History, Memory and Emotion in “Arm in Arm”

Catharine Savage Brosman’s newest collection, Arm in Arm, is as wide-ranging as her many talents. An American poet, essayist, and scholar of French literature, Brosman displays the depth of her observational powers and interest in spirituality page after page in these poems. The author looks at the world personally through commonplace things, such as flowers and food, and gives new depth to their meaning. This collection includes historical figures, longtime friends and vast landscapes designed to play on emotions in subtle, complex ways.

We see this as early as the first poem, which is also the title poem, “Arm in Arm.” In it, Brosman gives insight into her personal experience as a spouse dealing with the loss of her longtime partner, spanning a lifetime together in a few choice lines.

Once, Pat and I walked arm in arm,
along an aisle, new husband, wife, to happiness.
his lifetimes’s end, we walked in London, shivering

(as it was January), both slightly lame (the shoe
that pinched me, Pat’s bad knees), but celebrating
older love, the sort that won’t give up.

Brosman returns to the idea of friendship and romantic love often in the collection, demonstrating how they can sustain one even in the darkest of times. Heartfelt memories bring to the forefront the narrator’s profound sense of loss, especially in the poem, “A Note to One Deceased,” which relates how life has changed since the passing of the speaker’s husband. It begins:

You know I’ve sold my little summer place
in Colorado, purchased as a get-
away from heat and hurricanes, a grace.
(The dreadful winds and flooding that beset

New Orleans cannot reach so far.) And when 
we married, it was ours—our balcony 
and tree, our view on life, a regimen 
of love, delight. But you’ve been gone, now three

full years…

As shown in “A Note to One Deceased,” Arm in Arm acts as a testament to the connection between people⁠ despite a recognition of the gradual stages of loss⁠ — first the actual loss of a loved one and then the daunting realization of death’s continued impact long after passing. This continuation of change is a recurring theme, both in loss and the inevitability of death.

Moving swiftly from historical events to the present, this collection is in a constant flux of time where memory, past and present, become one. The inclusion of historical figures such as Kit Carson and Alexander Mackenzie add to its timelessness — a sort of transcendence that neither death nor passing can erase. In the poem, “Jean Cassou in Prison,” Jean Cassou strings together sonnets in his head, the words “form[ing] before his eyes.” Words that were “born of loneliness, love, loyalty to France” became “beads of hope before the struggle ended,” much as Brosman’s words become a beacon of hope for those who have experienced loss or fear their mortality. In these poems, Brosman comes face to face with this mortality.

In “The Mimosa,” the author gives readers “an old tree” that has “ridden out seasons” where life’s trials can be seen as “mockingbirds tearing twigs” or “fledglings fattened on the flies.” What seems insurmountable become “brittle fallen pods” that “scavenger jays break greedily.” Later, the tree sees “where [it] was pruned,” and that it will eventually heal, though “scars still show.”

Brosman’s wit becomes a welcome respite in yet other poems, such as, “For a Champion” — which describes another poet insulting the narrator’s work and visionary skills. The speaker, preparing a defense, realizes its unnecessary when another member of the party rises to the occasion.

King Authur, were he here, with might sword,
would not be needed; courtesy, good sense,
poetic wit suffice. The fellow’s gored.

Your mighty pen will surely get applause;

There’s little doubt after reading this collection why Claude Wilkinson calls Brosman “one of America’s finest poets.” And though the writer in “From a Champion” surely gets applause, perhaps not as much as Brosman deserves for these imaginative and rich poems, filled with detailed imagery. Offering abundant opportunities to ruminate on beauty and the emotions of daily living, Arm in Arm truly is a masterpiece worth reading again, and again, and again.

Arm in Arm
By Catharine Savage Brosman
Mercer University Press
Released April 1, 2022