FALL 2009

Lin Betancourt


In an indifferent literary universe, does it makes the slightest difference if poetry hailed by one generation is forgotten by the next? If no one reads or remembers a once-acclaimed line fifty years after publication, do birds stop singing? Or should aspiring poets instead plan careers in advertising, aping George Orwell’s hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying?

These questions were inspired by my Aunt Rhoda. She is a petite septuagenarian who saves things for the people she loves, never allowing distance or the passage of time to come between ardor and an artifact. This fall, as I examined photos of wild mustangs that my aunt had pursued in Wyoming, she handed me a stack of paper. “I made copies for you,” she said, “because you like poetry and at one time my cousin’s work was anthologized with DH Lawrence and James Joyce.”

I was shocked. Not because I had never heard of a poet in the family…each branch lives far apart and stays separate as if we are trying to evolve into species uninfluenced by the mainland. It was more that, due to a genetic stroke of luck, I read very fast and have rushed through the “major” poetry of the twentieth century. But I had never heard of this poet called Alter Brody. I had never seen a reference to him in a book or journal. And after I read his work and looked him up on the web, I could find no biography and few references beyond a poem online at www.bartleby.com. They listed Alter Brody as 1895---, as if he were still alive! I found it hard to understand how a poet who had once shared such exalted literary company could vanish into oblivion.

It was not inexplicable to my aunt. “I met him when I was a child,” she said consideringly, “and he was a very strange man.”

But a very fine poet. In 1918, BW Huebsch published Alter Brody’s first book, A Family Album. Critics raved about his intensity and individuality revealed in pictorial images of Russian and American life. Admittedly, some of the praise sounded a little too politically correct, as when Louis Untermeyer summarized the book as “an interpretation of industrial activity against a background of ancient dreams; young America seen through the eyes of old Russia.”

At first, I was disappointed by these painfully realistic poems. I expected too much, perhaps...the prodigious fantasy of a Joyce or the lyrical narcissism of a Lawrence. Instead, Alter Brody describes life outside his Manhattan window in a poem called Ghetto Twilight:

“Watching the vague sky lowering overhead
Purple with clouds of colored smoke
From the extinguished sunset;
Watching the tired faces coming home from work,
Like dry-breasted hags
Welcoming their children to their withered arms.”

I reminded myself that Alter Brody was only twenty-two years old... what better way to leave his Russian childhood safely behind than to render a New York City neighborhood poetic? More successfully, he merges his interior and exterior environment in Soliloquy of a Realist:

“Isn’t sunlight on those rusty fire-escapes a deeper gold;
Something more than mere sunlight-- the very soul of things
Coaxed out of the iron?
Is that ugly?

You need steeled sight;
An obstinacy of vision that melts the hard edge of things like compressed fire
And fuses them into beauty.
It’s so much easier to make it up yourself.”

I was fascinated by this abrupt philosophy of creation. And Brody restates this unique vision in the philosophical poem Searchlights, not included in his first book but attributed to him on the worldwide web:

Tingling shafts of light
Like gigantic staffs
Brandished by blind, invisible hands
Cross and recross each other in the sky,
Groping among the stars—stubbing themselves against the bloated clouds—
Tapping desperately for a sure foothold
In the fluctuating mists.

Calm-eyed and inaccessible
The stars peer through the blue fissures of the sky,
Unperturbed among the panic of scurrying beams;
Twinkling with a cold, acrid merriment.

Perhaps this poem says more about the literary firmament than the physical one. It is almost an American tradition for minor poets and novelists to die poor, lonely, and unappreciated by their public. In fact, there may be more interest in Alter Brody in Great Britain than in America. Sixteen years ago, a warm, friendly article on Brody’s work by Anthony Rudolf appeared in London Magazine. In 1981, Rudolf had embarked on a painstaking literary search for Alter Brody, tracking him down in a nursing home and urging him to collaborate on a rediscovery of his works. While motivated by genuine admiration for his poetry, I questioned the validity of Rudolf’s literary criticism. He said that Brody’s poetry “makes “a music of perception which enchants like the old sepia photographs we all love.” But should a poet ever be perceived as sepia ... especially one that I am convinced saw his work as seeds of scarlet and pearl? Esthetically, did someone like Alter Brody deserve to disappear?

There is an eerily reminiscent story by Max Beerbohm --entitled Enoch Soames-- about a poet who makes a bargain with the Devil to visit the future and finds that his only claim to fame is as a character in a story by Max Beerbohm. Alter Brody’s disappearance was real and therefore far more tragic. My aunt says that Alter Brody was aided in his descent to oblivion by his family. They did not understand him, and they were ashamed of what he wrote. His father’s religion was not the warm, understanding ‘fiddler on the roof ‘ variety of Judaism made famous by Sholom Aleichem, but instead focused on a grim adherence to the Torah. In his poem “Ma” Brody characterizes this unsatisfying relationship:

“...are you thinking of your husband,
Reeling his way through the years,
Stupefied by his fate—

...Or are you thinking of me—
Your strange, queer, puzzle of a son;
The poet-changeling of your womb—
Whom you would love but do not know how;”

After that one book of poetry and the publication of four emotionally draining plays, Brody received no encouragement to continue writing from his family. And his extended literary family appeared to accept his silence. Rudolf mentions that “single poems appeared in magazines and anthologies for a number of years.” but they fell upon the same silence... all the more devastating since Alter Brody never stopped writing until his death in September 1981.

The University of Pennsylvania has preserved some of Brody’s letters. They are more playful and personal than his poetry and plays, as if, when he could discard his persona of being an important writer capturing the essence of his Jewish generation, he just enjoyed being a New Yorker. He chides Louis Mumford for having “broken up our happy home (268 Henry St) and separated two loving hearts this summer. Gertrude as result of your recommendation is going to Yaddo in August and is summering in the meantime at Amawalk NY. While I am taking care of the metropolis for her and other unfaithful New Yorkers at 288 Clinton St.”

I prefer to think of Alter Brody in this isolated moment of time. I see him typing at his kitchen table on a sunny July morning, secure in the praise of the New York literati and mercifully unaware that in the future, his poetic existence will become a matter of speculation.

For I think that on some inner level, it does matter when a poet loses his audience. Until more literary annals are forthcoming, Alter Brody must be seen as a historical phenomenon reminiscent of the Pharaohs of Egypt. Their names were wiped out of the public records by their successors, and they vanished from human memory. Now, a literary archeologist needs to piece together the missing parts of the narrative record, undertaking a detailed examination of the strata and the evidence of past life. We have sacrificed part of our history by relinquishing Alter Brody’s poetry to silence. I challenge a publisher to make it accessible again.


Lin Betancourt is a medical copywriter. She enjoys writing in other genres on weekends. This article is dedicated to and was inspired by her aunt Rhoda Schoen.



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