Book spotlight: "An Introduction to Louis Daniel Brodsky’s Lake Nebagamon Trilogy" by James B. Carothers
|James is a Professor of English at the University of Kansas. He has a B.A. and M.A. from University of Missouri (Columbia) and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. His teaching interests have included the Modern American Novel (especially Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald), Shakespeare, Comedy and Humor, and the Literature of Baseball. Founding co-editor of The Faulkner Journal (and still on its editorial board), he has written William Faulkner’s Short Stories and Reading Faulkner's "Collected Stories" with Theresa M. Towner.|
© 2011 James B. Carothers
At Shore’s Border, Volume Three of Louis Daniel Brodsky’s connected suites of poems on his special quest for his “exquisite nowhere” completes (but does not conclude) the story of his series of deliberate returns to the special place of his childhood and adolescence. Admitting as early as the title poem in his 1988 collection You Can’t Go Back, Exactly, he nevertheless returned again in the fall of 2006 to Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, “just east of Lake Superior’s southernmost tip,” to revisit the boy’s camp where he grew from boy to adolescent to young man over his fourteen years as camper and counselor. His first 2006 return led to six more secular retreats in all, culminating in the collection At Water’s Edge: Poems of Lake Nebagamon, Volume I (2010). Having chosen “the territory to which I might light out,” this older, sophisticated Huck Finn returned for five more visits to Nebagamon between Spring 2009 and deep mid-winter 2009-2010, followed by Volume Two, At Dock’s End (2011).
Now comes At Shore’s Border, with four seasonal journeys by the “benign interloper” to this remembered and re-encountered landscape leading to four more suites of poems, beginning in “Mid-March” 2010 and continuing through the poet’s “Disappearing in Autumn” of that same year. The poems of At Shore’s Border are encouraging to the reader of the two previous collections, especially as the poet seems to have found what he was looking for when he undertook this project in At Water’s Edge:
Hoping that before memory grows too old to care.
I might catch even a dim glimpse
Of the child within the man I am,
Who began his first of fourteen camp summers
Just down the road, fifty-five years from here.
He gives us those glimpses in the first volume, not many, but highly suggestive. In “A Duck to Water” he sees “a trinity of ducks” on the lake, which recalls to him the “shy, husky kid”:
Who, on his first summer away from home,
In his loneliness, almost every chance he had,
Took to the clunky, hand-operated side-wheel boats
Like a duck to water,
Paddling along, close by the shore.
What we notice here is not so much the observer’s veneration of “The Wild Swans at Coole” as his wry remembrance of that lonely boy. The speaker in these poems compares himself to a solitary loon, “Creating, from its haunting loneliness,/An image that might sustain us, for our time together.” Elsewhere he jokes with Robert Frost: “Whose woods these are, I think I know./They’re mine,” but immediately after this we find that he notices that as this season “the only trees that seem to be living…are the dead ones”:
Proclaiming in their crumbling muteness,
The truth of the ages:
Everything must give way.
At Water’s Edge gives us the poet’s mordant stoicism, leading him to question his own quest, even in what, on the surface, seems to be grammatically affirmative, but implies, instead, a quiet resignation:
And in this land, so far away from who I am,
I’m at peace with all that’s left for me to get done
Before the sun sets my stone in place.
In At Dock’s End, the poet in his Prologue gives us, his “visitor” in St. Louis, the lake of the conventional Innisfree kind, calling out to him in the voice of another loon, who wails twice. If we ask him how he can hear the loon in such a city, he gives his “joyous answer”:
Because those haunting wails,
Echoing elegiacally, calling me back
Are my waking and sleeping dreams,
Oracles prophesying my life’s infinite peace.
What needs to be read here is that the loon is prophesying, the bird is elevated from omen to oracle, and the haunting wails appear in his dreams, so there may be a subtle self-mockery in the “joyous” answer. The poet returns once more to the lake “when nothing in my other life satisfies my craving for quiet.” And yet he is well aware that his own poems (“my soul’s holy scrolls") are brought to publication in his “other life,” and he admits the possibility that he is not looking for silence at all, but rather a place, a “reliquary” in which to deposit “poetic reflections on the mysteries of epiphany and ecstasy/The deepest yearnings of my unaging imagination.” Yeats, of course, is all over these lines, and the poet’s delightfully shameless borrowings may not constitute a playful exercise in pastiche, but rather an authentic, new speculation on the purpose of his continuing journeys toward the lake, woods, and rented cabin he sometimes calls “home.”
The poet’s self-questionings in At Water’s Edge and his determined investigations of possibilities in At Dock’s End give way to his quietly triumphant return in At Shore’s Border. Where the first volume frequently gives us a lonely, tired man who seeks to call back those hours of splendor in the woods and the glories in the camp, and the second volume shows this man fighting against that image of himself as a ragged coat upon a stick, this new volume gives us a splendid tapestry of the poet’s new/old selves, and a celebration of the world in which he now lives, “sensing the endlessness of my immediate life.” He is weather reporter, shopper and cook, hiker, naturalist. He provides catalogues and close particular observations of fruits, vegetables, birds, woodland critters, trees, and insects, clouds and temperatures and sunsets, and he prepares many meals which he consumes inside and outside his cabin. The catalogues themselves offer splendid visions of Keats’s particulars, as in this “North Woods Menu”:
Almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans,
Apples, pears, plums, peaches, bananas,
Garlic, peppers, tomatoes, red, white, and sweet potatoes,
Lake trout, walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, salmon,
Chicken (the only other meat I consider, and then infrequently).
Brodsky’s fascination with what’s particular occurs, of course, in the first two volumes of this series, as it has in the nearly lifelong “reliquary” of his published volumes, but the insistent preference for it now marks a new focus. “Isn’t this why,” he asks in “Kitchen Wisdom”:
…every chance I manage to seize,
I banish myself from the castle on the insurmountable cliff,
And seek out this cabin, just above this palpable lake,
Whose kitchen I delight in filling with the scents of self-reliance?
It is not surprising that art in general and poetry especially become more frequent subjects for his meditations, although he does not dwell in a cabin of his own construction, and his rental cabin features “the standard amenities” of the present:
TV, VCR, CD player, microwave, washer and dryer –
I keep occupied with my pen, notebook, and reading.
Unlike Thoreau, to whom he has often been compared, the poet goes to the woods and rents his cabin, close to the lake, to be sure, but also near the town and the camp, to which he becomes a more frequent and public visitor, reading poems, signing books, addressing the present day campers. Like Thoreau, however, he furnishes his cabin, and his narrative, in order to welcome guests, including, of course, readers, to share his “solitude.” He also expresses himself in paradoxes that might recall Donne, as in “Full Moon Rising”:
…even if the clouds reassert their sovereignty over the sky,
I’ll not let disappointment destroy the joy this evening will deliver,
For my being able to will imagination
To let me see that moon, in my mind’s eye, seeing me,
With nothing between us but our awe of each other.
Or, immediately afterward, in “Blind Man,” where the poet laments the rain’s obscuring of "the joy," but what seems to be a complaint turns itself to fulfill the promise of “Full Moon”: “Yet, like a blind man I’ve seen the full moon rise/Somewhere behind the eyes behind my mind.”
Like the full moon, the poet has risen through these three volumes, and his poems, especially in this last volume - “most recent” rather than “final”- we hope with him. “Look, he has come through!” we might say, and we join him in anticipation of his future in “Being Here”:
Any second, I may break into uncommon exultation,
Race down to the lake, dive into its revivifying embrace.
And, like a common loon,
Serenade this twilight, with my heart’s ardent calls.
In At Shore’s Border the poet reaches land again.
All work is copyrighted property of James B. Carothers.
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