Response to David Bromige’s and
Richard Denner’s Spade

Douglas James Martin

Spade is the first of three books of poetry, jointly written by Richard Denner and David Bromige, that form together a work called 100 Cantos. This name, the tripartite structure, and the epic scope of the work immediately suggests antecedents in both Dante and Pound, and an appreciation of this context helps clarify many details and intentions, and deepens the reader’s response. At the same time Spade breathes its intertexuality naturally, as we do the the air, and remains remarkably immediate and alive, quirkily independent, at once breezily conversational and mired in melancholy. It reads much as if we have stumbled into an entertaining backyard jaw between two cantakorous old versifiers, and the occasional neighbor, who spout anecdote, memory, joke, wisdom, and poetry, to each other and to themselves, with little care to posterity or the listener. And while we may not completely understand what is said, we are loath to leave the garden.

For the larger structure of 100 Cantos, the Divine Comedy is the most relevant antecedent, with somewhat less of the divine, and more of the comedy. As the first of three books, Spade has an obvious correspondence to the Inferno. “Spade is a digger,” Canto 8 tells us, and this digging stirs up worms and old bones along with rich soil. But rather than being trapped within the walls of Dis, we are more often striding the fields of Limbo with the virtuous pagans. Or as Denner has put it, we are in “the Sufi fourth heaven of the innermost heart,” a place where the devil can still enter, though proceed no further. This is a place structured less by dogma than debate, though a debate suffused by a sense of mortality, by religious yearning and skepticism at once. In this way the joint authorship of the poem becomes a key to its overall structure: Denner, “who wanted to become a Buddhist monk”, is in an endless, and endlessly productive, conversation with Bromige, “a terminal atheist.” Though they may come to realize that they “do not share/certain beliefs,” they both know that “the real was a making up,” and that it “takes a lifetime to/learn to live in the world/or leave it.

At the level of the individual cantos, with their interweaving of fragmentary voices, personal, historical and poetic, Pound’s Cantos are the obvious model. The opening of “Can’t Do 5” (as it is written), gives a sense of this:

Bound by habit, unbound by love
the leaves turn, the rains fall
the creek rises
and the homeless are homeless
Takes my “I” out
right view, right thought, right speech,
right action, right effort
the cats were here or hereabouts
civil brutality of cats
who just want a little stroke
“Think you’re man enough?”

In a few short lines the poets range across lyrical self-reflection, nature, politics, allusions to Confucius (through Pound), the habits of cats, and a recalled challenge, all without obvious connective tissue. But interestingly, the example of Pound himself, of his progeny, and of his modernist analogues in other arts, have domesticated and canonized this “collage” technique, on the one hand moderating its original shock and on the other allowing for conditions where the reader can delight in the verse, and explore its meaning or destruction of meaning, without oppressive irony, or any fixed ideas about the implications of the form itself. A fragmentariness which might have seemed tragic in a Pound or Eliot might be a rich and humorous plenum to us, or simply a realistic rendering of the jagged edges of consciousness and conversation.

Indeed, if we strip away the narrative line from the Iliad, or the Christian and Aristotelian architecture from the Divine Comedy, much of the delight in individual lines and sections remains. The larger structure serves to sustain the reader’s interest through what might be a very long journey, and also to present a frame for the overall construction of meaning. Contemporary experience has made us skeptical of such artificial and unitary constructions, presented without irony. But Modernism has shown us that sometimes variety itself can be an organizing and sustaining principle, and that merely presenting a construction as a work of art can generate in the reader a play of meaning similar to that more explicitly guided by classical art. Contemporary work, moreover, has the advantage of being able to invoke the architectural apparitions of the past, when convenient, to sustain and structure the reader’s attention. In Spade the ghosts of Pound and Dante function much as Virgil does for Dante, mentors for the poet, and guides for the reader, and their invocation paradoxically allows for a more radical abandonment of the poet as narrator, without the abandonment of epic ambitions. The reader takes on the character of Dante himself, wandering through the underworld first-hand, without a prior sense of just where he is going.

Spade is in several respects more radically fragmentary than Pound’s own Cantos. This is partly the consequence of the only partially resolved dialogue in the poem between two distinct personalities. Pound, in contrast, consistently foregrounds a point of view that he at least intends to be consistent and prescriptive. Furthermore in Spade there simply seem to be more voices at play, not just in quoted selections or in italicized allusions, but in the flow of directly presented lines. The two speakers themselves dissolve into myriad masks, at issue with each other and with themselves. Canto 20, an expanded version of Plato’s Parmenides, is characteristic. It begins with a focused dialogue on the Many and the One, gradually incorporates multiple philosophic voices past and present, and ends in a smart-ass joke by Jerry Fodor (presumably), which does not quite undercut the earnestness of what goes before. Spade also makes rich use of the arbitrary constructions and witty discontinuities typical of Language poetry. In the following section from Canto 21, for instance, a central pun becomes a logical pivot, a movement that expresses a key ambiguity as well as a joyful burlesque:

and I am amazed at the amount
of material, which in this way is like
Pound’s Cantos, sure he labored
over his more than we, and it shows
in his writing and not in ours,
ours is laborless writing
Laborless writing is a good idea
I’ll put this in as a line.
Laborious writing is a good idea
to remind us of our task

Reading Spade, however, is never laborious, even when it is most bewildering. The voices are always lively; the jokes work; the self-meditations have an immediate force. Repeated readings help make clearer the lines between the voices of Denner and Bromige, though this precise distinction is not central to appreciating the work. A judicious use of Wikipedia helps make sense of some of the references, but as in Pound this knowledge usually only confirms the context within the cantos themselves. And an overall unity is maintained through the skilful interweaving of central themes and preoccupations.

And what are these themes? I have mentioned above an awareness of mortality and the debate between faith and skepticism, between the many and the one. One might add strains from politics, philosophy, and history, the limitations and possibilities of art, and reminisces of the poetry scene of the Beats and early Sixties, in rough parity. Indeed it is the inclusiveness of this material, as well as its equal balance, that suggest the epic form. Even the theme relatively absent in Spade, romantic love, is suggestive of the overall design, since the next volume in the triptych is called The Petrarch Project. And all these themes are themselves united by a point of view that arises naturally from the situation of the poets themselves. Like Homer, Milton, Dante, and the late Yeats and Pound, these are mature poets, closer to the spade than the forceps. Their broad focus, and their balance between memory and humorous anecdote, pity and sober self-assessment, arises effortlessly from long experience not quite freed from desire.

The poignancy of this self-questioning encompasses both art and ethics. Spade begins with an epigraph from Pound’s Notes for Canto CXX:

I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
let the wind speak
that is paradise
Let the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.

Spade ends, in Canto 33, with a summation that is itself a witty collage of lines from each of the thirty-two preceding cantos. Is this a proper way out of the underworld? Will Denner and Bromige remain as useless “as a hydrogen bomb,” or should they embrace this uselessness like “a lazy river, heaven sent,/or else a happy accident,/Just flowing there?” Will Bromige manage to leave “enough money for a quiet funeral?” Will Denner succeed, and does Spade succeed, by losing the “Self to gain/the Beauty of the Union?” These questions are not answered, but the conversation lives on.

I cannot close without saying a word on Denner’s method of “writing right into the book,” a procedure which contributes much to capturing the immediacy of the conversations that are both the genesis and the structural frame of the work. When I said above that Spade reads “much as if we have stumbled into an entertaining backyard jaw” I could have left out the “as if”. The 100 Cantos are quite literally based on a series of lively garden conversations between Bromige and Denner, conversations which were recorded, edited, and transcribed immediately into a succession of chapbooks. The chapbooks themselves were then further corrected and edited, and gradually assembled into the complete work. The unity of the book as a whole, then, blends seamlessly into the experiential unity of two real characters in genuine conversation. The frame of two selves in time, and the frame of one garden in place, is transmuted into the literal frame of the book, and recreated in the abstract frame of art.