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Friday, May 23, 2008

Girly Man by Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein's latest book of poems represents a major step forward. In many of the poems, he seems to be extending his experimental forms into a broader public sphere more available to lay readers. Not only is he doing this successfully, but he does not seem to compromise his poetics in order to do so. In fact, many of the most accessible poems in this collection seem to me to exemplify Bernstein's stated poetics better than his previous work.

In the 1970's and 80's the so-called Language Poets, of which Bernstein was a central player, were frequently accused, and not without some merit, of being too esoteric. They claimed to be interested in politics, but their poetry often seemed to be more concerned with linguistic structures and difficult theoretical concerns than with the polity. These accusations could easily be taken too far, but this collection does make me wonder if, for Bernstein at least and perhaps for other of his compatriots, the radical experimentation of the 1970's-1990's was a necessary crucible to developing a poetics that, unlike most of contemporary poetry, can truly engage the public sphere.

Indeed, no other book by Bernstein feels so relevant.

The following quotation comes from what is hardly the best poem in the book, but it does exemplify what I am driving at:

"DIRECTIONS: For each pair of sentences, circle the letter, a or b, that best
expresses your viewpoint. Make a selection from each pair. Do not omit
any items.

1. a) The body and the material things of the world are the key to any
         knowledge we can possess.
     b) Knowledge is only possible by means of the mind or psyche.

2. a) My life is largely controlled by luck and chance.
     b) I can determine the basic course of my life."

It goes on through 14 questions (perhaps a rye nod toward the updating of the sonnet). What this poem does is decontextualize a familiar type of psychological questionnaire in order to help us see it more clearly. Bernstein does not seem to take an attitude toward the questionnaire: it lies more or less neutral before us on the page. We are left to wonder how these questionaires cause us to think. Do they encourage us to form ridiculously simple-minded and overly general philosophical positions? To what extent, if at all, are they useful? What harm might they do?

In fact, to the last question I raise, the answer is "a lot of harm." The form of and habits through which we think have effects on the public sphere. For instance, the way Power Point encourages us to think, according to a recent lecture I attended by Jay Jolton, may have been a contributing factor in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. It distracted scientists and engineers from something essential they needed to attend to.

Bernstein is using poetry to attend to aspects of our contemporary discourse in order to make their implications, possibilities, and limitations more visible to us.

The more complex poems in the collection, of course, draw on wider and deeper aspects of the polity than does "Questionnaire." One such success is "War Stories." Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the poem is comprised of six pages of short prose comments, each set off by a skipped line, and each beginning "War is." Here are four consecutive comments from the middle of the poem :

"War is the reluctant foundation of justice and the unconscious guaran-
tor of liberty.

War is the broken dream of the patriot."

War is the slow death of idealism.

War is realpolitik for the old and unmitigated realism for the young."

Bernstein lists four attitudes or beliefs about war, again in a way that seems fairly neutral — except for the fourth one, about "realpolitik." Here poetry, unlike other forms of social discourse, is able to represent to us the numbing repetition of the word "war" that begins to cause us to strip from our understanding its consequences. Ideas about war come from all angles, seemingly from all political perspectives. What does it add up to? That we are intimately involved with deciding what war is, where it should take place, whether it should take place, and who should fight it. There is no running: there is no fleeing to a self-righteously idealistic place that puts oneself outside the sphere others inhabit, either by naively ignoring its occasional necessity or by claiming a particular war is simply pure and good.

I won't tell you the momentous end to this poem, because at that time we suddenly realize that these remarks have not been randomly placed together, but are working toward a specific effect.

In one section of the book, Bernstein leaves behind his experiments with poetic form. Apparently, he believed that only raw and immediate journaling could possibly do justice to the events in New York City surrounding 9-11. In the section entitled "Some of These Daze" he includes four journal entries and a letter to a Russian friend that details what he did, how he felt, and how the city responded to the attacks. I found it to be remarkable in that it did return me to the feelings I had right after the attack. It is quite apparent that Bernstein was trying, in these responses, to be rigorously honest — at one point he even confesses to hearing in his head the bouyantly happy "feelin' groovy" from Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song." But in the end Bernstein, a lifetime Manhattanite, grieves for his hometown in a palpably hurt manner.

Not all of the poems in this collection display Bernstein's new turn to accessibility. Many of the poems that could be considered experimental lyrics, which he has been writing at least since 1990's The Absent Father in Dumbo, (available now only in Republics of Reality) feature puns, rhymes, odd turns of phrase and shifts, that simultaneously locate and dislocate, often in several directions at once. To read these poems is to feel as if one is subject to a sometimes discomforting action-at-a-distance. From "Pocket in the Hole":

Reverberation sways aversion —
     seals still harbinger
Bent dismay in
     a supposed zone
Where tampered verity
     flushes conscience down

The title right away disallows any easy digestion. Where can a pocket possibly exist in a hole? What is suggested by such a baffling paradox? Perhaps the feeling of being in the inside of the inside of, uhm, something? And how can anything, even 'reverbation' with its implied repetitions, sway a visceral dislike so deep that it can be called 'aversion'?

It should be obvious by now that the sort of traditional reading that I was attempting in the above paragraph is not working. We need to approach the poem as an associative field of energy, where we do not think in terms of subject - verb - object, but in the reverberations of each word. Perhaps the noun in one line has more to do with a verb in the next one than it does with its strictly 'grammatical' verb.

Reverberation, for instance, not only rhymes with 'aversion' but sounds similar to 'harbinger'. And 'sways', 'seals', and 'still' are linked by alliteration. 'Bent' semantically connects to both 'sways' and 'tampers' because they are all verbs of movement. 'Dismay' similarly connects to 'aversion', and the latter connects to 'conscience' due to sound. This poem sounds forth its suggestions, causing us to feel unbalanced, uncertain, a sense that feelings as strong as verity and aversion and dismay are subject to change.

I do, though, want to return to what I said at the beginning of this review. What this book most succeeds at is not giving us more poems that are a quality continuation of one of Bernstein's early styles, but breaking into a new ground where poetic form can do its work in the public sphere with potency and direction.

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