The title Some Words brings to mind John Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees, but whereas Ashbery is arch, baroque, and whimsical, Bronk is somber, classically simple, gnomic: “To live without solace is possible because/solace is trivial: none is enough,” runs the whole of “Compensation.” If ever American poetry produced a “mind of winter,” this is it.
But if Bronk’s tone is somewhere down at the pathos end of the spectrum, he can be sardonically humorous too: “We love the hitters and pitchers, great quarterbacks,/their teams, series winners, superstars./We see ourselves like them in work and romance,/Why not? It’s not as though there were something to do.”
William Bronk died this year at age 81. He published more than 20 books, but for decades had at best a coterie following. Then in 1981 Life Supports: New and Collected Poems won the American Book Award, gaining him the readership his deeply original work deserved.
Some Words is dark, and saturated with metaphysical longing and unease, whose most characteristic gesture is an unflinching look at one or another limit of human knowing, action, or significance. Bronk’s basic stance is this: driven though we are to give it order, the world is timeless, shapeless, and unknowable. History and science, not to mention individual egos, have as much reality as children’s make-believe.
Bronk descends from Jonas Bronk, after whom the Bronx was named. He writes, “They’re not us, the people with pedigrees… /We don’t matter in terms /of history as though we weren’t there… /…we are here/and have been only here even then /…Here’s an eternity. Look for us now.” The strange thing about reading Bronk’s work after his death is that all along he wrote with the limpid, ruminative detachment of someone speaking from beyond the grave. So many of his poems would be at home carved on gravestones, and with his passing it’s as if he’s both twice-
removed and all the more present in their absence-haunted lines.