Plainly Great: The Poetry of Bruce Ario

A stylized photo of Bruce Ario wearing a hat, wearing a jacket, and smiling into the camera on a Minneapolis street in winter.

[For our video discussion of Bruce Ario’s life and work with his brother, Joel Ario, click here.]

Being one to enjoy writers of a more ornate bent, who can create wide colours and sounds with words, I am, at least in personal taste, less drawn to plainness. There is a pleasure in having the full spectrum of expression before one’s eyes, albeit a superficial one, akin to the indulgence of exorbitant fashions. Still, every now and then, a voice comes along that shakes such excesses out of me. Returns me to a yearning for the absolute simplicity of the simplest words. And, as of late, it is a selection of poems from Bruce Ario (1955 – 2022) that has shaken.

True, Bruce Ario is not, to me, a new voice. He’s had poems published on the net and has written novels. From glimpses alone, one can estimate the substance of a writer’s craft, yet the magnitude of it escapes until one perceives the whole. And what a majestic whole this is! Several hundred poems – a voice condensed. That voice: plainspoken, democratic, the most accessible poet to exist thus far without attendant compromises on quality. Think of all the failed attempts at such in recent years: whatever Rupi Kaur or other ‘Insta-poets’ have loosened upon the masses. Most of Bruce’s poetry could fit an Instagram post, share Instapoetry’s superficial appeal – save a difference: a depth worth the dig.

“Why didn’t I think of that?!” is the sentiment that sums up the Bruce Ario reading experience. Underneath a sheathe of simple words, the poems are upheld by the sheer intellect of their arrangement. Unlike other greats, say W.B. Yeats, Hart Crane, or Wallace Stevens, whose phonetic & lyric capabilities can dazzle, or forbid, even as they obscure the narrative poesy that drives the music of their poems, Bruce has many poems that function almost entirely on narrative. Not that he’s unmusical, as his plainspokenness contains subtle phonetic effects, but these take backseat to his peculiar play of thought. Thus, one exclaims: “Why didn’t I think of that?!” – these poems seem within reach; their narrative can be broken down, analysed, understood. Yet only a mind like Bruce could have formed them.

So let’s begin analysis, reveal those forms. One to start with:

Close Quarters

I work in a fishbowl within a
Larger fishbowl
But our natural predators have been tamed.

So we enjoy our days
And the roles we play
Taking our cues and hooks

Treading the surface
Temporarily going under
Throwing out our lines

Basking under the fluorescent sun.

The narrative of this poem can be summarized as: the metaphor of fish in a fishbowl used to describe life. And, indeed, you may think: “I could write that!” – are encouraged to try, in fact. Perhaps you’d tap upon the idea of the fishtank as a cage around freedom, as a metaphor for human limits, something like David Foster Wallace’s silly This Is Water speech that uses water to symbolize solipsism and subjectivity. Now look back at the above poem. Bruce is already one step ahead of you, having invoked such ideas in the title and first two lines (enhanced by the surreal image of “a fishbowl within a larger fishbowl”), before twisting the narrative altogether by framing these limits as positive. The constraints of the fishbowl, without “natural predators”, is what allows the fish’s enjoyment.

Then, with deft wordplay, the fish are associated with both actors and fishermen (notice the punning of ‘hooks’ and ‘lines’), an innovation on the Shakespearean “All the world’s a stage” made utterly strange. In a flip of perspective, the fish as fishermen are the ones probing, casting out ‘lines’ within or above the water. To cap it all off, the poem ends with a cosmic image of “basking under the fluorescent sun” – the solar symbol merged with the artifice of a fishbowl’s fluorescent lights.

One could interpret the poem in a multitude of ways: perhaps as commentary on the Christian condition and the positive constraints of religious law, or on the self-defined boundaries an artist sets in any work of art. One can even default to the original connotation of the metaphor by reading a sort of dystopian irony into the fishbowl. That such meanings can be refracted from a poem of a mere ten lines shows the marvel of Bruce’s poetic condensation.

Next, a poem with far more limited subject, a moral one on a theme defined by the title: “knowledge”. Even here, one can see how firm technique and subversion prevents the poem from dissolving into banality:


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
Causing false confidence in the face of the unknown
And when trouble comes, upheaval.

You can stay comfortable in your blindness
Behind yourself and in a glove
But you know, people see through you.

Do you like your image?
Do you care about your image?
Can you say a little more?

Will someone cry when you die?

Read the first stanza of this poem, then look at the last line. How exactly did Bruce arrive there? What begins as seeming caution, a warning against pretense caused by scant knowledge, is slowly complicated by a play on the idea of images and facades. The “face of the unknown” initially seems like a standard phrase, talking about future unknowns, but can be taken as a quite literal ‘face’ that the one of “little knowledge” faces with a persona of “false confidence”. The second stanza then interrogates that idea with the intriguing image of blindness being “behind yourself and in a glove” – imparting a location and an unexpected metaphor (the innocuous everyday item – a glove) to an internal state. With these image-related motifs in play, Bruce finishes the poem with a series of questions interrogating the worth of image. The final line “Will someone cry when you die?” is a haunting leap that asks what stands to be lost as consequence of holding on to such facades. The theme of knowledge is overturned: as begetting falsity than clarity. The twists may not be as compact nor adventurous as some of Bruce’s other poems, especially his great ones, but this is still a good poem.

And, at last, to a properly great poem:

Like A Child

She was a child disarmingly cute, sassy
Seemingly had never known loss
Or wore it on her dress.

Hard won toughness a knife in my heart.
On to the next thing always building
Never revealing behind those brown eyes.

But then she was a child in the way she left me
Not peacefully but grabbing for the money
So much better than me she thought.

To the arms of someone who also thought he was better.

Yes, the poetic subject here is about being ditched by a lover, presumably for another man. A theme so overdone, the paper expended could fill garbage dumps. The possible thematic pitfalls are endless: one could fall into mawkishness, cliché, melodrama, whining – and even a skillful take could be crowded out by plenitude alone. How does Bruce Ario handle it and make it great?

Consider the structure: the actual ditching is decentered, revealed only in the 3rd stanza, and the ‘someone’ revealed in the last line. This defangs the melodrama and focuses the poem on the psychology of the narrator and his lover. The brevity and plainspoken tone undercuts melodrama further. The scenario is stated matter-of-factly, imparting a pragmatism and maturity to the narrator’s voice.

For one, the narrator doesn’t immediately condemn his lover: her childishness is painted as a quality that appeals, makes her “disarmingly cute, sassy”, even as the sarcasm here becomes apparent as the poem progresses. The woman’s spoilt nature is stated in her lack of knowing ‘loss’, though the truth of this is made ambiguous by the adverb ‘seemingly’ and metaphor of the dress that may paint it as façade – whatever the truth, it implies a lack of sincerity and openness on her part which may have contributed to the relationship’s failure.

The second stanza seems to be describing the narrator’s maturity in contrast to his lover’s, yet this is complicated by many things. Bruce’s quirky grammar, the staccato fragmentation of the lines, makes it such that the subject of the descriptions isn’t obvious: the descriptors could both refer to narrator and lover, as the only pronoun, ‘my’, in the 4th line, places the narrator as object to a metaphorical knife (a metaphor for his life experience? Or is she the wielder of the knife?). Likewise, “on to the next thing always building” could refer either to his enterprising nature or her flightiness (building to other lovers, other plans?). And the owner of the “brown eyes” is equally ambiguous.

Even if we take the second stanza straightforwardly, as describing the narrator, these descriptions hold a self-effacing slant. The masculine positivity of “hard-won toughness” is tempered by the knife-metaphor: is the toughness a boon or is it a wound? Certainly, the rest of the stanza can be about someone who has gained stoic wisdom from the School of Hard Knocks, or about a lone wolf closed-off in his own way. All of the above stated ambiguities make the poem less one-sided than it appears: a certain amount of blame can fall on the narrator, not merely on the callousness of his childish lover.

The third stanza lands the narrative twist, the breakup. The lover is depicted as childishly “grabbing for the money”, seeking not love but material gain. The enjambment in the 8th line doubles the meanings of the 9th, either describing the lover’s valuation of money (“the money so much better than me she thought”) or her elitism (“so much better than me she thought”). The syntax also allows the stanza to be read in a more enigmatic manner, with ‘left’ interpreted as “cause one to become”, as in: the lover causing the narrator to become one “grabbing for the money”.

Finally, we get the ending zinger, a perfect close that refracts the poem’s meaning even as it coheres it. The most straightforward, superficial reading sees it as a statement about the lover’s new man being as childish as herself, and both seeing themselves as better than the narrator – “someone who also thought he was better (than me)”. Yet, as the object of comparison is left unstated, it could just as easily refer to the lover – “someone who also thought he was better (than her)” – implying the lover as subject to her own cycle, falling for someone who uses her the same way she used the narrator. Much like the doomed loves depicted in Woody Allen films, emotional immaturity begets its own comeuppance.

I’d leave the analysis at that, but one must note a motivic throughline that really pushes the poem farther: the ‘arms’ of the last line. Beyond just limbs, it could be read in the word-sense of weapons. This parallels the first line’s ‘disarmingly’, the metaphor of the knife, and the aggressive “grabbing for the money” in the third stanza – implements of battle sheathed into the words. And, a final complication: one assumes the final line carries naturally over from the last stanza, but we mustn’t forget that an enigmatic period in the 9th line stands it on its own. Are we quite sure the line only addresses the lover and her man? Perhaps, there is an imperative there – “(Make me in)to the arms of someone who also thought he was better.” – that hangs the narrator’s pace; he returns to war…

These three poems exemplify Bruce Ario’s style and thought, illustrates too the growing technical complexity between good to great poems. Most of all, it shows how small and unadorned greatness can be. One needs no large words, merely large thoughts. And Bruce certainly had many large thoughts, plucked out of an ether – “I especially like the bright, shiny ones”. So, while not everyone can be a poet, every word can be poetic – that’s where the democracy of poetry lies. For the few on the path to find those words, an important lesson to learn.

In Dan Schneider’s biographical essay that opens the collection, he notes how Bruce was an outlier even among poets. Bruce frequently wrote without edits, forming his poems on intuition alone. Indeed, some of the above poems, even the great one, may be first drafts despite their completeness. In reading that I was tempted to write myself, dash out a few arios of my own attempting a similar cogency and unadornment. None of my attempts hit the mark. There’s something else to it. It makes a reader suck in his breath, go:

“Why didn’t I think of that?!”

And realize, plain and simple, who is not Bruce Ario.

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If you enjoyed this examination of Bruce Ario’s poetry, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a glimpse into Bruce Ario’s life and times with Joel Ario, Alex Sheremet, and Dan Schneider, a climate activist’s take on Ted Kaczynski’s Unabomber Manifesto, and a discussion with Norman Finkelstein and Palestinian refugees on their memories of war.

More from Chin Jian Xiong: For A Lonely While: On Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”, Better Than Sincere: On Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995)Great Man Out Of Time: On Dan Schneider’s “A Notch Of Eternity”