Ruin Bares Us: William Bronk and the Poetics of Demolition

William Bronk is a chronically neglected poet. He occasionally gets a blip of attention—for instance, when his poem “Midsummer” was cited in Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04—but those articles are more interested in explaining why he’s obscure than encouraging readers to give his work serious consideration. It’s unfortunate. While he has garnered the enthusiasm of a wide range of contemporary writers—poets such as Joseph Massey, John Taggart, and US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, as well as fiction writer Lydia Davis—his poetry never seems to take.

Of course, one may guess the source of this neglect: think “poetry” and its typical associations—lush language, music, metaphor, description—and you’ve just described everything a Bronk poem is not. But that’s precisely the reason we should be reading him. The value of Bronk is his relentless skepticism regarding almost all conventional poetic means.

Yet Bronk’s skepticism is not mere PoMo “problematizing.” The stakes are high: his writing is fueled by a “want” or “desire”—favorite words for Bronk—for “the world” or reality in the largest sense. And it’s clear that for Bronk, that desire can never be fulfilled, especially by language:

How almost like the beasts, with only barks

and cries we are, so tangent is any speech

to all we know.

But Bronk doesn’t merely shrug and say everything is “beyond words.” He turns language’s failure into an asset. As he explains in his essay “Copan: Historicity Gone”:  “It is by our most drastic failures that we may perhaps catch glimpses of something real, of something which is.” He puts it more succinctly in his poem “On the Street”: “Ruin bares us.”

For Bronk, writing is ruin, something that appears to have once been inhabited and whole, but is now an expression of absence: “Thought is what we think and then shed; / We turn and look back on thought, lamenting it” (“Beatific Effigies” LS ). This shattered indication of what was once there is the best poetry has to offer:

People are passing; I look in passing at them.

Look, how the light comes down through them: they glow.

Once, I grasped at one. Oh, it was sweet.

It had nothing to do with me, or anyone. (“Passing” LS 182)

A poem is to reality as a lens is to light: the seemingly important thing—the light, the world—is what passes through. And passing is the right word here, connoting both something transitory, on its way to elsewhere (what Emerson called abandonment), and also something that’s dead, the mere remains of the living—ruins.

However, this is not merely a thematic concern, or a theoretical description of all language as such. Ruin, or more specifically, the process of ruination, is an essential poetic technique for Bronk. Take this brief untitled poem:

The truth has many forms which are not its form
If it has one. What has a form of its own
Or, having, is only it? There is truth.

The first line and a half forms a series of small demolitions: The opening statement “The truth has many forms” is immediately questioned/contradicted by “which are not its form.” Then both the statement and its contradiction are reduced to the merely hypothetical: “If it has one.” Next, the notion of form itself is questioned, then dismissed as irrelevant, whether it exists or not.

By the end, the poem has abandoned everything that it attempted to predicate of “the truth.” All that’s left is the bare word, sans definite article: a placeholder for something we cannot have or know, hitched to an impersonal expletive construction, seemingly indifferent to human agency.

Language as Invitation: Robert Hass’s “The Problem of Describing Trees”

I’ve had “something” on my mind lately. A tool of conversational evasion and non-committal compliments (“Wow, that sure is…something!”), “something” isn’t typically viewed as the stuff of poetry. It’s not euphonious. It’s a pronoun in search of a referent. What use could poetry possibly have for such a prosaic, homely, and hazy term?

Yet I’m struck by how many poets and writers have lavished attention on “something.” David Ferry is a heavy user (see, for instance, “Scrim”); Annie Dillard perfectly employs it in the final paragraph of this essay; Robert Frost capitalizes on its murky qualities in the appropriately titled, “For Once, Then, Something” (also the poem’s parting words).

“Something” is central to this poem by Robert Hass:

The Problem of Describing Trees

The aspen glitters in the wind.
And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,
Because that motion in the heat of summer
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Mountains, sky,
Aspens doing something in the wind.

That “something” is hard won. The poem takes the via negativa, depicting the process of trying to describe “what the tree did,” rejecting a few options, and finally resigning itself to not so much naming what the tree does as gesturing in its general direction.  Drop your linguistic hubris, Hass seems to say (disenchanting/disabusing us); “something” is the best you can do.

In this interview, Hass comments on this poem and language as such: “Wittgenstein said, ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world,’ which I don’t think is quite true… [A]t some point, it dawns on you that you just—we don’t have a language for what would be the experience of a tree.”

But I want to resist the cliché that the tree can’t be put into words, or is beyond words, or any other spatial metaphor we resort to when we say language doesn’t work the way we want it to. For instance, I appreciate that Hass’s “something” is surrounded by elemental terms: mountain, sky, wind. There’s a haiku-like beauty in such stark naming. It’s like he’s showing us what language can describe.

He also seems to suggest that language can do more than name. It can offer praise (the title of Hass’s second book), a kind of language that respects things without grasping at them. I think of Bronk’s “To Praise The Music,” a poem that’s also about the problem of describing trees:

I praise. If only to say their songs,
say yes to them, to praise the songs they sing.
Envied music. I sing to praise their song.

Finally, my attention is drawn to the italicised line: “Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.” Language not as naming, but invitation, an openness to things, calling both trees and poet to dance.

A Portrait of the Vanishing Subject: On David Ferry’s “Who Is It?”

I am not I if there be such an I…
                               —Romeo and Juliet (3.2)

   Portrait. Decayed daguerreotype; artist unknown

I was excited to see a new poem by David Ferry in the latest Threepenny Review:

Who Is It?

Here inside this fiction of myself,
Two voices I always hear, both of them mine,
I guess, one of them telling the truth, I guess.
I don’t know which one it is that’s telling the truth,

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

Always like this. Always it’s been like this.
The one that told my parents who I was,
And told my wife who I was, and told my children,
And told whoever it was I was talking to
So help me god, telling the truth, so help me. 

[link to poem]

I love how this shatters just about every writing workshop bromide I can think of. So many abstract terms: there is not one vivid image or word; even the people mentioned are mere categories: children, parents, wife; it buzzes along in passive voice, is-ing and especially was-ing, employing many verboten expletive constructions. Its pronouns point unconvincingly, like busted weathervanes, at something that seems to have passed.

But these are surface/stylistic considerations. If we continue to look through the workshop/pedagogical lens, and ask “What is the setting?” we see the poem thumbs its nose at that as well: “Here inside the fiction of myself.” “Here” is murky, suggesting merely that the poem is near its subject, which is, it appears, “the subject,” the selfhood of the speaker.

After informing us that that self is a “fiction,” the speaker** goes on to use “I,” as if the poem didn’t just call that very notion into question. In any case, we learn that “the two voices” inside the speaker both belong to him, and that one of them is telling the truth. But each of these claims is followed by a verbal shrug, “I guess,” transforming assertion into shaky surmise.   

I don’t want to belabor this poem—and fear I already have—but I do want to draw your attention to the astonishing second stanza:

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

This reminds me of the extreme abstraction of parts of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas In Meditation, almost anything by William Bronk, or certain passages in Creeley:

it was all now
and in
was oneself again

(from “A Feeling”)

The question is, why does Ferry use such vague, circuitous, and redundant language to say, in effect, “I’m not sure who I am?” (Or, “I am not I” as Sidney concisely put it; see also the Shakespeare cited above). My guess is that Ferry is demonstrating how difficult it is for anyone “to tell the truth” when answering the poem’s title/question, “Who is it?”

Ferry’s poem, then, is a portrait, not of the self, but of the difficulty of “telling” the self. It’s been said that the self is the sum of our memories. And recently, neuroscientists have pointed out that each time we recall a memory, the memory is changed by very act of being recalled. As Daniela Schiller puts it, you don’t “remember the original event; you just remember your last retrieval of it.” What’s left is the memory of a memory of a memory: an umpteenth-generation photocopy, barely legible, and “true” only to the slow drift of its subject’s vanishing. Ultimately, that drift is the subject of Ferry’s poem.


**This poem demonstrates the limitations of the poem-talk convention, “the speaker”