Catharine Savage Brosman Critical Essays

Brosman, Catharine Savage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brosman, Catharine Savage 1934–

An American poet, Brosman concentrates on the places, institutions, and landscapes that typify the "Old South." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Understated, splendidly wrought, [Catharine Savage Brosman's poems] are for the most part thoughtful evocations of the inner life as it responds to nature. The poet's fine sense of texture enables her to deal heavily, at times, in abstractions, without becoming dry or platitudinous; her sense of rhythm enables her to place freshly even such a sentence as "The sky / is blue." She is at her best when writing about the amphibious boundary, the shore, but her love poems are also fresh and convincing. She has an occasional tendency to seem to ramble, as if lines leading into the actual poem had not been cut in later drafts; but such passages are rare. (p. xiii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1973, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1973).

Catharine Savage Brosman's first collection of poems, Watering, is delicately reminiscent of Vergil's Georgics. Like the Georgics, Watering's subject is the mysterious relationship of man with all that is his estate and the collection portrays that relationship in an almost Vergilian chain-of-being. Of course, because Watering is not a single poem but rather a collection of poems … it does not proceed with quite Georgic precision through a consideration of land, crops, cattle, bees, and men. But the drift of the collection does take us from shorelines, to meadows, through a quire of animal poems, and finally to a gathering of personal love poems. Altogether, then, Watering is a community of individual verse shaped toward a vision of man which acknowledges both his uniqueness and his role in some still dark harmony.

Because this vision is both deeply classical and deeply Christian, its enunciation in Mrs. Brosman's poems inevitably brings to mind not only the Georgics but a broad range of other poets and other poems…. These dim echoes, however, are in no way oppressive. They only serve notice that, though an individual poet, Mrs. Brosman is also part of a community of poets and therefore bound, not to a false consistency, but to a certain way of questioning.

For instance, two of the finest poems in the collection record antithetical responses to very similar situations, but both are wholly admirable poems because both are convincingly honest explorations of the tension between communal harmony and individual life…. "Shore Life" affirms a reciprocal harmony of sky and sea that blends conflicts into a cohesive whole. (pp. 710-11)

In "Fiddler Crabs" we see much that we saw in "Shore Life." The tide is the same, and the fiddler crabs which retreat at its rising and return with its fall are tiny cogs in what is palpably an ordered natural process. But unlike "Shore Life," the emphasis in "Fiddler Crabs" (as the title suggests) is on the cogs, not the process, and the final effect of the poem is more horror than peace. Watching the crabs' frenzied retreat and the debacle of their return among blue crabs which feed on them, we are made to fear and hate the cruel order of shore life and to disparage its incomprehensible harmony.

Finally, however, the effect of the two poems read together is not embittering but salutary and something like the effect of the whole collection. For the special strength of Watering is that, though it consistently pursues the enigmatic relationship of community and the individual, it also achieves a broad range of tone and perspective. From the open laughter of "Carnival of Turtles," through the poignancy of "Of How the Lizards Live," to the ripeness of "Weathering by a Fire," the collection evokes its best wisdom by contrast. Through contrast it reminds us that life truly is a mystery in which doubt and faith are near of kin and in which our best questions—though it is proper that we ask them—are beyond our answering. (pp. 711-12)

John Irwin Fischer, "Community and the Individual Life: Catharine Savage Brosman's 'Watering'," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by John Irwin Fischer), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 710-12.

Catharine Savage Brosman feels completely at home in her world of southern seascapes, marshes, pines, and savannahs. In Watering Brosman rarely ventures beyond the unspectacular, everyday occurrences in her "only-too-familiar" world: grunion hunting, watering her garden, a lizard on her terrace, and a deserted port are sufficient occasions for poetry. The objective world of nature functions as either the catalyst for self-reflection (as in "January Oranges" and "Of How the Lizards Live") or as a metaphor for personal experiences (as in "Big Meadows in March" and "A Lesson In Ourselves"). With controlled emotion and response, Brosman places much value on the inner life….

Brosman possesses a poet's care for language, and this is often demonstrated in her ability to select the right word which rounds out an image. (p. 183)

James Healey, in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1974.

I hope it will not offend Catharine Savage Brosman if I comment that her poems make a continuity with the pietas of [the] older southern mind; for her poems—ironical, sometimes grave—observe southern places with a decorousness and care which can be called cultivated.

Of all recent books by southern poets, Mrs. Brosman's is the most unified in tone and vision. Watering … is delightful to read through: one poem recalls an earlier one and the reader retraces his steps easily through this little book as through a small garden. The horticultural figure readily suggests itself because in the title poem the speaker is watering a garden, a metaphor for the poet who "guessing at some dark thirst/… writes the rings of his own desire upon the earth." Mrs. Brosman's most southern quality, as I have suggested, is her interest in place, here especially the coasts of Florida and the Carolinas, the Valley of Virginia, and New Orleans. Her interest in these places is liberating for she convinces us that if we are to see them aright we must again open the poetic eye once fed on English landscape poetry…. She offers fresh proof that a discriminating attention to the local is not merely parochial but leads into the great avenues of art…. But Mrs. Brosman does not seem to be imposing an intelligible order on the landscape. She convinces us in the way of the old meditative landscape poetry that nature is full of human meanings which we must notice lest we fail as human souls. Her effects are often subtle; the complexity of the world and the complexity of mind's eye are so suited to each other.

How has Mrs. Brosman achieved so much unity of vision at a time when poets of real power seem to aspire only to fragments? Indeed, how are things of this kind done at all? How did Emily Dickinson do what she did? The Dickinsonian example is suggested by these lines of Mrs. Brosman's in "Of How the Lizards Live":

              …—I have preferred
              the smallest things,
              finding a sweeter pathos
              than in any Götterdämmerung
              among the bluets hidden
              in the grass, vulnerable
              pine seedlings, or a coquina
              shell drained by an oyster
              driller—the sun did not
              blink—and cast aside—
              to dry in its loneliness.

What carries the book over its occasional failures is an intense spirit of adventure, all the more vivid for being quiet and admitting disillusion and pain. (pp. 881-82)

D. E. Richardson, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1976, by D. E. Richardson), Vol. XII, No. 4, October, 1976.