by Catharine Savage Brosman
Mercer University Press, 112 pages, $30
If classical meter really did begin with literal feet (versifiers out for a walk, two short steps for one long “foot,” and so forth), then calling a lot of modern metrical poetry pedestrian wouldn’t really be such an affront.
Catharine Savage Brosman is certainly an adherent to the austere pleasures of measures (most of Breakwater is formally correct, and when it rhymes it doesn’t ask us to marvel at the subtlety of fresh paired with wishing, so good for her). If only she had lit more than just an occasional fire under this book’s steady, satisfied lines (literal campfires populate her topoi. She’s a Louisiana–Colorado girl). It’s nice to see the “monstrance sun” (one cheer for strong metaphors!), and her stanzas are always shapely. But where’s the take-the-top-of-your-head-off power? Where are the sizzle and the wit and the punning and the sonic fireworks that constitute a radically delightful act of the poetic imagination?
In their stead: banality on wheels, granny inversions (some phrases sound as if they were written in 1905), and a garrulous, sanctimonious address to landscape that makes Wordsworth in his youthful dotage sound exciting. Brosman writes, “ Not a line should you rescind” (a line she should have), reminds us of “water’s sinuous green truth,” and helpfully amplifies along the way: “ the bocage of Normandy, a maze/composed of woods and hedges.” Good to get that cleared up.
Talky, flaccid, and laced with contentless adjectives and empty noun-counters (we hear of “the magnificent creations of the past,” and are asked to examine “things,” and are told that Christ crucified suffered “great pain,” and that the poet’s husband’s books are “numerous, well-chosen,” and that Gide “wrote strange, revealing books”), Breakwater constitutes an exercise in settling—for the easiest, least-charged (and least “revealing”) word or phrase.
Yes, water is wet and dust is dry, too, for that matter, but that’s no excuse for redundant and obvious poems. And way too many of those poems are also celebrations of friends and family enjoying “good wine . . . delight in words” (would that the poet could be stirred to share a few with us) or “good dinner, wine, and music.” Brosman can’t even rouse herself to offer the occasional example. Perhaps, as in Breakwater, there just aren’t that many available.