A Review of
Catharine Savage Brosman
Paperback: Little Gidding Press, 2021
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Reviewed by Mary Grace Mangano
Catharine Savage Brosman’s 2021 collection of poems Clara’s Bees is timely, in the sense that it begins with a poem about the pandemic, but also in that its central focus is time – both human time and sacred time. This marks the thirteenth collection from Brosman, published fifty years after her first book of poems. Clara’s Bees displays Brosman’s keen powers of attentiveness and observation. As David Middleton remarks in his foreword to the collection, it is much like a medieval book of hours or an illuminated manuscript. Brosman focuses on the food, flowers, animals, and people around her and meditates on the various patterns of time that mark their lives.
An American poet, essayist, and scholar of French literature, Brosman was a professor at Tulane University, where she held the Gore Chair of French Studies. Despite having been retired from teaching since 1997, Brosman has not slowed down and Clara’s Bees confirms that she is still very much committed to her craft as a poet.
The fist poem in the collection is the title poem, “Clara’s Bees,” and immediately it introduces the organizing principle for the poems: time. A young woman, Clara, waits for a shipment of bees to arrive from Italy as she endures the COVID-19 quarantine in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The speaker notes, “This past season/ during long hours of darkness they slept in, Circadian/ like us” in “a year of pestilence.” The poem references Italy being devastated by death early on in 2020, and also the devastation in New York. It then recalls another time of disease, when “Bocaccio and his friends escaped the plague,” layering in different time periods.
The poem looks back like this, but also forward. As they finally arrive for her garden in New York, the bees’ “ballet” is likened to Clara, “also poised to venture” ready “to be, and be one’s possibilities.” As the titular and first poem, “Clara’s Bees” prepares the reader for more poems like this that focus on a specific vignette or memory, but which also recall earlier times in history and look ahead to all that is still to come, and which will follow the same patterns of time that we know.
In “Two Colorado Poems in the Chinese Manner,” memories of visiting Pike’s Peak inspire reflection: “What hours we spent there, he/and I, from breakfast on to dusk.” Here, time is marked by the sun and by mealtimes. But then, the liturgical understanding of time is another marker, as the speaker says, “We heard the bells at noon/ and vespers.” Yet another way of inhabiting time is alluded to, as the two people in the poem also “watched the maple lose its leaves in fall.” Each of these ways of cataloging time – meals, night and day, the liturgy of the hours, and the seasons of the year – recur throughout the book’s poems, all the while pointing to the human and linear vision of time as compared to sacred, eternal time.
Nature’s unhurried time also contrasts with human busy-ness, particularly in “Blue Heron by the Pond.” The heron’s “stillness interrupts the human day,/ its moods, emotions, motives, what will come,/ or came before, and all that flows away.” Similarly, in the poem “The Mimosa,” the speaker, presumably an older woman, watches a young woman hanging wash on the line and crying. She wonders, “Is her weeping/some washing of the heart, as regular/ as ritual” and then notes that “an old tree/ has seen squalls and clearings, ridden/ out seasons.” In both these cases, the heron and the tree are still and constant. They continue on, despite human activity which is more fleeting. With “The Mimosa,” Brosman’s inclusion of the older observer also reminds us that as we age, we learn from nature and become less concerned with “squalls” that come and go, since time teaches us that “this too shall pass.”
Several of the poems deal with death and loss, on both an individual and collective level. “Chrysanthemum” remembers the history of this particular flower, and a personal history with it. It begins by discussing how the chrysanthemum has been honored in Greece, China, and Japan for thousands of years. The poem also recalls a more modern history, when the flower was used as a corsage for dances or dinner “at the Shamrock or the Rice” hotels in Houston.
This leads to a personal memory for Brosman, who lives in Houston, and presumably attended those dinners and dances with her now-deceased husband. She writes, “The memory is twice/ as precious, now that one of us is dead./ The essence of the flower lies in you,/ in us. It will be honored at my head/ by friends—its tousled image, its virtù.” Once again, she employs the device of circular time – of looking back and looking ahead simultaneously. At the same time that she remembers those memories with her husband, she anticipates the chrysanthemum encircling her own head in a casket one day.
A short series called “Three War Poems” does something along these lines when it anchors itself in one particular place, Compiègne, France. Brosman uses this specific place to reflect on the ways a landscape can contain multiple histories. It starts with a personal visit to the city in 2001, and then “—It’s nineteen-forty, déjà vu” and then finally, “memories hang thick—the armistice/ of nineteen-eighteen.” The third and final poem in this series returns to 2001, or perhaps to the present day, and concludes, “Our guilt is history, the branch, the root./ The tide is washing on a distant shore.” The ocean’s ebb and flow is an appropriate analogy for history – the way it repeats itself, at times quite unfortunately.
The final twelve poems are all ekphrastic, describing illuminations from the fifteenth-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Each poem consists of three four-line stanzas, and continues the meditation on time via the saints depicted in the manuscript.
In “Saint John the Baptist,” human time and sacred time merge once again as “the prophet waits at sunset, to abide/ until the time is full across the land.” The ancient ways of measuring and marking time recur in “Saint Anthony the Great.” The details of the image are detailed: “At left, an edifice with open door,/ a belfry, orange, and bell, which rings the hours/ for Catherine.” This seems to take on a double meaning, as it alludes to the book of hours from which the poems take inspiration, but also Brosman (also named Catharine)’s own book of hours in this collection.
The last few poems draw further from human time and more deeply into sacred time. In “Saint James Major,” the saint’s own journey is “a Christian’s paradigm./ With staff, pouch, cockle shell, the fisherman/ is on the road to Spain, in sacred time, a pilgrimage that never will be done.” In a way, this book can be seen as a pilgrimage, approaching the place where time ceases to exist or is never-ending. It finds it, with the concluding poem of the book.
“Christ at Emmaus” remembers another pilgrimage, another journey. The two disciples eat with the stranger. He breaks bread as they recognize Him, and as “just days/ before, He broke his body. He was dead,/ but sups with them tonight.” Death does not have the final word, and therefore time’s grasp on human lives – the hurriedness – falls away. As the last line of the poem announces, “His halo shines, conflating the tableau/ of human time with God’s own, glorious.”
While it began with “Clara’s Bees” during a time of uncertainty, disease, and death, and with a young woman ready to venture out – the book finishes with the Way. The pilgrimage has found its end – and yet, that end is a beginning. This is fitting for a book concerned with time in all its iterations. Brosman’s poems walk through nature, seasons, rituals, and hours to find the place where human time and sacred time meet: in the person of Jesus Christ. In her lovely language and tightly controlled verse, Brosman’s poems are some to return to again and again, offering new insights every time.
Mary Grace Mangano
Mary Grace Mangano is a writer and educator, having taught middle and high school English in several major cities. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in America magazine, Dappled Things, Fare Forward, and others. She currently resides in Philadelphia and is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. She tweets at @MG_Mangan0.
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