This piece originally appeared in Issue 3.38 (Spring 2019)
“There’s nothing funny / about me,” David Bromige says in “A Sense of Humor’s Soliloquy” (American Testament). It seems that we can only find ways to define Bromige there where he is not. He slips out from under any definitive terms, including those that he applies to himself and his work. He says, “the most/frightening thing about/being unsure of/who I really am/is that somebody/out there will/tell me” (American Testament). But he never quite escapes the dilemma. That he is a humourist, as I would like to claim, is proven by the evidence of laughter. The laughter is participatory. It ranges from unknowing chuckles, often delayed, to the wisdom of immediate, uncontrollable guffaws. When it backfires, it backfires on him as well. In humour, such moments invariably give pleasure, even, or principally, when they govern pain. Consider, for example, the horror underlying these lines from the American humourist S.J. Perelman’s critique of the culture industry (“Strictly from Hunger”):
The violet hush of twilight was descending over Los Angeles as my hostess, Violet Hush, headed toward Hollywood. In the distance the glow of huge piles of burning motion- picture scripts lit up the sky. The crisp tang of frying writers and directors whetted my appetite. How good it was to be alive, inhaling deep lungfuls of carbon monoxide. Suddenly our powerful Gatti-Cazazza slid to a stop in the traffic.
Then compare these lines from Bromige’s Red Hats:
And an upper limit, song: A suit of pants that bears a dipstick’s traces; a picture postcard of the john in Macy’s. Child Rolande to the back door came. Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me not into Thames Station.
Humour, or Witz, “the umbilical cord of parole,” as Bromige says, after Lacan, is the outerwear of a humour, a cast of mind — one that opens itself to the unconscious, to the eruption of error within the confines of intention, not through the loosening of attention, but through the rigours of a plan. Or so he says. But then sometimes Bromige visibly and deliberately breaks the very rules he’s adopted or devised. This might be called “tight corners and what’s around them.”
The writing practices he employs are vast: from wiseacre apothegms to carefully constructed aphorisms à la Rochefoucauld or Adorno, from absolute unsense to elegant lyric, from parody to “sincere” personal narrative, all undermined by the undermind, or Niederschrift — “underwriting” or the “nether side” of speech, as he fruitfully (mis)translates it. A list could not exhaust them and these strategies or modes don’t obey a chronology. Bromige is already a crowd in his appropriately titled first book, The Gathering, as he is in the last, Indictable Suborners. The first book establishes a “polysubjected writing” (his term), in such a manner that, from there on in, truth and lies have the same fictional status. Take a look at the portraits that accompany many of his books, for example the photograph at the back of the book Desire, and the one taken years later on the cover of if wants to be the same as is.1 His trademark white shirt and tie, and the charming smile that says, “I am lying.” And this is not irony, unless, as he says, “unless / a white shirt and tie / are irony” (American Testament). Or, in a more complex moment, “Irony, the name for the gap between ideology and reality, finds itself anathematized, telling through its suppression a truth about the present” (Indictable Suborners). Or,
To read my poetry as ironized is to read only halfway into it. It is to stop short of the requisite further step, which is to overcome one’s timidity
in the face of an apparent irony and take the risk that the phrase, line, sentence, piece has more than irony to other; the reader is called on to feel this experience through, and this is deliberate: the convictions we arrive at in triumphing over misgiving are the only ones that will last…2
Perhaps a better gure than irony would be the Brechtian procedure called “interruption,” as Bromige indicates in the Difficulties interview. This term is developed by Walter Benjamin in “What is Epic Theater,” where the interruption of the domesticated, the quotidian, the expected, functions to distance the audience (the reader) from identification. The actor stepping out of character, for example, to reflect on his role, as Bromige so often does.
It’s unfortunate that New Star could not publish a complete Bromige—it would have taken a second massive volume. The problem of selection is something that Bromige confronted more than once, including the selection Ten Years in the Making, published by New Star forty-five years ago. In the book Desire,3 he found a wonderful solution to the problem — he not only made minor, but strategic, revisions to every poem, as has often been pointed out, but he also radically re-ordered them, achronologically, so as to construct a new book, complete in itself. The fact that if wants to be the same as is is arranged in the standard chronological format would be troubling if it did not, thereby, have the virtue of demonstrating the consistency of Bromige’s “inconsistency,” his polysubjected writing, and not, as one expects of such collections, his “development.” Without this demonstration, the wonder of what Desire accomplished would not be so evident. is new selection, which should probably be subtitled, as is indicated on the back cover, “The Poetry of the Essential David Bromige,” accomplishes even more than that—it also puts back into print whole books difficult, and in one case impossible, to find: most significantly, My Poetry, P-E-A-C-E, Red Hats and, American Testament — the latter never before available in its entirety. This must have been one of the principles of selection.
Other important books have been much reduced, and necessarily diminished by the reduction—but most of these books can be found on library shelves or are available at an a ordable price. A substantial taste of any one of these books, as provided in this collection, should leave a reader feeling unfulfilled and anxious to read the books as originally constructed. Each book is integral, has integrity. Desire is a good example. Threads (1970) perhaps a better one. What is missing in the selection from Threads is its essential structure. It is built around at least three interruptions, three pieces that step out of the frame and reflect upon the book. These make visible certain reference points that often do not surface so evidently in his writing, which for the most part enacts (philosophical) thought rather than appealing to its authority. First, “From Home So Far,” a humorous, but rigorously clinical, dream analysis. (“Stop making those phrases,” his mother says, “you’ll get stuck that way…”). Then “At the Labyrinth,” which consists almost entirely of a long citation from Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, and takes the place of a missing poem (“the poem I need but lack here,” the one that contains the necessary “threads”), and speaks directly to Bromige’s poetics:
For just as, owing to the ultimately tacit character of all our knowledge, we remain ever unable to say all that we know, so also, in view of the tacit character of meaning, we can never quite know what is implied in what we say.
Bromige then cites a passage, in German, from Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, only then to home in on the “intense pleasure” he experiences from its prosody, taking liberty with the German words that attract him, while the words that, perhaps, most define his project are not remarked on: “what for?—where to?—and what then?” Finally, two translations of Rimbaud, accompanied by a “Note on Translation.” By any measure, these are strong, faithful translations, committing only minor, but forgivable, infidelities, even though he takes care to suggest that they are not translations, but rather “versions” effected by their “being made mine.” He gives himself the last word on this point some thirty years later: “The translator, having weighed the conflicting demands of his task, remembered the word ‘version’ and relieved his sigh of a heave” (Indictable Suborners).
In his introduction to the book, George Bowering says, “The title of the present volume is my favorite when it comes to name double-takes.” Double-takes is an understatement. I’m still puzzling over the question posed by the title if wants to be the same as is. Here’s one answer: “To be / disputes the premise / to remain its living / disputant” (American Testament).
- if wants to be the same as is: Essential Poems of David Bromige, edited by Jack Krick, Bob Perelman, and Ron Silliman, New Star Books, 2018, 582 pp.
- The Difficulties, vol. 3, no. 1, 1987, David Bromige Issue, 1987. is, along with Meredith Quartermain’s “Irony’s Eyes (David Bromige),” in the online journal Golden Handcuffs Review, and the essays by George Bowering, Bob Perelman, and Ron Silliman that frame if wants to be the same as is, provides a good introduction to Bromige’s work.
- Desire: Selected Poems 1963-1987, Black Sparrow Press, 1988.