Lily Brown on Accompaniment

H. L. Hix: Near the middle of your book, there is a poem called “Knower,” and near the middle of that poem is the sentence “Here, / my trick: accompaniment.”  I don’t mean to make too much of one moment in the book, but I wonder about the importance — for you personally, for this poem, for your book, for our the project of knowing, for our culture — of “accompaniment.”  (Just as one for instance, do the quiet woman and loud man in the title poem accompany one another, or fail to accompany one another?)  I think this is a question, but in any case I’ll be interested in any way you choose to respond.


Lily Brown: The issue of accompaniment is a loaded one for me, and I think you pick up on my ambivalence with your question about “the quiet woman and the loud man” in the title poem from my book. I observed those people in a coffee shop in Berkeley, and while I have no real way of knowing whether they did or did not accompany one another, the exchange got me thinking. I was actually touched by the conversation because the man seemed to want the woman to know she would still have her coffee to accompany her, even if he went to the restroom. Perhaps he was projecting his own worry about leaving her in his utterance.  Or perhaps he himself was not a person who liked to be alone. Or maybe he liked to be alone, but was concerned about what that meant with regard to his significant other. By transcribing that exchange and then giving it a sort of metaphorical equivalent in the poem (“He says, while you enjoy your coffee, / I’ll go to the bathroom. // He says, here’s the light. I place it in your glass. / Here’s how light stays when I’m gone.”), I wanted to raise questions about accompaniment, and maybe highlight its complexity, rather than provide answers. I see that as an issue with cultural significance, actually: to give space to questions, rather than answers, and to complicate notions of identity and relationships.


In the book as a whole, accompaniment has two referents. The first is, not surprisingly, other people. How do we (and, indeed, do we) accompany others—family members, partners, friends? What does it mean to be in relation to others, and what do we need or not need from the people in our lives? On a personal level, I struggle with carving out space for myself in relation to others, so I’m constantly mulling these questions over. One of those questions, in fact, has to be whether it’s even possible to conceive of oneself as an independent entity, free of one’s origins or influences. The answer, I think, has to be “no,” but that doesn’t mean that being-as-accompaniment is always comfortable.


The other referent is writing itself as accompaniment. The two referents, though, are intimately intertwined, and necessarily so. If I remember correctly, I may have been thinking about both when I wrote the poem “Knower,” with the lines “Here, / my trick: accompaniment.” Writing is a way of asserting identity or finding space for oneself in the world, but it’s also a way of reaching out to others, both real and imagined. I have a few friends I share poems with, and when we send poems to each other, I always see that as an act of trust, of community and, indeed, of accompaniment. The same goes for the writing classroom. The freshman I taught this fall all wrote in their final reflections about how important peer feedback was to them in learning about their own writing. When they worked in small groups, they would get into these heated discussions about each other’s writing, and that was wonderful to see—that their interactions with each other were becoming a part of their experience of writing and of themselves.


Or poems can be written to and about people, relationships, and interactions in the world. In Rust or Go Missing, I was thinking through ideas about speech and how words from another can serve as comfort, or alternatively, how speech can be a means of trying to box a person in, as the poem “Transference” acknowledges with “I’ve let you box my insides.” That line is directed to our culture, in a way, and to the sometimes limited range of possibilities we might see put forth for “acceptable” kinds of relationships and identities.


Accompaniment can be revelatory and transcendent, but it can also bring us to dark places in our lives. But acknowledging the complexity of how we are in relation to other people in the world can, I think, enlarge the aperture of our experience.



Lily Brown.  Rust or Go Missing.  Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011.

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