On the North Slope: Poems

by Catharine Savage Brosman

Macon, GA: Mercer University Press

129 pp., $17.00

The poems in this ninth full-length collection by Catharine Savage Brosman could have been composed only by a poet who has lived, studied, and written well through the spring, summer, and autumn and now on into the winter of life.  Major poets, such as W.B. Yeats, who continue to develop their craft into their later years are few.  Still productive in her 70’s, Brosman is now among those few.  Brosman’s poems range over landscapes in the American West, including Colorado, where she was born; Texas, where she now resides; and Europe, where she has traveled and taught.  These landscapes—rich with geographical and geological details as well as the flora, fauna, and weather of the various regions—are presented partly as wonders in themselves to be admired for simply being and partly as metaphors brilliantly fitted in detail to the moods and workings of the human heart and mind.  Also woven into many of these poems is a remarkable love story: the poet’s reunion with her first husband, Patric Savage, from whom she had long ago parted and whom she met once more many decades later, in 2007, then married again.

The prefatory poem, “Ars poetica,” states the poetic principles that the poems embody.  Brosman says that in art she prefers “verisimilitude— / not slavish imitation of the real[.]”  Decorum, moderation, and restraint should also be observed: “Depict, then, golden peach and worm; eschew / grotesque or alien creature, vicious act[.]”  The artist should “direct / uncommon focus to a common theme, // by vision, measured understanding, tact.”  These principles tell the reader that the poems to follow will “use artifice to complement what’s true” and thus to evoke, interpret, respond to, and celebrate an ordered world.

On the North Slope is divided into four sections.  Section I—A Commonwealth of Place—contains poems set in Colorado and elsewhere in the American West.  In the title poem, Brosman gazes at snow-covered peaks and remembers being near Taos years before and not knowing “[t]he great joy of my winter waited for me, still / ahead some years.”  In “Winter Light” the poet muses more generally on “lovers growing old, / whose colloquies among late-blooming flowers / assay the keenest meanings of the cold.”  And in “Winter Sunset, Pike’s Peak” she notes how the sun becomes more intense near its setting: “—deep cold transformed in the beholder’s eyes / to everything a fire signifies: / hearts frozen, then awakening to passion.”  Other poems in this section include meditations on the vastness of geologic time (“Florissant Fossil Beds”) or the distinction between human and animal consciousness (“On the Mesa Top”).  In “At the Circle A Ranch,” Brosman stays the night at the ranch and thinks of a grandmother who once had property beyond Kenosha Pass.  Like the ranch’s name, she seems to have come almost full circle in life: “The winds of age / have blown me back . . . / . . . birds take wing / and swoop as if by rite, then settle, while we cultivate / accord—full harmonies, deep resonance, telluric words.”  The circle will finally be complete when, after over 40 years, she is contacted by her first husband, Patric Savage.  The poet foresees a future reunion: “—turning the past inside out, / the dark core of memory become a new horizon, / blue-rippling, bright with amber sun, / ourselves again there walking, finally, together” (“Horizon”).

Section II—Order Under the Sun—is a collection of musings on things either natural or else cultivated or made by man.  Each of these things—ranging from flowers to birds to vegetables to honey and cheese—is praised not only for what it is in itself but also in relation to human perception and human need.  In addition, these things present occasions to meditate on the human condition in a world whose beauty, orderliness, and intelligibility imply that the hand of providence is at work.  Bees producing honey for themselves and, unintentionally, for human beings, may mean that the world is essentially good: “Whatever feeds the bees’ transforming powers— / alfalfa, clover, cat-claw, mellilot, / palmetto, orange, or the rarest flowers— / is changed to pleasure in the honey pot.”  The poem concludes by linking the bees to art as the means by which human beings come to know such goodness: “The essence of this apian husbandry, / although ephemeral, gives evidence, / at least, that meaning goes beyond the bee, / a providential legacy—art’s sense” (“Honey”).  “Cheese” traces the history of cheese to ancient times, when certain wild animals were first domesticated.  Brosman describes the process of making cheese and concludes that such making combines the divine, the human, and the animal in this order under the sun: “The cheese, our handiwork, reflects our state: / endowed like gods, inventive and refined, / but cast in carnal matter by our fate, / strange, odorous, perverse—the taste of mind.”

Section III—The Scripted Fate—is a celebration or memorializing of friends, family, and others, even a deceased pet, Brosman’s beloved cat, Dill.  One poem tells of a blue norther blowing through Houston, reminding the poet of demons that have haunted her since childhood and that “[s]omehow . . . must be changed / to daemons, those attendant spirits or powers / who guide us better than ourselves” (“Blue Norther”).  A number of poems continue the story of Brosman’s reunion with her first husband—regrets for the past and all the years apart, the ecstasy of meeting after more than four decades, sleeping in the same bed again, and burning the divorce decree as part of their remarriage celebration.  Though age has changed their bodies, their love remains: “ . . . in a lengthy, sweet embrace, / tight evidence of old love newly-found, / we recognized, each on the other’s face, / the person of the past, gone underground” (“On Seeing Patric Again”).

Section IV—the final section of the book—is Themes for the Muses, a collection of narrative poems about artists, art, and love.  Stories are told of the triumphs and trials of musical composer Franz Liszt (“Liszt in Weimar”); Yeats’ passion for Maud Gonne both as a woman and as muse (“Yeats and Maud Gonne, 1891”); and the romance in 1958 between visiting French journalist Claude Lanzmann and a North Korean nurse, a romance cut short by North Korea’s totalitarian regime, the nurse’s red lips reminding the journalist after his return to France of “the wound of love / impossible beneath a scarlet star” (“Kim Kum-sun”).  Such impersonal narratives are complemented by more personal ones.  “In an English Cathedral” begins by describing the sculpted shapes of a king and queen now far beyond the world in which they loved and over which they ruled: “Recumbent effigies we can’t disturb, / these sleepers, formed of gilded bronze or stone, / are, even in their death, intent, superb— / together joined; together, though, alone.”  The king’s hand grasps his shield; the queen’s hands are folded in prayer.  By contrast, Brosman remembers the night before when she and Patric—not royal but alive—lay in bed at night, his hand reaching for hers.  As the poem ends, the couple leaves the cathedral: “—In descending gloom, / we stroll among our fellows here, who reign / in nothingness.  Love is our final room.”

On the North Slope closes with two poems that brilliantly unite the themes of Section IV and of the volume as a whole.  “At the Art Show” tells the story of “Romance,” a musical composition that Patric wrote in 1954 while on military duty in France, some time before he and Catharine first met.  A framed copy of the composition is viewed at an art exhibit while a CD plays the music.  The last poem, “Themes for Piano and Music,” whose epigraph is “after compositions by P.S.,” combines the poet’s impression of and commentary on “Romance” and two other works, her words recounting one final time the long dramatic story of her meeting, losing, and then finding again the man who was the love of her life.  The poem ends with this address to Patric: “‘Romance,’ you say, dates from long ago, / and is connected to no sentiment / of yours, but, rather, to the sense of failure // any man will have who loves in vain.  But I admire / the brilliant chords, how they exploit, / and then resolve, dissonance—just as, with ease / almost miraculous, we leapt across / long separation—a fire-blue electric arc, singing. / The charge is powerful, casting light / backwards, and creating retrospective harmony— / two staves parallel, lines counterpointed, meeting.”  Thus do fellow artists and lovers, once again and now forever wed, find winter’s joys on the north slope of life in accordance with the principles of the volume’s opening poem, an ars poetica of words and music, flesh, heart, soul, and mind.