A Mississippi Trilogy
Paperback: 326 pp.
With A Mississippi Trilogy, Brodsky brings together his three previous books that capture a "Northern outlander"'s forays into the Deep South. In Book One, Mississippi Vistas, the outlander passionately explores Mississippi's William Faulkner country, encountering the ghosts of Faulkner's characters and struggling with his own desires and failures. In Book Two, Disappearing in Mississippi Latitudes, he attempts to come to terms with the lingering vestiges of the Old South's gentility and its tenacious racism and poverty. In Book Three, Mistress Mississippi, the outlander realizes he can't escape his self-destructive ways or the lure of Mississippi, which he metaphorically transforms into his "Mistress Mississippi." Praised by such literary Malcolm Cowley and Robert Penn Warren, A Mississippi Trilogy stands as one of Brodsky's true masterpieces.
This volume of poems is a passionate exploration of the Faulkner country — not only of the physical scene but also of the fabulous Yoknapatawpha country haunted by Faulkner’s ghost. Art copes with nature and reshapes it. The author confesses himself an “outsider” but he has an observant eye and he knows his Faulkner in spirit and detail. The poems themselves are sharply perceptive, honest, tense, and yet properly varied in mood and tone. The best of them are indeed excellent.
I wish Mississippi Vistas all success.
— Cleanth Brooks, author of Understanding Poetry and William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country
Mississippi Vistas has an admirably firm design as a whole. Not many poets can plan and execute a book in that fashion. First you approach Mississippi and Oxford as an outlander, but one imbued with Faulkner; then you write about the land and its people; then from the countryside you turn to the town of Oxford; then you approach the shrine itself, and depart from it (though not as you came). All that is beautifully conceived.
The book as a whole is an achievement.
— Malcolm Cowley, editor of The Portable Faulkner and author of Exile’s Return
I like the varied texture of the poems, the variety of images, the variation of rhythms. Reading them, you know you are in the presence of a poet.
— Louis Dollarhide, author of Of Art and Artists: Selected Reviews of the Arts in Mississippi, 1955–1976
Each year for a decade, this self-styled outlander has journeyed from his home and work in Missouri to Oxford to participate in the Ole Miss Faulkner conference. Of course Louis Daniel Brodsky is a scholar in his own right, a Yale sophisticate, an inveterate collector of Faulkner memorabilia, as well as a successful businessman. Driving down through Arkansas, over the big river and east by way of the Mississippi Delta and returning occasionally via Memphis, he apparently has escaped the ennui of solitary car travel by composing poems regarding his pilgrimages. The verses in this volume may well comprise the most appropriate intellectual tribute ever made to the creator of Yoknapatawpha. . . .
Like Faulkner himself, this abolitionist poet perceives not Mississippi’s wealth and skyscrapers but its land, its inhabitants, and their history. The crops and those sustained by farming, the blacks and the whites, rich and poor, are in his view at the mercy of drouth and too much rain, mere slaves subordinate to King Cotton. Though Brodsky communes with students and academics at Ole Miss, he principally describes townspeople and country characters who happen to have such names as Temple Drake, Addie Bundren, Quentin Compson, Boon Hogganbeck, Ike McCaslin, Thomas Sutpen, Joe Christmas, Miss Emily Grierson, and Dilsey Gibson. His holy of holies seems to be Rowan Oak approached through Bailey’s Woods, and the burying ground of St. Peter’s. He succeeds in extolling his mentor’s genius in the very medium where Faulkner considered himself a failure.
— James W. Silver, author of Mississippi: The Closed Society
Like the out-of-state traveler in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun who contemplates the meaning hidden in the date scratched on a window pane of the sheriff’s quarters in the Jefferson jail, Louis Daniel Brodsky is aware of Mississippi as a highly self-conscious outlander. We may imagine in fact that Mississippi Vistas is a book of poems Faulkner’s sensitive visitor might have written had he yielded so fully to the mystery of time and place incarnated in the story of Cecilia Farmer that he would be compelled to return repeatedly to the scene of its inception. But Brodsky’s connection with the Mississippi scene is not entirely directed by his fascination with its embodiment in the writings of Faulkner. Poems involving his identification with Faulkner’s characters — Quentin and Caddy Compson, Temple Drake, Miss Emily Grierson, and others — are complemented by a number of poems centering in the tension toward the Mississippi world that derives its force from the poet’s personal observation of its places and persons — as in “Slaves,” “Shall Inherit,” or “Chiaroscuro,” the last being a notable drama of the inward recognition between the poet and an old black man while they sit on a bench in front of the Oxford courthouse. Mississippi Vistas is the striking record of a passionate and revealing confrontation over a period of years between a Missourian of Jewish heritage — a collector and complete admirer of Faulkner — and the past and present dominion of Mississippi, literary and actual. Brodsky’s work both interprets Faulkner’s vision of Yoknapatawpha and issues in another vision of Mississippi; integrally related to Faulkner’s, this is yet remarkably a literary disciple’s own searching vision.
— Lewis P. Simpson, consulting editor of The Southern Review and author of The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral and History in Southern Literature
Mississippi Vistas is a remarkably effective book. You and F.[aulkner] and Mississippi are there, and that relationship is, of course, the single, demanding subject. The book works. The poetic tone is right for the occasion, the sense of the occasion demanding the man’s attention is accurately there. I want to say that the first three poems are extremely effective in giving a deep sense of the traveler and his mission. . . .
A unique book, which I am grateful for in all senses.
— Robert Penn Warren, America’s first poet laureate and author of All the King’s Men
Disappearing in Mississippi Latitudes
In Disappearing in Mississippi Latitudes, his most recent volume, poet Louis Daniel Brodsky concludes one poem with this claim: “. . . I’m doomed the rest of my life / To write my guts into poetry / No one will buy, read, recite, teach, / Let alone remember.” This is the fear enunciated of every poet, but Brodsky need not worry because Disappearing in Mississippi Latitudes stands with his other work as a remarkable account of the journey we are all destined to make, whether it is called Mississippi or, simply, life itself. His observations are keen, his imagery is fresh, and his struggle is palpable. May Brodsky return, yet again, to Mississippi.
— James A. Autry, author of Nights under a Tin Roof: Recollections of a Southern Boyhood
A major poet caught in the endless tangle of a past that defies revision and a sickened present shadowed by old guilts, the evidence of it in the hunched forms of the impoverished, in the contamination that exists like flower and weed in the splendor of the land, Louis Daniel Brodsky, in Volume Two of his Mississippi Trilogy, drives through the encroaching kudzu of country roads seeking nothing more than surcease from the burden heaped upon his bones by those who came before him, desiring as he is guided in his journey by the loadstar that is William Faulkner nothing more than “sleeping in my own bed,” nothing more than a serenity of mind and soul impossible to attain in his unblinkered journey through a life in the South. Brodsky’s is a voice at once lyrical and harsh, elegiac and accusative, that lifts him to a universality rarely achieved by regional poets.
— Orin Borsten, coauthor of A Loving Gentleman: The Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter
L. D. Brodsky’s poetry offers a moving, insightful understanding of Mississippi worlds about which William Faulkner wrote. Brodsky’s quest for Faulkner’s world is a fascinating pilgrimage.
— William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi
The quintessential metaphor of the American experience is the Journey, the Quest. Our best and most representative writers — from Melville and Twain to Hemingway and Bellow — dramatize the American obsession with Traveling, with Moving On, with Leaving Here and Going There.
Louis Daniel Brodsky’s Disappearing in Mississippi Latitudes both repeats and revises this central American myth of journey and discovery. From the opening words, “Fleeing Farmington,” to the last line, when his protagonist, weeping, is “Home, again, to my empty temple,” Brodsky fuses the American experience with that of the Wandering Jew in a treatment that raises crucial questions of responsibility and freedom, engagement or flight. The middle volume of a trilogy tracing an outlander’s love-hate relationship with Mississippi, Disappearing chronicles the point at which the somewhat romanticized and naive view of place and self expressed in Volume I, Mississippi Vistas, gives way to a more somber and honest assessment. The result, presented in a series of interior monologues that combine the emotional power of poetry with suspenseful design of fiction, is poignant and painful yet also, occasionally, as in “Intimations of Immortality in Spring” and “Haunting Voices,” encouraging and hopeful.
However, while it has its positive moments, this is not a happy book. It is a book which applies the child’s fear of getting lost to the terrors of adulthood; it is a book about disappearing, not about finding oneself or being found. In these gripping and troubling poems Mississippi is characterized as a place that deflates the spirit and kills the dream. Here both nature (punishing heat and humidity, river floods, thunderstorms, suffocating kudzu) and man (racial prejudice, bigotry, violence, poverty, provincialism) conspire to subvert the human quest for wholeness, harmony, and beauty.
But Mississippi is also, as a number of these poems remind us, the land of Faulkner, the land where imagination and poetic genius can transcend and thus triumph over sordid fact. The parallel is undoubtedly intentional. Like Faulkner, Brodsky’s protagonist lovingly wrestles with polysyllabic words and a sometimes-tortuous syntax to fashion a poetry to live by. And herein lies the uniqueness of Brodsky’s handling of the Quest motif. For his protagonist, who rightly suspects that “. . . uprootedness itself is my destiny, / I its tribal apprentice, plying deserts, forever,” the end of the journey is not a place but a state of heightened awareness that can only be expressed as poetry — a poetry that (like Brodsky’s style) teaches one
. . . how to hold time’s quicksilver sands,
Control those wildly ephemeral moments
When poetry and prose would rapidly fuse,
Then slowly come undone
In the most wondrous sundering of flesh and emotion . . .
This part of Brodsky’s message, of course, is far from negative. For poetry, as we all know, is not only the beginning of wisdom; it can also be the first halting step toward salvation.
— Robert Hamblin, author of From the Ground Up: Poems of One Southerner’s Passage to Adulthood
L. D. Brodsky’s poetic trilogy is saturated with his empathy for William Faulkner and his Oxford, Mississippi, but the brilliant resonance of the poems comes from the poet’s recognition that Mississippi was not only Faulkner terrain but also what he calls “Ku Klux Kudzu.” From this witch’s brew, Brodsky has crafted both a hymn to the novelist and a cautionary tale with profound social and personal implications. He has succeeded in carving out his own Yoknapatawpha.
— Frederick R. Karl, author of William Faulkner: American Writer and Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives
Disappearing in Mississippi Latitudes establishes Louis Daniel Brodsky firmly in the front rank of contemporary American poets. This is not a “collection” of poems; it is a brilliantly crafted story told in poetic form, a story about a gifted artist’s journey through the world of Faulkner country that will leave you gasping in awe. Brodsky’s over-riding honesty, his command of language and metaphor, his lyrical insights into the landscape of Mississippi both past and present, make his verse a national treasure. I hope that every literate American will read this powerful book.
— Stephen B. Oates, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book and Christopher awards winner and author of William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist and Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Brodsky’s verse is steeped in the sensuous brew of the North Mississippi country, and the mixture of ingredients — what he finds there, what it tells him about himself — makes for memorable poems.
— Louis D. Rubin, Jr., editor of The History of Southern Literature
Louis Daniel Brodsky has created a deeply felt personal response to both William Faulkner and the Mississippi Delta. The poems are imbued with a sense of time and place. His great admiration for Faulkner and his love of the deep south shine through each poem. In addition, many poems capture the intensity of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s and reveal great sensitivity to the urgent issues of race that remain with us today.
— Meta D. Wilde, coauthor of A Loving Gentleman: The Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter
What happens when deep sensitivity and high intelligence meet on the middle ground of daily life and find no place to rest? L. D. Brodsky moves and stops and moves again like a bead of mercury on the ever-tilting surface of the lower Mississippi basin. This begins his poetry.
— Joel Williamson, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book and Parkman awards winner and author of William Faulkner and Southern History and The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation
In choosing to write Mistress Mississippi: Volume Three of A Mississippi Trilogy, Louis Daniel Brodsky has probably made a daring and, some would say, a dangerous choice. What state of the Union is so tightly organized and so specially itself as to furnish a sufficiently sharp target for love or hate or any other basic emotion? But Brodsky has not become fascinated with a stack of statistics, political and economic, but with a world in good part shaped and colored and interpreted by William Faulkner. Such is the world he has fervently explored in Volume One of the Trilogy, Mississippi Vistas. The poems in which he tells his reader and himself about this special world are lively and spirited and quite realistic. Several of our previous literary critics have praised Volume One for the quality of the poetry.
Such poetry carries on in Volume Three. Best of all the poetry keeps its life and intensity. For example, take a look at these lines from “Goat-Poet’s Agony”:
Those rife odors of frantic honeysuckles,
Bee-bothered, sweet as pea pods sucked clean,
Clammy as ewe teats . . .
or consider the following brief passage from “Rasselas”:
What attracts and attaches me
To this mytic oasis
Is the desire to embrace the mind-spell
That proves so deeply cathartic
To both the travel-weary head and heart.
or consider from “Taking the Streetcar Home”:
Somewhere in forenoon’s corridor,
Memphis looms —
That slatternly Blanche DuBois
Whose helpless gaze, tattered lace dress
Never fail to tease me . . .
But there has been a change in tone. The delightful escape to this romantic world is now seen as a flight from those that the poet loves and though the old-new world continues to enthrall him, Chapter One of the new volume is significantly entitled “Guilt-Throes” and the very last poem in the volume is entitled “Pan Damned.” The tone grows relentlessly penitential as the speaker’s moods vary and the scene shifts from one aspect of the fascinating land to another.
One looks forward to the transitional Volume Two of the Trilogy, Disappearing in Mississippi Latitudes, to see what it will have to say about those forces that, in this concluding volume, have brought about the poet’s disillusionment and ultimate decline.
— Cleanth Brooks, coauthor of Understanding Poetry and William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country
Many thanks, . . . for the manuscript of Mistress Mississippi, . . . [It is] a bright spot in your record . . . [and] will be treasured.
— Malcolm Cowley, author of Exile’s Return, Blue Juniata, and The Faulkner-Cowley File
Louis D. Brodsky always works in improbable and daring ways. The narrator of this striking monologue is obliquely yet forcefully reminiscent of the “outsider” in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, who in rhetorical fancy imagines the jailer’s daughter in the Civil War Jefferson to have been an incarnation of the archetypal fatal woman, the ancient goddess and succubus Lilith. Although his public image is that of the successful . . . hard-working “good guy” . . . , Brodsky’s “outsider” to Mississippi is essentially a repressed, guilt-ridden, frustrated poet. Ironically revealing his enslavement to a romantic idiom that dooms him to be his own self-victim, he recounts the story of his willful degradation through a series of casual, increasingly meaningless sexual involvements. Yielding to his progressive ruination, he metaphorically transforms the State of Mississippi into “Mistress Mississippi,” the image incarnate of his illusions and delusions of desire. An underlying motive of Brodsky’s striking poem is the exploration of the relationship between literature and life, the ruin of the narrator being appreciably shaped by his disastrous literary sensibility.
— Lewis P. Simpson, consulting editor of The Southern Review and author of The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral History in Southern Literature
As I drive south, to rendezvous with noon,
My fleeing spirit peers inward,
Through terraqueous caverns,
For an exit into future hours
Backing up on themselves.
An orange-gray, mist-laden horizon,
Split as if into cosmic firmaments, shimmers,
Its slanted rays stalactites
Dripping from God's ceiling, into my eyes.
I'm a blind, black amphibian
Swimming in fifty fathoms of opaque confusion.
Until now, whether above ground or beneath,
The location of my oneiric psyche
Has seemed no more than a hysterical shriek
From Bedlam's porch, Pandemonium's gate.
Heading toward Memphis, Oxford,
I sense my soul ascending from the cave,
Being penetrated by vague benedictions
Emanating from angels haloing
My passage from sleep to freedom's source.
As the light at tunnel's end intensifies, I enter its glow.
Mississippi draws me home.