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Gary Sullivan

My David Bromige

This piece is 1,700 words or about four printed pages long.

Photo of David Bromige

Twenty years before My Yahoo, fifteen before My Bohemia, five before My Emily Dickinson, five after Lally’s My Life (and simultaneously with Hejinian’s), David Bromige published My Poetry — the quintessential Bromige collection, and what seems in retrospect to be the book that finally shook North American poetry from the burnt-out hull of 70s self-absorption into the radical deconstruction of the 80s (assuming, of course that you buy into that particular art-historical narrative).
      Bromige had been publishing since the mid-60s, and with each new title — The Ends of the Earth (1968), Threads (1971), Birds of the West (1973), Tight Corners & What’s Around Them (1974), to list a few of my own favorites — switched gears, reinventing his ‘style’ or ‘voice’ so completely that, to anyone following his development over the years, My Poetry might have seemed like the logical ‘next step.’ Or would it have? Even given shifts from book to book in Bromige’s previous output, My Poetry may well have been a complete surprise to his earlier readers.
      Some of the titles: ‘Authority,’ ‘What the Person Believes is Part of the Poet’s Make-up,’ ‘My Career,’ ‘My Plan’ — whoa, this is too self-aware. It isn’t until Stephen Rodefer’s Four Lectures, Michael Gottlieb’s New York, Alan Davies’ ‘Peer Pleasure,’ and most recently Ben Friedlander’s ‘Poe’ essays that anyone in ear-shot of Bromige really begins to examine the site of contemporary American poetry’s production and reception in their creative work. In her ‘Annotated Bibliography,’ which appeared in the 1987 David Bromige issue of The Difficulties, Barbara Weber drops in the following from Bromige — it suggests how the book was ultimately put together:

‘I had sent a TS to Black Sparrow and John had written back that he loved the Bromige poems in it, but not the prose “cutups,” and would I omit these? Since these were what I found of chief interest, I wouldn’t; so I took the book to Geoff (Young, of The Figures), and he wanted to do it but thought that a lot of the ‘Bromige Poems’ could go. He got me to think of it from the book’s point-of-view, and not as a ‘collected works 74–79.’’

I love that quote, although I admittedly don’t think of My Poetry as being from the book’s point-of-view, though it’s certainly an interesting take, and probably what gave Bromige the license to put the book together as he did.
      The first piece, ‘My Poetry,’ is a cut-n-paste of ‘interesting sentences taken from all my previous reviews’:

‘My Poetry’ does seem to have a cumulative, haunting effect — one or two poems may not touch you, but a small bookful begins to etch a response, poems rising in blisters that itch for weeks, poems like ball-bearings turning on each other, over & over, digging down far enough to find substance, a hard core to fill up the hand. ‘It’s through this small square that my poems project themselves, flickering across the consciousness, finally polarizing in the pure plasma of life. The reader grows impatient, irritated with my distancing style, coming at him in the rare book format, written under not one but two different kinds of dirty money, & knowing me to be an english teacher.’

This is a particularly brilliant gesture, especially given the historical moment in which it was made — isn’t there a way in which the gesture itself is as self-absorbed as the most traditionally confessional? Isn’t ‘My Poetry,’ in some very basic sense, a ‘confessional’ poem? I’d argue that not only is it as confessional a gesture as it is deconstructive, but that this fact must have tickled Bromige when he thought of it.
      But I need to backtrack. I really should have said that ‘My Poetry’ is reputedly a cut-n-paste, because it does seem to include a certain amount of editorializing on Bromige’s part:

‘The blurb on the book says the usual blurb-things. “David Bromige writes carefully, with pleasure — which is the point.” Well, which is? I am the author of previous books, which is the point.’

— though I could be wrong. Whatever the case, it’s a tour-de-force, and the perfect opener, asking: ‘Well, how does the world, that part of it with which my work does engage, see me?’ Or, more to the point, how does it position, how does it categorize?
      Bromige must have been especially sensitive to the ways in which one gets, despite the variousness of one’s output, pigeonholed. My favorite moment: ‘The hipper among you will be able to identify what drugs went into each one of these sad works & god knows, there is hash, speed, coke, opium & alcohol in all of them.’ (I will envy Bromige until the day I die for having had that written about him, though it sounds like something you’d find in one of those Jack Chick religious tracts — I have a hard time believing someone really said that in a book review!)
      A chapbook of ‘My Poetry’ alone would be a masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned. But that’s just the beginning. In ‘Six of One, Half-a-Dozen of the Other,’ Bromige takes poems originally published in three previous volumes, republishes them here, and then does a ‘Vita Nuova’ on each of them — albeit, with tongue-in-cheek: ‘Not to debunk the disjointed nature of existence, but at 11 I won an election as Labor Candidate...’ It’s like Spicer’s ‘Homage to Creeley/ Explanatory Notes,’ but funnier and lighter than it is arch, and — though obviously parodic — it has as much and maybe more to say than Spicer’s about how a writer might contextualize his/her work. (‘But chance favors the prepared mind,’ for a quick instance.)
      From here we go right into ‘An American Heritage History,’ which includes ‘Our Tongues,’ a sly nod to the speech-based aspects of the New American Poetry: ‘Skeletal muscle covered with mucous membrane compose our tongues. The frenulum is a fold of mucous membrane in the midline of the undersurface that helps to anchor our tongues to the floor of the mouth. Is the voice you hear soft, feminine, musical? Those women learned to sound like that.’ How much more interesting than ‘I HATE SPEECH’ is that? I think Bromige has too active a mind to have gotten fully caught up in a simple binary like SPEECH vs. WRITING — or SELF vs. DECONSTRUCTION, for that matter — though obviously these topics are floating around as he’s creating this work and he seizes on them, plays with them. ‘While we sleep, our tongues loll around in our mouths, or anxiously probe about for evidence.’’ It’s a critique, sure; but it’s hardly a complete dismissal.
      The book goes on. I think my favorite poem in this book is ‘What the Person Believes Is Part of the Poet’s Make-up: 8 Soliloquants  Each with an End in View Meet Atropos & Are Stuck with It’ — dedicated to the book’s publisher, Geoffrey Young, and featuring ‘istorian,’ ‘aspirant,’ ‘one more authentic voice,’ ‘anthony abstract,’ ‘objectist,’ ‘love-poet,’ ‘chainsaw Jack,’ and ‘I. Speakes.’ Here’s the ‘multiplicity’ of American Poetries, all speaking at once, each singing its own praises, and possibly attempting to cancel out the other (just like real life?):

anthony abstract: I can’t spare breath on happiness
nor any of its relatives, description
of this kind must be distraction —
      one more authentic voice: Quail, shotguns, assorted hammering
& sawing, a jackass, jaybirds, dogs, a goat —
      aspirant: These hands
need only clasp themselves
for their aspirations to come true —
      anthony abstract: For the god I am the shadow of,
once, seared me in that flame,
& sealed my lips. I hurt
to talk.
      istorian: The story of his murderer,
lacking means, enamored of his end —

It’s not only searing satire, it’s a fairly riveting playlet — though I can’t think of many poets who wouldn’t, by the end of it, feel at least somewhat indicted. Is Bromige bored here with the contemporary scene? Is he a callous, judgmental prick? I don’t think he’s either. Basically, he’s having fun while closely examining what’s on the plate at the Big Table of American poetry.
      Later in the book we get ‘My Career,’ perhaps the most ‘new-sentencey’ piece in the collection (its rhythms are similar to Rodefer’s Four Lectures, Geoffrey Young’s Rocks & Deals, Hejinian’s My Life, and much of Silliman’s work). It’s yet another send-up, satirizing not only ambition (‘Competition is the keynote, sometimes winningly justified as cutthroat’), but the terms by which poetry careers are made (or unmade): ‘He selects with care that which is appropriate; he rejects the superfluous; too much discontinuity threatens the identity of the person.’ Speaking of which, it also contains moments of brilliant superfluousness: ‘It was very dark inside the fish,’ the second paragraph enigmatically begins. (Though it might not be entirely superfluous if we think of Jonah = poet, whale = career. It’s a stretch, but quite likely intended.)
      ‘My Plan,’ a pastiche send-up of poetics, contains famous quotes from the likes of Olson and Stein, as well as ‘anti-theory’ statements (perhaps cribbed from Poetry Flash?) tipped in: ‘Would you look at the actual car or only at the specifications?’ Reading this, I can’t help but think that Bromige’s ‘plan,’ at least with respect to the work in this collection, is the manifestation of a loose, creative scrutiny of the site(s) of poetry’s creation and reception.
      My experience has been that, very generally, poets tend to think the satirist or parodist of poetry ‘hates’ same, or is disgruntled and embittered. As though no serious poet could possibly have an irreverent, light-hearted take on the ‘business’ of poetry-making. If there was, in the 80s, a resistance among more conservative types to writing that very closely examined language, there was even more  resistance — and there still is, frankly — to anything that closely examines (and does not take overly seriously) the site(s) of poetry’s production and dissemination, as though the perpetrator were some aberrant acerbic crank. For me, My Poetry is not only one of the most brilliant and original books of poetry of the 80s, but — ironically? — the most affirmative book of, and on poetry, I can think of. And it has more to do with contemporary poetry — not only the self-awareness of my own generation, but the multiplicity of poetries being written in this culture in 2002 — than any other book I can think of. In every sense, it precedes us.

Jacket 22 — May 2003  Contents page
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