I’ve written for KRO before on the subject of neglectorinos and outsiders (see my 2013 review of Marosa di Giorgio, Alfred Starr Hamilton, and Joseph Ceravolo). Bess Miller (Moore) Brigham—or besmilr brigham, as she preferred—has been on my radar as one of American poetry’s more vivid outsiders for quite some time now, ever since C.D. Wright, who knew brigham in her later years in Arkansas, edited and published a selection of brigham’s shorter lyrics (entitled Run through Rock) in 2000. I was thrilled when Robert Snyderman, a former student of Wright’s who was organizing brigham’s manuscripts and personal papers for transfer to Yale’s Beinecke Library, contacted me and offered previously-unpublished work.
Brigham (1913-2000) was born in small-town Mississippi, grew up in the Rio Grande valley of Texas, graduated from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, later studied at the New School for Social Research in New York, married a newspaperman, and then embarked on decades of more or less itinerant bohemian living in Mexico, Central America, the US, and Canada. She networked with other poets of her generation via correspondence—in this as in other ways she was similar to Lorine Niedecker—and was briefly visible on the skyline of the larger American poetry scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when her honors included publication in Harper’s and the Atlantic, an NEA fellowship, and a book from Knopf. There is as yet no comprehensive biography of brigham, and I still don’t know why that flash of cultural visibility was preceded and followed by decades of apparent silence, when in fact she continued to write. Perhaps Snyderman will favor us with a fuller account.
In the meantime, there are the poems. As Snyderman explained, a significant percentage of brigham’s work runs in the long form—counter to the shorter lyrics that were published in journals, as well as in Run through Rock—and concerns her responses to the places and cultures she encountered in her travels. The two poems we chose for KR, however, belong to her shorter lyrics; I want to speak of one of them here.
“Giacometti: The Soul” is an ekphrastic poem, simultaneously a successful lyric in its own right and a penetrating act of art criticism; I suppose what drew me to it was not only its lyric merits, but the sense of context it lends our understanding of brigham’s vast intelligence. Reams of poetry have been committed in response to Giacometti, but when brigham delineates “the god / image of brutality / made intimate. maleable, torn with insensitive / hands / out from the protection of the flesh / and still living,” the visceral power of not only Giacometti’s work but also brigham’s sophisticated sensual and intellectual encounter with the work bristles. The poem moves from outright ekphrasis to troubled recognition: “(were you the man / i met at the Luxemburg gardens) lonely / and wanting to come home. / did you take me to the place where // the poor eat”—and outward to the metaphysical “earth a psychic / fruit—in observation of the brute / we see ourselves / in.” Then back via anecdote to memory (“i paid a street violinist / ten franks / to play the Massanet Elegy”) and a final ekphrastic reference to that “eliptic figure / holding his head in his hands.” It’s a virtuosic performance by any lyric standard. The poem has approached and moved through the art object, creating a separate artwork that retains fidelity to the original without being in any way derivative.
A term like “outsider artist” validates and draws attention to a creative force while subtly devaluing, or at least circumscribing, the scope of that force; outsiders are not expected, almost by definition, to be engaged with the worldwide artistic currents of their moment. This is why artists like Joseph Cornell are problematic (not to mention beloved of poets), and why other artists—including the Southerners Lonnie Holley, Purvis Young, and Thornton Dial—have taken quiet but frequently severe issue with the term.
My inner social scientist is interested in besmilr brigham’s take on her own lifework: to what extent her cultural isolation was self-imposed; to what extent did she view her condition (socially, culturally, or aesthetically) as “isolation”; in what ways did she define her creative output vis-à-vis other creators, other outputs, other works; how she felt about her brief emergence into the literary limelight, as well as her departure from same (which I suspect must have occurred on her own terms). Presumably brigham’s voluminous correspondence will provide insights the loss of, say, Alfred Starr Hamilton’s personal papers precludes. But a work as complex, as surprising, and as sensually achieved as “Giacometti: The Soul” transcends the curatorial as well as the sociological impulse. KR would have been proud to publish this poem, I think, in 1952 or in 1971 or in 1998. I’m very glad we’ve published it today.