David Bromige (1933 – 2009)

17Jun09

The other day I received the news that David Bromige — mentor, friend, and comrade in poetic wit — passed away peacefully at his home in Sebastopol.  I met David while I was a student at Sonoma State University and we became fast friends.  Initially I was introduced to him and his work via my grandfather, but I decided it was a good idea to read some of his writing before popping in to his office for the first time.  I found a copy of one of his books — Desire: Selected Poems 1963-1987 — down at the secondhand bookstore and proceeded to read it cover to cover.  I think I had some crazy idea that by reading through the book I would somehow achieve two goals: 1) I would already have at least some idea of who the man I would be meeting might be, and 2) we would share a common subject to talk about.  And then in the middle of it all, before walking through the door to meet the man you think you’re going to meet, you read something like this:

Person

I want to lie in the greasewood
with a rifle & pick off
strangers that pass in cars.
Who knows me, really.
It’s all an act.  But secretly
someone is alive in here,
someone I want you to meet.

Needless to say, I was rather more nervous than less when I went to knock on David’s door.   But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried at all since the person who I met — fedora and beautiful beard as first impression — turned out to be exactly the secret someone that wanted to be met.  But not exatly that person at all, exactly, but rather another person entirely — a person beautifully infected by insatiable habits of poetic thinking and wit who, because of this, could sometimes be multitudes, or sometimes the one, or sometimes not that one at all.

During the course of his career David published over 30 books, many of them wildly divergent in style and tone.  This was a bit hard for me to get a handle on at first since my young self took as its basic assumption that the very point of being a poet was the development of a recognizable individual style — hopefully something new and radical that would overturn previous assumptions and recognizable forms and force a radical change in the very way that poetry was thought of.  But what David was interested in, I was to come to learn, wasn’t some kind of comforting narrative about poetic individuality or the uniqueness of poetic voice; rather he was interested in language itself.  Language as a form of life.  It was Wittgenstein who famously said that a language is a form of life, but I think that David’s take on this was even sharper in some ways.  Language may be a form of life in general, but language itself is not always alive and — in world of consumer-inflected zombie phrases that continue to circulate forever while they eat as many brains as possible — can just as often be said to be dead or dying. Tom Tomorrow’s regularly brilliant This Modern World strip plays on the trope of dead language all the time by brutally revealing the empty content value of so many of the language chunks that present themselves as ‘common sense’ forms of thinking within the popular mind.  This, I think, is one of the reasons that David never settled on a particular style, a particular format of language use — to settle in such a way would have been to somehow choose sides and let the potentialities inherent in a certain attitude of generosity and openness toward all kinds of language use remain stillborn.  As D.A. Powell puts in a recent Poetry Foundation post about Bromige,

David was without affiliation, though he often got lumped in with the “Language” school of poetry. He didn’t mind: at least they were doing something about what he perceived as the watering down of language’s potency. David’s political acuity translated into a healthy distrust of the conventional ways of writing, and he often built his poems around the misheard or misunderstood. “You helped me in the past,” one of his poems reads, “go on, help me in the past again.”

Helping me into the past, still, again, I can’t help associating David somehow with the flavor of the organic apple juice that was sold at the healthfood store and café that Johnny Otis used to own, the site of a reading series that  David ran for several years.  After the café closed down, David used to appear regularly on Johnny Otis’s radio show, which was broadcast live from Sebastopol on KPFA for many years on Saturday mornings.  I used to like to get up late on Saturday mornings when I lived in Oakland, put on a cup of coffee, flip on the radio, and listen for the potentiality of David’s voice.  David’s affiliations were always like this — decidedly local and yet at the same time dispersed rhizomically along a series of lay lines that led from one global poetic node to the next.  The company that David kept included luminaries like Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, and Ron Silliman, but also poets that might not be as well known outside of northern California — poets like Paul Mariah, David Fisher, and Geri Digiorno.  I think the combination of the very specific sense of locality that David was able to cultivate in his work alongside the mammoth array of literary influences that pressed themselves into the mental space of that local specificity helps to explain the almost vertiginous switching of literary registers, voices, styles, and references that can be found in David’s best writing.  This makes significant sense in relation to someone who is often billed as a Canadian poet, yet was born in London and spent the last 3o or so years of his life living in a small apple-farming town that received its name from a Ukrainian port city thousands of miles away.

I was lucky enough to be able to participate in a group reading of several of the poems from David’s 1994 book A Cast of Tens, a book that’s entirely about the question of what happens when multiple voices from multiple registers — multiple forms of consciousness, in effect — come together in dislocation, association, rupture, and suture.  As David puts it in an introductory author’s note that is at least as incisive as it is tongue-in-cheek,

Rather than wisdom texts, expressivistic witness, or formal nonsense (though these modes in pieces obtain here), these poems are constructed to be specula.  The impasto which the other modes create through explaining, hectoring, celebrating, denouncing, or concealing, in these compositions occurs where different subsets of language collide.  These moments, which are widespread, are distributed fairly evenly throughout, anti-climactic.  It is to this evenness, itself thanks to the author’s points-of-view having been ground from self-aggrandizement, to grit to glass, that the poems owe their speculative and specular nature.

There were only four readers, including David, but it was instructive to read from the scripts he had provided and to try to time our tones and vocalities in such a way that they could approximate the untamed quadrille running itself through the book’s pages.

David’s ability to work with language, his ability to shape and manipulate the flotsam and jetsam of both lyrical poetic discourse and the half-misunderstood fragment of found conversation, reminds me of nothing so much as the daemon of Socrates, a voice that Plato reports Socrates as describing in this way: “Now this began with me from my childhood ; a certain voice, which always, when it comes, turns me aside from that which I am about to do, but never impels me to do anything.”  The daemon of Socrates takes the form of an intuition — perhaps sourced from the gods — that spontaneously guides him in situations where he’s about to go astray without knowing it.  In David’s case this intuition took the form of a daemonic wit — a wit that couldn’t leave well enough alone, a wit that spontaneously would engage with anything it would come into contact with and work alchemical transformations, or perhaps even necromantic transformations that could force deadened language to live again and perform a part in the creation of madrigals that had never been imagined before.  Wit for David was never merely clever (though it was always clever), but also a kind of spell, a rare form of genius and impassioned intellectual investigation that could yoke any form of poetic consciousness to any other and always produce a curious and remarkable species, hitherto unknown to the world, in the process.

The last time I was able to visit David was during the previous summer vacation.  We sat out in his front yard with his wife and daughter and drank iced tea under a blazing Sebastopol sun with the scent of garden flowers surrounding us and the occasional bee or wasp making itself known.  David’s mental condition had been slowly deteriorating over the years, along with his body, and it was clear that his perception of where he was at wasn’t at all the same place that everyone else would say was where he was at.  But it was also clear that his wit was still intact, a kind of inventive force that kept him interested in his own mental displacements as a kind of meta-perception that would emerge from time to time in the form of humorous self consciousness.  In his poem “Vase of Fresh Language, on Entropy Plinth (7.5)” from his fantastic 2002 volume As in T as in Tether, there’s a moment at the end of the poem where the “Temazepam spansule” he had taken for his foot pain kicks in and creates its own language via the inability of the hands to keep getting down on the page what the mind has in mind.  David’s note about the poem says that he found it on the computer the morning after writing it.  It goes like this:

The other has been ingested
I stand in the safeway & smile
Looking at I dunno what its mincemeat
The other’s inside, trusted
White sparrow in old tree
Snake stones in the cold desideratum
Society calls mind, & we call shots
We walk together side by side
Liking our heights, our gaits
Something we do together
So we won’t go gaga
over pipeline

Snake eyes enthralls
The vuu’sa lue bals”
Dancxing is dio? xionxept
Talking while cannibals’urn sreetr ibtoi abarris, mjusnuáphnas

David was the kind of poet, the kind of person, who was able to let concept become ‘xionxept’ and let that xionxept live on its own terms — a rare and distinct person, a unicum, a hapax, a friend who will be sorely missed even as his infectious wit continues its forays and seed plantings.  A type of Johnny Appleseed.

You can read more thoughts and reflections about David’s life here.

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One Response to “David Bromige (1933 – 2009)”

  1. 1 D. A. Powell

    Dear Trane,

    Your tribute to David is graceful and intelligent: fitting, for such a graceful and intelligent man. And I realize that the ambiguity of my previous sentence could mean either David or you. In which case it is no ambiguity at all.

    I look forward to seeing you next time you’re here.

    Much love,

    Doug


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