In her tenth volume of poetry, Catharine Savage Brosman has given readers a wide array of skillfully written and insightful poems that capture the poet’s keen observations of nature, her journeys from New Mexico to Antarctica, and her sense of humor and wit. Framed by travel adventures in the United States and a series of 20 poems based on two sea journeys, the poems illustrate Brosman’s formalist skills in handling iambic pentameter and quatrains, as well as eight-line stanzas, both rhymed and unrhymed. Two epigraphs (one from Marcel Proust, the other from the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre) and an introductory poem, “To Readers,” hint of themes and images explored in this volume: The language, imagery, and quest for meaning lie in the experiences themselves.
Brosman’s poetic skill merges rich details, intelligence, and a knowledge of the many levels on which we experience time: the personal, the historic, and the geologic. “Vermilion Cliffs,” early in the collection, illustrates this skill. Noting her departure from “the North Rim of the Canyon, passing by high meadows / and through the Kaibab forest,” the poet mentions the myriad types of trees, but it’s her vivid description of the colors of the plateau that capture the reader’s attention as she and her husband Patric cross
. . . into Utah. Chocolate, Vermilion, White, Gray, Pink—
the five escarpments of the Staircase offer a palette
of pastels and deeper, eerier hues: dull, dusty yellow and dark
brown, the blue of manganese, the red, pink, plum,
vermilion of iron oxides, even green (uranium, perhaps),
plus ashy black of badlands and pale mineral shades.
Struck by the beauty of the scene, the inquisitive poet wonders “How would one / tell this to the blind—of eye, imagination, spirit?” Ever a seeker of beauty and the authentic, the poet continues questioning how one might describe the “petroglyphs drawn by the Anasazi,”
. . . along with remnants
of old ranches and fossil prints of dinosaurs? That this very road
once was a Mormon track? Or that this passes understanding—
human time, of course, within our ken. . . .
Brosman’s eye for detail and history culminates in the 20 poems that compose the section entitled A Voyager’s Journal, where the scenic wonders of the American West of the opening poems of the collection contrast with the exotic sights of the South American landscapes as well as the bitter winds and cold of Antarctica. In “Santa Marta,” a poem set “on the north coast of Colombia,” the poet’s hunger for knowledge, despite a disappointing guide, leads her to note the exotic and rich flora and fauna:
The trees are marvels: palms—trunks smooth, fronds
thick—and vast acacias, with spreading limbs
bending to the ground and cactuses adorning them.
Strange birds call; iguanas dart among the ferns
and lilies; here’s a coral hedge.
The poem concludes when the poet’s husband, thinking
of the fine acoustics, opens into song. He means
no sacrilege; it’s just élan vital, music asserting life.
The rich pleasures of life and a search for the beautiful and the authentic characterize many of these travel poems. Favorites of this reviewer include “Orchids,” in quatrains with alternate abab rhyme; “Saint-Exupéry’s Winds,” six eight-line stanzas capturing the horrific winds “at Punta Arenas, on the north shore of the Strait of Magellan”; and “Tango,” also in unrhymed eight-line stanzas that express the poet’s enjoyment of the “formal, cool eroticism, controlled but sensual” performance of the dance. In the penultimate poem in A Voyager’s Journal, “Land’s End,” the poet makes clear the impact of these travels as she sips her “first coffee” and glimpses the huge rocks that mark the landscape as the ship moves to “Land’s End at Cabo San Lucas”:
relics of the ages. The early sun discloses fissures,
smooth façades. They’re wrapped in a vast scarf
of water, blinding; and the sky’s pale linen cloth,
an alba, slips around each eminence.
Yet amid this beauty, the poet expresses her dislike of “the artifice of tourist villages, / resorts” that Cabo San Lucas offers.
. . . Beauty, yes, and authenticity,
whatever that may mean; that’s what I want; evidence
of struggle, failure, overcoming—the suffering flesh
of history—and sacrifice (oh, those murals
at the Temple of the Moon, the ritualized killings,
with heads of victims held up for the crowd!
—the price paid to be human).
It is only in Buenos Aires that the poet finds
a city to my liking—cosmopolitan,
almost European, but with New World flavor,
yet not far in miles from vast grazing lands
like those I knew. . . .
Fittingly, it is in Buenos Aires that the poet experiences the authentic, as she describes the dance in “Tango”:
. . . true art—a history of the celebrated paso, set out
via dance by a small troupe in period costumes,
with enchanting choreography, rare taste. . . .
It would be misleading to focus this review solely on the travel poems in The Old Plaza, for between the journeys in the American West and the voyages touching Central and South America are poems celebrating food and art, marking the funeral of a friend and death’s abiding presence, exploring historical events and figures, capped with satiric pieces of great skill and wit. Poems exploring the pleasures of the palate include “Prosciutto” and “Dinner at Brennan’s,” where the reader’s imagination may stir to sample
a Sazerac, proving that the bar staff knows
its stuff. As starters, gumbo and turtle soup,
served with sherry, in the classic mode. . . .
“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” captures details concerning the creation of John Singer Sargent’s painting. “Degas in New Orleans” depicts the circumstances of the artist’s time in Louisiana, where the light, “subtropical, was dangerous” to his eyes, thus keeping him indoors, creating portraits and domestic scenes and his famous “A Cotton Office in New Orleans.” “The Empress Eugénie Leaves Paris, 1870” provides one example of Brosman’s skill in presenting historical narrative detail within the rhythmic pentameter line. “Edith’s Funeral,” “Looking for Gravestones,” and “A Vigil” soberly remind the reader of “Death, a rowdy and unwelcome guest.” The satiric poems “On a Disgruntled Poet,” “On a Dyspeptic Reviewer,” and others provide lighter fare cleverly and bitingly presented in alternate-rhyming quatrains and an envoi.
The Old Plaza is a collection to be treasured for its variety, its celebration of life, of beauty and the authentic, and the poet’s remarkable skill. As the epigraph from Marcel Proust states, “Style is a question not of technique but of vision.” Catharine Savage Brosman has given readers poems of keen vision and rich fare.
[On the Old Plaza: Poems, by Catharine Savage Brosman (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press) 124 pp., $18.00]