A Necessary Emptiness to Grow Into: A Review of Traci Brimhall's Saudade / by Peter LaBerge

BY AMIE WHITTEMORE

 Traci Brimhall's  Saudade  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall's Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall’s third poetry collection, Saudade, with its blending of family narrative, myth, and magical realism is, in many ways, the love-child of Anne Carson’s novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Throughout, Brimhall’s attention to the architecture of poetry, on the line, stanzaic, and collection level, provides this book, which dazzles and baffles in turns, sufficient narrative clarity to fully enter into the ornate and heart-breaking world she shapes.

Saudade grows out of and complicates many of the preoccupations Brimhall explores in her prior collections, Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins, in its examination of spirituality, faith, desire, myth, and the interplay of humanity and landscape. Set in Puraquequara, a village in the Brazilian Amazon and also the birthplace of Brimhall’s mother, each section of the collection is told from the perspective of a different family member, beginning with (and returning to) Maria José, arguably the book’s central figure. In addition to Maria José, Brimhall includes sections in the voices of Maria José’s husband, Thomas; her mother, Sophia; and her grandfather, Don Antonio. In each section, a chorus of Marias offers commentary, encapsulating the collision between Western colonizers and indigenous peoples by bringing together motifs of Greek theater, Catholicism, and traditional indigenous beliefs to provide narrative continuity and exposition. The Marias make sure we know, as in “In Which the Chorus Provides a Possible Chronology,” that “history began but did not write itself,” and that they “sing history in reverse so the story might end in birth.”

While its characters’ concerns frequently overlap—dead loved ones are as inescapable as the rubber plantation, the fruits of the Amazon, and a sense in each character of being haunted by restless desires—each voice in Saudade is rendered in different poetic form. Maria José, for instance, speaks in tercets, whereas her husband, Thomas, speaks in long stanza blocks. As Claudia Emerson notes in an interview with Sarah Kennedy, “the tercet always feels that it’s searching for its missing line, pulling the eye down with urgency, and that imbalance” infuses Maria José’s search for her lost daughter, her memories of her affair with a boto (a dolphin that inhabits the Amazon), her marriage, and the role masculine figures have played in her life.

Of these issues, Maria José is most haunted by her grief and longing for her dead daughter, whose severed hand is found “in the mouth of a dead jaguar” and blesses the village with miracles (“The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara”). In “How I Lost Seven Faiths,” Maria José is consumed with impossible longings: “I wanted my daughter back. I wanted to live back / in the before. Before love possessed me. Before grief.” This backwards gaze is reinforced by the structure of the entire collection: we move through Maria José’s life and family tree in reverse chronological order, beginning with her daughter’s death and moving toward her grandfather’s life, as each character tries to return to his or her own “before.”

In contrast to Maria José’s aching tercets, her husband Thomas’ single stanzas convey his reluctance to accept various absences in his life. A colonist, Thomas arrives in the Amazon certain of his faith in a Christian god, and, even as his faith mutates, he resists its complete dismantlement. In “Better to Marry Than to Burn,” Thomas’ first poem in his section, which charters his arrival in South America, he has “the knowledge of God / like an apple in the mouth. I faced my temptation,” which includes his own wife as well as the lives and ways of the people he now lives among. However, his wife’s grief and her affair with the boto change him. Later, in “Sanctuary,” he admits, “I understood / my sorrow over the world does not change it” and that “better this choice to be powerless, / enthralled, to forgive God’s ambition to be free of us.” Here, we witness Thomas’ shift from certain knowledge to certain sorrow; from the belief he is a vector of change to his acceptance of his powerlessness.

Maria José’s second section deepens our knowledge of her, examining her marriage as well as her relationship with her parents: her father is imprisoned and her mother is dead. In an interview with Sierra Nevada Review, Brimhall comments on the “twined grief” that bleeds across generations—in life as well as in Saudade, which she considers a work of “autobiomythography.” Thus, the grief Brimhall felt in mourning the loss of a child and her mother’s death informs Maria José’s experiences in this section. Maria José addresses both her dead mother and an imprisoned man who is not her father, but for whom she can “imagine love, and then…feel it” (“When I Go to Prison to Meet my Father”). In “Revenant,” Maria José catalogues her parents’ romance and her mother’s death:

My mother of gold carnival mask, of green feathers
sprouting from her shoulders, of glittered body, candled dusk.

Let me inherit her fevered hips. Let me be all wing and stolen
and saved. Mother, rise up as July, as tempest, as God in his night
sweats and be tender. Hold the curtain back while I enter.

In reaching backward, toward her parents, Maria José finds indirect solace for her sorrow over her daughter’s death. This yearning for consolation in the arms of the dead is at the heart of Saudade, which, while revealing the impossibility of fulfilling that longing, also suggests there is comfort in the act of reaching.

Sophia, like her daughter Maria José, also struggles with the ways desire intersects with and disrupts faith. In the opening poem of her section, “Rapture: Lucus,” Sophia recounts the story of a “missing kapok tree,” which she knows

[…] woke from her stillness one equatorial summer
evening as Adão pulled parrots from her branches.

She dreamed an amorous faun chased her, which was a memory,
which reminded her that in another form she had legs

From the poem’s title we learn the tree has a spiritual dimension as “Lucus” is a Latin term for a forest or grove, but with some sort of “religious designation,” and even a past life. In Sophia’s view, the tree is not so much lost as awakened, rapture here not only pointing toward the Christian idea of believers rising to join Christ on the last day, but also to “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy.” In her poems, Sophia finds herself at the frustrating intersection of these definitions: on one hand, marked by a mole that resembles “a pink Madonna with her robe open,” she’s become a figure of worship and intrigue; on the other hand, she pines, “O miracle, abandon me.” (“Virago”). In “On the Feast Day of Our Lady Hippolyta,” Sophia wants “to write in my diary—Dear, there are some things / I would not do for pleasure. I want it to be true.” In these moments, we see that the insatiable and contradictory urges with which Maria José wrestles have their roots in her mother’s experiences, suggesting that, while genealogy may not offer explanation, it can help us see the patterns from which we emerge and which we (often) perpetuate.

Sophia’s sorrow segues into those of her father, Don Antonio, who also mourns for the loss of Sophia’s mother, going so far as to wish his beloved were alive and his daughter dead: “I want to barter with Heaven. It took the wrong love,” he pleads in “After Seven Lullabies Vanish from the Library.” While Don Antonio’s sorrows and desires reverberate with those of his descendants, his poems also offer insights into the collection as a whole. In “Sibylline Translation,” he notes “fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.” In “Belterra Exodus,” he suggests “we should invent a new / history of fact and fancy, where life is hard but courage / is easy because the dead do not resurrect themselves.”

Saudade is this marriage of fiction and dream, a “history of fact and fancy.” Through pairing invention with research, Brimhall excavates not recorded history, but lived history, seeking an authenticity that encompasses but is not bound by facts. This results in a collection that is at times confounding, at others enchanting. Its value, however, lies in its ambiguity: there are limits to invention, limits to what we can fathom about ourselves and our ancestors. As the untranslatable title suggests, ‘saudade’ is the longing for something absent. By its nature this longing can’t be fulfilled; we can only seek. As Brimhall states in the penultimate poem, “there is no fairy tale here to invite you to meaning, only the fantasy of the past you have made in your own image.” Saudade posits absence as irrefutably present in the fabric of human life: it provides us a necessary emptiness to grow into, to fill with our joys as well as our sorrows.

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Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.