Millen Brand Essay - Critical Essays

Brand, Millen

Brand, Millen 1906–

Brand is an American poet, novelist, and screenwriter. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

In one of her cunning little jackets blurbs which are as much caveat as come-on, Marianne Moore describes Millen Brand's Dry Summer in Provence as 'poetry,' just like that, within inverted commas, and acknowledges the presence of "an occasional line of plain prose—which does no harm." There are no lines of verse at all (Miss Moore shrewdly calls them "phrases": "if the phrases sound right to you," she ventures, "read it all"), and only a very occasional line of plain prose, for most of the phrases are, for all their intent transcription of a countryside within a season, desperately poetical: "the unheard stitches of thyme/flowing through/the hem of the hill." The texts themselves, as they trickle down the page, poetically marshalled on the left, are mostly inventories of sensations, accurately registered but without care for the design of the words among and therefore upon each other; they require no stature of response from the reader. (pp. 88-9)

Richard Howard, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Autumn, 1968.

[In "Savage Sleep," a sensitive and] engrossing book, Millen Brand uses a novelist's insight and intuition to penetrate the world of the unconscious. The result is both a major work of literary art and, though fiction, a medical document of considerable importance.

Like Martin Arrowsmith, with whose story this powerful novel bears favorable comparison, Dr. John Marks [seeks] the essential cause of disease. He [probes] deeply into minds long since given up as hopeless by his confreres….

In turbulent sessions of interpretation and dynamic formulation, Dr. Marks literally forces himself into the tortured Unconscious. There, at last, he recognizes the presence of a fear so deep it can destroy life through the temperature center of the brain and other vital areas. Case after case follows, as the works out a method of "ego injection" to cure the hopeless….

In portraying the evolution of a psychiatrist, the author draws upon his previous research for "The Outward Room" (itself an early classic of psychiatric fiction), his co-authorship of the screenplay "The Snake Pit," years of training as a psychiatric aide and long friendship with leading doctors. Most of all, however, he relies upon intense personal perceptiveness. The reader will meet it on every page of this gripping book, an exploration of a field that, because of its difficulties, has been largely neglected by the novelist.

Frank G. Slaughter, "The Night of Psychosis," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1968, p. 64.

"Local Lives"… turns from mainstream America and sympathetically embraces certain parts of rural Pennsylvania. There the Mennonite, Amish, Quaker, and Brethren groups derive from so strenuous a background and manifest so sharp a cleavage from the rest of the world that the dress, talk, beliefs, [and] manner of family [life that the] book dwells on [are] distinctions, in the surrounding rush. This makes them understandable—and humanly compelling.

The means is through "poems" that are glimpses of individuals and places and incidents. By holding his material to short lines, and maintaining specifics, Millen Brand has counters like little frames in photography, from which comes a kind of collage panorama: there are wide, slow openings but all lighted with glittering close-ups of feeling.

"Spoon River Anthology" suggests itself as a related effort, but "Local Lives" contains separate historical sections, glances aside at landscape, and a great sweep outward; for the tradition of suffering for religion, as a Mennonite medic writes home from Vietnam or Biafra, or from a mission in an inner city, or as a family's history extends back to the Sun King's scorched earth policy, which drove many of "the quiet of the land" from their homes in the Rhine country.

This book is not at all a quick gathering of scattered poems but a big rich collection, a slow accumulation of cherished sights and insights embodying a lifetime of involvement with neighbors and friends, whose individuality merits exact retelling….

One of the poems in this collection ends, "… the events of life, though local,/are important and should last." The author has manifested this belief in earlier books—novels like "The Outward Room" and "Savage Sleep"—even more clearly in "Fields of Peace," a Pennsylvania album done with photographer George Tice. That album helps identify the collection of poems: both dwell on everyday scenes that induce realizations that extend the everyday. Both books link unusual backgrounds and beliefs to current witnessing that opposes … the mainstream of American life [and include] such stands as pacifism, pastoralism, a readiness to be quietly different.

While sensationalism flourishes around us it is hard to account for the power in literature based on ordinary things and daily life, but "Local Lives" helps, with its combination of ordinary scene and extraordinary feeling. How that feeling is induced always varies, is always created anew. (p. 22)

William Stafford, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.

Local Lives is an astonishing performance because of [its] inclusiveness. Millen Brand is determined to leave nothing out of his story. Yet this is a book of poems, not a novel. How can the history of a place through several hundred years be accounted for successfully by a poet?

The key is in the "lives" of the people that the poet describes. It is, after all, the people who experience the passing of time and the events that comprise their local history. It is the voices of the people, overheard by the poet and subsequently by the reader, which tell the story, for Local Lives is ultimately a story of individuals experiencing the comedy and tragedy of human existence.

So there is a great range and depth of emotion here, as well as narrative movement; all of which makes Local Lives more comparable to certain prose works, such as Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or Anderson's Winesburg Ohio, than to most contemporary poetry. Certainly, Local Lives exemplifies Pound's dictum that poetry should emulate the best in prose. One can intuit that Millen Brand has spent a lifetime as a novelist, his most well-known novel being Savage Sleep, for not only is the language simple, speech-like, but the book as a whole has coherence, clarity, and it is filled with fascinating characters.

"Bread" is the first poem in the book, and it is appropriate, because it is poetry about real, sensuous stuff:

           Heat fat. Pour it into the flour.
           Some salt for sweat and for the sea.
           Some sugar for the little ones' tongues.
           Add milk. Stir in yeast,
           which is air, which is a deceit of leaven
           that, like life, grows in the dark.
           Knead and set and knead again
           and let the warmth of wood come in.
           Let all in the house eat with health.

What strikes this reader about this poem and by extension Local Lives as a whole is that one can write superbly about the ordinary, the everyday, the real; that the art of the local can be as exciting, as profound in its way, as the surreal, the visionary and the crazed. (p. 78)

One of Millen Brand's many poetic skills is to overhear the human voice at its most personal moments and to capture every nuance of pitch and tone. Using this living speech and meticulous details concerning particular experiences, the poet recreates the past, brings it to life.

Local Lives is a book of surprises. For example, on facing pages are "The Emigrants," an eloquent villanelle, and "Our Own, or Other Nations", an account—almost a ready-made—of a pamphlet by William Penn. Both poems are building blocks in the overall structure. What emerges through time is a feeling of community and charity that the Pennsylvania Dutch shared: "Because people could not pay/was no reason why they should not eat." Despite the hazards of their lives and their quirks and flaws of character, the people knew what the prevailing religious and social values were. Their way of life had a quiet grandeur and dignity that is always part of the mood, tone, even style of this poetry…. (p. 79)

Gary Pacernick, in Margins (copyright © 1975 by Margins), June/July, 1975.

[When] we test adjectives such as universal, or monumental, or now when we think in terms of the Nobel Prize, or any recognition of unequivocal achievement engendered by humanitarian focus and presented through illuminating use of the poem as world, we can think of [Local Lives]; we can look, more boldly than ever before, to our own "local lives," and to those who make beautiful their witness to these people….

[Brand's poems] are instinct with the only meaning of love that I believe relates to one's art: An unremitting, accurate, and responding attention to the exact reality of your concern, whether person, place, or thing. (p. 44)

In Local Lives there is … a formidable wealth of imaginative, various, expertly wrought techniques: tone, structure, imagery, and, yes, and language.

In fact, for inventive success, for felicity of imaginative pursuit, for depth, and breadth, the only work I can readily compare to Brand's Local Lives is not a work of poetry, at all, it is the novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude! (But Marquez does not, finally, control the difference between wisdom and neutrality as, I believe, Brand manages to do, with pith, besides.)

In Brand's poetry, you variously enjoy the results of scholarship, or the effects of whimsy, or the pure shine of a lyrical provocation, and its consequence. If there is one thing I learn, more and more deeply, each time I read among the poems of Local Lives, it is just this: the gravity of a life, every life: its reverberations, and endless possibilities as a model, for our due consideration. To be alive is to be important, beyond imagining and, it seems, beyond our easy understanding: how very fortunate we are to have these many, long, Local Lives to consider, and to reconsider, in the context of our own. How very fortunate we are to have this, yes, I will say it, this great work of art in our hands…. (pp. 44-5)

June Jordan, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1975 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of June Jordan), July/August, 1975.