Lucie Brock-Broido’s “Heat” was first published in the October 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
“Heat” is not one of those poems that is immediately clear or satisfying. Nor is it lucid, limpid or lyric, nor musical or personal, nor epigrammatic. It is not wry, clever, witty or funny, and it is not touching or poignant. It is not in one voice, it is not of one moment, and it is not told from one simple point of view. Instead, it is a jigsaw of pieces from different puzzles. It is fractured and baffling, and it seems to imply that language cannot be trusted. Fragments of thought whistle across the page, time periods pile up, and voices talk over one another. It’s like having several screens up and on at the same time. As I read, static buzzes, originating mostly from me.
At least two fragments appear to come from items the poet has read in the newspaper, and there might be bits from TV, as well as bits from memory.
The poem establishes, by juxtaposition, a connection between Lee Harvey Oswald and a contemporary man who is celebrating the Oklahoma open carry gun law. The poem addresses the issue of guns, the people who carry them, why they carry them, and the odd and false intimacy that a person with a gun feels with others. (“I want very much to meet you.”)
Despite the shifting ground of the poem, the title does clearly signal the poet’s state of mind: she’s upset.
“Heat” conveys a policing sense of carrying heat, carrying guns. It also conveys a sense of urgency and a sense of anger, and a sense of extreme. There is the additional sense of “done in heat,” as in the unthinking manner of a murder. And then there is the sense of “being in heat” the way an animal can be ready for mating. The poem makes an odd suggestion that murder by gun marries one person to another. We hear Oswald saying “I very much want to meet you” in an old letter. We see Joe Wood, “cocked,” and talking. At the poem’s close, we hear a gun saying to a woman or a man — “I would be, as ever, yours.”
Although the poet mentions music several times (Lefty Frizzell on the jukebox and Oswald singing in the shower), musical language is not Brock-Broido’s obvious modus operandi. Neither rhyme nor rhythm is used in an obvious way, nor is the language beautiful in any ordinary sense. In fact, the poet appears to use cliché (such as “singing in the shower” or “I’m probably dead on . . . . I would be as ever, yours.”) to a purpose, perhaps intending to suggest that people do not think clearly about how they use language, especially when the situation almost requires clear thinking. At the same time, another voice sets up beside the cliché, one that uses the stilted and outdated code of the rich or well-to-do: mink-skin, seal, cashmere, chintz. This elitist vocabulary is at odds with the lefty of balladeer Lefty Frizzell, even though his moniker is linked to boxing, not politics.
Juxtaposition and collage appear to be the elements that are the poem’s primary drivers: a long story about gunman Lee Harvey Oswald in Russia is juxtaposed with a story about an American in Oklahoma celebrating the “open carry” law that allows citizens to carry a gun almost anywhere. There’s also a story of a woman buying a Lady Smith pistol, or, depending on how you read it, it might be the story of a man buying a gun to control or shoot a Lady. These three stories are set against Kennedy’s assassination and the sorrow of seven year olds on that day.
Set against all this is the ballad “Long Black Veil,” a not very well-known Lefty Frizzell song Brock-Broido doesn’t explain. In it, a man allows an accusation of murder to stand because he doesn’t want to reveal he’d been sleeping with his best friend’s wife that night. The wife does penance at the falsely executed man’s grave for ever after. The song emphasizes not just the lady, but also betrayal, false accusation, secrets, and a husband who is completely in the dark. The presence of the ballad as background music reminds us of the way guns are a part of our (unexamined) background music in general.
An associated set of juxtapositions has to do with listening through walls and spying through peepholes, both forced, unwanted, false intimacies, intimacies approximating theft and slavery. The “peephole” mentioned in the poem reinforces the idea of life as being a condition of partial understanding.
Omission appears to be a complementary element to juxtaposition: the stories in this poem are all fractured; we guess at the original complete story the way a paleontologist guesses at the meaning of a tooth found in the sand. In place of any authorial interpretation, the reader is left completely on her own to piece together meaning. There is no explanation offered for several features in the poem, such as Lefty Frizzell’s song; it remains for the reader to look it up. It is as if the poet is suggesting that real information is lacking most of the time.
Finally, there are the shifting voices: Russian girls writing to Oswald, Oswald writing back, Joe Wood talking in a diner, Lefty Frizzell speaking through his song, someone remembering the act of looking through a peephole, and a woman or a man talking about (lovingly) buying a gun. In this way the poem buzzes. The voices talk at one another, wanting to meet you, wanting to carry a gun, wanting to feel safe, wanting to feel secure, wanting to both carry a gun and also meet you. The poem’s shifting speakers create a funhouse mirror, while at the same time suggesting that the funhouse is the reality of how we perceive.
The voices sing across each other — Oswald singing in the shower, Lefty Frizzell singing a real ballad, and someone “singing” out in the poem. Oswald, of course, betrayed his country. Frizzell’s hero betrays his best friend. Oswald’s Russian “friends” betray him.
At the same time, a double loyalty obtains: the woman in the long black veil of the ballad is the married woman who never abandons her lover’s memory. At the same time, she reminds me of Jackie Kennedy, so stunned in her long black veil, expressing the nation’s sorrow at having been betrayed.
The poem details false communion: neighbors listening in on neighbors; spies watching people have sex; assassins shooting people; bullies swaggering around with a gun in plain sight. Once you are openly carrying a gun, then you have the additional problem of having to convince people of your importance. With Oswald in the poem, not only do you have to carry a gun, you also have to use it.
I have a difference of opinion with the poet; the national tragedy is no just the epidemic of gun violence, it is also our inability to understand and cope with mental illness that is the larger national tragedy.
It is ironic to me that the poem uses “hearing voices” as a central device, but doesn’t see mental illness itself as a vast and complicated adjunct to gun violence; in fact, mental illness is an untreated, unaddressed, unfunded, and completely misunderstood problem that complicates our relationship with guns.
That difference of opinion aside, I want to comment on an aspect of how the poem was constructed. As mentioned earlier, the poet has used at least two newspaper articles as sources for her poem. The sections of the poem about Oswald appear to be based on a book review by Andrew E. Kramer entitled “Peeking Through Years, and the Wall, at Oswald” that appeared in the NY Times on Nov 2, 2012 (here). On that same day (November 2, 2012) an editorial appeared in the Times entitled “Oklahomans Packing Heat” (here). The poem clearly uses information from this editorial: Joe Wood is a real person who appeared at a celebration at a diner in Oklahoma on the passage of that state’s open carry law.
While the poem reads at first glance like some kind of personal experience, it derives its origin from the newspaper, not from actual experience.
Brock-Broido may be using these newspaper voices with poetic intention; this may represent to the poet more of the swirl of contemporary human “experience.” She may somehow be making a comparison of the way we read the newspaper to the way a ballad used to function in society. But after having read these two pieces from the Times (and Lefty’s lyrics), I don’t think the poem really stands on its own.
Does it matter that in this published poem by Brock-Broido there is no note that explains where this information originated? For one thing, both articles are quite interesting, and also an interesting read in conjunction with the poem, and perhaps more interesting than the poem read all by itself.
In the end, however, I submit that for me the poem requires too much investment for its reward. But I am someone who is temperamentally unsuited to reading a cup with too few leaves of tea. I cherish clarity, given that it is so hard to come by. But others are very likely different and may cherish communication written in coded fragments, for reasons just the opposite of mine.
Brock-Broido does not use the occasion of this poem to celebrate herself. She does not impose herself on us. Many readers may find this modesty a distinct relief. There is an anti-imperialist stance here; Brock-Broido may be as much of a list maker as Whitman, but she does not celebrate us. What she does is cerebrate us. She appears to be interested in the process of perception and appeals to us in a manner that may in her estimation approximate the unreliable way we think. I am guessing that she is arguing that communication is, in its essence, fractured, and that perception is, essentially, incomplete. I also guess that she finds this mode of poetry fresh and startling, and thus a useful device for conveying an important idea. In addition, the poem’s method has the virtue of being the opposite of propaganda, employing none of propaganda’s seductive, reductive tricks. The problem, for me, however, is that given its fractured, shifty, and incomplete posture, I find this poem difficult to trust.
I would love to hear from someone who has a completely different take on this poem, especially given the au courant nature of the style, and also given the passionate following Brock-Broido appears to have.