In spite of the long list of awards and fellowships she has received, including the Barnard Women Poets Prize in 2011 and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry in 2013, poet Traci Brimhall’s reading in King last Monday revealed a writer very humble and sincere, unaffected by success. As a candidate for a new position in Oberlin’s Creative Writing Department, Brimhall read a range of works and shared her creative process with a small audience of students and faculty, but never gave the impression of wanting to impress, a quality that also came through in her poetry.
Brimhall’s reading began with a few poems from one of her latest works, Our Lady of the Ruins, which tells of journeys, grievances and the desire to live. Brimhall conveys these heavy concerns with both vivid, textured detail and explicit, sometimes brutally concrete images that carry within them elements of life and death. Each of Brimhall’s poems is like a Russian doll, one detail revealing another until at the core of each of her poems one finds a hot and explosive core, crumbling from the weight of prior damage. Rather than leaving her readers with a sense of despair, however, Brimhall leaves room in her poems for a delicate sense of hope that she reveals in close observations of the environment she describes.
This tension is especially perceptible in her poem “Music from a Burning Piano,” in which the divine shifts places with the earthly “in a city made by holy pilgrims who wander to it,” where “children are named historians” and “guards brand execution dates onto condemned bodies.” Taken together, the religious imagery and the images of a purposeless judicial system suggest a decay of both heavenly and earthly opportunities for justice. However, the poem’s haunting language and evocative images like “skin a scaffolding of cells” diminish the sense of violence and dissolution that would otherwise dominate the tone of the poem.
Other poems, like “The Labyrinth,” assert a strong feeling of searching for one’s roots and identity. The desire to “resurrect truth” determines the spiritual tone and imagery of the poem. “We hold still to learn eternity” stands in juxtaposition to “the horrors they saw in the gargoyles’ mouths.” Brimhall seems to imply the infinite hope of humans for the goodness that endures in the “infinite abyss” that the world can be.
As Brimhall mentioned during the reading, most of the inspiration for this particular work stemmed from the memories and stories her mother shared with her as a child, enabling Brimhall to weave together her own impressions of the world and the experiences of others. In addition to particular imagery that she explores, Brimhall said she also sometimes places specific constraints on form in some of her poems, as is reflected in titles like “Gnostic Fugue” and “Prelude to a Revolution.”
In the short Q&A session at the end of the reading, Brimhall left the audience with some insight into her creative process, which sounded surprisingly smooth and easy compared to the substantial themes of her poems. However, the 30-minute reading may not have allowed enough time to reveal the more frustrating sides of being a writer. Brimhall’s process aside, her final product was dark and fascinating, driven by melancholy themes and evocative language, culminating in a reading that may not have been cheerful, but was certainly worthwhile.