Prose from Poetry Magazine

William Bronk

1918–1999

by Kay Ryan
I love to open the big book of William Bronk poems, Life Supports, and read one at random. It doesn’t matter which one shows up because they all release the same bracing smell and parch of stone, the same chill of stone in the shade. I don’t remember a single individual Bronk poem, and I don’t know if they’re actually memorable; anyhow, they don’t matter to me in that way. For me they’re like the small brown bottle my grandmother carried in her purse and sniffed for the pick-me-up jolt.

However little you thought you’d been trafficking in surfaces and ornament, after a Bronk poem you realize it was much too much; however cleansed of illusions you believed yourself to be, it looks like they built up anyhow. Bronk takes them off like paint stripper. You’re shriven, your head is shaved. The experience is religious in its ferocity and disdain for cheap solace.

Here, let me open to a poem—and I swear this one just turned up:

Wanting the significance that cause and effect
might have (we see it in little things where it is)
not seeing it in any place
important to us (it is in our lives but in ways

that deny each other) and the totality,
I suppose, is what I mean—it isn’t there—
we look around: the possibilities,
dreams and diversions, whatever else there is.
The Effect of Cause Despaired


If you aren’t familiar with Bronk, maybe this doesn’t thrill you. But if you are, it’s like dropping the needle down into the endless groove of an implacable, insatiable, relentless intelligence that allows itself not the least shred of consolation, not the thinnest veil of protection. Bronk’s poems are almost entirely abstract and disembodied, like the poem above, his language desiccated but also conversationally halting and embedded. There is no flesh, no world, precious little metaphor—as though every human attachment is cheating. If anything seems to work—such as cause and effect—it never adds up to anything. “We look around,” and, in the absence of any system that could explain our actions to ourselves, whatever “dream” or “diversion” we cook up is understood to be just that—a distraction from nothing.

Bronk is thinking and thinking, as purely as possible, about how we want—want not to be alone, want things to matter, want to feel that we are connected to reality. His poems are all about wanting and how there is no end to it. And about how whatever reality is, it is something we only know in the negative—by being constantly wrong about it.

Bronk’s body of work is a strange achievement which it is hard not to call brave. There is such a grave honor in its repetitiveness, how it harps on what it can’t have, and how it won’t bend—can’t bend. If I say that Bronk’s poems are like blocks of stone, similar, but each slightly different and fitted one to another, and if I say that one experiences a strange exhilaration and release in the presence of the stark monument they form, then I am echoing Bronk’s own description of the stonework of Machu Picchu in “An Algebra Among Cats,” my favorite essay in his remarkable book of essays, Vectors and Smoothable Curves.

Bronk is compelled by the “plain perfection” of Machu Picchu’s stones, whose “surfaces have been worked and smoothed to a degree just this side of that line where texture would be lost.” Standing among them, he feels released from the idea of time as moving from past to future and the accompanying illusion of human progress: “It is at least as though there were several separate scales of time; it is even as though for certain achievements of great importance, this city for example, there were a continuing present which made those things always contemporary.”

There are moments of aesthetic transport which weld beauty to beauty, occasional angles which offer a glimpse of something endless and compelling. Bronk feels it in the presence of the pure artifacts of Machu Picchu; I get a touch of it in the presence of Bronk.
Originally Published: February 28, 2006

COMMENTS (7)

On November 16, 2007 at 8:27pm Randy Gilmore wrote:
I have read Kay Ryans appreciation of Bill bronks poetry with a sense of recognition. She gets it, as much as Bill could ever be gotten. His sidelong glimpses of reaity continue to haunt those who knew him, and continue to read him.

On January 23, 2009 at 10:26am Guy B. Stiles wrote:
Some years ago I wrote the following haiku with William Bronk in mind...

Looking for something

central he found nothing but

even so rejoiced.

On September 8, 2009 at 6:40pm Ned DeLamatre wrote:
I like epigrams and aphorisms and I like
William Bronk's work.

On May 26, 2010 at 11:36am Sue Fishbein wrote:
I "discovered" William Bronk via a nod in his "direction" from Albert Goldbarth.
And so I welcomed Kay Ryan's appreciation. And through the experience of being exposed to his work/thoughts I arrive at the kind of inchoate recognition that can come from being in the presence of the lowing vibrations of a huge bronze gong, its enormous sound waves moving so slowly as to apear immobile; & yet we are seized, frozen, held in their implacable embrace.

On June 10, 2011 at 10:43pm Jack DuVall wrote:
What Bill Bronk admitted that he saw, through ideas of the world, was closer to the temperament of classic mysticism than he would have agreed to believe. He understood the great paradox that we are given glimpses of an indefinable state of reality outside the theatre of our lives, while those lives appear to remain fixed in what is finite. So he concluded that whatever animates that superordinate reality has other purposes than satisfying us. Yet I don't think he ever doubted that the joy in a brilliant line or a loving goodbye was outside of time. He confessed what he did not know and made no assumptions based on mere hope. But the music that he heard playing in the next room, he knew he had heard.

On July 10, 2011 at 11:59pm William R. Stimson wrote:
I live in Taiwan. The day before yesterday, over on the east side of the
island, I stayed at a house where they kept a wild pig in a cage that
was too small for it. I noticed the way the pig moved in its cage. It
needed more. It needed to be what it was. Its situation didn't much
allow for that. Part of the mastery and greatness that I see in so
many of the poems of William Bronk is that they don't just paint some
of our most fundamental and recognizable desires and needs as
human beings - the need for communication, the need to be together
with one another, etc. - but they also show how the cage we are all
in, is somehow too small for all that. Our concepts don't do justice
to ourselves, or to reality. There's something far more real. Our
longing, our desire, is closer to what this is than perhaps anything
else that we can know.

On April 21, 2012 at 6:30am Joseph Duemer wrote:
I read Bronk -- & have been doing so for thirty years --
the same way Kay Ryan does, the way my mother used to open
the bible at random, looking for consolation. You might
find some consolation in the bible (though, really,
precious little), but you won't find a shred of it in
William Bonk's poems & essays. Unless of course you take
consolation from seeing someone stare unblinking into the
abyss.

POST A COMMENT

Poetryfoundation.org welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This prose originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2006

Related

Audio Video Article Authors Events Discussion Guides
 Kay  Ryan

Biography

Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Ryan's tightly compressed, rhythmically dense poetry is often compared to that of Emily . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.