The best poetry—great poetry—happens when sound, rhythm, and image bring about a mysterious feeling of wholeness that somehow draws mind, body, and spirit together in what both Yeats and Eliot envisioned as a unified dance.  What we call “the power of the word” is really a pattern of words in a rhythm originating in heartbeat and footfall.  Language, like the human mind, consists of a conscious and an unconscious element, and what “real” poetry can do, even when it looks like prose on the page, is to reproduce the hidden music we are all born hearing but often lose as we grow up.  The danger today lies in pursuing novelty beyond a point of no return, of technically “making it new” until we no longer hear anything but the virtual pulse of a spoiled, overmechanized civilization that is destroying its childhood as it ages, boasting the while of its progress.  Fortunately for us, Catharine Savage Brosman’s latest collection of poetry, A Memory of Manaus, is a canon of what matters, and affirms the kind of ultimate good sense of our art.

In the title poem that opens the book, the narrator, along with her husband, Pat, and other travelers, have

come by boat upriver some nine hundred miles

along the Amazon, and reached its origins,

the meeting of the Solimões and Negro waters, confluent

but not commingled, flowing for some distance

side by side, in brown and black.

Disembarking at Manaus, the travelers visit, among other sites, the historic opera house “Teatro Amazonas.”  Pat, of frail health, falls behind the others—stops to admire the ceiling:

 . . . tests (sotto voce) the acoustics,

then breaks out in song—a famous aria from Rigoletto. . . .

that glorious nineteenth-century opera in a jungle city,

his thoughts of Verdi and the duke and tragic Gilda,

and his own voice resonating, strong, despite

his weakened heart.

The aria he sings is “La donna è mobile.”  Amid darkness, sounds of joy.  The poem is one of many travel poems that grace this collection.  They are elegant, at times humorous (at times disturbing); all of them showcase Brosman’s artful language, wise observation, her genius for description.  Read them out loud!  Or with the inner ear.  And take your time.  I am particularly fond of “A Breton Notebook”—a gustatory delight not to be read on an empty stomach.

After the formal grandeur of many of Brosman’s landscapes, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find her equally at home with satirical verse.  Among her targets, a dictator of literary taste: “He wants to banish dead white men. / Won’t he be one?  Alas, what then?” (the envoi of “On a Magazine and Its Critic”); a poetess at war with traditional verse and values: “Tradition—that’s the unforgiven sin. / Why did I ever think to ask her in?” (the envoi to “A Small Poetics”); and a smug postmodern publisher: “Postmodernism is a dreadful farce. / Why don’t they go and stuff it up their . . . ?” (the envoi to “On a Postmodern Publisher”).  In these poems, Brosman never makes the mistake of sliding into cynicism.  (Cynicism is the flip side of sentimentality: Both quickly induce, then foreclose on, feeling.)  She keeps to a playful tone as she cheerfully skewers her subjects.

Also, in this collection, and not surprisingly, one finds lyric gems that display great tenderness and delicacy.  “The Bromeliad” is one of them.  “A Revery,” another.  In both poems, description lives side by side with ideas, serious thought.  Here is “A Revery” in its entirety:

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.

What artistry is on display!—through chance,

intentions, Nature’s talent, which contrive

to model the ideal from circumstance,

the lost originals that still survive.

Contentment, calm, are not mirage.  To be

in sentimental misery (intense,

grotesque, or bitter) antithetically

presumes acquaintance with a garden’s sense.

Such dialectic shapes the afternoon—

aromas, murmurs lingering in the grass,

moist air, fresh late-spring breezes, opportune;

yet stillness, even as the moments pass.

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.

[Reprinted by permission of Mercer University
Press, excerpted from A Memory of Manaus,
by Catharine Savage Brosman (2017)]

Elsewhere in the book, poems such as “An Epitaph for My Parents’ Graves,” “Gloves,” and “At Burrough Hill” serve to deepen the elegiac, spiritual tones that (apart from the satires) lie at the heart of A Memory of Manaus—along with Brosman’s beautifully rendered portraits of the American West and Southwest.  Here is the conclusion to “Wet Mountains”:

Far off shimmer the Wet Mountains,

visible in late-summer haze, their famous weight

of snow pack, moisture-rich, implicit still;

and then beyond, the unseen valley, laden now

with new high-mountain hay, and their patron range,

the Sangre de Cristos, half-perceived, half-imagined,

dusty blue—a mantle in a faded painting, aureoled.

The book closes with “From The Hours of Catherine of Cleves,” eight ekphrastic poems based on a manuscript of illuminations that dates from around 1440 and was produced in Utrecht for the eponym.  The poems bear the titles assigned to the illuminations, which, when featuring one or two saints, are called suffrages.  Each poem contains three four-lined stanzas in alternately rhymed iambic pentameter.  The last poem of the sequence reads:

It’s richly drawn, a multi-action scene.

The Infant, on his shoulder, holds a globe

and blesses Christopher, whose mantle, green,

drags underfoot; his cut-off scarlet robe

may be in tatters.  At the lower edge,

the gates of Gaza fall, a parallel.

The saint is weary.  On a rocky ledge,

a hermit lifts a lantern; wavelets swell.

As orange sunset fades before the night,

the saint leans on his staff, as if he bore

a growing stone.  The moon is high, to light

the shallows, and the bearer steps ashore.

Brosman is a restless poet.  We have traveled much of the world with her—the Amazon, Malta, Oman and the Emirates, India, Spain, France, and England.  We’ve explored America through the eyes of Charles Dickens (“Dickens at Niagara Falls”); entered the strange mind of Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. “Lewis Carroll,” in “Charles Dodgson on the Thames”; flown over Arras in 1940 with Saint-Exupéry (“Saint-Exupéry Over Arras”).  With this poem, “Saint Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ,” we have stepped ashore, come home to rest.

Brosman’s brilliance is never at the service merely of flash and display; it is always subservient to experienced truth, to accuracy, the ancient virtues as well as the personal signature.  She is one of our finest poets.


A Memory of Manaus, by Catharine Savage Brosman (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press) 92 pp., $17.00