Readers who know the exceptional poetry of Catharine Savage Brosman will recognize familiar landscapes and motifs in her latest book, Under the Pergola.  The collection is divided into two sections.  The first, On Bayou Bonfouca, comprises poems that reflect the people, topography, flora, and fauna of south Louisiana from greater New Orleans to the Texas border.  Though she has previously written numerous poems focused on this area, Brosman always delights the reader with new angles of vision and fresh ideas generated by the scenery and characters.

The second section, Under the Pergola, consists of an assortment of types.  The first three take us to the majestic vistas of the American West, whose stark, awe-inspiring scenery has animated some of her most stunning poems.  The next nine continue her ongoing exploration of foods, both common and exotic.  I marvel at her ability to make interesting, even riveting, so many poems about such a mundane topic as what we eat.  Part of her magic arises from her deft handling of form.  Six of these poems are written in iambic-pentameter quatrains with an abab rhyme scheme, and her unerring choices of rhyming words exhibit not only her fine ear for the music of language but also her grasp of the principle of “organic rhyme,” where there is a thematic relationship between the rhymed words.  These poems are followed by a series of biographical sketches.  The final poem, “Light Years,” resists categorization; it is a philosophical looking back on her own life from the perspective of one viewing the light from distant stars.

In a typical Brosman poem, three parallel universes are simultaneously and continuously working together toward a single vision or resolution.  First, we encounter the literal world of sensory phenomena, which is “sufficient to itself” (“On Bayou Bonfouca”), so lush are her observational and descriptive powers.  The reader can easily become so mesmerized by her extended descriptions, so real that even the metaphors at first seem actual parts of the world in view, that he can temporarily forget that this is not all there is to our experience of reality.  And is this not how most of us respond to a scene that catches and holds our attention?

For instance, in “Parrot Man,” here is one of her depictions of New Orleans:

. . . with its steamy

breath, the river’s dream, the oozing earth, hibiscus

and sweet olive, moss suspended from the oaks,

and winds composing languidly upon their leafy instruments . . .

There are many such portraits of the natural world in Brosman’s work.  In “Sycamores,” she focuses on a single tree:

. . . Its lower limbs are still bedecked with beads

from Mardi Gras; but it’s got psoriasis

and lesions, bark all rough and peeling, spotted,

cut and gouged, with dirty patches like old bandages . . .

It is not only nature, but the creations of man, that draw her gaze.  In “White Pelicans,” a different kind of mural unfolds:

. . . This is working country—barges,

tugboats, shrimp boats ply the channel currents,

weaving—weft along the warp; pickups, heavy-duty


trucks, great ants, press to cross . . .

and in “Chrétien Point,” she presents a house

of crimson brick, flamboyant on the green

surrounding us all seasons.  Cypress blinds,

great Tuscan columns, fine entablature,

acanthus-leaf medallions, heavy walls

(a fortress against weather), manteled hearths . . .

However, Brosman rarely remains transfixed for long in the world of phenomena.  Her sense perceptions, particularly those of sight, evoke the realm of the imagination, where feelings and thoughts are abstracted from the physical world into a union of what occultists term the astral and mental planes, where flying birds are “translated into swans of thought” (“White Pelicans”).  By its very nature, this is, at least potentially, a far more complex realm than the physical.

Thinkers and writers from time immemorial have postulated that the external world mirrors the internal.  Brosman often sees correspondences between the environment she experiences outwardly and various states of her psyche.  In “Endive,” she determines that this odd vegetable, and others perhaps odder, have enduring importance to us because they allow us to “turn the common by our art to strange, / to match the wild conceptions of the mind.”  In “Sycamores,” the trees bent by time and weather remind her of her own body: “as the moment stirs between the sun and shadow— / tree and woman leaning into autumn’s wealth.”

Perhaps her sense of the relationship between these two worlds is summed up by the passage that ends “Five White Birds”:

. . . So one is, and is not, what has passed,

windy patterns on deep, loamy grasses, stilled

at dusk, a watermark of images upon the mind,

wings beating for a glassy moment in desire—

a gesture’s meaning as the shaken air resounds.

The imagination can invest the physical world with anthropomorphic notions, an interpretive pattern at least as old as Aesop.  In “Parrot Man,” the poet speculates that, as the bird’s owner, on whose shoulder he rests, ages and becomes senile,

. . . the parrot’s memory will fly

among the jungle thickets, where the day is full

of rumors in green voices, as vermillion, gold,

and azure flash in feathered motion, and the darkness

hums with prescient passion; and its visionary eye will see

how all has come to this: silence and immobility . . .

and in “Live Oak House,” the speaker concludes the poem with:

See how that blossom holds the whole of spring!—

how birds that score the evening sky can leave

intelligible traces in the dark!

Not all of Brosman’s journeys through the realm of imagination are so inspirational (or even pleasant).  The mind must also cope with the darker side of reality.  Normally, Brosman bonds with the natural scene around her.  But in “Cypress Swamp,” she is unable to identify with the landscape viewed as she crosses a bridge “and some mournful swamps that look half-alien— / a dream state or a part of Hades, maybe . . . ”
In “Katrina and the Muses,” she captures the utter horror of the storm and its aftermath:

. . . But Katrina is catastrophe, and unrelieved,

the downward movement at the end of drama—

ruination, death, as everything collapses . . .

The realm of the imagination is the native soil of the metaphor, a different type of correspondence the mind creates.  Much of the success Brosman achieves in her poems results from her ability to fashion apt, sometimes astonishing, metaphors.  The test of a metaphor’s effectiveness is whether it gives the reader a new level of consciousness of, or a new vital language of expression about, the original image in the analogy.  In “Driving to Texas,” Brosman describes a wreck:

. . . In a ditch ahead, two trucks—a hopper

and another 18-wheeler—struggle, locked like stags,

to death . . .

The metaphor appropriately describes the testosterone competition rampant on our crowded highways.  While cataloguing disasters in “Katrina and the Muses,” her very short metaphor “alveoli of mines collapsing” reminds us that most deaths in mine mishaps result from the gases the miners breathe.

Her most striking examples of metaphor occur when she uses them in verbs, as in the following passages:

. . . watching twilight

hesitate (uncertain at this solstice date of whether

to approach, delaying its arrival for an hour or so)



where the sun—having shot up after daybreak,

from Grand Mesa, breasted a path toward the zenith,

and dog-paddled for a few hours in deep sky—

now turns over, seems to fill its lungs, and prepares

to dive . . .

[“Under the Pergola”]

. . . road rage

simmering.  A Taurus gnaws my tail

at 55 between the concrete berms . . .

[“Driving to Texas”]


There is still another level of reality in these poems, the spiritual realm that holds everything together and gives it meaning and purpose.  Often it is latent, though familiarity with her poetry reminds us that it is always there and real in her worldview.  On other occasions, it breaks through the surface patterns of the material and imaginative worlds, and we are given “one more glimpse of what reality is made of, and thus we” (“Rooftops”).

As Saint Paul indicates in Romans 1:19-20, sensory phenomena can be revelatory.  In “Chata-Ima on Bayou Lacombe,” the priest leaves corrupt civilization for the wilderness where he dreams “of winds that brushed the forest like God’s hand, / and rains, God’s tears to lave the soul.”

However, in Brosman’s poetry, it is more often the realm of the imagination that serves as the catalyst for spiritual awakening:

. . . weak creatures of the fall

who hoarded nuts and berries in a cave,

and, watching shadows flickering on the wall,

imagined paradise beyond the grave.



. . . Iris, who divides her shafts of light to show us

what we’re made of: remnants of a cosmic comedy,

a watery covenant embracing earth and sky, a prison

of being divining breaches in the darkness to collect

the world’s intelligence and turn it into dazzling idea.


If, generally speaking, metaphor is germane to the realm of imagination, the trope that most readily pertains to the spirit is the symbol.  All true religions are symbolic in nature—through material objects and human actions, usually in the form of rituals, unseen realities are portrayed in visible forms.  Throughout her entire body of work, there have been recurrent symbols that elicit the appearance of the spiritual realm.  In Under the Pergola, the most predominant such symbols are foods—“The blue becomes a thought / of sky; my teeth are stained with the ideal” (“Blueberries”)—and birds, long-established archetypes of both the human soul and the Holy Spirit.  In “White Pelicans,” the speaker watches these less-than-beautiful fowl flying away, and she is suddenly transported into another dimension where their inner beauty shines:

. . . Winging off, they pull us

into flight, their whiteness purified against

the blue empyrean, translated into swans of thought.

In “Five White Birds,” though there is nothing innately ugly about these birds, a similar regeneration occurs in the speaker’s perception:

. . . the birds with ease

glide upward, bodies turned to movement,

backlit from the final sun rays on the scrim

of sky and thought, as flashes of pure being—

foreseeing, passing, leaving all one ecstasy.

Though there are often Wordsworthian resonances in Brosman’s metaphysical representations, she is an affirmed Christian.  Her poems often express in Christian terms mankind’s age-old longing for permanence, ultimate meaning, and release from the failings (both physical and moral) of the flesh.  She ends “Parrot Man” with this passage:

. . . I too should wish to have a feathered savior

bright as flame, who speaks in tongues and shines

in sunset color on my shoulder as he wings me to the clouds.

And she concludes “Portobello Mushrooms” with this:

. . . that my nature, too,

may be transcended, sublimated, borne beyond itself—

a feint . . .

. . . yet an ideal—the being of the angels

without appetite, their wings transparent and their bodies light.

Powerful endings such as these abound in her poems, for, in addition to her other consummate skills as a poet, Brosman is a virtuoso of closure.  I am a proponent of the “Big Bang Theory” of poetry, in which endings exploding with insight and verbal exaltation resonate in my mind for days.   When I finish a Brosman poem, I am overcome by the same urge as when I listen to Beethoven or Handel—the impulse to leap to my feet and shout, “Yes!”


[Under the Pergola, by Catharine Savage Brosman (LSU Press) 80 pp., $17.95.]