Thursday, October 22, 2009

David Bromige reading in Seattle, May 2003

Today is David Bromige’s 76th birthday & it will be the first time in many a decade that I won’t have the opportunity to call or at least email him to wish him well. David’s baritone has long been a touchstone for me, one of those familiars that immediately bring comfort, no doubt because I associate it with love & wit. Thanks to PennSound, I can revisit that voice whenever I need to, as no doubt I will today. The latest addition there, I think, is a talk David gave in Bob Perelman’s talk series in 1977 on “Poetry and Intention.”

Last Friday, I traveled to Manhattan to participate in a memorial service for David at Poets House, now ensconced into its Battery Park City home with something akin to a 70-year lease – the venerable organization has room to grow, but also happens to be in the one place on the island that actually is hard to get to without walking several windy rainy blocks along the Hudson River. Joel Lewis, the bard of Hoboken, joked that it was easier to get to from New Jersey.

The following roster will give you some idea who spoke & what they read. Stephen Motika, who’s just finished working on a Collected Poems for Leland Hickman, was the organizer & moderator.

Kathleen Fraser: taped remembrance of David

Ron Silliman:"First" and "The Final Mission" from The Ends of the Earth

Nicholas Piombino: "Soul Mates" and "The End of The Stranger" from Desire

Gary Sullivan:  first two pages of the piece My Poetry

Bob Perelman: from My Poetry

Geoffrey Young: from My Poetry

Charles Bernstein: "My Daddy's at His Office Now" from "American Testament 4"

Laura Sims for Rachel Levitsky: comments and poem (I forgot to note which)

Corina Copp reading from "Joy Cone" from Hills 9 (1983)

Taking Amtrak’s Keystone Special up that afternoon, I’d thought this would be a terrific, joyous event, with no sense of sadness at David’s passing. The work is just so damn great & I’d never had the opportunity to read these two special poems in public before, almost as tho they were my own. But the instant I started to talk, I could hear my voice break – just a little – so I cut my palaver short & dove directly into the joy of the work.

Because we were asked to keep our remarks generally to 7 minutes each (to keep the reading to a reasonable [by NY standards] time – even with nine readers, it ran to 90 minutes – neither Bob Perelman or I were able to read our sections from the forthcoming 9th volume of The Grand Piano, both of which deal with David. It was interesting – and proves a long-held hunch of mine (or at least is evidence for same) – that My Poetry was the work most often cited here. It is, as I note in my piece for the Piano, David’s iconic book, even though it appeared only in an edition of 650 copies and was never reprinted. Geoff Young, who published My Poetry, conceded that he too has just one copy of this great book.

For my reading,I turned to earlier work – the premise of the order that night (at least after Kathy Fraser) was by the chronology of David’s writing – two poems that I heard David read on the night that I first met him in 1968. But since I didn’t get to read it at Poets House, here is my section from the next Grand Piano, which should be out in a week or two.


Furthest Up the Trail

SOMETIME AROUND late 1967, a then recent graduate of Bard, David Perry, arrived in San Francisco State’s creative writing program & he & I quickly discovered that we shared an enthusiasm for the work of Robert Kelly & the many poets Kelly had been teaching, basically The New American Poetry. David also knew all the recent Bard College grads who either lived in the Bay Area (John Gorham, Harvey Bialy) or were visiting (Tom Meyer, still then a teenager I believe). One day very early in ’68, David convinced me that we had to go to the Albany Public Library to hear Bialy read. It was the very place where I’d first discovered poetry some six years earlier, but I hadn’t set foot in that building on Solano since I’d left home, so for me the reading was already laden with symbolic power before Paul Mariah, who curated the series there, introduced the readers. Bialy was fine, maybe a little quieter than I’d expected, but it was the poet reading with him, somebody I’d never heard of before, who blew me away. David Bromige was tall with a long face, a resonant baritone, a mastery of syntax that I had not found anywhere, even in the work of Robert Duncan, & a ready, almost twinkly wit that gave me the impression that had Charles Dickens been alive and a New American poet, he would have been very much like this fellow. It was a stunning, eye-opening performance & I vowed to get to know this poet.1

At thirty-five, Bromige was a grad student at Berkeley, writing a dissertation on the Black Mountain poets, far more widely read than I & just a little suspicious of the motives of twenty-one-year-olds. He lived in a cottage apartment with his then-wife, fiction writer Sherril Jaffe, just north of the campus, not far from Josephine Miles’s place & a short walk to Serendipity Books, which in those days encompassed not only the rare books business it is today, but a bookstore & the distribution operations that subsequently evolved into SPD. I would meet David at his place or at Serendipity, or we would walk over to a beer & pizza den on Shattuck just off University & have long discussions, part gossip, part theory.

Our positions in those days were not at all equivalent. Having already had poems accepted by Poetry, TriQuarterly, Chicago Review & the like, I was full of myself, hyperconscious of my status as a “published poet,” which was somewhat unusual among undergraduates even at San Francisco State. But I was also painfully aware of just how hollow all of that truly was & appalled—daily!—at how little I knew & how much I had yet to learn. Not that I would have admitted that to anyone, least of all myself. Compared with David Bromige, I was an absolute beginner.

As the 60s gave way to the next decade, the grand pooh-bah of poetry in the Bay Area was manifestly Robert Duncan, who was only too happy to remind you of this himself. Of all the poets around him, David was by far the most accomplished, most published, most widely read. David already had four books: The Gathering, The Ends of the Earth, The Quivering Roadway & Please, Like Me. Two of these volumes were from Black Sparrow Press, a “big” small press publisher that aimed to be more to be like New Directions or City Lights than, say, White Rabbit or Oyez.

To read more, pick up the 9th volume of the Grand Piano.


1. Nor did this prove to be my only important discovery that evening. Hitchhiking back to my apartment by Lake Merrit in Oakland, I caught a ride with someone who recognized me from the reading—David Melnick. Forty-one years later, I’m actively involved in editing the collected works of both Davids.