ED ZAHNISER Reviews
William Bronk: Bursts of Light: The Collected Later Poems, edited by David Clippinger
(Talisman Publishers, Greenfield, MA, 2012)
“Disdain for Cheap Solace”
Former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan writes that she likes to pick up William Bronk’s big book of poems Life Supports and read a poem at random: “For me they’re like the small brown bottle my grandmother carried in her purse and sniffed for the pick-me-up jolt. . . . However little you thought you’d been trafficking in surfaces and ornament,” she writes “and however cleansed of illusions you believed yourself to be . . . Bronk takes them off like paint stripper. . . . The experience is religious in its ferocity and disdain for cheap solace.”
Life Supports was Bronk’s first collected poems, for which he won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1982. Bronk had by then published at least 15 books, the first by Cid Corman’s Origin Press in 1956. That and his second book were published to so little comment that he nearly ceased publishing. His second book brought him one letter, a complimentary one from poet Charles Olson. Most of Bronk’s early books were published in limited editions by Elizabeth Press, New Rochelle, New York, owned by his friend and fellow poet James L. Weill. Many of the rest of his books were published by literary or small presses: New Directions, Burning Deck, Sceptre Press, Graywolf Press, Grosseteste, William Ewert, Red Ozier, and Asphodel. Life Supports and three other books were published by North Point Press. From 1996 until this 2012 Bursts of Light, Bronk’s books have been published or republished by Talisman House, Publishers.
Bronk (1918 to 1999) was born in Fort Edward, New York, in 1918, later moving to Hudson Falls, New York. He was descended from the man for whom The Bronx is named. Bronk was graduated in 1938 from Dartmouth College and did a semester of graduate study at Harvard. He served in the Army in World War II, a draftee who then went to Officer Candidate School. After the war he taught at Union College in Schenectady, New York, from 1945 into 1946 but returned to Hudson Falls, taking over the family’s coal and lumber company there—after his father’s death. He ran the company for 38 years. Bronk later remarked that, although he had enjoyed teaching English at Union College, teaching would not have left him the time or the energy to write. His poems were created in his mind during the course of business, he said, then, when they were worked out, written down in longhand. He rarely revised or even modified a poem. He was awarded the Lannan Literary Award for poetry in 1991.
Kay Ryan’s view that Bronk’s poems are spare and rarely given to illusion—or to an illusion not admitted as such—seems very accurate. She calls his approach “hard not to call brave.” Here is an entire poem:
The mind isn’t the one to decide; it’s overruled
on all the important questions, has to keep
its counsel and be told afterwards how it
was right as it knew all along and, of course,
it’s too late then and that’s the important thing:
the mind wasn’t in on the decision made. No,
it knows that something else is going on
and it well might wonder what that something is.
The mind’s an outsider; the mind will never know.
This is from the poem “EVEN DON’T”:
of my ignorance, that I don’t need to know
and even what ignorance told me wasn’t enough.
The sidelines is where I am, relieved
of those responsibilities we wish
we had. Use me, life, or even don’t.
Some of his poems, as poet and Zen priest Philip Whalen wrote of his own, are like a graph of the mind’s movement. The poems are so straightforward that you’re tempted to amend Whalen to: “like a simple graph of the mind’s movement:”
We don’t have to know that the game score
is unimportant; we can go on thinking as if
it weren’t or were. I don’t care how big
we make the game—mondial or more,
say metaphysical—it’s still play.
I can’t think what else there is to do;
reality has left us out, neglects
to tell us even what goes on. Play ball!
Bronk can sound, in content and in thought, like a postmodern deconstructionist, except that he writes a direct and largely unadorned version of plain speech. Here are two poems from the same page of Bursts of Light:
When the train comes, I remember to lift my arm
and wave to the engineer. He smiles at me
and his hand waves back. His shiny tracks
recede to a distant point just as they should.
His various cars are firmly articulated.
The conductor checks his watch. The schedule is sure.
It’s one thing to learn the terms of the actual world
and make a kind of sense from that as though
the actual world exists—oh, we say it does,
our sense depends on it. Nonsense to pare
that. I do nonsensical things: how
should I speak about a world whose existence as world
I don’t even claim and couldn’t? For which I don’t
have terms? I don’t know; but it’s where we are
if we need to say we are. I like it here.
I once stood at Fort Edward, New York, with my wife and two young sons, waiting for the northbound Adirondack Amtrak train toward Plattsburgh. It is a near-whistle stop now. What strikes me about Bronk’s “FORT EDWARD” poem is its meticulous but oddly distanced observations. “I remember to lift my arm” “his hand waves back” and that “just as they should.”
“SHORT TERMS” shares this direct, simple language, but it addresses an epistemology of ignorance. Elsewhere Bronk wrote that “we live in the permanence of ignorance.” This is not, I take it, a nihilistic assertion, but an admission and a refusal to entertain illusion. The French philosopher of the history of science Gaston Bachelard held that scientific knowledge, for example, is not progressive and always self-correcting, but rather is given to what we might call “restarts” or “cold boots.” A new discovery reorders all and occasions a start from scratch. In the field of natural resources stewardship, for example, the major problems of this generation—too much past suppression of wildlands fire, killing off too many predators—derive from what was “the best science” of the prior generation. We should have no illusion, following Bronk’s lead, that aspects of our generation’s best science won’t likewise complicate things for the next generation.
From Bronk’s "THE CONTRADICTIONS":
In the sciences, it’s the mind’s rigor and skillwhich, themselves, make the illusion as long as it lasts.We circle to another angle; try there.The imperative is knowledge or so it seems;what we want instead is the ultimate ignorance.
and this complete poem:
CENTEREDScience is grand, it deals with what we know.Believers also know and charlatansclaim secret knowledge. All knowing leans away.Still, at the center, is our ignorance.
In the following complete poem, from his last book Metaphor of Trees, he says much the same thing, but introduces the role of desire. As novelist Jeanette Winterson writes in her nonfiction book Art Objects—whose “Objects” can be read as noun and verb—every fact is also an act of desire.
REALIZATIONReality isn’t real. Why do we look?We look because the real is the shape of desire:that the world be real and we a person in it.We believe our beliefs to pretend that that should beor abide a world whose reality isn’t real.
One quibble with Talisman House, Publishers: This book has many typos, making you stop and try to figure out how the line should read. The software’s spell-checking feature would have caught many of the errors.
Ed Zahniser’s poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines in the U.S. and U.K.; seven anthologies; four books, and three chapbooks. With Shepherdstown (WV) Poet Laureate Georgia Lee McElhaney, Ed has co-edited an anthology of area poets for Shepherdstown’s 250th Anniversary Celebration, with major funding from a community grant from the Arts and Humanities Alliance—AHA!—of Jefferson County, WV. Four Seasons Books is publishing the anthology as well as Ed’s book of three long poems, also for the town’s 250th, At Betty’s Restaurant Thomas Shepherd Loves Danke Dandrige and The Shepherdstown Sonnets. www.fourseasonsbooks.com. Both books are designed and produced by Heather Watson of the studio Pernot and Tatlin, pernotandtatlin.com.