Irony's Eye (David Bromige)

Meredith Quartermain









“I           (the indicator indicated indicating the indicated).”
(David Bromige,
Red Hats)




18th-century novelist and critic Friedrich Schlegel said that romantic irony


should be playful and serious, guilelessly open and deeply hidden. It originates in the union of savoir vivre and scientific spirit, in the conjunction of a perfectly instinctive and a perfectly conscious philosophy. It contains and arouses a feeling of indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.



Who could be more playful and serious, more guilelessly open and deeply hidden than David Bromige? One of the most enjoyable things about his writing is his keen sense of paradox in language, its hinging of the “real” to a multitude of fictions, starting with the real fiction of Bromige himself. Thus in “Irony,” he writes, “A person known to himself as i/ opts for bad luck rather than failure.” The poem ends with the comment, “Do something about your fate/ It’s only made of iron and cement.” The “I” is a fiction and by unhinging it from its conventional system of earnestly performed codes, Bromige invokes the terrifying and boundless humor of the human condition.


Spoofing confessional poetry, “MY COMPENSATIONS (GLURK)” likewise invokes this double reality: “My own image seems so/ clear and simple, as if/ it would be impossible/ to take me any/ other way.” The poem is full of statements about himself, but throughout its funny/sad rambling, the opposite of his literal speech or the immediate sense of its fictional nature leaps into the picture at the very moment the words are uttered:


. . . Actually I am

a serious


person. I seldom

eat meat but

have no trouble

consuming a medium

size Cheez-It

package. . . .


“Philosophy is the real homeland of irony,” Schlegel thought, “Only poetry can also reach the heights of philosophy in this way. . . . pervaded by the divine breath of irony throughout and informed by a truly transcendental buffoonery.” Schlegel made people like Kierkegaard hopping mad when he seamlessly fused the language of philosophy with that describing the sex act, a buffoonery Bromige also happily engages in:


I enjoy giving and receiving

the love passed in

the process of massage

and other arts of healing.

Then their ideas move

up and down with

me.  People have played

a game back

and forth at

times of “Who

Am I,” answer

ask again, answer.

Those who do usually

end up lost and

crying at the end

of the road, unable to

plug anything



As if commenting on his playfully intrusive subtext, he then adds the line “That obscene bird/ is not there for nothing.” Amusingly aware of itself, Bromige’s artistic practice refracts humanity in the prisoning/freeing mirrorland of language. Yes, there’s plenty of philosophy in these poems. “The Romance of the Automobile” is equally a meditation on human relationships with cars, love relationships in general, and the relationship of reader to writer of the poem. The poem “His Story” invokes notions of history from the personal to the mythical. One reviewer has commented that Bromige brings poetry and philosophy together, then “stand[s] back to let them fight it out.” I rather think that in fact he has seamlessly blended the two, making the realm of poetry equally, and in the Schlegalian sense, the realm of philosophy.


In “Waiting for Anyone But Godot” (another wonderfully buffoonish title), bemused drollery emerges as the poem shifts from the first-person exclamatory “how/ blessed to us/ seem such lives!” to third person statement about what “he” meant. “Philosophy,” by its close proximity in a line by itself, becomes stuff from the basement. Then a third shift around the “I” occurs after “and these words can actually be said” with the apparently reported speech beginning “Am I waiting . . . .”:


By this he meant

to question a life

spent fetching up

stuff from the basement.


is less important than

humanity who

hope against

hope, and these words

can actually be

said. Am I waiting

because I know

the word, or a word

because waiting

is my referent?


Thus the poem comments on its own language. It then continues to unravel the earnestness of its narrator’s first-person speech in its long reported answer from the father of Judas, going on so long as to blend the persona of the poem’s narrator with that of the father, and again highlighting the fictional, ambivalent and perpetually ironic nature of grammatical first, second and third person utterances as they invoke and displace identities. (Pronouns, as Jakobson noted, operate as shifters or indexical symbols, dependent on their context for meaning, and also convey status such as addressee, addressor, object.) There is, appropriately, no end to the father’s reported speech (take that one any way you like it). How amusing it is to come then to the sentence “Teleology/ shapes dialog.” Followed appropriately by “Often/ I can’t decide quite/ what is being said.”


The narrator of the poem is not a coherent entity nor is what is being said; rather the narrator is made up of all the points of view and their interacting reflections of each other. Bromige discovered this play with multiple personae via pronoun shifts early in his career, and it was a discovery that inspired many who later came to be known as Language poets. Speaking of Threads (1970), Bromige comments,


This is the first book where I use ‘I’ to declare experiences which I did not ‘have’, to question assumptions of (non) identity. . . . I’d also note that the shifting sense of I raises the issue of language and its mediations, and that henceforth this awareness comes increasingly to the aid of the subject in the attempt to constitute the object.”


Steve Fredman, writing about Tight Corners & What’s Around Them (Being the Brief & Endless Adventures of some Pronouns in the Sentences of 1972-1973), found “the humorous and sometimes terrifying recognition of oneself as a group of pronouns trapped in the realm of language.” This would have pleased romantic ironist Schlegel, who thought a poet must have “a mind . . . that contains within itself simultaneously a plurality of minds and a whole system of persons”  and who wrote that poetry “can . . .  – more than any other form – hover at the midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer, . . . on the wings of poetic reflection, and can raise that reflection again and again to a higher power, can multiply it in an endless succession of mirrors.”


Schlegel imagined irony on a grand scale, not just an occasional interruption or trope in an otherwise sober text, but rather a permanent and on-going interruption at all times in the text. It is this sense of irony that I find exhilarating in Bromige’s work, as though he’s tapping in to the divine comedy operating all of human affairs, all its philosophies, love plots, doldrums, crusades and fashion shows, and most importantly, its quixotic adventures at the hands of language. “Poetry mocks the spirit of sober objectivity” (Red Hats).


In the mock Platonic dialogue of In the Uneven Steps of Hung Chow, Bromige disrupts and ironizes the narrator’s I with long passages of reported speech riddled with subtexts. There are two I’s here – the I of the narrator/disciple (the Socratic, gullible naïf), often denigrated by the “master,” and the I of the master (the confidently unaware expert), a narrator within the disciple’s narration. Which one is really in control? Whose is the master narrative? In the most comic of ways, narrative itself (a.k.a. representation) is at stake, much in the way it is in Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. In a less comic but equally ironic way, “The Harbormaster of Hong Kong” takes on the master narratives of capitalism and imperialism, playfully juxtaposing various narrations of the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong back to China beside narrations of ethics, philosophy and economics. In this case, there are multiple I’s but some are more powerful than others.


The state supplanted gold


‘Irony’ i read

but it said ‘Money’ (Tiny Courts)


Red Hats began as commentary on and response to earlier poems in Threads, the two titles being anagrams (just as Tiny Courts echoes Tight Corners). Here the poet adopts a personality outside the poet or flourishes a multiple personality, making ironic rhymes of events, characters, circumstances or ideas, wittily alert to whatever connotations, verbal echoes, resemblances or contrasts may come to hand. Short versions of this move occur in “Lines” and “Lines Upon a Distant Prospect of Lines” – two series made of phrases paired above and below heavy horizontal lines.



i showed my son so many things


he made his father notice






the fortunate fall







Longer versions occur in several poems in From the First Century (of Vulnerable Bundles), where lineated verse is followed by prose commentary, beginning with phrases like “The poet seeks the lost picture of thinking . . . .” or “Elliptical in the Chinese manner. Leaving everything out . . . .” The effect is hilarious. Partly because talking about himself in the third person makes it impossible to take either third-person or first-person speech in the pieces at face value. But also because the language in the prose commentaries has been thoroughly loosened up and allowed to play.


“Is the pronoun I a healing declaration of self or the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he asks at the end of “Typicality Enthralls with its Particular Failures.” Bromige certainly enjoys poetic skullduggery aimed at puncturing linguistic illusions we call reality, or making reality a good deal more slidey than our typical social encounters encourage us to see. Poems ask, Can humans separate a world out there from the manufactures of language? Can they escape the fiction of a unified self presented in the word I? Thus opens the Chinese-boxes infinite regression of an I outside an I: “My parents by a prior contract my head had made in my head with my head, saw everything I did” (Red Hats).


Why is reality so slidey? Because words are slidey. And why are words slidey? Because each of us has a private and incommunicable meaning for words:


Love’s blind, and you don’t know what you’re saying; no-one really knows us who does not love us. Love’s double-bind. Had we not read about it, we would not fall in love; had we not read La Rochefoucauld, we would not doubt it. We must all be talking about a different word, in the same tones of mingled earnestness, rhapsody and embarrassment.


The best approach to this contradictory reality, this uncertainty of language and indeterminacy of identity, is the ambivalent stance of the ironist. Bromige signals this in the following remark from James Rieger’s The Mutiny Within quoted at the beginning of Desire: “The posture called ‘tone’ is a form of narrative irony.” And again in this selection from Tight Corners, we see the poet’s rather mutinous multiply shifting personae:


It all, he informs us, rests firmly on the edge of oblivion. Living on, we will not see his face again. I don’t want to see what I shall never again see. I want to rest. That’s why it all has to look permanent. He hasn’t found rest, rest is a sentient occasion. He is permanent. I can alter his significance with every sentence.


Unlike sentences in the old grammar-school paragraph which assumes a single coherent narrator and calls for thesis and examples, the sentences here are from at least two narrators and their relationship is one of dialogue with or commentary on or rhyming with other sentences. The poet here is paradoxically I, we and he. And pronouns for Bromige are objects, linguistic artifacts, rather than clear windows through which to look at the world, as is invoked by the ‘s’ on ‘want’ in the last line of the following poem:


Laying the Word


It wasn’t the Return of the Great Mother

it wasn’t the Return of the Repressed,

nor being born again, nor was it yet

the Pure Experience of Otherness,

you laid the word on me & I responded,

I laid my hands on you & I had no defense.


Now what to call it, in our need,

this relationship we’ve launched,

this mutual agreement to be broken

open, this mystery that lifts us,

love, – if none of these suffice

they’ll do, they’ll say what I wants of you.


“There is nothing ambiguous about our double entendres,” Bromige tells us in “Typicality Enthralls with its Particular Failures,” and then continues with “The poet, having no identity is continually informing and filling some other body, and who isn’t a poet, if by that this case means scorned, spurned, feverish, headed for death, name writ on water, way with words, incapable of not noticing all this and more upon occasion?”


There’s something fundamentally, paradoxically ironic about utterance itself. Schlegel wrote of an “indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.” Something undoes the linguistic act the minute it mounts its horse and sets off on its good or bad deeds, and Bromige is only too happy to participate thoughtfully in that undoing.