The Words of My Mouth and the Meditations of My Heart by Louis Daniel Brodsky
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
“The Words of My Mouth and the Meditations of My Heart”
Time Being Books, 2014
$25.95, 244 pages
“I cherish this risky business of existence,” L.D. Brodsky writes toward the end of this collection, Meditation #284, composed in February of 2014, four months before his death on June 16 from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The Words of My Mouth and the Meditations of My Heart consists of 292 of these “Meditations,” numbered sequentially and written chronologically over a period of ten months, beginning in May of 2013. Brodsky was diagnosed with cancer four months previously, in January, and underwent surgery in February. Subtitled, A Poetic Pilgrimage from Illness to Healing-Living, these poems chronicle his convalescence and, more importantly, his spiritual responses during this critical period.
Throughout his ordeals, Brodsky does not despair. He wants to live. He does not express a single suicidal thought despite the calamity that has befallen him – how unexpected in contemporary America. Indeed, quite the contrary. Sometimes, it’s true, his meditations evince a sort of gallows humor, as in Meditation #196: Where Would We Be Without “It”?:
Oh, I’m kidding, joshing, joking, jesting, ribbing you, pulling your third leg….
Only I’m not kidding.
I guess death must never get a rest, when it comes to cracking wise;
It’s got to be exhausted, flat on its back, dead on its ass,
Indefatigably fatigued, fagged out, for the life of it.
It’s what those sleazy comedy-club, striptease-joint,
Borscht Belt-shtick one-liners are all about –
“I’m going to live forever”;
“Where do you get off with a meshuggeneh name like Methuselah?
That doesn’t even sound Jewish”;
“Did you ever ask yourself why a guy’s just being a putz, a schmuck,
A schmegegge, a achmendrick, when he shrugs and hammers ‘it,’
Knowing the whole audience knows ‘it’ is it, which is death?
Like, ‘Why doesn’t it ever happen to the other guy?...”
Yes, at times he’s clobbered by doubt, assailed by travail, made bone-weary with worry, and time just drags on and on, a kind of limbo.
After these endlessly tedious months
Of chemo-defeating my brain cancer,
I’m beginning to understand that time itself
When it moves this lethargically,
Can be a chronic sickness.
A year into his ordeal, Brodsky learns that his cancer is not going to go away. It’s what he’d always taken the term “healing” to mean: cure. But he does not give up. Meditation #268: “Healing”:
What I realized is that “healing” is tantamount to “living.”
By staying alive and not allowing cancer to defeat me,
I will be defeating cancer.
Such an admirable attitude. And not only that, but again and again he expresses his gratitude for those around him, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, the doorman at his apartment complex (who dies from heart attack but who recognizes Brodsky’s courage in the face of his afflictions enough to tell him he wishes he were just like Brodsky).
He chronicles his profound appreciation for his children, especially, his son Troika and his daughter Trilogy, with whom (Trilogy and her husband Tony and their son Tristan) he spends the first several months of his convalescence. With his son he travels to his beloved retreat, Lake Nebagamon, in Wisconsin, the subject of three volumes of poetry, and which figures into several other collections as well.
Meditation #137, Friends, includes the reflection,
I’ve begun realizing how extensively my seven decades
Have touched such a colossal cosmos of souls,
And I’ve begun wondering how I could not have realized
That there were so many friendships I was cementing….
I like to think L.D. included me here. We corresponded for close to two decades and took a collegial interest in each other’s work. He was also something of a mentor, an advisor, a confidante: a friend, indeed.
Brodsky always had a mystical bent, and many of these poems are addressed directly to God, poems of praise, thanks, supplication, some of them intense, others beatific, serene, all of them sincere. In Meditation #164: White Lies, there’s the sad, plaintive demand:
God, I'm just curious to know
If You knew, in Your soul, that I was going to die from cancer, soon,
Would you tell me a white lie, by not telling me anything at all?
There’s also the thankfulness as in Meditation #171: Living Rooms:
Most gracious YHWH, I pause to meditate and say praises
Say that I’m grateful to be sitting in this living room of my daughter’s family,
Say that I ‘m living, which gives a heightened meaning to this space’s name….
Or again, in soaring, mystical language (Meditation #182: Dream Doves):
O my Rock and Redeemer of sleep and dreams,
Let me fly off, tonight, into Your celestial, blessed regions
And reach where white doves become wonders and signs,
Transporting me home, toward You, my loving Prince of Peace,
My soul borne under their wings,
My lips singing praises for Your peaceful, graceful ministrations
For my well-being, my healing dream-sleep.
All told, after the dust settles, around ninety volumes of Brodsky’s work will have been published, poetry, fiction, essays, literary analyses. The Words of My Mouth and the Meditations of My Heart may be the capstone, the final poetic and philosophical speculations of a man who was intensely, passionately engaged with his life, his work, and his sense of mission here on earth.