Fiddling Around With Verse

Zelman Brounoff is associate concert-master of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, but he hears several muses other than the one that sings to violinists. He dabbles in photography, collects chess sets (“I’ve taught literally hundreds of children to play chess,” he says), and conducts music therapy sessions at the state hospital in Terrell (he devised the first music therapy program for the Navy during World War II). But lately one muse has been heard especially clearly: Zelman Brounoff writes verse, topical, satiric, funny verse with complicated metrical and rhyme schemes.

“I read lots of poetry, but I don’t think I’m influenced by any one poet,” Brounoff says. And it’s true that though you hear a touch of Ogden Nash here, Lewis Carroll there, find a hint of Byron and a taste of W.S. Gilbert, Brounoff really sounds like Brounoff. He does admit to loving Lewis Carroll – “How could I help it? I love mathematics, and chess, and puns and parodies.” – and his magnum opus, a high-spirited parody of Hamlet, can be sung to the tune of Gilbert’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” in The Pirates of Penzance. Brounoff’s Hamlet – Re-Versed; or, Death with Father is 56 eight-line stanzas long, and follows the plot of the play faithfully, while interweaving outrageous puns, asides, one-liners, Yiddish words, and allusions to Watergate And Brounoff takes some liberties with characterization; his Ophelia’s madness starts off as exhibitionism. “The muddled maiden then mistook/Some garlands for the layered look./She doffed her blouse and curtsied – bra-less,/Draped with daisies über alles.”

“Everything I’ve written evolved from a last line or an ultimate phrase,” Brounoff says. “My poem ’Enough Is Enough’ developed when I discovered the word ’Lampyridae,’ which is the generic name for lightning bugs.” In “Enough Is Enough,” a lightning bug, whose name is “Gordian Knott,” gets fitted with an alkaline battery:

The net result of this display Which started near the end of May And sparkled through the month of June

And fizzled out a week too soon

Was luminescent acquiescence

Of a million adolescents

Plus a few adults. In essence, Lightning bugs are prone that way.

But Mrs. Knott was teary-eyed. She flew to Court and testified:

“I have had it! His ultra-adulterous rot

Is disruptive. Our union has gone to pot.

This frolicsome fop is a flop. That is why

I seek a divorce in this court, sine die.”

“It is granted,” ruled Judge Lampyridae.

“What’s left is cleft; both Knotts are free!”

How does a violinist become a versifier? Brounoff’s poetic career began in 1954. “I was taking a Great Books course at the old East Dallas branch of the Dallas Public Library. It was summer, and of course back then not everything was air-conditioned. We had been trying to get the City Fathers to commit themselves to air-conditioning the library. Finally, someone in my class said ’Mr. Brounoff is so articulate, he should write something about how uncomfortable the library is now.’ Well, I thought about it. I really don’t like to write prose – I’m a terrible correspondent. But all of a sudden I found myself composing a parody of Hamlet’s ’To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Mine begins ’To sweat or not to sweat.’ It was published in a little periodical called Dallas East – now defunct – and immediately contributions earmarked for air-conditioning the library started pouring in.”

Brounoff’s wife, Ruth, an enthusiastic partisan for her husband’s work, breaks in: “I really wish Zelman could somehow sell Mel Brooks on the idea of doing his Hamlet.” For a moment the idea is tantalizing: Gene Wilder as the Prince, Brooks as Claudius, bug-eyed Marty Feldman as the Ghost, and zoftig Bernadette Peters as the scantily-clad Ophelia. But then one listens to Brounoff reading his verse – lovingly exploring its intricacies, elucidating its subtler puns, bubbling with its romping rhythms – and one realizes an important fact: no one – not even Mel Brooks – could be a better interpreter of Brounoff than Brounoff.


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