The winner in 1982 of the American Book Award for Poetry, William Bronk now presents his collected essays. His subjects in this volume range widely. In a series of essays entitled “The New World,” Bronk meditates on the legacies of the Mayan and Incan civilizations in the ruins of Machu Picchu, Tikal, Palenque, and Copan; in “A Partial Glossary,” he turns more abstract and philosophical as he considers ontological and epistemological implications of metaphor and costume, desire and denial; finally, in the long series of essays called “The Brother in Elysium,” Bronk sketches the social struggles, artistic goals, and aesthetic triumphs of Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville.
Bronk’s essays in “The New World” exemplify his philosophical reverence for ontological mystery. In “An Algebra Among Cats,” he initially contrasts the cultural values of the high-altitude Indians of the New World to those of the conquering Spaniards. The former found their security not only in the acceptance of ultimate mystery but also in its total worship. The Spanish found security in gold.
As Bronk meditates on the ruins of Machu Picchu, he is overwhelmed by the “special reverence for the site itself.” Worship of abstract mystery perhaps is not so impressive, however, as the architectural embodiments of this worship—the aesthetic statement made by the understated harmony of site and stone. The temple, in short, transcends time as a work of art, as sculpture. For Bronk, the well-documented engineering skills of this civilization are of less significance than its aesthetic statements, which speak quietly of the possibility of imposed order.
Paradoxically, the modern mind may discover something of its self, some hint of meaningful definition, in these ruins, the origin of which may remain forever shrouded. Bronk finds European traditions to be rather shallow when contrasted to those of the ancient peoples of Machu Picchu. European systems of chronological time seem incredibly insufficient and limiting when compared to those of a culture that placed all time in the present moment. Machu Picchu’s ruins thus symbolize humanity’s possibilities, for they affirm the power and reality of the imagination.
“At Tikal” continues Bronk’s theme of time and mortality. The Mayans at Tikal appear to have erected their stone monuments “to time itself,” not as memorials to special events. If at Tikal they counted the days ad infinitum through the centuries, they could never say that time has any beginning or end. Thus, time for Bronk is analogous to the weather, “which changes but is not increased.” Modern man, as the ancient Mayan, “experiences changes whose duration we note and measure as though they were all—or even anything. But we experience as well a continuing present which neither we nor the Mayans approach or depart from, a present which neither develops nor declines.”
The Mayan civilization again is Bronk’s subject in “The Occupation of Space—Palenque.” While other tribes probably settled in the Yucatán before the Mayans, Bronk believes that the Mayans were really the only culture that truly succeeded in occupying this geographical area, this space. Even “the present inhabitants hardly occupy it, and are largely indifferent to its former occupation.” For the poet Bronk, Palenque becomes a metaphor for man’s innate need to define place. Truly meaningful definition of the self, he implies, seems to require “a room, a place with walls or boundaries or a nave.” No civilization past or present recognized and met this need with greater success than the Mayans. They not only invented time; they also defined space.
Nevertheless, Bronk does not view the New World as a lost Eden. Nor is he Utopian. Palenque only seems to be an El Dorado. The lush tropical vegetation and the beautifully contoured topography must have indeed made the Yucatán seem Edenic. “But beautiful as such an environment is,” says Bronk, “it is also aggressive and destructive, and must have seemed an overwhelming disintegrative force. . . .”
Palenque, like Machu Picchu and Tikal, embodies mystery—the mystery of its origin and abandonment long before the Spanish conquests. For Bronk, it comes to symbolize two historical truths; first, it is not only possible but also vital for man to impose form and order on his space; second, none of his efforts to do so have been, shall be, or even should be totally successful. For “we tire of the forms we impose upon space and the restricted identities we secure from them. We tire finally even of the act itself of...
(The entire section is 1897 words.)