sky, dusty, and shining from somewhere. We’ve come from there; it is no longer a place.*
Are there moments of self-loathing threaded into the fabric of Brodak’s poetic lines? Occasionally, the theater of such, part of the cubist gestalt of it all. But the pyrotechnic fury of an intelligence at work is more like it, the mind on fire—listing, describing, deciphering, arranging, negating… Here, for example, is part of “Bells”:
Each day ahead is lake black. Bells, still. God popped like a balloon when I looked directly. Songs just clank the fetters. I remember ergo sum. I never need to dig graves. Everyone, a terminal, a terminal of photons, irritating rackets, generosity, gently extinguishing fire, which is nothing special.
By poem’s end it seems, however, that “Bells” has been a metaphor for family all along. Here are the final four lines, a summation, delivering both pathos and a sense of doom.
Blue and pink charms, cassocks, gold chains they shared. They dragged Mom’s body and Dad’s body as far as they could on the beach. They scattered into a shoreless sea. And you want to be happy.
Does the speaker in Brodak’s poems seem concerned that we must care about her pain? Not particularly. No whiff of sympathy-gathering drifts from the lines in a Molly Brodak poem. Instead, she’s hammered these dialectical equations onto the page—ongoing arguments that perhaps attempt to prove that being and nonbeing are somehow equivalent. Meanwhile, the reader is seized (in alarming moments of focus and deep comprehension) by a presence unlike little else I can point to in the contemporary poetry landscape (though Brigit Pegeen Kelly was a poet who comes to mind as a kindred spirit, another stormy visionary, whose incantatory poetry lulls and incites with a similar intensity). Art above all else, is one thing we feel, reading Brodak’s poems. Or maybe not art in general but this artist. Brodak. Brodak’s particular arrangement of white space and words. Her syntax. Her movement of mind. I find it mesmerizing and haunting. Transcendence? Immanence. Voice, it is sometimes called…
The reader merges with a Brodak poem as if merging onto a freeway full of earthly clutter—nacre and dinoflagellates, lacing cogs and Cyclades, fatty human torsos and snow mounds… At the same time one becomes conscious of a world reassembling itself via Brodak’s imagination—one carefully articulated syllable following another: “Letters cluster / and fossilize, // a plot of brain coral, / packed like phlox, and you poisoning your / own curing spring / by diving in” (from “The Post”).
There’s just so much stuff in a Molly Brodak poem—so many “spoutpools” (from “Land”), so much of what appears in the following lines, from “The Come From,” which appears in this issue of The Glacier: “beans / and lay-downs, blotted retrospections, // until giddy pastel trees and dove-lowered crowns descend, / next month, / I bet.” So much nature—so many plants, animals (pieces piling up and arranged, like a portrait by Arcimboldo), so much hopeful anthropomorphizing…There’s also so much of what’s there and then not there (from “Post”):
It begins with the smell of rotten roses and a clean eggshell— no creature— no clocks, no phones.
Speaking of art, another thing there is a lot of in a Molly Brodak poem is color, often clumsily applied (along with some occasionally awkward shading and modeling). It’s the kind of art you might expect from a precocious but untrained child artist. I walk away from some of her landscapes seeing watercolor accents and crosshatchings, color applied slightly off-register. Sometimes I’m reminded of the bulkily-modeled pink-stubbled faces and shoes that appear in the late great paintings of Philip Guston, the paint itself seeming to add to the pull of gravity, the exaggerated and outsize shapes of what clusters and breathes in a room rendered on canvas, the quotidian—beds, sandwiches, knobby elbows. In “Pink Trees” Brodak writes:
I was stirring something bad in a wood bowl. A hoax lifted. I counted a giant knot in a clapboard panel. Hand-big brain-big roses on wallpaper. The goose tilted his head
Brodak’s poems also sometimes resemble Boschian nightmares.
So much, so much. In the end what does this all amount to? Often, we finally arrive at what’s desolate, ephemeral (from “We Lie Down in the Clearing,” in The Glacier):
You know, neglect is liberty, until it is not liberty, then it is really very much liberty. Like water lathers around boulders, recognizing itself for once, astonished. Good love creeps up. I am awake but it is evening. I hear your name peal no name at all. The only name.
I never met Molly but I read A Little Middle of the Night in 2010—and read it repeatedly (or “repeatingly,” as John Berryman put it, whose poetic project Brodak’s resembles) over the years—always waiting for other poems to appear . . . and other poems did appear, from time to time, in literary journals. But we had to wait for Molly’s second book, The Cipher, to appear in 2020, the year of her death.
Every line in a Brodak poem seems an attempt to refuse the logic of narrative, to test the validity of mimesis, to refute causality, the fiction of order . . . Still, the poems do seem to be trying to assemble fragments in order to capture the verisimilitude of the phenomenological moment. The poems in this issue of The Glacier (like the poems in The Cipher and A Little Middle of the Night) reject the linear for a patchwork architecture, a mosaic of what’s there (in plain sight or hidden, possibly only imagined) to know. It’s either a mathematics that couldn’t exist were it not for the human imagination or it’s a mathematics that has always been. It may have nothing to do with us, incomprehensible, and we’re just fooling ourselves.
The poems published here, each for the first time, propose, absolutely, the primacy of the moment, by scrolling through codes for what could represent a reality full of causation. Each image or phrase resonates, surrounded by the white of the page, a metaphor for time. Is what appears in the poem a story or a metaphor for a story? For example, “Mail” (which appears in this issue of The Glacier) begins with a suggestion of refusal: “Actually I don’t feel like talking.” This is quickly followed by the speaker’s report from her quagmire—an Eliotesque description of reality, “Daylight sinks / on its cold coil,” which is then quickly followed by a pun (definitely lessening the putative bleakness) “every serpent is tucked up.” This little moment of deep-image stand-up allows the speaker (and reader) to drift elsewhere, away from the self, perhaps to the construction of an ongoing apocalypse… Then: “Actually I have never heard / my own voice.” At first, we laugh, in part because of the Caulfield-esque tone, but then we realize Brodak is flirting with the idea of self-erasure once again.
Finally, “Mail,” like many of Brodak’s poems, is about how human beings are inadequate containers for what constitutes a metaphysics. How can what’s inside us travel to what’s distant, extra-dimensional. Brodak’s poems grapple with the “reality” that everything consciousness seizes upon cannot be assimilated into the limited self, a self that’s also trapped inside a meager three dimensions:
Elaborate survivors can’t carry everything in one body… Fire opposite of trailhead. Stripes of fog behind the unclimbable ridge where we once grew tired and quit. Data spread between us, even. Ardor slips in degrees. Photos opposite of everything. Photos melted back into ideas then back into nothingness.
I don’t know what else to say about Molly Brodak’s work other than I feel that it is bursting with contradictory energy, hermetic and exhilarating. She manages to be in the NOW in a way I rarely encounter in art—an immanence. There is divinity in such lucid and fearless self-possession. A steadfastness and clarity. I think of her as one of those rare artists whose work seems to inhabit liminal spaces (and find the poems open up in new ways when I read them while on the edge of sleep). And yet, considered more conventionally, Brodak’s absorbing poetry is also instructive, combative, shocking, funny, and perpetually moving. It’s also formally inventive (those breakneck enjambments!) and full of a knotty kind of lyrical beauty.
I want to thank Blake Butler for forwarding me his late wife’s poems for this issue of The Glacier. That we were able to share this work with the world is beyond gratifying. Molly Brodak was a visionary poet and her loss was not only enormous for those who knew and loved her but for those of us who knew her from afar, through her writing. Someday, hopefully, her work will be compiled into a collected poems so it can be shared with readers everywhere, for as long as it takes to continue to matter…
David Dodd Lee
The other poets collected in this issue are similarly gripping.
The eight new poems by Ashley Capps present a vision of the world in which the very language we utter can signify that which is divine, the names and words for describing the animals with whom we share this planet. Bomb us with shiny gasters, Capps writes in the incantatory “Prayer for Bees.” And yet, by comparison to these creatures, we are the soulless. The grace, humor, and intensity of these works signal a new chapter for Capps, whose Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields (an astoundingly comic and moving piece of post-confessional writing) appeared in 2006.
We are also happy to share five never-before-collected poems by Joe Bolton, whose book, The Last Nostalgia, edited by Donald Justice, appeared in 1999, nine years after the poet’s death. The volume collects all the published poems available at the time, including those published in two published books, as well as in two unpublished manuscripts that Bolton used for his MFA thesis. 42 Miles Press will be publishing a volume of Bolton’s uncollected poems (culled from those found in Bolton’s papers, which are housed at the library at Western Kentucky University) in the not-to-distant future.
Additionally, poetry and prose by Mary Ruefle appears in this issue (“Teeth of Noon” will have your head spinning). As does Michael Burkard’s extraordinary “The Blue Line,” a kind of elegy for his recently departed friend, poet and prose writer, Denis Johnson. There is Dana Roeser’s epic romp about love a little later in life. Everything in this issue makes us want to run around the block in a pair of show shoes, T. Rex streaming in through our air pods.
Thank you to all who submitted. Thank you to all who visit.
A final note. Kevin McIlvoy submitted a story in early 2022. It blew us away. One of us read it to the others aloud (twice). We accepted the story. In September “Mc,” as his friends knew him, passed away. Go directly to the story, “Thing,” read it, and share it on social media. We’ve added some of Kevin McIlvoy’s titles to the library here at the press. Maybe others—you out there, reading this—will also want to do the same. This issue of The Glacier is dedicated to Kevin.
*The poems quoted in the above text can be found in The Cipher, Pleiades Press, 2020, unless otherwise noted.
Artwork by David Dodd Lee.
© The Glacier 2022. All rights reserved.