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.
Your analysis prompted me to read the two related New York Times articles and really opened up the poem for me. I agree that it’s hardly accessible without them. I marvel at some of the actual words and constructions from the articles that Brock-Broido seems to have picked up in her poem. In particular, from Minsk, I would imagine came the words “mink-skin,” “To put our heads down in the mink-skin of our mothers’ laps.”
Also from one of the articles is this, “Minsk, a LEAFY and pleasant former Soviet backwater, is a city where tiny traces of Oswald linger to this day as perhaps nowhere else but in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas.” In the poem, the poet mentions seeing through the peephole “the LEAFLESS world all quietened.”
Something I wonder about: why “not far from West Virginia”? It seems so unspecific. Does it refer to being in a different state? I would never say not far from New York? I also wonder where “flannel rain” comes from. It seems to be related to the name of another music group, but I don’t quite get the connection.
I like the one internal rhyme: “My little gun’s a Lady one,” almost jarring because of the juxtapositions and meaning. And does “Lady” refer to the female governor at the time who passed the open carry law?
I’m also curious about the line structure and the indentations, with “Open” and “To meet you” lining up, but “My little gun” having a different indent completely. Is there a reason?
Hi Susanne, I was hoping you’d drop by! I really like your notes on Minsk/mink-skin, the female governor of Oklahoma, and the internal rhyme heard in gun/one. I missed all of that. Right away I’m wanting to search for more that I missed.
About “not far from West Virginia”: I think Brock-Broido grew up in Pittsburgh, which is not far from West Virginia. and so I thought this was a personal memory thrown in. She would have been a child when Kennedy was assassinated.
But I don’t get the purpose of “not far from West Virginia”. I consider myself an honorary West Virginian, being descended from a family that settled in 1796 near Daybrook, which is very near the Pennsylvania line, and due south of Pittsburgh. . My grandparents sent all three of their children to college, one of my cousins is a college president, another is a professor, and two of us were teachers. So I’m not sure what code “not far from West Virginia” is meant to mean in a poem that is about gun control.
Regarding the poem, however, Kennedy’s win in West Virginia was key to him winning the presidency, so West Virginia may somehow be meant to signify sadness – to be poignant – it being where Kennedy’s candidacy became a reality, in contrast to Dallas, where it came to an end.
I was glad you noted “flannel rain”! That one stopped me, as well. It feels a little like she means to suggest a heavy heavy rain in humid, humid weather. But to what purpose?
I am also glad you brought up the line indents. They feel important, but to what effect I just didn’t get. It’s my recollection that Wm Carlos Williams’ use of a stepped line allowed him to write poetry that looked like poetry, but was not hemmed in by tired meter and rhyme. So the stepped line supplied Williams a kind of freeing power. The appearance of his stepped lines is quite beautiful, actually – there’s a lyric beauty, a relaxed formality, that matches the careful conversational diction.
So I feel an echo of Williams in the shape of those lines you mention, but their very irregularity is as if Brock-Broido is saying – ‘Here’s a fragment of form – but it’s all slipping away. Here are also some fragments of meaning, but like fish in the river, so hard to grasp…’ I need some more to go on here.
It’s funny, I was quite relaxed about Ashbery’s recent poem. It was about art and time and also about censorship and propriety, and I felt like the cross-talk going on in it worked. Actually, the issue with the Brock-Broido poem is not the cross-talk, the issue is that so MUCH is left out.
I want someone to argue with me here – to explain why this fragmentary format is perfect for the subject.
So anyway, what do you think about the use of the newspapers?
In 1996, I read a two page article in the NYT about some refugees driving about the Balkans house hunting. The problem was, they were looking for abandoned places from which their enemies had fled. The problem also was that when they found a place that looked pretty good, there was, in fact, an old man on the premises who had been left behind because he was too weak to flee. It was pretty clear these people were enemies and that the old man was probably not going to survive the night. This article upset me so much I wrote a poem about it. The problem I did not solve was how to deal with the fact that I’d based the poem on this article. I looked back at it yesterday. I’m still pretty proud of that poem, as it expressed the intensity of my reaction to what I’d read. But! I could not find that article on the web when I searched for it yesterday. SO now, how do I cite that article, should I want to publish the poem? It matters, because that reporter did the scary, dangerous work of being there in the midst of a ferocious war. I wrote the poem, but he did the research.
Now I know that “sampling” is a technique that has been in vogue for a while. “Sampling” allows as how you don’t have to cite anything – it’s all just allusion and sort of in the public domain as conversation anyway.
I would be curious to know if anybody out there thinks that “sampling” is the technique she’s using, and to what purpose.
I agree with you about the NYT articles; I think they are essential to the life of the poem.
I see you’ve avoided the argument embedded in the poem: that guns make people weird. Is that it? What else is she trying to say?
I’ll stop for there! I must have a dozen questions.
Hi again. I just read your reply and was happy to learn how West Virginia fit into the Kennedy story. There really is a lot in this poem. I don’t have time to comment further because of a heavy weekend schedule, but I will return to this, possibly Sunday night. And maybe by then we will see more comments. Perhaps I can help you locate that Balkans article. I do think it’s fun to put the pieces together and make sense of a poem like this one, but I guess the question is: how obscure can the sources and information be and still have the poem be “accessible.” Maybe a lot depends on the audience and The New Yorker assumes that people reading their poetry are willing to go the distance. Some of their poetry is not so hard to understand. By the way, I heard Ashbery read “Gravy for the Prisoners” a couple of weeks ago at the 42nd Street Library. It was quite a thrill after having spent a weekend pondering it.
Wow, Susanne! I am thrilled to hear you heard Ashbery read. Looking forward to any other remarks you may have.
Some surfing reveals that 15 years ago, Stephen Burt coined a term for this kind of poetry: “Elliptical”. Among other things, elliptical poetry can be typified by fragments of stories, multiple speakers, and a reading experience which is alienating, which some people enjoy. Burt has apparently written about Brock-Broido as an elliptical. So there’s some extant opinion and an extant “school”. I am curious as to whether elliptical poets would find this poem an effective use of the form.
See the excellent, long essay in the Wall Street Journal Review yesterday
(October 5, 2013) by Peter Savodnick entitled “Oswald: the Disappointed Revolutionary”. This is the author of the book Kramer reviewed in the NYT on November 2, 2012, from which review Brock-Broido uses information for poetic purposes in her poem “Heat”.
Thanks for this last article. I can understand why the poem is important in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Wasn’t able to figure out much more, but I did see the poem as being divided into 5 major parts, the first (5 lines) about the 14 year olds in Belarus; the second (3 lines) about the poet herself and siblings, following the assassination; the third (5 lines) about Open Carry; the fourth (5 lines) about someone, possibly the poet(?) going to Minsk to observe the old Oswald home with the peepholes (but what I found missing here was any link to why this speaker would never have a child crying in [presumably] her lap, and I’m wondering how this fits into the picture and if it is important). The fifth part (3 lines) is either a composite of voices or more likely (I think after reading the WSJ article) it is Oswald speaking. Rather than Joe Wood talking about feeling more safe, it is Oswald talking about wanting security, which he apparently lacked his entire life, wherever he went.
One other possible association: In addition to flannel rain being a music group, when I searched “Wurlitzer juke box in action” on Yahoo (I couldn’t get there on Google) I got a YouTube video of a juke box in action that almost felt like it was raining flannel. I was not able to cut and paste the link, but it’s the sixth in a series of videos called 1947 Wurlitzer 101… and the streaming colors several seconds into the video indeed reminded me of colorful moving water, if not rain.
Sorry, but I was not able to locate the Balkans article in the New York Times index for 1996.
Hi Susanne –
Well! So sorry you made that Balkans search! But that’s my point about using the newspaper as your source – things get lost. Maybe I have the wrong date or the wrong title or the wrong – whatever. Brock Broido is using the NYT on November 2, 2012 as her source. But she doesn’t tell us that. Knowing that gives us a different understanding of the poem. In time, that may all get lost.
Thanks for your careful readings. Your riff on the flannel rain is surely interesting!
About the peephole. I thought the same as you at first – that it was the writer or the speaker who was looking through the peephole in Minsk. But actually, I think it is the KGB looking through the peephole… and some random neighbor…and then us – it’s us who have only a peephole and see only a fraction of the truth.
This “elliptical” style, or at least the use of fragments of things (like found objects) has its parallels in the art world, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps it begs us to to put things together, a collage of associations. We draw conclusions about what we see and how it all fits together in a visual medium, suggesting a message, but we are not as likely to do it with the written word, perhaps because we are expecting things to be more literally spelled out. There are movies that likewise play with our sense of time, jumping ahead and back so you are never sure where you are. And making sense of it can be part of the fun.
I think the big difference between abstract art and abstract poetry is that there can still be pleasure in art from enjoying the colors, proportions, textures, and other visual elements, but when the words don’t make any obvious sense in a poem, something more serious and vital seems to be missing.
Hi Susanne –
I appreciate your remarks about abstract art vs abstract poetry. I have wondered if I am just more used to one than the other. Lucie Brock-Broido’s poem felt disorienting to me, but the process of thinking about it was interesting.
As a society, we’re not going to be able to do anything about treating mental health until we find some rudimentary way to separate seriously ill people, dangerous to themselves and others, from just normally unhappy or weird people.
Because we’ll never have enough money to treat all of the latter.
Oxford defines flannel as “a difficult subject to broach”
Just a thought
Thanks, Lin, for the direction to the OED. This was my first excursion there. More to be said about that – after I really investigate what looks like a really rich site. As for the flannel connection – Brock-Broido’s topics in “Heat” are surely difficult to broach.
Is this the NYT article you’re looking for?
Beautifully done, Shelley. thank you very much. Yes, that is the article. I found it so moving and so upsetting that I finally reolved my own emotions by writing a poem based on it. But the story is Raymond Bonner’s, not mine.
“Resolved”, I meant.