"I love to open the big book of William Bronk poems, Life Supports, and read one at random."
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 effectmight have (we see it in little things where it is)not seeing it in any placeimportant to us (it is in our lives but in waysthat 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.
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)...