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In Memoriam: David Bromige

By D.A. Powell

“Poetry is the theory of heartbreak” — David Bromige (October 22, 1933 to June 3, 2009)
Photo by James Garrahan

Endowed with remarkable wit and a prodigious memory, David Bromige was a paragon of poetic virtues. Not only was he a master of both traditional and innovative forms, but, as a teacher, he exhibited enormous erudition and generosity.

David’s output included dozens of books of his own poems, as well as broadsides and chapbooks, collaborations, fiction, essays, plays. He co-wrote songs with Barry Gifford. And he brought to his public readings a true gift for performance and improvisation. His honors included the Western States Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and two awards from the Poetry Foundation.

I met David Bromige in 1985, when I landed at Sonoma State University for my fourth attempt at a college degree. David taught poetry writing, a course I had every hope to excel at, though I had nothing approaching either work ethic nor talent. But somewhere in my admittedly terrible fledgling poems—written on a manual typewriter so gunked-up one could scarcely distinguish an “e” from a “c”—David found a thread of promise, and he encouraged me to continue writing. In addition to the poets I already liked, he prodded me to read people I’d never heard of: Charles Olson, John Ashbery, Robert Hass, Elizabeth Bishop.

Our classroom was in the theatre department, and it was furnished with ungodly dilapidated sofas, stained with various fluids of both the caffeinated and the human varieties. David hated the florescent lights, so each week he’d wheel in a luggage cart filled with assorted table lamps, which he’d methodically hook—with a network of extension cords— to far-flung wall sockets. In those days, one could poll the students as to whether they preferred a “smoking” or a “non-smoking” classroom. My classmates and I elected for “smoking.”

And so each week we’d sprawl on the sagging couches, reading poems reproduced in purple ink on a ditto machine, and David would sit cross-legged in the center of the room, sigh deeply, smile, and praise even the most sickly poems, though he often seemed to pass first through a period of deep physical pain before he’d bless us with that smile and praise.

Though the school hardly seemed to have the funds, David would always find enough money to bring Sir Stephen Spender, Allen Ginsberg, Cole Swensen. For a semester, we had Robert Grenier in residence; his quirky minimalist poems taped to the wall outside David’s office.

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.”

I think I probably took 18 classes from David Bromige, including my undergraduate classes and my graduate courses. After completing my B. A., I hung around and did an M. A. in English. In 1993, as I was working on my thesis, the state of California—suffering from a budget crisis, as always—extended a “golden handshake” offer to faculty at the top of the salary scale. It was a handsome deal, and David was one of many who were drawn into early retirement. One of the requirements, though, was that the retiree would have to cease work immediately; not even finishing out the semester. This would have left me without my poetry advisor. David graciously offered to oversee the completion of my studies without pay.

Most of the courses I took from David Bromige were directed studies, under the odd heading of “Alternative Major.” I was pursuing an alternative education with this man, though I don’t know “alternative” to what. I hadn’t thrived in the workshop environment; it was far too public; too rife with odd kinds of scrutiny. But in the less-structured courses, where I would write and read under David’s tutelage, I found what Robert Duncan—David’s mentor—had called “that place of first permission.”

The last time we visited, he was as sharp and funny as I remembered, though he seemed to fade in and out of the conversation. He was convinced that there was a town just like the one he lived in just a few miles away, and I couldn’t tell if he was giving me a bit of his classic deadpan put-on or if he was under the influence. His wife, Cecilia, always by his side in those last months, slipped me a note. “Dementia,” it said. Some days good, some days not. This moment, in a fine restaurant with Cecilia, me, and some unremarkable boy who was kind enough to drive me to Sebastopol, David was his most charming and charismatic self. He was the teacher I had loved; my Virgil; my guide.

Filled with paradoxes and quiet inquiries into the cognitive domain of language, David Bromige’s poetry—an extension of his complex and original mind—resonates with me daily. Nervously dodging the shadowy spectre of my own mortality, I remember how vital David Bromige’s presence was. Ever quick to turn a serious moment into something both light and memorable. “Save time,” he once wrote. “Kill it.”

Comments (7)

  • On June 10, 2009 at 11:42 am Don Share wrote:

    Dictation – David Bromige

    At last the gods have left me
    free to do
    wherever I am moved,

    am I forbidden? then
    remember to forget,
    if also only by,

    old patterns grave
    others wove in me –
    abandoned

    where I am
    right, he is
    wrong to me,

    but in his own
    right, right, as day
    to me Pacific

    over London lies
    night, & rightly so,
    what though I take it lightly?

    Free to believe
    whatever
    will I will

    I am, I
    have that right
    I’ve heard.

    - Poetry, March 1968

  • On June 10, 2009 at 3:06 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Great post D.A. Powell.

    Here’s a link to a site hosted by David Bromige’s family. Lots of people have posted memories and tributes there:

    http://bromige.wordpress.com/memories-thoughts-reflections/

    Kent

  • On June 11, 2009 at 12:24 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Very moving piece, Doug. Thanks.

  • On June 12, 2009 at 6:55 am Rachel Loden wrote:

    Beautiful post, Doug. Hard to imagine a better remembrance of the man. Thanks for this gift, which I treasure.

  • On June 12, 2009 at 11:55 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    David Bromige was a sweet and saucy man. I particularly appreciated that he showed up for our 40-year reunion of Berkeley 1968 poets last year. I always thought, ah, someday we’ll hang out. And there’s mortality for you. Talking about closure. Here’s Bromige translating Rilke into Californian:

    First Rilke, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

    Autumn

    Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
    Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
    and on the meadows let the wind go free.

    Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
    grant them a few more warm transparent days,
    urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
    the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

    Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
    Whoever is alone will stay alone,
    will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
    and wander along the boulevards, up and down,
    restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

    Now Bromige:

    Fall

    (Rilke into Californian)

    Man, where’d the time go? Detroit?.
    But summer was really, really great.

    Stand that side of the sundial, will ya?
    I want to dig the shadows.

    Robert Duncan’s freaking in the meadow.

    Those apples can’t get a whole lot riper.
    Give em a couple more hot days.
    My friends who have the winery are already making the wine.

    It’s getting chilly, nights. If you don’t have a pad by now,
    Too bad. If you’re not seeing someone
    You’re likely stuck that way, they went back to school.

    Crack a book yourself. Write in Starbucks.
    Go walkabout downtown. [Time passes]. Hey, lookit
    the leaves, wind, etc. doing their thing. Rustle rustle.
    Contrast and compare yourself. Cool!

  • On June 17, 2009 at 3:08 am Layne Russell wrote:

    http://davidbromigepoet.com

    The site was originally going to be the official David Bromige site, with David’s blessing. Now it is a goodbye.

  • On June 22, 2009 at 11:19 pm Jim Lyle wrote:

    The distance between the places we lived and practiced poetry were considerable, but I have enjoyed David’s work. I myself turned to poetry late in life; I wish time a distance were not
    so large and so dear.

    Jim Lyle (Past Lake County Poet Laurate)


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, June 10th, 2009 by D.A. Powell.