Photo Â© Christopher Bromige
David Bromige in 1986
Back when everything was still everything, back in the 1960’s, I met David Bromige. Like me, he had by then become a fresh and floating fixture on the Northern California poetry scene. The air crackled with creativity. If you happened to be in the circle that had at its center El Corno Emplumado (a bilingual magazine from Mexico, edited by the expatriate American Margaret Randall and her Mexican husband Sergio MondragĂłn), then you were plugged into one of the cutting-edge literary scenes. I was publishing in those pages. And did it ever feel good to see my name alongside names like Carlos Fuentes and Denise Levertov. David Bromige’s poetry came to me by way of El Corno Emplumado, but in a funny way. When the journal ran a special section on Canadian poets gathered, as I recall, by the Calgary-based poet George Bowering, there was Bromige. We read together at Cody’s in Berkeley, and I remember the brooding energy that swirled around him when I paid visits to Sonoma State, where he taught. At this time his companion was the writer-illustrator Sherill Jaffe, who, he confided, “writes all my poems for me.”Â In my view, his poetry embodied the spirit of what Chile’s Nicanor Parra championed as “the anti-poem,” which was all in zeitgeist. Bromige’s prose-bent declaratory approach to poetry drew an enduring audience. Younger self-labeled “language poets” eventually adopted him as a kindred spirit. I always admired David Bromige for the brave anti-war positions he took. At a time when young Americans were embracing Canada to sidestep military service in Vietnam, Bromige had slipped into the U.S., where he remained for the rest of his life, making a name for himself in the perennially restive worlds of the avant garde. I miss his trickster smile and uncool laugh.
— Al Young
Â© Richard Denner
Jack Foley: Tribute to David Bromige
My friendship with David Bromige goes back over 20 years, but it was never a deep, personal friendship. He was a literary acquaintance I liked and whose work I followed with considerable interest. I was introduced to both him and his work by Ron Silliman, who brought me to a reading. I was surprised to see that Robert Duncanâwhose work I knewâattended the reading. Duncan swooped into the room with his great cape, overwhelming everyoneâa starâs entranceâbut he listened attentively and obviously enjoyed Davidâs work. David was open and friendly, but I wasnât certain enough of my own work to claim him as an acquaintance: we didnât exchange addresses.
David became associated with language poetry, but he was older than the originators of language poetry. He became friends with many of them. They were definitely what was happening at that time. I think his relationship to language poetry was partly personalâhe liked the people who were writing itâbut also partly professional. Language poetry was getting a lot of attention. By associating with language poets, David could share in that attention. But the language poets who became best known were theorists as well as poets, and David was in no way a theorist. His impulse was satirical, parodic, even smart ass, but not theoretical. When David published âOne Springâ in This magazine, I believe that the editors felt that they were printing something that was both liberating and beyond their own current capacitiesâwhich was true. In The New Sentence, Ron Silliman clearly asserts that âOne Springâ exemplifies the kind of thing language poetry is all about. The new sentence, writes Silliman, is âa sentence with an interior poetic structure in addition to exterior ordinary grammatical structure. That is âŠwhy and how lines quoted from a Sonoma newspaper in David Bromigeâs âOne Springâ can become new sentences.â But language poetry became a style, a kind of writing which doesnât sound or read at all like the sophisticated, Joycean, highly literary medium of Bromigeâs work. The young people who were and are turned on by language poetry were not turned on by what David was doing. David the man and teacher is sometimes sentimentalized by his friends and students. But the work is edgy, problematical, anything but sentimental. Poems like âOne Springâ and âMy Poetry,â whichâlike certain passages in James Joyceâare made up entirely of quotations, place in question the person who is writing the poem. The original version of âOne Springâ was published in This magazine. When David published the poem in his book My Poetry, he changed some of the names. When I asked him about that, he said it was for fear of being sued! These were real people he was dealing with. Language poets were attacking and defining themselves against the poets published in Donald Allenâs 1960 volume, The New American Poetry. Many of the poets in that volume were attacking and defining themselves against âThe New Criticism,â a body of writing from the 1940s which took irony and paradox as the center of the poetic work. Irony and paradox are at the center of David Bromigeâs work. If he is a language poet, we might regard language poetry as the revenge of The New Criticism. Here is how âOne Springââsimultaneously naĂŻve and knowingâbegins:
It hailed. 0.06 inches were precipitated where the instruments are kept. At least one driver found his windshield wipers clogging. High winds drove the hail into the orchards of apple, pear & prune. It hailed on the new Vacu-Dry plant, an independent, publicly-owned corporation, making instant apple-sauce for the government. During the following night, thieves walked off with the bus-bench.
Next day samples were brought to the inspector. The leaves were shattered & the fruit already indented. Though the sun shone bright, some wisps of high cirrus appeared shortly after midday.
Next day dawned clear & bright, & by the middle of the afternoon the thermometer registered 73 degrees Fahrenheit. That night the valley-bottoms were free from frost. Next day began well also, the sky a clear deepening blue, the light flickering off the eucalyptus leaves.
In 1980, David Bromige’s book, My Poetry appeared. The title poem, a hilarious collection of quotations from reviews of Bromige’s work, is dedicated to Bob Perelman. It begins:
My poetry does seem to have a cumulative, haunting effect-one or two poems may not touch you, but a small bookful begins to etch a response, poems rising in blisters that itch for weeks, poems like ball-bearings turning on each other, over & over, digging down far enough to find substance, a hard core to fill up the hand. It’s through this small square that my poems project themselves, flickering across the consciousness, finally polarizing in the pure plasma of life. The reader grows impatient, irritated with my distancing style, coming at him in the rare book format, written under not one but two different kinds of dirty money, & knowing me to be an english teacher.
After David Bromige’s death, a tribute website was set up:
I wrote the following in homage, using things people wrote
on the website.
by David Bromige
Krishna & Ron are so very sorry. Ron met me 41 years ago (I gave a reading at the Albany Public Library with Harvey Bialy which Ron attended) and I was a wonderful & generous friend the entire time. David, ‘sturdy’ – like a rock or a treeâŠ. Stephen heard me read in the city in the mid ’80s, wrote “Cracking the Code” for The Difficulties issue devoted to my work. Charles Bernstein loved me and my work and my death fills him with sorrow. William Knight is very sorry to hear of my passing. He met me on several of my visits to Vancouver to see Chris and to do readings. He remembers the quicksilver, the knife edge, the words that softly split his head open. And laughing with me later. Steve Tills just learned of this a minute ago-has been busy moving to a new home. Aside from his own father, I was pretty much the dearest and most generous man Steve will ever know. He will miss me like the dickens. I taught them all how to be alive and how to squeeze everything meaningful and fun and loving and real out of every moment we live. Gosh, he loves me. For Charles Bernstein, I was a prince of poetry and a wonderful friend and compatriot. “A Great Companion,” as Robin Blaser said. Curtis Faville didn’t know me but his wife took her first English course at Berkeley from me when I was still a TA in the Department there, pursuing my graduate degree. I was a juvenile diabetic, but lived to be 75. This alone is a feat almost beyond belief. He is sorry he never had the occasion to know me. George Bowering will always remember the poem I wrote in the cafeteria at UBC: “Borrowing from Bowering/ is a neat/ feat.” He just turned his tired old neck to the left and saw his shelf of Bromide books, and said thank goodness, and in his head I scoffed at the object of that verb. D.A. Powell said I was his first teacher. What one of us lacked, the other forgave. Tom Raworth said I will be missed. It’s a clear dawn there on the South Coast of England: sunlight on cream-painted Regency houses he looks past to arrive at the sea. And the light reminds him of the last time he spent with me, some years ago, when I drove him from Santa Rosa over to Camp Meeker where Val, the children and he had lived back in the seventies. He remembers the echo of our tread on the boardwalk of Occidental Fragments of memory. Ed Coletti says it rained untimely this morning early on in June when I disappeared.