Shocked & saddened since scrolling the Poetry Flash (San Francisco) site a few days ago, to find the announcement of David Bromige's death back in June. I was unsuspectingly responding to the suggestion that I become a Face Book Friend of Poetry Flash, with which I'd corresponded in the late '70s, when Steve Abbott was its editor & I was publishing my mag-in-an-envelope, The Merri Creek or Nero. I wonder now how I've missed this bad news --perhaps I had come across it at the time & promptly forgot? Which would be sad in itself, --a comment on the level of distraction which is the contemporary world and one's own complicity or failing within it. (Face Book? Ah, but that's another interesting story.) And then, looking for Steve Abbott's present whereabouts, I find he died in the early '90s. Same wondering --had I known? have I forgotten? Oh dear.
I realize years have passed since David & I last exchanged letters or publications, and I dont remember ever emailing, but he was one of the writers with whom I assumed the kind of relationship which might be resumed at any time. I'm also astonished that David was 76 --of course I'd read his dates, but for some reason I had him younger : older than me but not by thirteen years... And yet, what's thirteen years in a lifetime or, as one gets to think, in eternity?
What a curious thing it all is --how one perceives age, especially one's own in relation to others. If David Bromige was 76 then I'm no Spring chicken myself --and yet, within the Shangri-la of the poetry scene, one enjoys a kind of agelessness, a time out of time in which even the ancients seem like contemporaries (--the figure of Keats in my mind now because of the pulse it is within David's own recapitulation of the history his own life as poet galvanized), and the passing years of our time on earth like a continuous present. What's past, & who have passed, held in the mind as though just yesterday, just yesterday, just yesterday...
We got in touch with one another after Eric Mottram published us both in Poetry Review (London) [Vol 61, #4], Winter 1971/72. I promptly solicited something for my Earth Ship magazine; he accepted & made comment that one of my poems in the issue, Castles (written to my brother Bernard), was a welcome criticism & advance upon a poetics still bound up with Stephen Spender! In retrospect, I wonder if he thought that he'd observed in my minor effort an attempt to marry traditional music with something cannier; whatever, the imperative for sophistication or improvement isnt one I hold these days, --certainly meta-poetry is even less my metier than it was then, after all it led me into a cul-de-sac from which it took me the best part of two decades to escape! Not so David Bromige, I hazard the guess.
David was an obvious candidate for the Writing Writing issue of the Melbourne successor to Earth Ship, The Ear In A Wheatfield, in 1975. The line-up is worth recording : Anthony Barnett, Colin Symes, Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Michael Davidson, David Bromige, Edmond Jabes translated by Rosmary Waldrop, Victoria Rathbun on Walter Billeter's translation of Paul Celan's Breath Crystal. In my mind, then, there was a connection between the writing of Celan & Jabes and the Anglo-American inheritors of Joyce & Stein, importantly Robert Duncan (one specifically recalls his Stein Variations & the Writing Writing sequence in the Derivations volume of his British Selected Poems [Fulcrum Press, 1968]) via whom the younger generation poets such as Palmer & Bromige. Olson is there too, of course --in the mutation I want to say, the spelling out of which enjoys its own rich domain.
Writing 'writing' was my erstwhile co-conspiritor Colin Symes' correction to the title : the single inverted commas "draws attention to the character of writing 'writing'." he suggested. "In this genre it is the writing that is all important. Unless such a punctuative insertion is made it gives the impression that the genre is principally concerned with so much calligraphic exercise. Which it is most certainly not."
Writing writing was a version of what I thought the whole biz was about from my desk (the very same one at which I sit now, tapping away on the computer- keyboard instead of the manual Olympia typewriter I had then) in Melbourne, Australia in 1975 --part of an experimental welter to eventually include Bernstein, Silliman, Watten, Hejinian & co's L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E project. Though it couldnt have been the whole biz, after all in '74 I was excited to publish a supplement devoted to the Bolinas poets, whom I imagined as New York going West & meeting the sons & daughters of Black Mountain & the Beats, and certainly didnt think was surpassed by Writing Writing! Holding it all is ever the challenge!
When we met in September,1987, in London, --my first trip home since 1975, & David showing Cecilia where once he was from-- he characterised us as supporters of L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E as a tendency but not of the Party it seemed to have become! Quite so, --we were all for experimentation's balloons but not for any Commissariat! However, years later, rereading such books as My Poetry & the issue of The Difficulties devoted to him, I recognized myself in the kind of thing he both cheerfully lampooned & vehemently opposed! Bromige's cut-up & pastiche notwithstanding, since his techniques surely permitted truth, and though I agreed with his (persona's) Romantic proposition of poetry's realness, I felt my own writing fell within his definition of "a stupid & stupefying occupation for zombies" (My Poetry, p18)!
Today I would like to have argued the toss with him over any number of his pronouncements occurring, for example, in the interview with Tom Beckett (The Difficulties, vol 3 #1, '87). Let's take one : "I am interested in a present writing, and find the pretext of presence counter-productive. The present for either writer-reader or reader-writer involves a text, and the attempts to make this vanish beneath a 'voice' insisting on its presence strike me as peurile. Too, 'voice' (= person) invariably is the hypostatization of one or two aspects of self, thenceforth taken as the entirety of that highly elusive, allusive, various and questionable construct, in the interests of a commodity society...."
I think I recall from our correspondence, David working through Michael Polanyi & Merleau-Ponty. Evidently he ended up with a rather serious Frankfurt Marxism. He had the gift of the gab though! It would have been a good conversation... I realize now he was one of the bona fide fractions of the revolution whereas I had merely crossed its path; he'd mistakenly accepted me as another shade of red when I was actually one of the whites!
Contrary to his own supposed antipathy for the 'e.y.e.s', the aspect I've liked best of David Bromige's writing is the dialogue or sport between the autobiographer & the subject arising from its avoidance (--& I mean subject as in subject-matter as well as the veiled narrator), my favourite example of which, from his published work, is the haibun-like Six of One, Half-a-Dozen of the Other. I quote from the first piece, A Defect --the short poem & the first lines of the prose :
The doctors doubted any cause for it
since birth or even conception
but he finds a way to suffer it.
Couldn't it have been something
I did? Long ago, some blow struck
"A defect" takes me back to the time I met Freud. The year was 1939, the day, a Sunday, & my father was taking me for a walk across Hampstead heath. this cottage was where John Keats wrote 'Ode to a Nightingale,' this patch of gorse was where Eeyore lost his tail, this pub was where Jack Straw roused the rabble a scant 600 years before, this small hollow in the crotch of a tree, filled with rainwater, beside the dark duckpond, was Pooh's Cup. This was all too much, I had to run in widening spirals or pee my pants, so he gave me my head, my foot snagged in a gnarled tree-root & my knees skidded in the gravel. Someone like my grandfather was bending over me, though at first I hardly noticed him, for I'd glimpsed my own blood & was howling in panic. Taking out his hankie, he dipped it in Pooh's Cup, & then applied it to my wounds. When my father came up he thanked the old man, giving him a rather stiff grin. Facing my father he said, Not to worry. Then, patting my head, he added: Later, he vill remember zis differently.
The dialogue implies, if it doesnt also actually involve, a jig-saw of fiction & history, though exactly which is the other's coda may have contributed to the amusement of his lengthening days. I wonder if David produced or was working towards a definitive rapprochement of the issues he fielded in statements & writings over the years, not only the standard binaries (lyric, intellectual, musical, reflexive) but the meaning of history, self, poetry, the social, the political, you name it --& the status of poet & poem within that.
In Barbara Weber's Annotated Bibliography which appeared in the David Bromige Issue of The Difficulties (& my copy is inscribed, "For Kris in the Notting Hill Cafe Sep. 5 / 87 Love David"), the chapbook my brother Bernard published is described thus :
It's the Same Only Different / The Melancholy Owed Categories. Weymouth, England: Last Straw Press, 1984. 4pp., 200 copies.
3 -- or perhaps 4 -- poems in one: Bromige wrote two poems using the rhyme scheme from Keats' "Ode on Melancholy", and then intercalated these to make a third poem; readers who recognize the rhyme words from Keats will also hear his poem behind the scenes. There is also an extract from a letter written by Bromige to his publisher, Bernard Hemensley, which appropriates a letter Keats wrote to his brother. "Bernard as early as 1981 was in touch with me requesting a small book. I felt this work appropriate for my first publication in the country of my birth, so I sent it to him. A severe flu early in '84 had got me reading Keats, feverishly, and I'd made a number of rime-identity poems from his work. Rime is always a question of identity and non-identity, either of a like and an unlike sound combined, or of two or more (to move a step away) concepts of alleged universal currency, such as 'justice', and speaks to us of how we learn -- and raise the question of how we must apply these to a range of experience. these considerations embodied in the formal aspects of this work thus apply its content as well."
The little blue, square-covered booklet actually carries the address of Stingy Artist, 33 Shelley Road, Thornhill, Southampton, which was the Hemensley family home before the move to Weymouth in the neighboring county of Dorset. The letter extract is as follows :
"... you see, Bernard, the poetical character has no self... and does no harm from its relish of the dark side... or the bright : both end in speculation. The poet has no identity -- he is continually informing and filling some other body.... I deemed it appropriate, this being my first book to be published in England, and my earliest poetic memory, being led by my father over Hampstead Heath to see the cottage where the Nightingale Ode was written (after which we returned to 254A W. End Lane where he read me to sleep from Milne), to use Keats' 'Ode to Melancholy' as armature : the ideas then discovered (to borrow Hejinian's insight) to me by such vocabulary must also be fitting, being such as troubled the imperious syntax of my youthful education.... But not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature. Yet I am ambitious of doing the world some good! If only by keeping it in mind of Negative capability.... I chose this particular Ode perhaps because its third stanza celebrates a mode of love-making at once more accurate to the relief of Beauty and less invasive than the missionary inflictions of the Egotistical Sublime. Of course nothing of this remains in the poem I have made, and yet shadows it even as the English English diction colors it...." [letter extract - 9/12/84]
Bernard was expecting David & Cecilia to visit him in Weymouth in September, '87 at about the time I was bound for England. It was then mooted that the Bromiges would travel down with me, but this didnt eventuate. Bernard of course had been excited at the prospect of a visit & was sorry it hadnt occurred. I conveyed David's apologies & love. A few years earlier, David & Larry Eigner had written to Bernard, brought down by agoraphobia, not to worry about their belated books. "He must be exploring the underside of Merry, Hearty, Happy -- a terrible place" David wrote me. As I write this, Bernard is in that same place again, attempting to rise again...
Back in '87, in Weymouth, I began a series of poems, the first of which was Wind in the Trees, an earlier version of which was published by Robert Adamson in Ulitarra magazine (NSW, 1996). Here is what might be the final version.
WIND IN THE TREES
wind in the trees Alice Notley
wind in the trees of Bernard's cemetery
the way David Bromige pronounced Bernard :
Ber-nard he said as though
another life's confidante :
full of wind & maybe it is rain Bernard says
& Bernard says do you know Alice Notley's
Doctor William' Heiresses? ["Poe was the first one,
he mated with a goddess. His children were
Emily Dickinson & Walt Whitman -- out of wedlock
with a goddess."] -- reading it quickly
with an American accent the lineage
soon yields Alice Notley & Anne Waldman & Bernadette Mayer
& all of us no fuss
& Bernard only plays goddesses on the stereo
Kate Bush & Patti Smith & Stevie Nicks
& the poem threatens to run out as suddenly as it began
but inclusion is this one's device
count us in then
Christopher in Bernard's room at Cemetery Lodge
Christopher with Retta's & Catherine's air-letters
& history is that lace-curtained window
& the cemetery's spruce elms oaks & pines
are something else
& yes i know Alice Notley
yes i know
yes i know
[Weymouth, September '87
rejigged '02; & March 2005]
The poem now seems to me to carry David Bromige as an hommage in the same way as it continues to hold my brother and, indeed, Alice Notley, to whom it was initially addressed, in her own mourning, doubled since.
Dear David, may he rest in peace.
Kris Hemensley, September 4th/17th, 2009