For more than 40 years Charles Bernstein has been writing poetry that doesn’t always mean what it seems to be saying. It’s not simply that his work is often highly ironic, but that his uses of language might be described as just outside of conventional expression — as the title of his new collection, Near / Miss suggests — which creates both a lightness and a weightiness in the writing that is odd in American poetry. Instead of “straight-forwardness” or a language, as many critics have argued, that is based on the patterns of everyday talk that is at the heart of American prosody, Bernstein’s work toys with and overstates issues, creating a constantly shifting sense of reality.
One might almost compare reading a Bernstein poem to walking through a New York City street during a rainstorm. You cannot but enjoy the way the neon signs and streetlights are mirrored in the myriad puddles created by the cracked sidewalks; but as you leap over them you land down hard on the concrete, sometimes with water on your pant legs.
Or let me try another metaphor: I once asked my friend photographer Peter Vilms about the differences between Finnish and Estonian dialects; his parents were Estonian and he was familiar with both languages. “Well,” he responded, “the words for several Estonian words are metaphors in the Finnish … you can comprehend the sentences, but they somehow make you giggle. It’s as if listening to chimes in the wind. The tune is the same, but the sounds are always somehow different.”
Sometimes this difference is simply ironic. For example, in the first poem, “Thank You for Saying You’re Welcome,” the poem is utterly literal that means precisely the opposite of what it says — for example, “This is a totally inaccessible poem. Each word, phrase & line has been designed to puzzle you, its reader, & to test whether you’re intellectual enough — well-read or discerning enough — to fully appreciate this poem.”
In short, we quickly perceive, that he is describing a poem that this is not. The lines of this work seem to be lying. In fact, the poet is making fun of the many criticisms over the years that his poetry has received for being “difficult.”
In his book, however, these lines are not expressed as I have represented them above, in sentences, but are broken in unexpected places that force the reader to carry over parts of words, while moving the eye down and across the page.
This is a totally
has been de-
signed to puz-
zle you, its
er, & to
well-read or dis-
ly appreciate th-
poem. This poem
Bernstein thus transforms an absolutely accessible language into a visual puzzle that risks turning off readers who prefer not to move their eyes all over the page to make meaning. The author further shifts meaning through the placement of language in breaks such as in the final three lines of the portion I quote above, in which “this” is broken down to read “is.” Perhaps, as the next line suggests,“this is” a poem written for an audience of poets — or, at least an audience that appreciates a certain level of complexity.
Bernstein explores the vertical in poems such as “Truly Unexceptional,” “The Island of the Lost Song,” and, particularly in “How I Became Prehuman,” which begins —
These poems encourage us to rethink words, as we are forced to parse them out line by line by line. As he openly scoffs in the poem “Nowhere Is Just Around the Corner”: “Yeah I know. All that horizontality. / It’s enough to drive you to / drink.” — this poem inspired by the painting “Farm Buildings Near the Rio Grande: Under the Barn Roof, A.M.”, (2008) by the artist Rackstraw Downes. Several others are tributes to artists including Jill Moser, Marina Adams, Francie Shaw, and Bill Jensen.
Some of the most beautiful and lyrical works in this volume are, similarly, poems written “after” works by international poets in many languages. The “translation” in these works is just different enough from the original that you hear the clanging chimes of which my American-Estonian friend spoke. For example, in “S’I’Fosse,” written “after” the Sienesean poet Cerco Angiolieri who lived from 1269 to 1313, Bernstein’s poem reminds me somewhat of Louis Zukofsky’s famed sound-associated translations of Catullus, wherein he and his wife worked with the English-language sounds of the Latin words rather than with their actual meanings.
The book’s cover by artist Susan Bee (the poet’s wife) also reveals another meaning of the title, where a man and a woman stand close to one another, but with a bar separating them — another notion of being “near” the “miss.” And several of the poems in this collection celebrate the women or “loves” of the poet’s life. Perhaps my favorite poem in Near / Miss is “Catachresis My Love.” More than any other piece in this collection it reveals the “near misses” of Bernstein’s vision. Catachresis has two meanings: the use of the wrong word for the context, and the use of a forced or especially paradoxical figure of speech. Both appear in the poem, as he spins normal statements into reversals and paradoxes:
The ordinary is never more than an extension of the extraordinary. The
extraordinary is never more than an extension of the imaginary. The
imaginary is never more than an extension of the possible. The possible
is never more than an extension of the impossible. The impossible is
never more than an extension of the ordinary.
Every wish has two wings, one to move it into the world, the other to
bury it deep within the heart.
Here we move from the “ordinary” into larger imaginative possibilities, only to collapse again into ordinariness. Reflecting true Bernsteinian logic, he writes near the end of the poem:
the ear hears / what the eye elides
saying light when there is no light
tremble when everything shakes
These poems all made me laugh and cry, sometimes when reading a single page. Yet, I only cried when I read Bernstein’s version of Goethe’s “Elfking,” in which the daughter screams out to her protective father that the elfking and his ilk are coming for her; he attempts to reassure her only to discover that, by the end of their voyage, as Bernstein’s version reads: “In his arm, home now, his daughter is dead.”
This echoes the tragic death of the poet’s own daughter, Emma. Surely the tears of things past and present are very much at the heart of this wonderful work, just as the “tears of things” are expressed quite notably in Aeneas’ sad statement of the deaths of the Trojans, re-capsulized in Bernstein’s poem “Lacrimae Rerum” and in his very sad final poem,“Fare Thee Well”:
I don’t know whether we’ll meet again
Maybe we will, somewhere in hell
I can’t say how and I don’t know when
So fare thee well, fare thee well!