Sifting the Stream: A Review of Laura Broadbent’s In On the Great Joke

In On The Great Joke
Laura Broadbent
Coach House Books, 2016.
$18.95, 88 pages.


Yes, Laura Broadbent’s In On the Great Joke is funny, but there’s nothing worse than an essay on the mechanics of humour. Luckily, this collection is also disturbing, theoretical, and enigmatically spiritual. Like a teen on mushrooms looking at his first Breughel, initial giggles widen into an earnestly whispered, appreciative what the fuuuuuckkk. With unsettling accuracy, Broadbent captures the paradoxes and tangles of being alive, the Great Joke of our existence. Reading, she argues, is akin to “alchemy.” Like a fistful of pebbles turned to gold, she has succeeded in coalescing a study of Taoism, a series of interviews with dead authors, scripts for five short films, and a variety of prose essays into a single volume. The collection finds, as Broadbent’s ventriloquism of Clarice Lispector puts it, “a kind of crazy, crazy harmony.” Contrary to its title—and as the Lispector quotation demonstrates—readers of this book won’t always be in on the joke, but they’re sure to find themselves caught up inside of it, like a fire ant wrestling in a cobweb.

In On the Great Joke comprises two parts. Part One, “Wei Wu Wei / Do Not Do / Tao Not Tao” plays with Lao Tzu’s philosophy and the irony of attempting to describe the ineffable Tao, or “Way,” with words. The first long poem, “Getting in the Way of the Way,” ricochets between phrases from the Tao Te Ching and Broadbent’s speaker’s own intimations. Surprisingly—by the end of the book, unsurprisingly—the poem opens with an epigraph from Lucretius: “turn your thoughts this way and you’ll see it’s just swagger and bluster and not firm belief.” Since Lucretius’ masterpiece, On the Nature of Things, was a didactic poem on Epicureanism, “Getting in the Way of the Way,” when read with Lucretius in mind, appears to be a similar attempt to teach—or, at least, model—Lao Tzu’s approach to living: it’s a poem about how to get in the Way, the mindset, of a Taoist. The problem is that there is no text more skeptical of language, more vocal about the inadequacies of words, than the Tao Te Ching: as Broadbent puts it in her introduction to Part One, “Lao Tzu had to work from within language to get out of language.” Thus, just as Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things takes on the Herculean task of explaining Epicureanism to his readers, Broadbent’s engagement with Tzu’s text articulates an equally elusive philosophy with the extra challenge of accommodating its irksome first precept: if you’re able to talk about Taoism, you’re doing it wrong. In other words, if Lucretius’s poem pans the streambed of Epicureanism and emerges with graspable nuggets, Broadbent’s poem sifts the stream itself and purposely emerges empty-handed.

With unsettling accuracy, Broadbent captures the paradoxes and tangles of being alive, the Great Joke of our existence.

And that’s where the opening poem is especially impressive. Broadbent reminds us that you can, actually, make the stream graspable: all you have to do is freeze it. Hence a second meaning of the title, “Getting in the Way of the Way”: in order to demonstrate Taoism, Broadbent gets in the Sage’s way and disrupts his wisdom, makes him hold still. The poem interplays italicized excerpts from the Tao with snippets of “machinations / of one of the world’s ragged / human minds.” Speaker and Sage repeatedly interrupt each other in a battle for space on the page, for air time, for attention in the present. When Tzu asserts that “The ancient masters were profound and subtle. / Their wisdom, unfathomable,” the speaker immediately responds:

Behold the light in the eyes
of the nicest man in the world:
it is fear! the driving force!
Oh my God, SO not the way.

In this particular instance, the tongue-in-cheek, mean-girlish last line is, well, pretty funny—but the speaker’s responses are just as often arrestingly earnest: “All I ever wanted / is to be who I am, / and I am doing it”; “I tried on a blazer I quite liked / while the air continued to fill / with poison at a relaxed pace.” The speaker is constantly feinting as she navigates an obstacle course of Taoist precepts. Perhaps the central clue regarding how to read the poem—and this book, more broadly—comes from the Sage about midway through: “A good traveller has no fixed plans / And is not intent upon arriving.” If we’re to be good readers, we must relinquish our hopes for a culminating epiphany and settle, instead, for a field of simultaneous sensations and impressions. In the “Great Joke” of existence, “Absolutely nothing makes sense. / Except laughter, evil laughter and Borges.” Fittingly, in the final stanza, the speaker compares herself to an off-key marching band: with “three cymbals / crash[ing] off the beat, out of sync,” the poem comes to a clattering halt.

Part Two of the collection, “Interviews,” focuses on a series of posthumous interviews with famous authors. In her introductory essay, “What a Relief Not to Meet You in Person: An Homage to the Alchemy of Reading,” Broadbent states that reading is an “ideal conversation … happening wordlessly” between a reader and a writer. Like the tricky practice of trying to put into words the word-shirking Way of the Tao, Broadbent mischievously points out that even though the reader-writer conversation that occurs around a text is ineffable, it comes to life via the “medium” of words. Thus, as the act of reading transforms the reader, it also “morph[s]” the words on the page: when the words in a text come into contact with the particular consciousness of a particular reader, they have a one-of-a-kind effect/affect; something changes in the reader, and in the writing, that is “far more complex than just words.” My intention, in faintly outlining this slippery four-page introductory essay, is to gesture to just how tricky In On the Great Joke gets, conceptually, in “Interviews.” Since they’re “an homage to the alchemy of reading,” we are reading poems inspired by the wordless transformations that occurred/were generated when Broadbent read particular books by Jean Rhys, Clarice Lispector, and W.G. Sebald. (There is also an amazing interview—between one side of a brain and an empath—that doesn’t fit the aforementioned mould, but “just wanted to be there.”) Broadbent likens this wordless transformation to a “fragrance.” The catch, of course, is that we, as readers, in reading these homages, these interviews, start our own conversation with Broadbent-as-Sebald and, in turn, create another unique fragrance, a brand new transformation between reader and writer(s). We’re reading Broadbent reading, and her written-reading transforms us.

If we’re to be good readers, we must relinquish our hopes for a culminating epiphany.

Conceptual background aside—i.e. if we bracket whether the speaker answering the interviewer’s questions is Broadbent, a dead writer, a combination, or none of the above—the “Interviews” are also striking, beautiful stand-alone poems. Take, for instance, “Jean Rhys” describing “real” death:

in a miraculous manner, some essence
of me was shooting upward like fireworks.
I was great. I was a defiant flame
shooting upward not to plead
but to devour.

Or Clarice Lispector answering the question “What is life?”:

Pain is exacerbated life.
Coming-into-being is a slow, slow, good pain.
It’s a full stretch to the point
that the person can stretch no more.
The process hurts.
And the blood is thankful.

If great poems, like great jokes, pass on some weird, crackling idea that we can’t help but carry around, compare future experiences to, and share with whoever is lucky/pitying/patient enough to listen, then these poems are great. In the Rhys interview, look at how the reader’s eye slides off into blank space after “plead” before being snapped back to attention by the muscular, terse redirection of “devour” in the following line; feel the sweet, rhythmic music when “Lispector” describes “coming-into-being” as “slow, slow, good pain.” As meticulous as they are surprising and inventive, these interview-poems are a windfall of memorable, transformative ideas that keep vibrating long after the book has been shut.

Broadbent goes where words fail and devises a way to talk about it…. She succeeds because she really believes in poetry’s transcendent potential.

In both parts of this collection, Broadbent goes where words fail and devises a way to talk about it. A final complexity comes from five “short films” in which scenes, usually with little to no dialogue, are detailed event by event. Descriptions of what would be happening, were the reader watching the film, offer a third way of setting up a scenario where ideas as elusive as fragrances appear via the medium of words. Broadbent refers to the short films as “compromising positions” in a note at the end of the book, and the ambiguity of “compromising” rings true in terms of both the subject matter and conceptual apparatus of the films. In all five, a woman is in a risky, “compromising” situation; at the same time, the idea of a shared promise, a “compromise,” between reader (and here, the reader is also a viewer) and writer is also at play. As we read the descriptions of these short films, a unique alchemical conversation/collaboration occurs between us and Broadbent: we must imagine what each film (though no film exists) looks like, and how we imagine a film changes how it would feel to watch it. A new, hybrid space is opened up: the film-poem, where a series of images has strict parameters—for instance, in “Short Film III” the dance studio in which the action occurs has a “sickly palette” of “grey, beige, black, and pale pink”—but where it is up to us to view our own version of the film. Each film provides a unique opportunity to transform a text that is, in turn, transforming us, creating another one-of-a-kind fragrance. But I won’t tell you what the films are about; the surprises are worth waiting for.

In On the Great Joke is a collection of poems about unspeakable ideas. It’s like that game at summer camp where if you remember you’re playing, you lose, and have to shout out I JUST LOST THE GAME so anyone in earshot loses too. However, when we accept Broadbent’s wry invitation to play on the fringes of language and think about the unthinkable, when we hear her reminder that the Great Joke encompasses all of us, a weird communion occurs and we win. I heartily recommend this idiosyncratic, vivid collection. It’s not often that a book scrutinizes so many of the most inscrutable aspects of our being human—ego, persona, performance, spirit, death, legacy—so efficiently. In the end, Broadbent succeeds because she really believes in poetry’s transcendent potential: “that is what happens when one reads, not unlike what happens when one loves—you cannot feel where you begin and the other ends.”


Neil Surkan’s chapbook, Super, Natural, was published by Anstruther Press. His most recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Riddle Fence, CV2, Grain, The Antigonish Review, CAROUSEL, The Literary Review of Canada, and Prairie Fire. He lives in Calgary.