Catharine Savage Brosman, who lives in Houston, is Professor Emerita of French at Tulane University and Honorary Research Professor at the University of Sheffield. She is the author or editor of nineteen scholarly volumes, two volumes of personal essays, and ten collections of poetry, including Range of Light, devoted to the American west; Under the Pergola, featuring poems on Katrina and other Louisiana topics; and, most recently, On the Old Plaza. Poems and essays of hers have appeared all over the U.S. and in England and France (in translation).
For A Friend
Whose Grandson Killed a Classmate
Her son reported it by telephone:
an argument, a shot. She clutched her throat,
turned dizzy, gave a sort of cry or moan.
And yet it seemed irreal. She felt remote.
The words, too fixed in memory, resound,
and echo in the papers, in the air.
Few acts, obligingly, go underground
at once; they run and ripple, here and there.
The dead boy’s family, grieving, angry, waits
for justice, or revenge. A trial, next;
delays, a verdict, then appeal. The Fates
deliberate. Whatever comes, the text
is suffering. — She must be loved by God.
Her father hanged himself, her husband’s ill.
So, what is new? The Lord spares not the rod,
nor spoils His child by yielding to its will.
Degas in New Orleans
“The sublimity of his mature art is the application
of classical skill and aristocratic taste to modern
and plebeian subjects, often framed with the
off-center casualness of a passing glance.”
— Peter Schjeldahl,
1870 and after
That dreadful war! Degas, a patriot,
aged thirty-six, enlisted in the Guards —
a gesture only (Paris would not be
at risk, they knew; the Prussians would retreat,
the French pursuing them across the Rhine)–
sincere, however. Then Sedan, the fall
of emperor and empire, German gains,
Paris blockaded and besieged, the Loire
campaign, and Paris fallen; winter then,
starvation (rats for sale in sacks, like fish),
disorder, the Commune. Who would not wish
to leave? His mother’s family, Creoles, lived
on Esplanade, between the Marigny
and Vieux Carré. They all spoke French; the dress,
the mores pleased him; the great river ran
nearby, a liquid cord to home. He knew,
however, that he had defective sight–
that rifle training in the Guards revealed
his disability, a painter’s curse.
Louisiana light, subtropical,
was dangerous, he thought. He stayed indoors,
did portraits and domestic scenes; he liked
dim corridors and doors in enfilade
successively receding in the dusk,
or courtyards shaded by profuse displays
of greenery, both sensitive and cool.
His uncle worked in Faubourg Sainte-Marie
in “Factors’ Row”; Degas resolved to paint
his offices — the desks and chairs, the clerks,
the cotton brokers in top hats — a scene
of modern life, a bit off-center, caught
as by a glance His brother, at the left,
inclines beside a window; one man reads
a paper; foregrounded, his uncle cleans
his glasses; cotton samples point to wealth,
the soft, exotic coin of the New World
for European furniture, gems, gowns.
Degas made sketches, studied colors, lines,
and paid his homage to New Orleans. Still,
he feared the southern sun, and finally
returned to France for twenty years of work,
perfecting beauty. “Drawing is one way
of thinking, modeling another.” Aged,
he walked the streets of Paris, nearly blind,
alone, remembering banana leaves
in steamy rain, dark doorways, Creole skin,
the casual framing of a moment caught
by eyes become opaque and brilliant thought.
From On the Old Plaza (Mercer University Press, 2014). Reprinted by permission.
Fire in the Mind
In memory of M.A.C.P.
Among a stack of old spring binders filled
with notes—the trophies, or the detritus,
of forty years of teaching, taken home
like ashes from a crematorium—
this jewel, not mine: a senior thesis, bound,
from nineteen sixty-two, done by a girl
who’d learned sufficient French in just four years
to write so well, with such authority,
that, as I leaf through now, I am amazed.
She wrote on Simone de Beauvoir. Our minds
met easily, and in her prose my hand
is sometimes visible—the mentor’s genes.
She also was a darling of her class,
the Queen of Rondelet, a “Beauty,” rich
in flair, charm, wit. She even cooked. Two men
who both became Rhodes Scholars courted her,
but they went off to Oxford, while she took
her doctorate in history, then left
for Paris, favored haute couture, and did
translation. Once we lunched al fresco, near
the Louvre—friends still, in the prime of life—
but spoke of trivial things. She later wed
in his château a wealthy Frenchman, not
an intellectual, and smoked herself to death.
She’s buried in the family vault
in Père-Lachaise. A close friend tried to find
the grave, but wandered vainly in that maze,
a honeycomb, until she heard a voice
instructing her to leave: “Go buy yourself
a bottle of expensive French perfume,
in memory of me.” —Forever gone,
long evenings spading in the library,
the thrilling mastery of that new tongue,
the hunt for ignis fatuus, happiness,
elusive always; gone that perfect sphere
of consciousness, a bubble, full—delight
and disaffection, laughter, cough. What I
inherit are these words in carbon black,
as on a cavern wall, the signs that speak
of winged illusions, fire in the mind.
Dear Mary Ann, your old professor says:
Work diligently there in Père-Lachaise.
You see things better from the other shore,
as mortal matters give concern no more.
You can’t be interrupted in the tomb
when studying the cryptic book of doom;
distractions must be few, and time permits
the leisured application of your wits.
You’ll reach a new perfection in your style,
observe the human comedy the while,
and see things pass that we cannot yet see,
the very spirit of all history.
From Breakwater (Mercer University Press, 2009). Reprinted by permission.