Bronk, the Alien
Bronk, the Alien

Jack Kimball

Poetry that questions with clarity is rare. Poetry that questions such certainties as time and place and, more, deploys an abbreviated linguistic code to accent uncertainty -- this sort of poetry appears discontinuous and alien. Writers of this sort, like William Bronk, seem amused by their very connoisseurship of discontinuity, occupied by their methods and objects of avulsion from known qualities, the knowability of qualities, indeed, the whole apparatus and artistry of knowing.

To delineate a lineage for such discontinuity within 20th-century American verse, in addition to Bronk (1918-1999), as a first generation I might suggest Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky and Jack Spicer, as well as their descendants associated with a "language" poetry whose aim is to undermine passive reception of culturally logical linguistic strategies. Even though Bronk favors stark language that obliterates discourse conventions, as do Stein, Zukofsky and Spicer, Bronk's standing in this lineage can be debated on grounds of his unsubversive syntax and transparent testimony. His verse is not so experimental, far simpler in its organization and argument than that of the others. With regard to experiment, for example, Stein has suggested more opaquely than would Bronk that in her writing she "was groping toward a continuous present, a using everything a beginning again and again" ("Composition as Explanation").

Compared to Stein's lengthy process-as-presence, Spicer's colloquies that talk to themselves, and Zukofsky's frenetic appropriation of Marx, Mallarme, et al., Bronk's discursive techniques and prosodic surface are markedly conservative. Bronk makes disciplined assertions, sometimes in poems of no more than three or four lines comprising the cool and classical: embedded anaphora ("Whether what we sense of this world / is the what of this world only, or the what / of which of several possible worlds / -- which what?"); aggravated apophasis ("...there are worlds world..."); rampant paradox ("The carelessness of love is we take such care."); and antimodernist vocabulary that borders on the devotional in its embrace of "the world," of "we," of "man," of "God."

Bronk's methods are nonetheless governed by an expansive bedlam of the psychically discontinuous and unknown, an anarchy which renders his poetic objects profoundly utopian. In the fourteen-line "Unnamed" Bronk reduces uncertainty to an agnostic purity housed in a diet workshop of a sonnet, entered into by way of curt anapests leading directly to dark, iambic qualifiers:

    In the narrowest and most immediate
    view, we are named and identifiable
    as persons, noted and notarized as such.

From this entry perspective, readily discernable because it "is a way we live," Bronk's mentalist propensity gives way in his second stanza to the less usual view "from a long way back and away." Here, time-dependent wires of life and death get crossed. The knowing stance of "a way we live" evanesces into a brazen new pattern, a utopia out of time where we are just "bones," and "cells shed from the skin." Quite gleefully, "there isn't even a body to shed from." The staggering truncation in a third and last stanza is where the bidding stops and Bronk tips his anarchist hand.

    But feel vitality. Plenitude.
    Untimed. Nothings, we share in it.

The "we," Bronk's synecdoche for mankind, participates in a nothing so power-packed that "it" is "nothings" not subject to rules of syntax, expository proposition, timing or time. Similarly, within six lines from "The Imposition of Measure" time and place "thin away...beyond survey. / Beyond our here, likewise we are there." Again, Bronk is providing clarity and giving shape to mentalist search, what physicists might call a quantum phenomenon present in all its instances, and what zennists describe as conceptualizing mind, provisional, time-bound, imposed wakefulness to -- for lack of a better term -- the ineffable.

With texts like "Unnamed" and "The Imposition of Measure" Bronk holds up time in celebration of discontinuity, a stand midpoint between Stein and Spicer. All three reach through language to demonstrate possibilities of doing so, that is, possibilities of choreographing the timeless and ineffable. Spicer in After Lorca alternates between textually self-referential accounts in prose and in poetry of the "time mechanic." Spicer relies on conventional appeals to a "real" readership, however, and this strategy sidelines his chance-taking toward received sentiment. Stein's improvisations are all but too much chance drawing the reader into a now-fresh, now-obtuse no-time and no-place, "a continuous present."

Bronk's chance-taking is precise if programmatic ambiguity. Shorter works toy with paradox posing as enigma: "The life that says me poems...doesn't say itself." Slightly longer pieces cycle in dialectics: (a) pretend concession to a certain reality propped up by well-formed syntax and stolid metonymies ("the general want," "the evasive," the "something" that "wants through") and (b) the inevitable, nearly pious breakdown of pretense. That Bronk's estrangement from certainty is so certain exposes his poetry to attack as dogma and parody by paraphrase. Despite a whittled diction and minimalist formality, there are excesses: patchwork pronouncement ("our now is always...having no past or future[.] Here's an eternity."); plain talk on a grandiose scale ("Sky, trees: / earth is believable."); stoical wordplay ("Our lives corrected prevalent errors. / The corrections prevail in irrelevance.").

Program, excesses and all, Bronk is rigorous demonstrator of his expanding errancy. Once you concede his flaws, the pretense of resistance evaporates, because Bronk's is a discontinuity not said, but shown. And, in fine, his clarity trumps other criteria:

We are in the real world as ghosts are in this world... The matter of the real world passes through us... the link may be a projection without conforming, like the relation between an airplane and its shadow on the earth, which in following the lateral, or better, circumferential flight of the plane, goes up and down with the contours of the ground, or glides across the water though the plane climbs or descends. ("Copan: For Shirley Clarke")
The real world. And this world. Bronk's ambiguity raises the alien prospect as a perspective and discipline, while his psychic transparency -- as "projection without conforming" -- mimes how these worlds collide.