T. Alan Broughton: Review by Edward Byrne


A World Remembered by T. Alan Broughton (Carnegie Mellon University Press)

T. Alan Broughton




T. Alan Broughton’s latest collection of poetry, A World Remembered (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010), offers readers an opportunity to witness some of the ways we might recognize, reflect, revise, and relish those elements of life that matter so much to us. Through memory, Broughton evaluates and elevates experiences crucial in his development as a human being, recording some of those moments that might have shaped his intellectual curiosity and emotional caring, qualities contributing to poetic discovery.

     Broughton’s acute abilities to discern significance in incidents encountered or instances observed lend a sense of priority to the revelations and resolutions existing in his poems, even when occurring during seemingly minor everyday events. Similarly, Broughton’s practical knowledge, gained through decades of keenly questioning and recording the world around him, provides readers with unique views of not only the past but also the present situation in which he finds himself, as well as the future left for all of us to explore. Yet, the works in A World Remembered also suggest some mystery and suspense, especially about what is to come, a state of ambiguity and uncertainty that remains necessary for everyone.

     In the book’s title poem, which appears as the first piece in a section designated as “Discoveries” that opens the collection, Broughton describes a sparrow caught in his garage after “taking refuge / in the dim cave while thunder raged.” When startled by the entrance of a man’s shadow, the bird “flew / toward light, beat wings and beak / on the vision of green and shade, / and the glass did not break.” The poet poses a comparison with the human soul “pressed to a place / it can see through, face and both palms against / the undiminished light, naming distant / leaves and fruits it thinks it knew— / but cannot go beyond.” The metaphor appears as a possible rebuttal to an example from Bede in Ecclesiastical History, which narrates a parallel occasion when a sparrow flies swiftly in one door of a hall and out the other, concluding this action resembles “the life of man; but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.” Indeed, Broughton confides the bird in the original story might have flown from fields into the hall’s rafters, pausing “to nest / to feed its young,” before it takes light again “and flutters into a wall / it cannot see.”

     Broughton’s poetry frequently challenges expectations and tests conventional views, often borrowing perspectives gained through acquaintance and association with nature. In another piece involving a bird, “Great Blue Heron,” Broughton reports:


     Today the bird stays with me, as if I am moving through

     the heron’s dream to share his sky or water—places

     he will rise into on slow flapping wings or where

     his long bill darts to catch unwary frogs. I’ve seen

     his slate blue feathers lift him as dangling legs

     fold back, I’ve seen him fly through the dying sun

     and out again, entering night, entering my own sleep.


     By the final lines of the poem, Broughton’s memory of the heron drifts into an example of imagination: “I try to imagine him / slowly descending to his nest, wise as he was / or ever will be, filling each moment with that moment’s / act or silence, and the evening folds itself around me.”

     Repeatedly blending memory and imagination in his poems, identifying with those details he perceives in his surroundings, Broughton seeks to discover innovative glimpses of his position in the world around him and the world remembered. He even seems comfortable wrapped within the present as he interprets consequences of those slivers remembered from the past and projects bits of a conceivable future. Indeed, the poet realizes his visions of the past and his experiences or emotions as a young man supply some of the depictions of the present he furnishes readers.

     In “Remembrance,” the speaker begins with a pair of stanzas questioning the specifics in his memory about himself and another: “Was it ripe figs glistening on the plate / in sunlight, or the way her bare hips rounded / in the shadow of a tree?” He wonders: “Was there a time when he turned again / in the room where only moonlight touched / the silver of her sleeping cheeks, his hands / about to tangle in the shadow of her hair?” He explains how memory filters everything: “Into the patterned shade of desires / alluring as they ever were he wanders.” Today, employing memory and imagination, the speaker sees himself in the past and moves “through the dreams of a young man / in an old man’s body.”

     When the electrical power goes out one evening, leaving the speaker in the dark without television or other diversions, he begins thinking about what someone had spoken to him, “how no one saw you because / your past was locked inside and you don’t want / to talk about it” (“Leaving a Mark”). The speaker conjectures that the young don’t listen because they are “too busy / making memories to waste an hour on ours. / Doesn’t matter they rise so fresh in the mind / that I can still whistle a tune I’ve not heard sung / for fifty years.” He remarks upon a fear of loss when memories are not shared or preserved: “I know what you’re afraid of—how when we go / it all goes with us.”

     The poet closes with an observation of neighborhood kids beside a “fresh-poured pavement.” He notices how they “made their marks with feet and hands, initials / carved with sticks.” The scene triggers his memory of a time when he poured concrete as a young man, helping to construct a bridge. The poem’s final lines make the physical connection between the past and the present: “On the middle span of the bridge, if you look hard, / you’ll find my initials. But you would have to be / on your back floating down the river to see them.”

     When recounting an adventure examining caves that happened when he was eight, the speaker of “Lascaux, 1940” details how he, his brother, and a friend discovered “beasts on walls, some from our world— / horses, deer, and men reduced to simple lines.” Sharing their find with others, the three boys achieve “for a moment, fame.” However, today his brother is dead, and his friend is in his sixties, and the speaker declares: “Now no one remembers us.” Nevertheless, returning to the caves he realizes “what I saw was not the same, / and I turned away to find them where still / they rise to claim me just before a dream / collapses into unremembered dark.” Time alters everything, and the places or moments we hold with deep affection can only be captured in the still images sustained by our memories.

     In the volume’s third section, “Later Than You Think,” the poet includes a similar work, “Finding the Falls.” Written as a letter-poem to another, this piece again considers the passing of time and the effectiveness of memory. The speaker confesses: “I’m no good without facts, can’t understand / how they could say this morning on the news / that telescopes have shown us time beginning.” He says that perhaps he fears “soon they’ll look / so far in cells they’ll see us before birth, / attach some chip to send back news from death.” Broughton once more retreats far in his memory: “Over my wine / I remembered that summer fifty years ago.” In this recollection, he finds a falls, and he notes:


     …we were there. The sun came out, the water

     took that light and tumbled it down the steps

     of rock, breaking it into colors, spreading it

     into tongues so bright that I could see only

     the burning falls when I looked away. And it stayed

     with me into night….


     The speaker is pleased that he can still see it in his mind, and he concludes the poem by offering readers the following:


     …I guess I’m saying

     don’t show me where I come from, where I’m going.

     I need to have the sun spin and rise

     from this dark where I can hear the bullfrogs

     boom along the side of the pond, the owl

     barking down the ridge, so I can take

     some night one last, deep breath and praise again

     the miracle of light before I can’t.


     In “Small Voyages,” another poem from this section of A World Remembered, Broughton describes paddling a canoe on a lake, blindly moving through fog as if “into a place that might have been sleep,” until finally light “pulled aside chill gauze,” revealing details on shore and startling the loons. The speaker finally discloses: “slowly, pulling our weight with steady / strokes, we returned to a sun in its sky / and thought we remembered who we were.”

     The last section of the book, “Leave-Taking,” seems even more reflective, meditating on mortality and memory, its presence or absence, as well elegiac, recognizing the brevity of life and leading one to possibly regard its accomplishments as incomplete. The initial poem in this section, “Harrowing the Field,” continues themes seen throughout the collection. The speaker tells about his first experience driving a tractor under the guidance of cousins as he attempted to etch rows in farm soil. He doesn’t recall all the details; however, the incident has been a source of recurring dreams: “my lines slurring to curves / until I reach the central point / with no field left to plow.” In his mind, he retraces his steps: “I walk / those furrows back that unwind // my way to where I began, but older / and no one here to listen.” Again, readers are offered a view of the passage of time, the cost of aging, the hint of mortality, the loss of others, and the absence of anyone with whom to share a memory.

     Broughton focuses on the limits of human mortality in contrast with the everlasting cyclical pattern of seasons in “An Ending,” dedicated to the late poet John Engels. The poem’s opening stanza of two takes place in early autumn, but already frost is evidenced during the night. The speaker reacts: “I’m old enough to know this happens / again and again. I do not grieve—why doubt / I’ll see the same when summer ends next year?” In the second stanza, however, the speaker recognizes the persistence of memory in the face of absence: “If you still live in my mind where winds and cold / can numb, how explain your absence on the day / when I wake and fickle sun melts frost, pretends / this might be spring?” The poem closes with a simple yet powerful final line: “seasons are for the living, not the dead.”  

     With a pair of poems that face one another in the pages of A World Remembered, Broughton remembers his father. In “The Garden,” the speaker revisits the wartime “victory garden” his father kept, and he relives seeding the soil with peas. The poem nicely parallels the seeds with his own experience, both of which will prove their worth sometime in the future: “we covered them with earth, / tucked them in with our palms / to let them have their dreams / as I have this—my father living / as I thought he always would.” The young boy’s lack of understanding of mortality is now replaced by the grown man’s faith in memory, where the father remains immortal and always planting the garden, contributing a foundation in the poet's recollections of his early life.

     In the second poem of this pair, “My Father, Dying,” the speaker wonders whether memory is present at the moment of death. He lists episodes from his father’s life, and he asks: “Does memory surge at all against / the indifferent silence.” He questions the father about the possibility of memories returning, perhaps comforting, at the moment of death, and the speaker asks: “Will I see you at my end?”

     The poet also includes his mother in poetry about mortality and memory. During “In the Country of Absence,” a speaker offers images of the mother, who “lives where hills don’t echo / and roots of grass always sleep.” In the center of the poem, readers are advised: “A teller at the Bank of Memory / warns, Your account is overdrawn.” However, Broughton provides more memories, especially in these elegiac poems. “Hunter’s Moon,” a brief poem reproduced here in its entirety, presents a metaphor for the poet’s thoughts and poses a question:


     Hunter's Moon


     My father and mother are scattered across water,

     and moon is so close my palm could touch it

     as geese wedge their way to places

     I will never go.


     Why in this dawn do they fly without sound,

     mute passage through wreckage of stars?


     Broughton demonstrates his care with subtle lyricism and his concern for conscientious language throughout A World Remembered. His poetry proves its worth in both content and craft. His passion for the poem appears evident, and a couple of the works seem to directly address this issue. In “Song Endures,” the speaker states that even the dead will pause when hearing a “song about their home, their lives.” As if to verify the importance of poetry—particularly that which seeks to concentrate on themes of mortality, memory, and the moments that matter in life—Broughton writes:


     Warm in a place of light more full,

     more pure than any they knew, they recall

     how a voice joined with words was always

     more whole than any part they lived.

     Adrift in the breeze that mingles sea

     and shore, now they know the place

     they left better than when they were there.


     In another poem, “How Poetry Nearly Died,” readers are reminded again of the importance of poetry: “After the poets were killed, birds tried / to compensate and sang until they fell. / Too tired to fly, they littered the parks. / Stars winked out one by one, knowing / they’d never be compared to eyes again.” However, poetry continues due to the simple reaction of one innocent person willing to give voice to what he observes and experiences:


     beyond the last village, a boy confused

     by the first leaf of fall drifting in wind

     believed it could be a butterfly, imagined

     the sound butterfly and leaf in words,

     and all the blind in the cities, stumbling

     into light and rainbows, could see again.


     T. Alan Broughton describes nature in magnificent words, depicting the beauties and benefits of life, as well as honoring those of the past through memory and imagination. His poems supply brightness and vivid images readers may appreciate and with which they can associate. In A World Remembered, Broughton not only recalls significant instances and influential figures in his life, bringing them alive again through memory and imagination. He enlightens and he invites readers to see again. He also shows everyone why the world in which he is living, that in which we all live, grants us many events or individuals to value and much that will be worth remembering.