February 21, 2013

"Changing Hands" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on the poetry and death of David Bromige)

by Douglas Messerli

David Bromige Threads (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1971)
David Bromige My Poetry (Berkeley: The Figures, 1980)
David Bromige Desire: Selected Poems 1963-1987 (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1988)
David Bromige The Harbormaster of Hong Kong (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)

On June 3 of this year, poet David Bromige died at his home in Sebastopol, California, of complications from diabetes, a stroke and heart attack. During his last years, according to friends such as D. A. Powell, Bromige suffered from "dementia."
     How different the David Bromige I knew in the 1990s, the time when I first met him—if I remember correctly, at a reading of his in New York City—publishing his book, The Harbormaster of Hong Kong (the title poem is still one of my favorite of his works) in 1993. The following year, David appeared at a literary salon in the Sun & Moon offices on September 22, and read, I believe, that same weekend at Beyond Baroque in Venice. In those days he was the very image of a clever, stunningly quick-witted punster, creating his famed maxims and dicta, many of which dotted his poems, seemingly out of clear air: "There is no revision in the grave," "Lambs live a long time in our recipes," "Every endless summer hurries in a fall." Many of these were presented in the form of "pairings" of lines which in their oppositional syntax nonetheless paralleled and defined the other: 


                                                  break break break

                                                  on thy cold gray stones o shore

                                                  kiss me quick

                                                  too late

     Bromige was what at one time would be described as a wit, and his poetry literally shimmered with his quick connections, or, at the other extreme (as in "You") revealing a slow, "deliberate" process, where the reader, working with the author, moved through the matter of the poem, "changing hands," so to speak, with the author as together they made their way through the work. But these are only two aspects of a body of writing that was constantly in shift, moving between narrative and lyricism, rhyme and radical disassociation at the drop of a hat, sometimes, as in "In an Orchard, in America, In August," focusing on the lush surfaces of things in order to reveal their inner core:

                                                 Let this be
                                                 the story of the core.
                                                 The part that's thrown away,
                                                 that can't be used.
                                                 That can't speak for itself,

     Bromige's quick shifts in syntax and genre clearly irritated some, particularly poets and readers who demanded a signature style from a writer. I remember attending Bromige's reading at Beyond Baroque where I sat next the usually fair-minded poet-editor Lee Hickman, with Hickman hissing into my ear, "I just can't stand this kind of writing." Hickman was an often obstinate critic, but here I suspect it was just Bromige's wide poetic range and abilities that irritated him—and so delighted me.

Born in London in 1933, Bromige grew up with signs of becoming tubercular, and was sent to an isolation hospital for four months as a child. His second childhood "trauma" was his existence in London during the Blitz, during which, on one particular night, a series of neighborhood bombs seemed likely to destroy their family home. After the war Bromige won a scholarship to Haberdashers' Aske's Hampstead School, but after completing his certificate he took a job on a dairy farm in southern Sweden. Soon after, he emigrated to Canada, living for a while in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Alberta, before moving to Vancouver to be near to his sister, and where he attended the University of British Columbia, meeting poets such as George Bowering, Frank Davey, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan, who might be described as Bromige's mentor.
      In 1962 Bromige won a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship, which required he do his graduate work in a different university. Accordingly, Bromige chose the University of California at Berkeley, moving to the Bay area. From 1970 on he became a Professor of Literature at Sonoma State University. His poetry collection of 1988, Desire: Selected Poems, 1963-1987, won the Western States Book Award.
      Many of his students have described David as a caring and giving teacher. As D. A. Powell wrote soon after his death:
Our classroom was in the theatre department, and it was
furnished with ungodly dilapidated sofas.... So each week
we'd sprawl on the sagging couches, reading poems reproduced
in purple ink on a ditto machine, and David would sit cross-
legged in the center of the room, sigh deeply, smile, and
praise even the most sickly poems, though he often seemed
to pass first through a period of deep physical pain before
he'd bless us with that smile and praise.

      I did not know David Bromige well; apart from working with him on the one book we published, attending three readings, and working with him on his selection of poems from From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 we seldom communicated over the years. Yet I sensed in David a similar openness and a complete commitment to living.

As we left my offices to take him to the airport, David called out to my companion Howard, "Please, you have to get a photograph of the two of us in front of Sun & Moon. Here, Douglas, let us hold hands." We did, the camera catching us in the act of "changing hands."

Los Angeles, November 20, 2009

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