BOOK REVIEW: Saudade by Traci Brimhall

Review by David Z. Drees

As youthfully seductive as it is disturbingly woeful, few collections have captured nostalgic grief with the lyric eloquence of Traci Brimhall’s Saudade. A 2017 publication of Copper Canyon Press, Brimhall’s collection is stylistically distinctive, a cocktail of verse novel and lyric play, reminiscent of Elizabeth A.I. Powell’s Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, yet unique in the way it bares a single family’s mythos “in reverse so the story might end in birth.” The collection is a striving for faith, for meaning, for “ambitious hope, this heart that hangs upside down / in my ribs, blind and nocturnal and a glutton for fruit.” Brimhall reminds us that even miracles are not free, but they “arrive / whether they are welcome or not,” that even suffering is here to be rejoiced, “Better this choice to be powerless / enthralled, to forgive God’s ambition to be free of us.” The collection churns in us, her readers, stirring and prevailing, luring us to “the red apex of the wound” so we may “See what would die / for you, what died for you, what’s dying for you to reach it.”

A collection of loaded imagery and recurrent metaphor, Brimhall’s Saudade allows nothing to be overlooked: a one-armed child, her wrist in the jaws of a jaguar, a collection of “mummified hummingbirds,” “a black horse dragging a priest / through paradise,” the eel that “made its home / in the ribcage, flicking its black tail between the bones,” all interwoven, a “cord wrapped / around my neck like a rosary.” Each is as imperative to the work as suffering to hope. There are no exit ramps for the reader to detach, no disconnect, no reprieves. It is a lesson of how to weep with a smile on our face, to accept “You’re entitled to your miracle, but this isn’t it. The hope of this / moment will hurt with age,” yet we read on, we endeavor, “give ourselves over to wishes, / which are all imagination and no faith,” and through Brimhall’s lyrics, we “invent a new / history of fact and fancy, where life is hard but courage / is easy because the dead do not resurrect themselves and claim / to be beloved.”

Saudade is lucidly historical, a meticulous portrait of a specific time in a specific place, but it is more than that; unbridled emotion is timeless, and Traci Brimhall’s work is as humanly contradictive as hearing the heartbeat of stillborn child. We are drawn into a world of jaguars and rubber plantations, “an arrogant imagination” that “runs out of fantasy,” and through it, we’re drawn into ourselves, like a coffin, inside a coffin, inside each of us. We thicken our skins, arm ourselves, “mix our gunpowder with rouge and foxglove seeds,” delve for a “moral happiness in the incestuous bellbird’s lure.” We sing “tedious songs as they unbraid my whips / with all the tenderness they once must have known.” Cleansed, baptized, we emerge, ignoring the “warning in the first half / of the ransom.” We survive. We step forward, emboldened and vulnerable. We “come into the godscape, blind and spitting live flies.”



Traci Brimhall is the author of Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), Our Lady of the Ruins (W. W. Norton, 2012), and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010). She is an assistant professor at Kansas State University and lives in Manhattan, Kansas.

Traci Brimhall
Copper Canyon Press (2017)
ISBN: 978-1556595172
$16.00 paperback