There’s a certain irony in analyzing a work such as 2 a.m. with Keats in light of the concept of negative capability, which eschews analysis in favor of embracing mystery and unanswered questions. Keats coined the phrase in a letter to his brothers in 1817, inspired by Shakespeare’s work, which he describes as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” are examples of his theory—the former musing on mortality (Keats died at the age of twenty-five) and offering no solution on how to deal with the anxieties of impending death; the latter using his imagination to consider the meaning of figures and scenes on an urn and leaving open-ended questions and concluding, famously, “beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Cleary invokes Keats’s theory in what and how much she chooses to say and in the extensive white space on the page, implying that there is value in that open space and that pursing the moments within those spaces is more important than understanding why those moments exist.
On the surface, this work is an elegy for Lucie Brock-Broido, who died in 2018, coupled with an elegy or reflection on Keats, but that description is too simplistic for the complexity of this work. Cleary’s first poem, “Elegy for Lucie,” begins with “Since your last visit, I’ve listened / for you.” The closeness of this relationship is immediately reflected in what Cleary listens for: a screen door chain against a window, the shift of dishes in a rack. This is the chain that links Cleary to Brock-Broido, the household connection in their lives.
The end of the first page is not the end of the poem—eight stanzas cover four and a half pages. What Cleary offers in words, she also offers in the white spaces of these pages. The stanzas, each one to six lines long, reek of loss: “I was once whole,” “This earth is a lonely fit,” “The elm says Grief and the oak, Grief.”
According to Cleary in a March 2023 interview, “White space is a force in a poem . . . even tiny amounts of white space between parentheses became little alcoves where Keats read his sonnets to me before I responded with my own verse. His words were off page, in another book. But his presence was in the parentheses.” This may not be fully clear to the reader without this comment by Cleary, but those white spaces invite the reader to respond to each stanza before reading the next.
This poem, a true elegy, offers a turn to hope in the last stanza:
for fathoming me.
We are in an interlude.
Cleary reveals the depth of her relationship with Brock-Broido in subsequent poems, continuing to make extensive use of white space. The longest, core poem in the collection is “2 a.m. Keats Visitations,” where Cleary interleaves parentheses, “( ),” between each stanza, the spaces she talks about in her interview.
In Cleary’s interview, she also speaks about how, in art, the constant call and response to the world is conversation: “One of the highest callings of the poet is to read deeply the work of other poets.” As the work endures, time is irrelevant, allowing Cleary to “walk with Keats among the river-sallows in 1819, and simultaneously sit in a rarefied ghost garden with Brock-Broido in 2018.”
Cleary was a hospice nurse, and that allowed her to “comfort Keats. I understood viscerally that he’d endured his brother’s and parents’ deaths, and that he’d anticipated his impending premature and certain death. If solace could be transported across centuries, from the living to the dead, I was determined to offer it.” This explains her affinity and appreciation for Keats’ work and how that work intertwined with the work of Brock-Broido, as well as her relationship with both these poets. The elegy of this collection is for both poets.
As a reader, I attempted to follow Cleary’s process. On first reading, I simply read, leaving a longer pause between each stanza to get the feel of those white spaces. On second reading, I read one of Keats’s sonnets at each set of parentheses (as there are more white spaces between stanzas in the “visitations” than there are sonnets, so I read each sonnet more than once). On third reading, I formulated my own responses to each stanza, directly from Cleary’s poem and indirectly from the sonnets I had read. The process wasn’t exact, because, unlike Cleary, who knew Brock-Broido personally as well as poetically, and who involved only three poets, I was a fourth participant. Emulating the steps of her process, however, gave me greater understanding of the work.
Each visitation in this core poem is self-contained even as it informs and is informed by its context. Does the opening
Your apparition sings
in the corner of my room—
then listens, your ear warm
and veined, trained toward me.
address Brock-Broido or Keats? We assume and shortly learn that Cleary is addressing Brock-Broido, but she could just as easily be addressing Keats: “Lucie said she / I thought you might be her.”
“Which makes this the first night of peace,” the poem responds. And peace is in the details, the cattle that “chew the same grasses” and the bay mare that “gnashes,” while the “I” of the poem “absorbs what consumes you.” Through the poem, this stanza resonates: “We stitch the interspace / of art and body.” These two are conjoined forever. Whatever the subject, peace or art or war or hope, Cleary and Brock-Broido are together: “What / good is a cave, or a sea compared / to my family?”
Sound is invoked in this poem: “I never want to leave / the voices in a room,” “we applaud / and listen,” “(Did you say music unheard?),” “do you mind singing / these last ones again?” “A bagpipe lows / over the Isle of Mull.” Smells, colors, sights, sounds fill the stanzas, enriching connections to the earth, whether a tree, a chicken, or a salt marsh mosquito.
These night visitations fill the poem and create reluctance in the poet, reluctance to let go. The ending:
Let’s not say it yet.
A patch of night left.
I’d fill in your colors.
I’d follow you.
Cleary’s poem, “Orphan Sky,” is dedicated to Keats, exploring negative capability. “Don’t say . . .” “say . . .” What to say, what not to say. All about death—the father, the unmentioned Brock-Broido, Keats’s early loss of his father. The sorrow, the coming home to die. “Strike this from his memory,” but only until “he lodges in the quarters over the surgery / where no flowers speak.” As “he resets / the bones and closes the wounds,” he is the one designated to “name that vacancy.” The vivid title permits the reader to be orphaned in the same way as the participants, to feel the process of being orphaned without full understanding of its meaning.
In “Life Mask”:
I want to graft your skin to mine,
cell to cell. This gesture, not arbitrary
like suffering. But intimacy I can achieve.
This is the closest Cleary can get to Brock-Broido, and it reveals the depth and intensity of the poet’s grief.
In “When I Return Your Visit John Keats,” the “I” begins to come to terms with the reality of Brock-Broido’s death: “No demands of your body at rest,” “you’ll stay among us in the sun’s murmur,” and, connecting Brock-Broido to Keats, “I’ll resist asking about my dead friend / whom I loved for her own sake, and pray / neither of you pass to a grassless field.”
The poet ends with “Before I Let you Go, Briefly,” her last word about her “human” friend, whom she celebrates “with afternoon tea.” She also harks back to “2 a.m. Keats Visitations,” when she writes: “I’ve known the sky / to pour flowers through the night / that disappear in the sun’s heat.”
If less is more, Cleary has mastered the art, and I will return to this stunning work again.
About the Reviewer
Aline Soules’s writing has appeared in such publications as the Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, and the Galway Review. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Danville, California. Online: alinesoules.com