Thomas Braga

 A View From the Bridge

 

Thomas J. Braga, a chapbook poet of persistence with rhythms among the several languages that have enhanced and haunted his life of the mind, started in 1981 with Portingales (in Portuguese) and Chants fugitifs (in French).  From there he went on into his native English all the way to haiku and to the Amory dialogues on his way to a dulcimer dozen.  Up front, I must admit that we are coffeehouse friends of long standing.  Nobody writes reviews of their living friends honestly, or even honest encomiums of the dearly departed in spite of the legal freedom to libel the dead.  Reviews require disinterest, that cold and cleansing distance that can be toxic or enlightening, depending on the angle of view.  The bridge at Arles looks different for those of us beneath it in the water or over it with the blackbirds or standing next to Vincent’s easel. One may say the same of the Braga Bridge that spans the Taunton waters between Somerset and Fall River not far from where Tom was born.  I always think of it, at least in a Sunday morning mood, as named after my friend, and why not?  Poets are more important than politicians, but this is a secret the world does not yet know.  The bridge has the name of a man killed at Pearl Harbor.  Whether poets are more important than the KIA of war cannot be told since they are often the same.  Wilfred Owen tells us that much.

Since this essay celebrates the bird on the wing, it is a eulogy for the living and neither elegy nor obituary, which (for all we know) Tom may write for one of us.  Whether there is life beyond death we may wonder, but sometimes there is greatness beyond it, or perhaps in the present instance the slowly dying smile of the Cheshire cat.  People who read poems (there are some such persons left) sometimes speak of minor poets.  Tom is of that nature perhaps, a minor drumbeat, elevator music for some and a heart pacer for people paying attention.  He keeps the beat.  Let me move along with an introduction I wrote for one of his chapbook etudes, namely, Crickers’ Feet, so localized in the rich poverty up a stream in the Champlain Valley.

 

Just east of the railroad tracks that come down out of Canada into Plattsburgh, two brooks get together to form Scomotion Creek, which makes less than a three-mile run under the Northway and into Lake Champlain between the town beach and the condominiums.  Gone now, the Crickers lived along it for years, a fraternity of others, like the Wigglers of Wiggletown.  But not quite gone.  Look for them along a Tobaccoless Road, past dooryard monuments with wheels gone flat, and hound dogs that do not run much better.

Out of an infinity of possibilities, our own takes but a little: a raindrop from the sea, a grain or two from an infinite beach.  Only a certain narrow band in the entire electromagnetic spectrum shows the peculiarly human, the light we live by.  Among whole numbers, only the small privileged rank between zero and a hundred have a way of being our own: full fathom five thy father lies; sweet sixteen; come and kiss me, one and twenty; four score and ten; sixty-six belong to the devil and a hundred to George Burns, soixante-neuf to the pornograph, and seven to sheer luck.  Forty is the badge of our mortality.  This book measures and keeps such human dimensions.  The forty poems within its covers have a fortyish perspective, enough to look back upon, enough to look forward to.  Forty thieves will steal a bit of your time, but you need only listen for their open sesame.  Being human we will read them too quickly and forget them too soon.  Give them a bit of care, and Ali Baba’s theft from thieves changes into a litter of Cheshire cats, each fading slowly from memory until only a lingering smile remains.  What artist gets or gives more than that?

The crickers and the wigglers of this world, out on the edge of Mr. Platt’s settlement, which is to say just beyond the edge of respectability itself, have found in these pages not so much their voices as their whisper, not sounding brass but a wind in the trees.  Even in memoriam to Castro Alves, the Brazilian drummer to the slave’s heartbeat, the tune turns into a cricker’s chant, a black man’s wink and nod.  Up the creek, as crickers must be, the father berates the rebellious son longing for finer things.  In the dives of crickers’ diversions, a wiggler becomes literally so, topless as the towers of Ilium, the barroom tart upon the tongue.  Or is she Mother Earth, down on her knees, frost on her mouth, in the late of the year?  She manages to be both.  The cricker’s mornings seldom so much begin the day as end the night, the stale and lonely sex at sun up, the North Country tang of winter coming on.  Even April is a fool.  Except a cat in a garden (like the dash of blue brushed into a study in gray) the animals are crickers’ critters: natural dogs and ragged-eared toms and skunks and cockroaches and flies and ants.  For all that, the forty stay on the right side of zero, the plus always implied, the sense that the secret green knowledge in the tamarack outweighs everything else.  Perhaps the optimism shines out of these verses because, after all, they are not about crickers, even as symbols of the larger humanity, but about the inner weathers.  Autobiography as a masked ball will gleam a few glimmers of the man who wrote it.  I use the “man” advisedly here in its berated male sense.  For now we must look at the poet himself.

I have watched Thomas Braga’s procession of chapbooks with a growing conviction that something good is happening.  Stubborn achievers see a diamond as a piece of coal that stuck at it.  Their saying has a second overtone here, since a poet works best with a jeweler’s tools.  Long poems, for those of us brought up on the Ars Poetica of MacLeish, are saved only by their lapses into the fine and the rare.  To choose among the MacLeish counsels:  A poem should not mean, but be.  I do not accuse Tom of the theory, only the praxis.  He keeps each piece to a page, to please the eye as much as the ear.  Sometimes their very shape flirts with the coup d’oeil tradition, as Scomotion liquidly washes down the page or the cockroach nervously twitches its lines to conclusion.  Each brief encounter fingers an emotion, prodding with phrase and image, leaving you and me to make of it what we will.  His invented language has hardened into his native American:  “… I got your number, bugger, you,” cracker talk for the cockroach.  Still, these are guitar tunes often enough, for the warm weather side of Tom, those soft-spoken Portuguese iambics, Catholic colored, must come through.  One may hear the southern chords in “Summer Rain”, though the images be of the North Country, thinking wintry thoughts in the midst of summer, the way that men know that death is coming even while abed with beautiful strangers, or wise with an old wisdom on the second bottle of a Saturday night drunk. The way women know that time nests in their mirrors.  Or listen carefully to “Cara” for guitar-like overtones asking:  Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom?

Thomas Braga, an Anthony not a Tom, celebrating himself in the “Mathos Garba” poem, celebrating that second nation of ourselves the lives along the banks of one Scomotion or another, has taken up the holy task of being a serious poet.  Where are his bootstraps?  Does he propose to live on the applause of the gods?  We, who are modern and sophisticated (and rock barren) smile knowingly.  The rest will not notice except the few that pick up their ears at these unusual sounds in the dark.  At the worst a few more stars will scatter at the bottom of the sea.  But as surely as the tamarack tree comes back, something is afoot here other than crickers’ feet.

 

That chapbook introduction, written in 1992, gives an impressionistic glimpse of the poetic byways that Braga has traveled into the Twenty-first Century, perhaps the greatest deviation being Amory, half a dozen dialogues, a virtual short story, accompanying half a dozen poems.  The dialogues are a remarkable bit of wisdom in exchanges between alpha and omega as a man over eighty talks to a kid of thirteen in Medeiros Park, identified as in a Portuguese-American community in Southern New England.  One guesses Fall River, with an iconic Columbia Street address, a short walk to the Europa Pastries and Coffee Shop, which sounds like a Braga hangout, and the Medeiros Fish Market, where we would find him not.  The six poems glow along with the glowing dialogue.  Who would not like “Books Never Sleep”?  The title itself is a poem.

If, as I think, Amory is the best of his work, all of his chapbooks are worth the visit except perhaps his little volume of haiku.  That genre is for fireflies and poetic pan flashes where even laureates fear to tread.  A haiku is a happening as unpremeditated as lightning strikes.  The butterfly sleeps on the temple bell only as a sudden surprise to the mind.

As Pernando Pessoa has told us, A vida é uma viagem experimental, life is an experimental journey.  It is one in which Braga has kept a poetic diary of the trip.  He says his poems are his autobiography.  Perhaps so, but a Churchillian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  Nobody would know Thomas Braga, except in the most indirect and half-hidden way, from these lyrics and chants.  One glimpses the love of his Portuguese roots in Portingales, poems in the Portuguese language.  They have opposite-page translations into English.  Tom claims, rightly, that translations of poems lose the nuances and often even the essence of the original.  He also says they are inferior because they are derivative.  Sometimes, perhaps so, but not always.  Whether the Heraclitus poem of Callimachus is superior to William Cory’s inaccurate but beautiful translation could only be said with true knowledge by a sensitive Greek from the third century before Christ, time-machined into our day to become as fluent in English as such remarkables as Conrad and Nabokov.  It is the only literary quarrel Tom and I ever had.  As a result I wrote a “translation” of Victor Hugo’s touching sonnet about his daughter, more transformed than translated, which appears in its entirety on this website in the Poetry section.  Another glimpse of Tom’s linguistic power across languages appears in his very early Chants fugitifs.  These songs are not in dual presentation.  One is expected to read French.  If you do not, then take my word for it.  They are lovely tunes.  Braga used to be asked in his excellent classes in the French language, “What does that mean in English?”  He would reply, “It does not mean anything in English.  It is French.”  And so is Tom when he speaks that language.  He so transforms himself into a Frenchman that the citizens of Paris are startled to learn that he is American.

In speaking of Tom elsewhere, I had written, “Braga, a man of yesterday, whose word processor is a quill, acquired his tools in the academy but sharpened them in the same streets that he walks as a man of yesterday should.  Street walking is for down-and-outers, for bag ladies and whores, for contemplatives and rejected lovers, but above all for poets.  Pinguis sum sed ambulare possum, runs the motto on his shield.  Tom is fat but he can walk.  His preference for the common man shows up everywhere in his work, as in life.  We find him at the counter in the local Dunkin’ Donuts, idling for an hour among the regulars.  We find him at the coffee shop in the mall, an inside inn, presiding over a table where the locals drink the hard stuff from Columbia.  Tom listens and listens and hears.  And what he hears gets into the verses.”

 

A list of the Braga chapbooks

 

Portingales (1981)

Chants fugitifs (1981)

Coffee in the Woodwinds (1990)

Crickers’ Feet (1992)

Borderland (1994)

Two Luso Lyrics (1994)

Litotes (1997)

Motley Coats (2001)

Inchoate: Early Poems (2003)

Amory, Six Dialogues & Six Poems  (2006)