Lucie Brock-Broido’s “Moon River” was first published in the October 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
In an essay about Alberto Giacometti, Jean Genet said, “If I want to tame a work of art, I frequently use a trick: I adopt, however artificially, a state of naiveté, I talk about it — and I also talk to it — in the most ordinary tone of voice; I even play dumb a little . . . . This is how I try to overcome my shyness” (see here).
Lucie Brock-Broido’s poem “Moon River” is dense, oblique, resistant, and filled with multiples and cross-currents. If it were a sandwich, it would be too big to eat without a knife and fork. It is definitely a work of art which the reader feels the need to tame. You worry, though, about taking the piece out of the wild: what have you got then? I suppose, what you have, inevitably, is an account of your own journey to the wilderness.
Wildness is, in fact, one of the poem’s threads. The genet, an animal mentioned in the poem’s last line, is a small civet native to Europe that both lives in the wild and is kept as a pet. It can also live an in-between life, where it favors cities and sometimes sponges about the houses. Brock-Broido’s poem takes up this feral territory. Holly Golightly and Huck Finn both live in the interstices of the poem, both of them wild creatures who come and go between civilization and wilderness, and both of them are artists who engage in the art of self-invention, thus making Brock-Broido’s poem about the ways art and wilderness co-exist. You could argue that one makes the other possible.
In its twinning itself to Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River,” the poem makes conscious use of Mercer’s big river, the one with its mile-wide imagination. Mercer calls his moon river a “dream maker,” and Brock-Broido riffs on this idea when she imagines her speaker’s imagination as a “lantern boat half on fire”:
Like a lantern-boat half on fire somewhere down
The crazy river of your mind,
Framed by endless strings of small whortleberry lights, ablaze,
Still, I go on crossing you in style.
There’s more to say about this wonderful “lantern boat,” but not only does Brock-Broido’s poem interweave the idea of creativity with wildness, it also adds an additional thread — that the artist’s wildness and creativity is a state so strange it looks like a kind of insanity, perhaps even to the artist. The poem is a caveat to the artist’s audience — expect the world of the imagination to be alien, not tame. Johnny Mercer’s moon river is the dreamy world of the imagination, but Brock-Broido’s is that world with a twist: it’s less a beautiful drifting river than the province of the genet and Jean Genet, and its territory feels alien.
There is also an element of theater in this poem’s concept of art. (Think Walt Whitman; he was a theater in himself.) In Japan, the world of theater (and geisha) is called “The Floating World.” Holly Golightly was a kind of New York geisha girl: elegant, mysterious, fascinating. Brock-Broido’s “lantern boat” reminds me of the Mississippi steam-boats, worlds of artifice and entertainment as well. If we think theater, we must also think audience, and I do think this poem is about both artist and audience.
The poem investigates the “crazy river of your mind” and how we embrace the experience of another’s mind and how we are repelled from the journey. The poet makes the point that sometimes we’re burdened with the “yellow buggy” of fear — that buggy being yet more craziness. But that buggy of conventionalism is a kind of madness that makes us “buggy.” Sometimes that liminal state of near insanity is the artist’s and sometimes it is the state of the audience. The poem is very fluid: it suggests that the line between creativity and madness is very blurry. In fact, our own ideas about the mind have all the accuracy of medieval monks attempting to map the cosmos. Our scientific understanding of the mind resembles the ancient world’s ideas of Atlantis. Nice try, but no cigar. Or, not just yet, anyway.
Back to the poem: it uses the word caveat as a warning; it suggests that people are “girdled” against scary situations and scary people by “caveats,” the simple laws and labels we conventionally use to understand and snap-judge the world. But at the same time, the reader thinks — a “girdled” tree is a dead tree. Who are you if you are girdled by caveats?
Jean Genet, who was a convicted criminal and did time in jail, would say that the journey into the alien is a necessity. Genet wrote about life lived by the opposite of civilization’s rules and caveats; he was transformational, transgressive, and shocking; Sartre wrote about him as Saint Genet. Sartre pointed out that to a degree, Genet’s life is a work of art: “Genius is not a gift but the way out one invents in desperate cases” (see here).
So when Brock-Broido concludes her poem by saying, but you’ve always been an “odd, uncanny half genet of man,” I guess that this is the territory the poem has been in the whole time: the edge of the world where the Widow Douglass would never go, where she wants to keep Huck from going, but where Huck has surely been and where he will surely return.
I find it hard to follow the poet to “half-genet of man” without being very speculative. First of all, I feel the association with “genetic” and the idea that wildness and creativity are part of us. You get an image of the civilized Genet, the writer, and the wild Genet, the criminal, and wonder which half we are talking about. There’s also an idea of the half and half of Genet’s art — that some of it is poetry, some drama, some essays, and some his own performance of himself.
There is one other association I would make with genet: its cattiness, given that it is a civet. There is its beauty. But there is also the connotation of backbiting, which is one way of looking at criticism. But if one looks at essays about art as observation, or engagement, then the idea of criticism, the idea of one person assuming the role of master drops away. After all, if the art is alien, and if one must tame it, then attentive engagement is the role. If the art is sibylline or Delphic, then the process of making meaning is the half of the work which the audience must perform.
The poem is in the form of question and answer. One could possibly read it as a question posed by one speaker in the first line, and the remaining six sentences a variety of contradictory and evasive answers that nonetheless represent what a person sometimes feels about another.
The poem begins: “What is it exactly that you mean when you . . . ?” It sounds like the lady in the third row at the poetry reading during the Q & A. It sounds like a wife. It sounds like a student who is trying to learn how to cook a soufflé or pull an engine. Explaining exactly what she means is a request a poet is unlikely to answer, no matter who poses it, because poetry doesn’t actually work that way. (Duh, I say to myself, remembering how much I enjoy “clarity.” Well, I do enjoy it. But actually, most poems are not very clear. They tend to be more filled with allusion, with roundabouts, with blunt speculation, with questions, with possibilities, and with feelings that are more mysterious than clear. (The Odyssey is an example, or even the “clear” Americans Whitman, Frost, Bishop or Collins.) This poem muses on how people really convey what they mean: with comparisons, with paradox, , with color, with light, with tune, with spectacular words, with threat, fear, forgiveness, and affection all jumbled together in peculiar and evasive speech.
Perhaps evasive speech is what, after all, typifies most interactions, even among Americans, the bluntest, most urgent, immediate people I know.
Betrayal (not far from evasiveness) is a powerful thread in the poem. That first sentence ends
What is it exactly that you mean when you call me
Your “huckleberry friend”?
This alludes (at the least) to the Johnny Mercer lyrics for the song “Moon River.” In fact, one reason the song is so wonderful is it is not clear who or what the “Huckleberry friend” really is. Syntactically speaking, the two drifters may be the combo of singer and the river, although most people would probably say the Huckleberry friend is another dreamer. So where do I get the idea of betrayal in this sentence?
The quintessential American dreamer is Huckleberry Finn, the boy who decides at the end of his book to “light out for the territory.” He’s not going to be pinned down, lined up, or say grace if he doesn’t have to. But Johnny Mercer grew up in the south and had a rich connection to the south; there’s a bittersweet note to “Huckleberry friend.” When Huck escapes from Pap, he goes down river with Jim, a runaway slave. Huck owes a lot to Jim, but in one crucial episode on the raft, Huck fools with Jim — betrays him. Luckily, Jim remonstrates with him, and Huck apologizes. But then, when they are on dry land, Jim must hide. While Jim is in hiding, Tom Sawyer arrives and persuades Huck to play master and slave with Jim. This is a ghastly episode. A Huckleberry friend is someone who gets too full of themselves or too careless of others, both of which Huck does. Being from the south, Johnny Mercer probably had all of these sides of Huck in mind: the courage, the daring, the humor, the resourcefulness, and the unique, honest voice, as well as a human capacity for selfishness and betrayal.
The poem’s second sentence answers the first question with another question. That voice is blunt: if you go too far, you will pay. The dog who tastes blood gets put down, and if it’s on the farm, it’s with a gun. This question poses the possibility that something brutal could end the relationship.
But this speaker pauses. The third sentence implies that the speaker might miss this person — this person who has the capacity for “inflorescence.” This is a wonderful word. First of all, it’s not particularly familiar, and it’s not at first what you might think. It refers to plants that flower in multiples on one stem, like lilies of the valley or dandelions or snapdragons. This inflorescence could refer to a flowering of general charm or beauty or grace, but it appears distinctly related to the other’s “crazy mind,” a mind which is “framed by endless strings of whortleberry lights.” Now this could be an insult — and perhaps it is. But the speaker is talking about a communion of minds, the motion of it, the excitement of it, and the repeating “inflorescence” of it. The poet’s evocation of this is so original it is at first strange: the one mind, like a lantern boat, and the other mind, like a river framed with lights. When the poet has the speaker say she crosses the other’s mind “in style,” I think writing, specifically.
At the same time, the “whortleberry lights” (chortle/hurtle/wartle/whirling) suggest the “crazy” that appears later. It is important, though, that crazy seems to have been used in an affectionate manner. It is as if the world of art is an alternative world, wild, perhaps, and so strange that that it might seem crazy to another. I get the feeling that this wildness is a necessity in this world.
I am struck by the way the conversation that is occurring in this poem could have to do with artists and their audience. A writer can be inspired by an ideal reader. Emily Dickinson, who for the most part chose not to publish, loved to write letters, and she often sent poems to particular friends and relatives. Hers was a chosen audience. At one point, she even envisioned an ideal reader who was her “Master.”
When an artist seeks an audience, the relationship seems to require that each side be a worthy opponent. Both should be the master of their role: the artist a master of being an artist, and the audience the master of being an audience, and all that entails for either one. But should one assume the role of master of the other — the way Huck assumes the role of Jim’s master — then the break down begins.
Of course you can argue that this poem is merely about relationships between people. But when the poem declares it is “crossing” the mind of another person “in style,” then we are in the realm of artist and audience.
This relationship is fraught with danger. There is an element of attack in the relationship, such as when the “sheepdog” tastes blood. There is an element of revenge, such as when such a dog gets put down. There is an element of tight wire, such as when you put a fork in the toaster, and there is an element of irresistibility, such as one might feel in the presence of a dashing man.
She makes the puzzle of fate and future quite clear by choosing this syntax: “Even though you may not speak to me again . . .” This could mean that circumstances might prevent the opportunity. At the same time, it could also mean that she has withdrawn her permission for the person to speak to her, or it may mean that the person may be unable to speak to her, but for some reason out of her control. What matters in the poem is that it is not clear. It could be either: the other person is being turned out or not.
Curiously, the poet addresses this issue — the fear that an audience may have of forms that are new to them. The poet acknowledges that an audience may be afraid, may be followed by “a yellow buggy.” She suggests, too, the similarity of the artist and audience, that both can be stalked by fear (as signified by the “carnivore” which sounds a lot like a genet).
The poem depends upon double meanings and opposed possibilities. The poem may be one person speaking throughout, or it may be one short question and one long answer. The poem juxtaposes affection and betrayal, as well as threat and forgiveness. It is almost impossible to contain all of this in one poem, and yet we live our daily life within a world of these opposed possibilities. The poem may be speaking of a relationship of friends, but it may also be speaking of a relationship between artist and audience — one which we know to be fragile.
A recent New Yorker essay touched on Philip Roth’s writerly relationships with Saul Bellow, John Updike, and also his longtime editor, Veronica Geng (here). These relationships involved some elements of the “ideal reader,” but all were fraught with difficulties. Philip Roth broke with John Updike when he went too far. Not only did Updike appear in print to accept as true the allegations made by Roth’s ex-wife, Claire Bloom, he also assumed it proper to write a novel in which his hero was a Jewish writer. Roth did not think that Updike got it right at all. Somehow, it feels like Updike was suddenly Huck fooling around with Jim — full of himself and careless. It is then that you can go down like a sheepdog that has tasted blood. You can go too far.
Brock-Broido’s “Moon River” is an odd poem. But then, the Odyssey must have struck its listeners as odd, beginning in the middle as it did, and changing voices as it did. If Brock-Broido’s poem is about artist and audience, it has taken on an unusual subject. But I do love the power of its language, even if I cannot keep up with its explosions of bloom: genet and all its permutations, inflorescence, lantern boats, minds like a crazy river, and the way it asks and answers, “What is it exactly that you mean . . . ?”
“I reckon I got to light out for the territory,” says Huck.
Art is a means of access to “the territory” for the rest of us, but given that the artist is a stranger in a strange land, we should be girdled with this caveat: don’t be surprised if the experience is wild. After all, even Genet talks about having to tame a work of art.
At the same time, there is the fact that Genet is the kind of artist who attracted a lot of labels: saint, among them, but also, probably, many others, some of those labeling him crazy, and not in a good sense. The poem mirrors our current unease in America with mental illness. In Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman showed us what was done in the name of doing good; what we saw, of course, in that film, was an American concentration camp. So this poem is a means, too, of warning: some of what looks crazy is a necessary way to be. I think that is valuable.
But it is possible for a crazy-wonderful-artful person to actually go crazy. If you are a member of this person’s circle, the waiting for help is unbearable. Safety is not a place where the truly crazy person abides, nor their circle either. And yet wait for help we must, since no one yet knows the answers. The investigation of any of the answers we now practice is like a trip to the underworld. I think the poem addresses this obliquely in its questioning of lines, labels and boundaries.
But back to the poem. There is more to it. It’s packed: the shifting voices, the evasiveness, the multiple selves, the yellow buggy, the cat-like genet, the tines in the toaster, the whortleberry/huckleberry, the “unhitched to anything/I forgive you — everything” and the relationship the poem may have to other pieces Brock-Broido has written. I’m hoping that a couple of other readers will join us in this space and have their say.