No 6 - 1982
To Praise The Music
William Bronk’s LIFE SUPPORTS, New and Collected Poems. (North Point Press, San Francisco, 1981, 256pp, cloth US$20, ISBN 0-86547-039-1) Limited Edition from SPD at $200 (lettered/signed) and $75 (numbered only).
An obviously major event, this publication brings together the life’s work of William Bronk, a poet who, though he has received many plaudits from those-in-the-know, has never been published in large editions. A glance at his list of publications shows the great devotion of James L. Weil’s Elizabeth Press to the Bronk cause all but the first two books (Origin Press and New Directions repectively) were published by Elizabeth. This new Collected edition comes in two forms : the trade edition from North Point - and a handsome volume it is - and a limited edition from Elizabeth, available from the Berkeley distributor, SPD. Thus Elizabeth closes its list with a major re-assessment of one of its staple authors.
Getting over 400 poems into less than 250 pages means of course that the poems share space, as in any other ‘collected’. The poems don’t breathe as easily, but economy of price is preferable to the alternative. This does however prevent one from seeing the wholeness of certain of the smaller volumes - The Meantime lasts 6 pages here for instance, and the short, single stanzas of Finding Losses and The Force of Desire have up to eight stanzas per page.
I must confess that this book causes me to rethink my position re Bronk. Confronted by the life’s work, such re-assessment is imperative. My difficulty, for years, - for one who likes highly-wrought diction - was the total abscence of it in Bronk’s work, and the flat-toned, meditative, ruminating style. The conversational tone draws the reader along as if he is listening to an elderly uncle, reminiscing. The tone does change, of course, to that of the philosopher attempting to understand the significance of the quotidian, and trying to reconcile such an attempt with the inability of speech to be its vehicle
Oh God, you felt the lust of desire
helpless in its despair of any speech.
Mutely, I touch my friends to tell them so.
(Force of Desire, p.199)
At times though, the despair at realising the unsayable descends into incoherence:
Mozart wrote as though it mattered as, of course,
ah well, it doesn’t. Ah well, even so,
who puts it down ? Yes they do; I know.
and into a pseudo-philosophic stance unworthy of this poet :
This is temporary, eternity
nowhere except as it may be here
as, of course, we know it isn’t. But we are there.
But all collected editions contain their longueurs, and it would be churlish of the reviewer to dwell upon the poorer things, when so much is good.
Yes, the porpoises of course, it could
be of purport to talk to them. See what they say.
Indeed what wouldn’t we give? But the Mayans, - oh,
not but what I’d want to know, I would.
They were different from us in many ways. But we know
something about them, quite a bit in fact.
They were men, which makes me wonder could they have any more
to say to us than we have to say, ourselves,
to each other, or rather, could they have a better way
to say it that gets across? It seems to me
we all speak in undeciphered glyphs
as much as they do, OK. I’d like to know.
What’s new with them? No, I’d try to talk
with anybody if I thought I could. You.
I’d try to talk to you. What do you know?
(The Mayan Glyphs Unread, p.74)
The more one reads Life Supports, the more one sees the variety of Bronk’s concerns : another writer would be turning these thoughts, these observations, into essays. Bronk prefers to cope with his concerns inside the poem, and, perhaps, to avoid the finality, the conclusiveness of the essay. I had often wondered why Bronk did not choose the prose poem as his vehicle - since his thoughts could be accomodated just as well in such a form. I still don’t have an answer to that, even though his hesitant, endlessly qualified style of writing - a pile up of interrelated clauses and interpolations - is really more of a prose style than a verse style.
Description rarely appears in this poetry. The outside world sneaks in a brief appearance, as though glimpsed from a window, but the poem never remains a meditation on nature. Always, or almost always, it drifts from the physical to the metaphysical as in Blue Spruces in Pairs, A Bird Bath Between, which starts
Seen by starlight from the window, fat
blue spruces patch the lawn with darker dark.
Arranged in pairs. People no longer plant
these trees in pairs, with bird baths set between.
Fashions in ornamental planning change.
Houses and yards lose style in twenty years.
Because the various world we sense is not
ever apprehended as one, or formed as one,
ideas are always wrong, always unfixed,
and often their power to make the world real is lost.
Huge factors stand ready to leap in
to alter or destroy a world we defend alone.
This is a book of many riches, to be savoured over a long period, not read and returned to the shelf. Bronk’s Collected is an achievement that we must come to terms with if we are to understand American poetry and its possibilities. I leave it with a personal favourite - I must confess a great liking Bronk’s meditations on things pre-Columbian, including the superb essays in A New World (Elizabeth Press, 1976). The Beautiful Wall, Machu Picchu is a fine contemplation of the things left over from before, an exploration of possibilities and meanings that challenges our conception of the alien, the misunderstood. This poem can stand, head held high, in the company of the many other fine meditations on ruins that dot English Literature right back to The Ruin of Old English vintage. In The Ruin, the sense of wonder and the elegiac tone come from the contemplation of ruined wonders in a now barbaric dark-age time. I’m tempted to suggest the situation is similar in this poem, which ends so superbly
Who had to spend such easing care on stone
found grace inherent more as idea than in
the world, loved simple soundness in a just joint,
and the pieces together once though elsewhere apart.
I must not forget, too, that there is a section consisting of new poems, under the title Life Supports, at the end of this book. The muse is still there undiminished. Without comment, I leave you with Rule Book:
Friends of mine know what to expect of love
and are disappointed when it doesn’t work out that way:
they assume that inequalities mean
there is something wrong with one or the other, they blame
themselves sometimes for this and whether there is more
bitterness in blaming themselves or more
in blaming the other would be a hard thing
to decide. Their despairs and hatreds are coarse.
In the same way, when love peters out
or, slyly, the loved one makes the move
to someone else, like players protesting a call,
they sense the wrong of it: “The rules say…”
Because they know the rules. They know how love
is supposed to be. They haven’t cheated. They play
the way they should or with only such minor faults
as everyone gets away with. They was robbed!
However, I poor fool, have never known
the rules. Or reading, fail to understand
how the rules could work. I stumble around the field.
My friends are kind, sometimes, and help me out.
Life Supports - surely, aptly named - is well worth its twenty dollars, for anyone who cares about modern poetry.
North Point Press books are distributed by The New York State Small Press Association, P.O.Box 1264, Radio City Station, New York, NY 10019, U.S.A. They mail books post-free anywhere in the world, by surface mail. For airmail, it would be best to check with them first. North Point Press is at 850 Talbot Avenue, Berkeley, California 94706, U.S.A.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The