Flesh with Thicket Wonder: On Reading besmilr brigham





What does a poetic sensibility of soil look like? When a poet begins a dialogue that’s more about the ecosystem that makes that dialogue possible, how is the poem constructed? Sound, syllable, punctuation—even the most elementally chirping parts of language can contain and contribute to the world the poem’s describing—this is a revelation that’s part of the spare poetics of besmilr brigham. The ecological root of brigham’s writing gave me an entirely different aperture to critique the distance between the world, and objects we look at to think about the world. Brigham sparked in me a love for poets whose work seeks the world by collapsing that distance.


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Remarking on her body of work, the poet Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman used a phrase that’s worth repeating for how it describes the forces present in besmilr brigham’s poetry: biocultural cosmologies [1]. In full, below is the first besmilr brigham poem I read when I stumbled onto an online folio of brigham’s work in The Volta:


            We Will Not Burn our Trace-brush Piles this Year


            rabbits live under them, snakes
            frogs,
            a haven of rats, field rodents, fuzz-
            creatures—insect webs
            unravel deep in new growth about the discarded
            limbs

            quail run beneath on sight-closed
            pathways, a young tree
            sprouts shooting up from under mould-
            sogged boards
                                 in fingers of brilliance
                                 the earth
            weaves in the light
                                  it is an eye sore to those not accustomed
            to orderliness
            (the quail
            crosses the road, watchful
            one scurries from premeditated danger)
            they wait, another

            race like shuttle needles
            in the grass
            a long thin snake
            string of purple ribbon, this runner
            was caught yesterday by a car—
            we lay it dead in the weeds…
            rabbits roll in the yard
            happy fur clowns
            we find their hid places
                                        out from our steps

            from secret shutters, they rage
            against our intrusion—a field mouse nest
            built high among needles of a young pine: ground-babies
            the grass children!
            how with aggressive eyes they know
            our ways  [2]

Biocultural cosmologies are a named thing, but the forces—the consciousnesses—moving through this poem or explicably without name until the poet identifies the creatures among the humming multitude. In this poem, and many of brigham’s others, we see a startling lack of possession. The only thing that’s ours at the start of the poem is the brushpile, and even that yields its human-possessed privilege to those that need it more to survive. It is a cohabitation: the inhabitants of the poem have just as much acreage within it as the poet. I carry this idea of cohabitation to other reading experiences, more thoroughly note the inhabitants that take up just as much space as the speaker. Now whenever I read Keats, the thing I notice most are all the flies and gnats buzzing in the backdrop of so much of his verse, that surely don’t make noise in the poem for the brief moment he says flies or gnats.



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This essay is being written while I’m moving for the first time—still in Mississippi, but moving to a new side of the state, in the Mississippi delta, not far from Arkansas. Sections of this essay are scattered in notebooks (writing and work), phone notes, and my laptop. I’ve visited my new rural town a few times already, and brigham is everywhere. Loving her poems has helped me feel at home here.

Thank you brigham, and you’re right: the orange-spotted cows, the blue jay, the rattlesnake, the rain, and the dogs speak the land they inhabit. All of it, and all of us, make the grammar of the terrestrial world. The reluctant prophet Jonah, deep within the whale let out a prayer. The whale’s second heartbeat. Under water and deep within the world. For a moment, the prayer the prophet spoke was the whale’s prayer—pushed out of both mouths and singular. Whatever fills itself with us will also fill itself with our song.



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Poetically, brigham’s sparseness calls back to poets like Mina Loy, H.D., Robert Creeley, and Jean Valentine, while her sensibility (reverence) for place bring to mind C. D. Wright, Camille T. Dungy, Ofelia Zepeda, and A. R. Ammons. Also like Wright and Ammons brigham had the dexterity to move both in the brief lyric and longer narrative poem. In fact, the first time besmilr brigham entered print was the publication of a nine-page poem. In Mexico City, Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragon, editors of the bilingual, pan-American literary journal El Corno Emplumada listened to besmilr brigham read her long poem “Yaqui Deer.” They asked her if they could publish it, and initially brigham declined. After brigham and her spouse Roy returned to their home in Arkansas, she accepted the editors’ offer and “Yaqui Deer” was published in volume 19 of El Corno Emplumada. It was 1966, and brigham was 53 years old. Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman explains in detail the basis of brigham’s “Yaqui Deer:”

           
“Yaqui Deer” is brigham’s transmission of the four-day, four-night deer dance of the Yaqui indigenous people of the Sonoran desert. The dance dramatizes and sings the being-hunted “saila maso, little brother deer” (Evers and Molina 7), who at the ceremony’s end is killed as sacrifice for its brother’s – the people, Yoemem – continuance. The deer is embodied by a man whose face, above the eyes, is wrapped in white cloth. Upon his head sits the head of an antlered deer. The poem is emblematic of much of her work in verse; the transmission of an encounter…the deer dancer must sacrifice his human consciousness in order to become deer consciousness, so that this sacred theater might induce a cosmological ethos that enables human sustenance – brigham’s verse is a survivance-oriented act of a sacrifice. [3]

Thankfully through Northwestern’s Open Door archiving initiative, every volume of El Corno Emplumada has been digitized in full and is free to access. I encourage anyone to follow the link to read “Yaqui Deer” in full, but here’s the first two opening stanzas:

            He danced in the circumference of grace
            reaching for the still, his face
            holding that still—unattainable quiet.
            What the body craves the mind makes dreams
            for, and he made, in waking sleep,
            a dream; surrounded by faces—he
            the center of faces, the center of bodies
            drawn in, pulled to that enclosure.

            His body
            moved stark in witchery,—bewitched,
            flesh with thicket wonder
            an animal the soul had trapped.
            Kin deer—all unconscious of the fire—!
            burning a hard flame in the center of
            each man’s center, intent only
            upon that laying hold of completion
            that he reached down for—in sound
            and in movement. His eyes to the
            still earth, he moved against her.

This attention brigham commits to be wholly witness to something sacred is revolutionary. The self isn’t inserted or an interrupting variable—the language doesn’t appropriate but reverently translates until it feels less like language but experience. There’s not a yearning to understand by knowing, but to participate by seeing and listening. Brigham herself had indigenous ancestry to the Choctaw tribe but grew up outside its customs and living. In “Yaqui Deer” there’s a palpable sensuality and joy communicated in indigenous participation. The poem ends:

            The masks had fallen away—;
            each man looked into the face of another
            and saw his own face. [4]



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C. D. Wright edited a selected volume of brigham’s work after meeting the poet in rural Arkansas. In Wright’s introduction of Run Through Rock: Selected Short Poems of Besmilr Brigham she describes—with spectacular clarity—the idiosyncrasies of brigham’s poetics:

The writing is odd both on the surface and below, and it never quite yields its oddness, however commonplace the subject. The punctuation is erratic and eccentric but deliberate. She prefers an opening parenthesis to a closing one. She is partial to the lower case. She hyphenates non-hyphenated words to influence pronunciation and rhythm. She leaves strings of modifying words without hyphens to interject surprise and ambiguity. A backslash is often chosen internally in lieu of a line break or a caesura. The sentencing is viperine, fanged, and sometimes headless. It is unorthodox, to say the lease. She is not wedded to the left margin or to the stanza, but the lines usually move from the margin, and are organized in strophes. A conclusion is rarely dramatic or conclusive. [5]

I would add what’s not found in brigham’s poetry is just as noteworthy, given brigham’s nomadism and life within the south and southwest’s rural dilapidation—scarcity. Brigham’s poetry describes a world that’s not wracked with the overaccumulation of resources by the few while the majority compete for enough to live. As well-travelled and well-read as brigham was, there’s no way she didn’t notice this. But brigham wanted to write the world as it was happening, and these thefts and scarcities that govern us aren’t the world, and their destruction of our world is proof of that. The world in brigham’s poetry has an ecology fully sustained and ongoing. Nothing in the poem violates or appropriates this world. In all these teeming parts, there’s rarely an “I” to speak from in the perspective. Take this short poem, found in Heaved From The Earth, published by Knopf in 1971:

            “Honey It’s May”

            Kiki
                     is trailing a mole through the ground
            the male coati
            lies in the grassy sun
            watching for   the postman

                                    two orange spotted cows
                                    stand on a slope in the woods’ meadow

                                    two wise jays
                                    court in the burr grass
                                    where the long worms mate

                                    the dog walks
                                    behind the pregnant whelp
                                    following the yard trails
                                    fat with possession

            and you work alone in the garden

            the black-snake lies
            stretched in the tree
            eating wild cherries [6]


The poem is all present tense, and the most present I’ve ever seen from a poet who can write completely absent of the “I.”



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After reading Snyderman’s generous online folio of brigham in The Volta and rereading it over the course of a few months, I located a copy of Heaved From The Earth: Poems in a university’s special collections archive in Mississippi. I was a lifelong Mississippian and a student of poetry at a Mississippi institution but had never read another Mississippi poet. At the same time, I was coming to the reality how cut-off I was from my Latinx ancestry. A whole part of myself I didn’t know how to claim, or how to rescue. The poems in Heaved From The Earth were easy to inhabit and become invisible within, to listen and be a part of listening at a near unfathomable scale. In realizing I was just as much my place as an inhabitant and cohabitant with the rest of Mississippi, I belonged with me for the first time.

The parts of Heaved From The Earth function similarly to both hemispheres described, with its two sections called “Poems of Warmth” and “Poems of Cold.”  Towards the end of “Poems of Warmth” section, just above that equatorial line between the book’s hemispheres (much like the starting migration point of North American monarch butterflies in Mexico), the poem “All Day the Big Monarchs Fly” waits on page 38—directly in the center of the 76-page collection:

            their orange bleak-edge fans
            blown by the wind, settling in
            wet grass
            we see only their wings

            each one
            going the same direction, south and
            west—
            pushed by the cold, pulled
            by the equator, they sail

            over the roads, above the highways
            droop with the quickness of rain
            they are like leaves
            lifting from the windshield [7]


I will never get over the subtle implications of ‘west—’, the em-dash pushing the word into the left margin, where the American west sat on every map, unknowable in this language except by the cardinal word. In this moment, much like the equator of the world and the monarch butterfly’s dependency on it in reality and in the middle of the book, the poem achieves a purity in which the language is reality, not in substance, but in identical geo-temporal space. So much of brigham reads ecstatically as one must read a language in time instead of in sentences, so slowing down to catch moments like this take practice. These moments also show the careful deliberation in brigham’s poetics, and confirm brigham as a poet who depends on the most elemental pieces of language to make a poem echo entangled experience.

The first poem I tried to read from Heaved From The Earth was the title poem on page 31. Entering into it was baffling, uncanny, but sense-filled. Re-reading the poem even now, six years later, I have the same feeling. It is somehow in the midst of a world that stretches in every direction, where everywhere everything is happening. The poem is happening as a moment is happening, and either never conclude their happening:


            after the tornado, a dead moccasin
            nailed to the pole
            boards scattered across a pasture

            lying fierce crosses
            jagged in mud

            had flung itself
            nail and wood
            the square-head animal
            hurled also in air

            or as it raced in weeds
            )water flowing, water falling
            impaled
                        both the snake and timber
            went flying through with wind

            coiled, made a coil (they do
            immediately from danger or when hurt
            and died in a coil
            bit itself
            in pain of its own defense the poison

                                                birds
                                                hurled into yard
                                                fences
                                                one with feet tangled gripping
                                                the open wire, a big Jay

            struggling from the water
            throwing its fanged head
            high at the lightning, silent
            in all that thunder

            to die by its own mouth
            pushing the fire thorns in [8]


It is hard to top the ecology this poem operates within in the collection itself, and across the massively unpublished archive of brigham’s poetry (both C. D. Wright and Snyderman mention many black binders filled with poems), but in my mind this poem builds an incredible conversation among Paul Celan’s “Great, Glowing Vault,” chiefly in the shared use of  “coil”. In Pierre Joris’s English translation,the speaker is branding an image into a ram:


            I burn this image, between
            the horns, therein,
            in the singing of the coils, the
            marrow of the curdled
            heartseas swells.

            What
            doesn’t he
            but against?

Whether a snake coiling or the ram’s horn, we’re presented with an image whose meaning can either be natural, or religiously significant to Western monotheism. brigham wants the animal to be what it is, and for that to be enough. Disaster is imminent in Celan’s poem, but in “Heaved From The Earth,” what we witness is more an active revision the landscape is performing on itself in the form of the tornado. Celan’s “Great, Glowing Vault” ends in a doom without recovery: “The world is gone, I have to carry you.” [9] brigham’s poem ends with the snake biting itself out of what may be its agony, but the world is uninterrupted.

Simone Weil’s words come to mind in my understanding of the empathy brigham brings to a poem: “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And it’s more appropriate to say that Celan’s poem ends conclusively, yet brigham’s poem (true to the nature of the coil) only ends in that a line stops. The moment has no true conclusion, and the poem wants to echo that. The poem “ends” with the word ‘in,’ a suggestion of entering something further, even as the language assigned to the poem has stopped to take a breath.



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Poet and ecofeminist scholar Emily Carr offers of reading of brigham’s poem “Heaved From The Earth” that’s rich in ecological understanding:

The lack of subject, coupled with the string of –ings, sends the sentence jiving and breaking into crises. We look more closely on the disfamiliar. We attend more carefully to the act of perception, the translation of events to words and words to events. The death of the snake is pure animal: disembarrassed, instinctual, unpunctuated, involuntary, proprioceptive. The psychic materials of communication are loosened, words by word, image by image, until the question is no longer who but what has the social sanction to speak. [10]

Carr’s essay, “Or to Begin Again: besmilr brigham” is the only scholarly reading I’ve been able to find on brigham’s work. At the core of this remarkable essay is the question: “What do we learn from brigham? Only that which is necessary to remap our human position in the natural world.” If you read the article (and you should), you’ll see how Carr identifies what she calls “four ecological survival techniques” present in the brigham’s poetry. Undoubtedly these techniques exist in brigham’s work not by training in her craft, but by living wholly within their philosophy. One of four fundamental tenets of brigham’s poetics that Carr identifies is “Ontological Insubordination”:

It challenges us to treat any tangible form meeting our gaze as an experiencing subject, to imagine what we might learn about ourselves and how we might, in turn, live once we accept that we are also read by what sees us. [11]

How to look at something, and in that looking not disarm it. How to further impower the world by seeing it. Thank you brigham.



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The library copy of Heaved From The Earth was part of special collections and couldn’t be checked out. One of the poems I copied from it in my journal was page 6:


            “The Eagle”


            symbol, engraved on a coin
            his struck image
            against the blue held light
            morning—
            wings in air, the white cloud under
            plumage
            mixed with the storm of his breast

            crying
                a black shaken thrown-rock soaring
            head intent
            before the dive

            making his house of sticks and leaves
            moss-fungi
            the tremendous wings spread
            motionless,
            as the mountains  [12]


I eventually found my own copy of Heaved From The Earth, but writing the poem (and typing it again here), gave an experience so different from reading the poem. Transcribing brigham’s poem by my own hand let me feel to a greater embodiment the language as it was happening. As an early reader of brigham, this kind of “reading” let me experience brigham’s own philosophy to the world and our dependency on language not just to describe it, but to feel it.



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Maybe Jonah uttered a prayer to both reach God and understand the inside of the whale, his place inside it—the world he inhabited however briefly. Emily Carr describes one of the four ecological survival techniques at work in brigham’s poetry as “Echo-location:”

It is reciprocal, a resounding of our (human) position in the world…It is metonymic in the sense of moving its attention from thing to thing, preserving context, and foregrounding relationship (Hejinian, “Strangeness” 140-54). It asks us to perceive the world…opening out into otherness, sketching possible relations with things, the bouleversement of “in” and “out.” [13]

In a review of Heaved From The Earth published in the July 1972 issue of Poetry, Dick Allen writes

The descriptions are very very nice, very very pleasant. I guess what she is doing is catching the still points in the turning world…Yet one cannot help but feeling that better poems do more than record and rock back on the heels while the wind blows…The mind has been cleared for a while, not transformed. [14]

I only include his words to illustrate how we are all the time misunderstanding prophets. The transformation Dick Allen is missing is because he himself is in the way. The transformation brigham made existent is the joy of disappearing into a greater thing and its speaking. Brigham doesn’t offer a perspective that seeks to govern the world into a single meaning for the sake of a poem having a moral. The world is forever in an active state of metabolism and breathing that has so little to do with our ideas. The mode of brigham’s poetry is to “show us how we might relinquish our special place at the center of perception and articulation and re-enter the drama of living,” [15] as Emily Carr states.



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This part is not easy. From a conversation with brigham’s daughter Heloise, Snyderman writes on brigham leaving Arkansas:

She was deeply embedded in Alzheimer’s. Heloise tells she reacted violently during the migration. Not long after arriving, she had to be moved into a nursing home of hilly desert expanse. I am told she was happy there, stopped cursing, and watched horses roam from a window. She thought she was in Arkansas. This is important, her last poem. It is not an act of denial, rather one of resilient creation. She asserted her death circumstance. Arkansas and the biology of mortality co-created the culture of her death. Those who cared for besmilr in these final years had to stand in Arkansas. [16]

Though the majority of besmilr brigham’s work remains unpublished, poet Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman is assembling FIERCE LIGHT: Selected Poems from brigham’s unpublished manuscripts.


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each year
root of the parent tree

goes deeper under the support beams [17]

(“The old house is now Surrounded by Trees”)


This knowledge that has to be known without being observed, a cosmic ecological listening. I am listening. The run-on sentence that is my life in Mississippi doesn’t move me forward, but downward, ground-ward. Into the beetle-rich and root-ridden dirt that cauldroned everything I know about Mississippi and our poetry, I am listening for the same fulfillment besmilr unquestionably held. I know whatever poems of besmilr come to light as more of her archive becomes known will only further articulate this.





Works Cited


[1] Snyderman, Robert Yerachmiel, “Pre-Face: “we do we fear/losing the things a man loves/shelter.” The Volta / Evening Will Come, July 2015. https://thevolta.org/ewc49-rsnyderman-intro-p1.html

[2] brigham, besmilr, “We Will Not Burn our Trash-brush Piles this Year.” The Volta / Evening Will Come, July 2015. https://thevolta.org/ewc49-bbrigham-p6.html

[3] Snyderman, Robert Yerachmiel, “Pre-Face: “we do we fear/losing the things a man loves/shelter.” The Volta / Evening Will Come, July 2015. https://thevolta.org/ewc49-rsnyderman-intro-p1.html

[4] brigham, besmilr, “Yaqui Deer.” El Corno Emplumado July 1966, pp 115-123. https://opendoor.northwestern.edu/archive/files/show/60

[5] brigham, besmilr, Run Through Rock: Select Short Poems of Besmilr Brigham, edited by C. D. Wright. Lost Roads Press. 2000.

[6-8] brigham, besmilr, Heaved From The Earth: Poems. Knopf. 1971. 22, 36, 31.

[9] Celan, Paul, Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry, trs. Pierre Joris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2014.

[11-12] Carr, Emily, “Or to Begin Again: besmilr brigham.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.1 2012. 75, 67.

[13] brigham, besmilr, Heaved From The Earth: Poems. Knopf. 1971. 6.

[14] Carr, Emily, “Or to Begin Again: besmilr brigham.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.1 2012. Pp 64.

[15] Allen, Dick, “Shifts.” Poetry July 1972. 238-239. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=120&issue=4&page=46

[16] Carr, Emily, “Or to Begin Again: besmilr brigham.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.1 2012. 62.

[17] Snyderman, Robert Yerachmiel, “Pre-Face: “we do we fear/losing the things a man loves/shelter.” The Volta / Evening Will Come July 2015. https://thevolta.org/ewc49-rsnyderman-intro-p1.html

[18 ] brigham, besmilr, “The old house is now Surrounded by Trees” The Volta / Evening Will Come July 2015. https://thevolta.org/ewc49-bbrigham-p11.html





C.T. Salazar is a Latinx poet and librarian from Mississippi. He’s the author of Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking (Acre Books 2022) and three chapbooks, most recently American Cavewall Sonnets (Bull City Press). He’s the 2020 recipient of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in poetry. His poems are forthcoming in West Branch, Pleiades, Cherry Tree, Southeast Review, and The Hopkins Review.