Review of The "Winter Mind"

The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters. Burt Kimmelman. 1998. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. (211 pp.) ISBN 0 8386-3790-6.

The "Winter Mind" is, astonishingly, the first book-length investigation into William Bronk's life of ideas and works. Across some fifty years Bronk has been constructing an expansion of 20th-century poetic epistemology, an expansion still largely unexplored by others. The value of this study at such a late point in the century is that it summarily confounds dismissive readings of Bronk as a minimalist hermit, and calls into question the decades-long critical indifference to Bronk's achievements on the part of the Academy and poet colleagues.

To render a life of the poet's mind, Kimmelman dispenses with biodata text comparisons, and devises author-specific analytical categories like geography, solitude and, paradoxically, for Bronk, presence. Kimmelman concentrates on closely reading the small but radically revelatory prose works, as well as large portions of the verse, to distinguish lines of development in Bronk's thinking and to suggest how this development partakes of and advances American poetic tradition.

The "Winter Mind" places Bronk, who has lived most of his eight decades in Hudson Falls, NY -- within a few miles of the Vermont border -- squarely among the flinty, intractably philosophy-crazed men and women of New York and New England: Bradstreet, Taylor, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, and more contemporaneous, Oppen, Olson, Creeley, Corman. Kimmelman's analytical narrative establishes Bronk as an exemplar of that Yankee tradition, and invokes Bronk's ancestors and teachers in a geography of "house," "friendship" and "time." Kimmelman then spins The "Winter Mind" into superordinate control by crossreferencing these geographical categories of house, time, etc. with less stable taxonomic desginations, such as a "geography of ignorance" and a "geography of language." Kimmelman's chapter on "solitude" illustrates further how Yankee Bronk relinquishes freedom-impinging, externalized identity, typified by Whitman's communion with the world, to achieve a stand-alone consciousness that is the fated and -- key to Kimmelman -- epistemic result of a geography of ignorance and worldlessness. Yet Kimmelman suggests that Bronk cannot settle even for this model formulation, since Bronk holds out for a more scrupulous freedom, one that imagines an "abnegation of solitude," abnegation which accumulates as poetic responsibility, and which in the ur-logic of The "Winter Mind" comes to demonstrate Bronk's lifetime renouncement of the comfortably ideal.

While, as noted, Kimmelman does not attempt a biographical palimpsest to decipher Bronk, the most distinctive feature to this study is its interpretation of Bronk's longer poems as sanguine traces of a biography of mind, a quasi-personal history of ideas that -- given the poet's extravagant privacy -- can only be hinted at. The beautiful Bronk poem "The Smile on the Face of a Kouros" lends its symmetry to a chapter on Bronk's figurative and literal bachelorhood, close in step with forbearers, Dickinson and Whitman. Still, another chapter on "presence" elucidates how Bronk has rocked American verse down to its Judeo-Christian roots, in shifting, first, from the nature- and world-dependent spiritualism of Dickinson and Whitman, and, second, from the positivist/protestant skepticism of Frost, Stevens and their descendants. According to Kimmelman, Bronk's indeterminate "presence," absent natural descriptors, is epistemologically novel and specific to our own intellectual era. Kimmelman's analysis nicely unfolds how the verse "The Dream of a World of Objects" functions as a paean to the disappearance, for Bronk, of imagery and Bronk's apprehending his own "alterity" to the possibility of description, to possibility of natural reality -- an alterity funded by an "unobservable" quantum reality, coincident with theoretical constructs of philosopher Paul Feyerabend and physicist Werner Heisenberg.

Another dimension to The "Winter Mind" is how it contends with the puzzle of Bronk's orchestrating language and imagery to undermine ideas of reality referenced by language and imagery. In the first part of the poem "Local Landscapes," for example, Bronk calmly maintains:

The referent of worldly qualities
by which I mean the goods of this world
whether it be beauty of body, keenness
of mind, or any grace whatever, besides,
is not to this world but to somewhere else
unaffected by qualities or acts
of them, deaf-mute, sufficient to itself.

If this were pure prose, we might regard Bronk as prima facie true to his conviction that the world is elsewhere, not our world. Kimmelman concludes that Bronk's world is happily of a different order of truth, that indeed the "empty world is dear to him is revealed more in the language he uses to describe it than in his direct assertions of its ultimate failure to provide...meaning" (177). While Bronk insists on another world "unaffected" by nature, Kimmelman maintains that Bronk "undermines this claim by disclosing his intimacy with the natural world" and this intimacy, conveyed by language, is "the difference between poetry and philosophy" (177).

Bronk is at last fortunate to have a participant-observer like Kimmelman to uncork the genie, as it were, of such joyfully rigorous poetic realization. Apart from the expected scouring through university and private archives, Kimmelman has invested much of his research in direct conversation and correspondence with Bronk, as well as with Bronk's publishers James Weil and Edward Foster, with Linda Oppen, daughter of George Oppen, and with Bronk's longtime friend and champion, Cid Corman. Kimmelman in addition provides an invaluable bibliography of Bronk's primary works of verse and essays, secondary works and materials, and a helpful timeline from Bronk's birth to present day. These are supplementary matters, however, compared to Kimmelman's chief accomplishment, assembling a set of interpretive categories and philosophical insights to highten the exhilaration for current and new readers of William Bronk.