Considering the Poetry of Molly Brodak and the Ache of the Unknowable World
Joseph Earp on Schizophrenia, Recovery, and Finding Connection When You Need It
When I am doing a little better, I discover that the poet Molly Brodak was once on a baking reality television show. She came third. I am surprised I did not learn this earlier—it is on her Wikipedia page. I knew, from an essay written by her husband Blake Butler after her death, that she loved sweet things, and baking. I had read an interview with her, in which she talked about “having to do what the butter wants,” a line emblematic of the stark lyricism I find often in her writing, amongst other things. But I had not seen the show.
I was between houses. For six months, I had descended sharply into a period of psychosis, during which days blended together, and I lost track of time, and I saw myself as constantly threatened by complex plots. I spiraled quickly into paranoia and hysteria. I left myself notes, reminders of what normal people did—things like, “not barricading their front door,” and “not being obsessed with their faces”—and then I later came to believe these notes were left for me by insidious foreign actors. I drifted in and out of myself. I grew very ill.
And then, remarkably, I started doing quite a lot better. I moved houses. I spent time with those I loved, who forgave me for shrieking at them and confusing them and hurting them, and who I forgave for seeing me vulnerable and lost to myself. The new space was cleaner. Lighter.
In the mornings, as I recovered, I sat in a park in my dressing gown with a cold coffee and a cigarette and watched the streetlights turn on. It became, all of a sudden, relatively quiet in my head, like a door had been shut, and the sounds in the space could settle.When I am paranoid, and lost to myself, it’s not that I have submitted to total fantasy. It is that I am engaging with the unknowable, confusing things about being a person, and they are terrifying me.
It was in this period that I returned to the work of Brodak, as I had returned to her many times before. For me, as for many who also love Brodak, the first point of connection was the poem she named after herself. Some online sites that host it call this poem “Untitled.” But it’s not untitled. That makes me unreasonably angry. It’s called “Molly Brodak,” which was her name.
The first four lines read:
I am a good man.
The amount of fear
I am ok with
Much has been written about those poets who act as though they are dumping a few unconnected objects into the corner of the room, leaving you, the reader, to do the work of deciding why these objects; why this room. Louise Glück is sometimes this kind of poet. John Ashbery often is.
Brodak works in a different way. The lines she assembles might feel connected at first—being good, managing fear. But then, on closer inspection, the connections break apart, like a footprint in mud sloughing into more mud. Her writing can be read as a subtle rebuke of the declaration by philosopher Baruch Spinoza that there is only one substance and everything is part of everything else. Goodness and fear are connected only tangentially; they are distinct affective states. When that poem shifts in its latter half towards love, it is a break from what has come before.
Indeed, Brodak often seemed openly suspicious of any kind of cohesive structure. Her poem “The Flood” opens with the line: “Panic, because suddenly everything signifies.”
Clarity and unity are treated not as false prophets, but worse, as enemies. The scariest thing is when the world makes sense, not when it doesn’t. In “Phenomenology,” life is at its most beautiful, most intimate, when captured in little snatches of disarray that don’t have anything to do with each other—“crystal ridges decapitating crests of light waves,” “chemical locks locked in accidental eye contact.” It is at its most “empty” when stood back from and surveyed in full. Better to be locked into the mystery, which cannot be spoken about, only around. Much worse to try and make sense of anything.
These thoughts cannot help but follow me as I watch Brodak get introduced on The Great American Baking Show as an “English professor.” As part of an establishing montage, she is filmed writing the word “Oedipus” on a whiteboard. I have my own biases, obviously, but she strikes me as the most likable contestant by far. Everyone is very humble, and pleasant to each other, but Brodak displays what I see as a unique, winking enjoyment of the chaos unfolding around her—the grinning hosts, the artificial injection of high stakes. She refers to certain proceedings being a “pain in the butt.” When judge Paul Hollywood, who looks like an elderly bear poured into a bad suit, does not enjoy her confectionery, her crestfallen look is matched only by a slight smile that seems to ask, “According to who?”
When she spoke to interviewers about her poetry, they often asked her about baking. She would talk about what she did with cakes as being guided by “humility.” She believed you have to “follow your ingredients,” which means not trying to make things do what they don’t want to do; not put them in order. This, I believe, is an acknowledgement of the thin and fragile veneer of structure that we try to paste onto everything, and that falls apart like so much improperly supported fondant. It is similar to the line in “Ark” in which she considers the time where there are, happily, “no onenesses.” It’s embracing the mess. It’s leaving things as they lay.
At one point in The Great American Baking Show finale, Brodak sits down in front of an oven. She is humming a song to herself about how badly she is doing. She splays her legs out on the floor. The camera cuts away.
Much has been written about the schizophrenic mind, and much of it is not very interesting. Most personal accounts emphasize the stark difference between “reality”—which is never defined—and what the schizophrenic person makes of it. Most medical accounts chart the argument that paranoid delusions can be an extension of anxiety; that they’re worries that take hold, and then, as the body responds to acute stress, spin out to become universes. And most of the popular culture’s interaction with the schizophrenic person deems them as either lost fool, sadly following thoughts down remote paths into incomprehensibility, or dangerous loon.I wanted to explain the world a little bit. Why had I been so ill? What had happened? These questions slowed me from happiness; I was happier when I stopped asking them.
Some time after I recover, I am talking to a person who believes strongly in the benefits of psychoanalysis. They have a lot to say about desire. They believe that mental illness is the frustration of desire, or, worse, the sad completion of it. They don’t say the words “it’s all capitalism,” but they edge pretty close to them. There’s no music playing from inside the house that we are standing in front of. It’s all pretty quiet in there.
What I am struck by, smoking a cigarette that I ash off the side of the balcony, is the ways in which this very argument is an unknowing mimicry of the schizophrenic mind. When I am paranoid, and lost to myself, it’s not that I have submitted to total fantasy. It is that I am engaging with the unknowable, confusing things about being a person, and they are terrifying me. And to deal with this terror, I respond by creating truths. I am, after all, a good man. The amount of fear I am ok with is insane.
For six months, I spun structures. I leaned into meaning, not away from it. It would be much better for me, in these states, if I abandoned all logic. But I don’t. My explanations become dangerous, sure, in that they are founded on the belief that people want to hurt me, and that I should not trust the people I love. But they don’t carry less explanatory force. They are the belief that I have gazed through the floating veils of the universe and have caught sight of truth. They are similar to the thoughts of the person who looks at the mentally ill, and says, “Ah. Frustrated desire.” They are diagnostic.
When I was ill, people would say things to me like, “That’s not true.” This is echoed in the dominant narratives spun around schizophrenic people—that they “believe things that are false.” But for me—keeping in mind that I am not trying to account for every person who is dealing with psychosis—making the discussion around truth or falsity was a mistake. My whole problem, for six months, was that I thought that everything I encountered was either true or false.
This truth-seeking, which had been so damaging for so long, followed me for a while after my recovery. I wanted to work out what had gone wrong. I wanted to explain the world a little bit. Why had I been so ill? What had happened? These questions slowed me from happiness; I was happier when I stopped asking them.
There’s a photo of Brodak feeding chickens. You can find it online. I don’t know the context. It’s nice not to know. If someone explained it to me—what she was doing there, why the chickens—I’d be upset. It’s one of my favorite photos of her. You should look it up sometime.
Brodak’s interest in mathematics, explored most comprehensively in her collection The Cipher, was not an interest in the work of mathematical Platonists. These scholars believe that numbers exist as meaningfully real objects, living in a perfect realm, accessed through our minds. For them, mathematics is the wire mesh structure under the universe that everything else is built on, paper-mâché-like—which means we can use our algebra and our functions to further explain the things we can’t yet see.I woke from a few patchy hours of sleep, at best, and I got to my self-directed job of making sense.
Brodak did not seem to think this way. Her engagement with mathematics is with the kind in which we can see a structure falling apart, not coming together. Hence the integer that the title is drawn from—the cipher, which is unknowable. Hence these lines, from her poem “Above”:
“The holy spirit is itself nothing but two things.”
Not objects thrown into the corner of a room. No room. Many objects. Thrown nowhere. Left to sit as they are, untouched—merely directed towards by Brodak, with a hand that does not point, but stays open, palm up.
Hence, so often, I see her returning to the era of the primordial, and earlier. When there was no human consciousness to divide things up, and give things names, and do the work of definition. When there was, as in “Axiom,” just “the young universe … milky with loose electrons,” or, as in “A Kicked Top,” the beauty of bacteria “splitting infinitely.” On this picture of the universe, disarray is beautiful and freeing. By contrast, the laws which, as she notes in “No One,” “only work in giant networks,” sap one of possibility. To explain a thing is to kill it. It’s an ugly, demented hack job, the job of “making sense.”
Not, mind you, that I understand her as judging those who attempt it. Her poetry frequently demonstrates what we can read as an acceptance of the way the human mind naturally attempts cohesion. She seemed to understand that she did it herself; that we are drawn to it, unthinkingly. In the last lines of “Materialism,” she says:
We hold our little lamps of knowing
on the rim, and look in.
Note the “we.” Note the pathetic figures, with their little lamps, trying vainly to throw light onto something immense. They are foolish. They are also forgiven.
It is better, Brodak’s poetry often suggests to me, to be what she called a “nonbeliever.” This is not the same as an atheist. It is not a person who has rejected the precise coordinates of God. Instead, it is a person who has more broadly rejected “meaning” itself, accepting what Brodak calls a “fog” around facts. This fog is, she says simply in “The Cipher,” “like love.”
I would like to go a little further. It is not like love. It is love. It is submitting to, and even cherishing, the unknowing. The way things change. The fact that other people never make perfect sense to us. Being in love with someone is being reminded, constantly, of the gaps between you and them—those things that surprise you. That don’t make sense. The fact that you’ll never know what they know, with totality.
I don’t think I was capable of doing this when I was ill. I was dragging a set of blueprints over everything. Nothing was sitting with me as it was—it was always being interpreted, broken down into composite parts and narratives. I woke from a few patchy hours of sleep, at best, and I got to my self-directed job of making sense.
A word for letting go of analysis is “pragmatism.” Not literary pragmatism, the one outlined by the critic Dan Chiasson. But philosophical pragmatism, of the kind most beautifully and engagingly put by Richard Rorty. Rorty believed that academia had gotten bogged down in the search for “truth” and “falsity.” He believed that there was no foundation for our perspectives—no immovable set of “facts” on which we could pin the world. Instead, there was only contingency. Everything was able to be rewritten. Everything was able to be redrawn.
This is the worldview I find in Brodak. Her last lines never strike me as pronunciations, or as moments of “summing up.” They don’t often follow much from what has come before. And they don’t really gesture to anything but the absence of something to gesture to. No facts. No structure. Just Molly. Hands up.
Of course, all this analysis of Brodak is itself, paradoxically, a form of making sense. You will note the number of times I have put Brodak into an order; established themes. The only thing that I think might save me from charges of hypocrisy is that I am merely pointing at the mess and saying, “This is a mess.” I don’t really want to convince you of anything. Hopefully, I’ve told you more about me than about Brodak. What I’ve wanted to talk about is a structure that tells you that there’s no structure. And then it disappears. Because there is no structure.
The nature of my illness means that I cannot say, “I will never be that sick again.” The nature of my illness has also taught me that it is dangerous to say, in any context, anything like, “I will never be that sick again.” Dangerous to ever try to apply so much unflinching analysis to the world. As though it stays still. And anyway, who’d want a world like that?
In “Post,” Brodak says that it is “looking”—as in, perhaps, understanding, and analyzing—that made her sick. The other option: submit. Which is a way of saying: be in love.
I like poems the best when I don’t have much to say about them immediately after finishing. The words come later. Like these words. But they only come if that moment of finishing the last line is followed by an exhale. An empty head. The quiet that resembles the quiet after six exhausting months of analysis, and then the moment you finally, blissfully, give it up. And you find that there are people around you, still. Waiting for you to love them again.
My favorite Brodak poem, “Recognitions,” ends like this:
You’ll never find
When you do find it
No one’s there.
Not even the you
you still hope to meet.