The Revered Rebel: Bruce Ario’s “The Lovely Tree Branches”

A photo of a young, red-haired Bruce Ario in a hat, eating seafood.

[From There To There: Bruce Ario, The Minneapolis Poet is our upcoming film on the life and work of Bruce Ario. You can watch the trailer here.]

It’s not uncommon for the artist to live in search of validation. After all, life’s navigation can be painful, especially when forced to interact with those unable to appreciate or recognize the value in one’s work. Just reading about Vincent Van Gogh and how his many peers thought him a nobody, or how Paul Cézanne’s father would rather his son have become a lawyer or banker—the frustration is evident. Sure, a parent wants his kid to make money, but at what expense? What if Cézanne had instead become Banker Paul rather than Painter Paul? What a loss the world would have suffered.

The life of an artist is one of sacrifice. To pursue it, one must be willing to adapt to the slog of overlooked, lower-rank jobs, and forgo the material. This is not to say that one must inevitably accept a life of poverty, but to expect a high-rank career is highly unrealistic, given such an occupation would likely leave one with little creative time. Yes, Wallace Stevens was president of Hartford Insurance, but he chose that job over an academic career because the work yielded little drain on his brain. While providing him with a comfortable living, selling insurance is far from glamorous. Moreover, Hart Crane was lucky enough to land a job as a copywriter, and Vivian Maier worked as a nanny, affording her the freedom to walk with her employers’ kids and photograph.

And as for me—even while spending several years working in a technical field, I recognized the lack of glamour in such a pursuit, but it paid the bills. This did not, however, stop me from encountering the small-minded and envious individuals who felt the need to reduce my writing talent to a moment of air quotes, dismissively referring to me as a “writer” who “took herself too seriously.” (Must I have the imprimatur of fame?)

Unfortunately, such disrespect for the artistic runs rampant. This brings me to Bruce Ario (1955-2022) who, as one of those artists in desperate search of validation—much of it resulted in his creative detriment. A kind man whose biggest flaw was being too nice, he would listen to any schlub with an opinion and then alter his work according to their suggestions, however bad. The notion that not all opinions are equal evaded Bruce, as he was only concerned with appeasing those in the moment. He wanted to be liked. But he also wanted to remain true to his vision. Regrettably, very often this results in a contradiction. Bruce wanted to please everyone, even those from whom he wished to rebel.

Furthermore, those familiar with Bruce’s work know that he idolized singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. Now, why was this? Could it have been that Bruce just loved Dylan’s music? Perhaps, but I think it goes further. As detailed in Cityboy, John Argent has a hero worship for the idea of Dylan—that is, the 1960s image of Bob Dylan—rebel and challenger of the status quo. Someone with depth who would piss off the uptight, square, Mid-Western elders that Bruce reviled. But there is more to it than this, as Dylan was also revered among his peers. He was, in fact, the revered rebel—beloved and recognized for his creative work. Bruce idolized Dylan because he wanted this for himself. He wanted to be ‘bold’, ‘different’, ’unique,’ and ‘visionary,’ while also being adored, admired, and accepted. However, very few artists encounter Taylor Swift billion-dollar adoration. (Take away her glitter and glam and what is there?) Rather, most artists struggle to be seen at all, and consequently, they are too often mocked by their peers and even their own families.

However, one must always remember the work, and of my favorite Bruce poems is not even an ario at all (3-3-3-1 form), but rather a free verse poem called “The Lovely Tree Branches”. In it, the verb tenses fall slightly off as though the words are dissolving as the woman’s shawl into the tree branches beside her:

The Lovely Tree Branches

Frail tree limbs a delicate adventure
To watch closely into the night
When the city is so still
And all that is around me slumbers.
I can’t forsake the mission
In my heart which breathes air
Against hustle bustle sleepers
Who are juxtaposed in a dream
Near the limbs not quite on them
No the limbs are almost bare of anything human
Except for the open eyed woman.
I saw her just yesterday in her shawl
Moving ever so close to the lovely tree branches.

This poem is one of the most Wallace Stevensian poems I’ve read, with the lines:

Who are juxtaposed in a dream
Near the limbs not quite on them
No the limbs are almost bare of anything human
Except for the open eyed woman.

Note how the words carry a sing-songy quality that plays off one another, and that the grammar is just slightly off, where verbs are either omitted or irregular. As example, contrast the above lines to those within Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”:

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

This is not to imply that Bruce sought out the Stevens poem as an influence, but rather that the slow dissolve of words meld into the natural emotion that both poems so well carry. What are we anyway but the garments that caress our forms?

Bruce was not a poet who thought much about his verse. As detailed in an earlier essay, Bruce was a writer of emotion. And it is this emotion that gave him his distinction but also hindered his progress. Most prefer to be liked than disliked I suppose, but the need to be liked among nitwits with no artistic understanding is never a good thing. A century and a half later, what do we think of those who dismissed Van Gogh as the nutcase in the fields of Arles? Oh, nothing—because they are forgotten. So, knowing this, why should one worry about what they thought then, vs. what they would think now? Easy to say, but for the artist, very often the present remains the biggest obstruction. While we would all love to live for some future audience that understands us, we still must thrive amid the present day and pull our pants up every bit the same.

There is a quote by Roger Ebert from his memoir Life Itself that goes, ‘We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people.’ I think that Bruce would have felt very much the same. I mean, the man chose to forgo the material for a life in search of poetry and understanding. And in this popular culture, who’s to say that’s not a rebel?

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More from Jessica Schneider: Viva Don Logan: On Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” (2000), An Artist’s Overtaking: François Girard’s “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993)The Artist’s Overwhelm: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” (2023)