Reality Check

William Bronk's Swan Song Does Not Go Gently.

WILLIAM BRONK'S FINAL collection of poems, Metaphor of Trees, makes more of a beginning out of itself than do most other poet's last poems; in this way Bronk continues to stubbornly separate himself from the rest of humanity's race to make sense of senses, even in death.

These poems keep the pace that all Bronk's other volumes did, with perhaps only a hint of giving in, or giving up the doubting. The questions he kept insisting on kept him out of the mystic's realm, but near it. More than feeling, the poet is asking.

Bronk is the poet of animation of the hopelessly inanimate. By rendering words nearly useless (the verses stripped of as much metaphor and image as possible), he reveals their boundlessness. The process is much like constructing a robot for its agility and dexterity, only to unplug it, so that you might discuss it only in terms of its potential, its form, its structure, rather than what it does when it is employing all its best tricks.

It's the human's intellectual and spiritual form Bronk was concerned with, not so much the body. Or rather, not one body, but the collective body and how its functions do or do not betray "reality":

I swim in the water of the world and meet its feel

of me, the supple glidings. I swim with those

who as if grow gills for breathing under and those

who fish and coffer the water and those who all

but liquefy to meld the flow.

Bronk saw the seeing of an object and the naming of it before he ever saw the object itself. If he were not a poet he might be confused with a Trekkie; such are the lengths his poems will go in their tireless excavations of what is or is not Real.

Bronk strips the world bare to the stark hearts of things, and with the sheer will of only their context left, words have their way, as they shudder, shimmer and shift out of their original cocoon to reveal mirrored wings of multiple meanings. The poet does this inside the microcosm of, for example, a pronoun's means, not in the adding of narrative's decorum or decorative adjectives. Bronk is the brainiac's lyric poet; it is his business to essentialize and distill into a philosophical pill. Take myth, love, death or fear in a neat swallow: He takes on any of the biggies and whips them good, as if to make words better players, as if to construct palpability, a pulplessness. The poem's economic systems show the poet's impatience for all things partial. He is a poet of the whole of things, looking through a broken lens.

While still one-celled, as much of it still is

the life that brought me here had us all in mind

It takes its own time what next to make

and then it does and discards them afterward

It doesn't get whatever it wants.

It is very serious, this poetizing with only a stanza to say it in; each poem poses its point with poisonous potency. The poems are in the tradition of Rilke only in that they send it home ("love and rage and sorrow don't look for us"); similar to Stevens in their measurements, but not in their whimsy ("everness is also a neverness"); and aligned with Celan in their concern about a word's discerning ability ("a name is most of what can be found of us").

Bronk's books make so tight and tenacious a fortress that when he died last year I caught myself shocked; the bastion of his verse, its internal, subterranean pioneering, seemed an impenetrable, protected venture--he was 81 when he died. Yet his mortality he prepared for in over two dozen books of poems. Death was a subject he never let go out of his mouth; I mean he kept it in, in order to make life's meaning out of it.

In the poem "Three Pears This Time," the poet asserts "the three pears are not the subject here," and proceeds to uproot the subjective sight itself in its shuffling of "is " and "it" under syntactical cups. This is a tightroper's walk; such turns of phrase make their pirouette on the mere width of a pronoun or part of speech, causing the reader to examine not content but contextualization.

Bronk likes to let it all ride on the repetition of, say, "its" or "is," letting readers lift out their own method of meaning-making. He shows a word's character by repetition of it, simultaneously nullifying and liberating it.

The analogy to such syntactical feats is the acrobat's illumination of the precariousness of life in a walk over the abyss without a net, and having made it across, the subsequent revelation of the expanse and vigor of humanity.

If you can get your mind over that thin line you might make a new end out of things. It is a poet's job above all to make us at least consider changing our lives.

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