Tuesday, December 8, 2009
by Charles Bernstein
It is as impossible to read a poem alone as it is to write one in isolation – associative tendencies sing. We find ourselves in metropolises of words followed by words. The poems of Charles Bernstein’s 2006 collection, ‘Girly Man,’ comprise a co-inhabited space. This space may be endangered, as is the case in “Some of These Daze,” a chapbook responding to September 11th, but poetry facilitates communication about such catastrophes. The poem becomes a community, but it also serves as the conduit for a discourse within such a community. The poem moves through space and memory; it becomes “…a walk down the street/ of the imaginary enclosure that becomes real/ when shared.” These are packed streets and busy market places. Bernstein’s poetic verse shares space with devolved ad slogans, corroded turns of phrase, bad jokes and misheard conversation. The sections of “Girly Man” originally found life as chapbooks written and published in the wake of the September 11th, yet they operate as a modular whole unified by Bernstein’s wit and caustic determination. We find islets of communication – inspired by the installation work of Nam June Paik, Bernstein writes in ‘Jacob’s Ladder’: “Spent light’s pooled mirror/ Wet green in vertical beam/ Chill out – chaos binds.” In this collection the chaos of these poems’ divergent forms and manners are bound into a luminous whole – the shimmer of the city’s lights spied miles out in the country on a clear night.
But the hiccups and discrepancies of Bernstein’s poems aren’t easily streamlined into a whole. The pleasure of this poetry is that of community, and the multiplicity it engenders – the difference necessary for its occurrence. You can’t dissolve indeterminacy into a totalized poetry, neutralizing it so that it is easier to parse, and hence, less dangerous. Bernstein’s poems allow a community fostered upon poetry and the discourse surrounding it. This is a vision of multitudes, but it is not a multi-culti Pepsi word falling under the aegis of a Capitalist, commodity-based confluence. This is an ambivalent and complicated sphere. The robust humor of ‘Girly Man’ highlights the inherent difficulties of language, Bernstein does not want use to forget the quarrelsome component. He writes, “…shadows create community…” The discrepancies, the very areas that the umbrella of community can never cover, are the actual bedrock of such a group.
Look at the collection’s very first poem, “In Particular,” wherein issues of community and identity collide with those of language and meaning. We see “A Eurasian boy on a cellphone/ An Arab with an umbrella/ A Southerner taking off a backpack/ An Italian detonating a land line/ A barbarian with beret/ A Lebanese guy in limousine/ A Jew watering petunias/ A Yugoslavian man at a hanging…” The poem stretches over multiple pages, with the individual descriptions existing in isolation; each line is its own island. The fat girls and Irish lads and dyslexic sailors of the poem never interact, and in that sense they accumulate to an associative community. Any interaction of the parts occur on the cognitive level of the reader – Bernstein makes certain to keep them seperate.
Yet another photo on my blog of Charles Bernstein, this time with Karen Weiser.
Bernstein’s affinity for Wittgenstein is felt here, as he interrogates the fault lines of language – specificity turns to language. Are we really looking at a ‘community’ within this poem? Is this an inclusive act of cataloging? No, it seems more likely Bernstein is using the specificity of each line to investigate the ultimate interchangeability of their details. Is there any good reason why it must be a Jew watering the petunias? This is Bernstein’s sense of humor at work. But then, the cultural implications of these statements complicate their context. “A Mongolian imitating Napoleon” is a different matter than a Parisian imitating Napoleon. A Parisian imitating Napoleon connotes differently than a Frenchman doing the same thing. Language, even this poem’s unpretentious, plain language, does not simply transmit data – it envelops the information. The poem begins with a couplet, “A black man waiting at a bus stop/ A white woman sitting on a stool…” which is inverted at the close to “A white man sitting on a stool/ A black woman waiting at bus stop.” The race and gender modifiers may be exchanged, but by doing so, the implication drastically shifts.
The line is an individual unit in “In Particular;” sense and statement is bracketed within the boundaries of the line. Repetition calls attention to the isolation of each line, albeit one of interchangeable specificity. The line functions as a more permeable unit in the poem “Likeness.” Again, repetition builds to a chiming regularity of construction and meaning. The poem opens, “the heart is like the heart/ the head is like the head/ the motion is like the motion/ the lips are like the lips/ the ocean is like the ocean/ the fate is like the fate…” and so on. Bernstein muddles the sense in the later lines: “...the is is like the is/ the the is like the the/ the like is like the like…” as the words in and of themselves become the subject. We are at play with language. If we are indeed going to read the line as a complete unit, then we are left with statements not of equality, but of semblance and seeming. The heart is only like the heart, and is not actually the heart itself. We descend down a hole of similarities and not actualities. We find, as Bernstein writes elsewhere in the collection, “…the space between a thing & itself…” But then again, we are assuming each line must always be read as a complete statement. Why don’t we allow the lines to bleed into each other? So no longer do we find “...the care is like the care/ the book is like the book/ the web is like the web/ the skid is like the skid/ the pull is like the pull/ the pall is like the pall...,” but the ‘care, the book’ is like ‘the book, the web,’ which is then like ‘the web, the skid.’ The poem encourages such a modular reading. The poem’s recitation and the repetition within it, fosters a diversity of sense.
“Girly Man” never loses sight of language’s political ramifications. The title itself is culled from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s statements during a Republican convention, in which he taunted dissenters to President Bush’s incumbent policies as ‘girly men.’ An oxymoron such as this has clear political resonances. Elsewhere, Bernstein tells us “Let’s just say that pretty ugly is an aspiring oxymoron.” There is a contradiction in this statement, just as there is in Schwarzenegger, but Bernstein is aware of this complication. Then, Bernstein concedes, “Let’s just say that mankind suffers its language.” Language is not just the tool which poets and artists use against oppressors in possession of military arms and political might – language is a weapon wielded by all of mankind. If we do not grapple with the incongruities and ambivalences of language, we allow ourselves to be exploited by the rhetoric of power.
Arnold Schwarzenegger amongst his constituents.
The final poem in the collection, ‘the Ballad of the Girly Man,’ is a pronouncement of protest. Bernstein has long been an enemy of “official verse culture,” and here he implicates the narrowing of linguistic potentialities with the limiting of rights, as “A democracy once proposed/ Is slimmed and grimed again/ By men with brute design/ Who prefer hate to rime/ Complexity’s a four-letter word/ For those who count by nots and haves/ Who revile the facts of Darwin/ To worship the truth according to Halliburton.” The political dimension of poetry, as well as its ability to be difficult and diverse, is the poet’s defense against, as Bernstein puts it, “rhetorical crap.”
Bernstein has become a controversial figure in the poetry community because he doesn’t simply pay lip service to the democratic iconoclasm of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, but instead embodies their restless activism within language. It is easy to appreciate the iconoclasm of someone such as Ginsberg after the fact, but it’s a very different matter to respect it in one’s own contemporary moment. Like Ginsberg, Bernstein’s politics are a matter of poetics. What is the political sphere of a poem? In “Sign Under Test,” Bernstein writes “the politics in a poem has to do with how it enters the world, how it makes its meaning, how its forms work in social contexts. The politics in a poem is specific to poetry not politics.” The poem moves through aphoristic swerves, as it tackles thought and poetry. Bernstein fires off one-liners like “When you say baroque you’re barking up the wrong tree, which suits me,” beside succinct statements such as “Poetry is patterned thought in search of unpatterned mind.” We must remember must poetry search for, yet never definitively finds, such unpatterned mind.
Bernstein equates the emotional value of “official verse culture” with a commoditized value. He writes, “My cares turned to wares.” The insidious reality of a poetry that does not admit its ideological purpose or that it even has one engenders complicity with its truth-absconding rhetoric. Bernstein satirizes “official verse culture” in “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” as which he promises, “This is a totally/ accessible poem. There is nothing/ in this poem/ that is in any/ way difficult/ to understand. / All the words/ are simple &/ to the point. / There are no new/ concepts, no/ theories, no/ ideas to confuse/ you. This poem/ has no intellectual/ pretensions. It is/ purely emotional. / It fully expresses/ the feelings of the/ author: my feelings, the person speaking/ to you now. / It is all about communication.” But such a poem would only be the masquerade of communication, as it does not confront the ambivalences of language. Such as poem, “While/ at times expressing/ bitterness, anger, / resentment, xenophobia, / & hints of racism, its/ ultimate mood is/ affirmative.” The poems of ‘Girly Man’ admit they exist in a community of poems, and that they exist in order to contribute to such a community. This discourse can not be definitively quantified, as it is an argument, or perhaps more aptly, a conversation, and its worth is in how well it identifies boundaries, and then pushes past them.
Go to http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/books/girly-man/ for electronic versions of some of the poems under discussion, as well as critical responses from writers such as Ron Silliman and Ange Mlinko. Of particular note are the audio files of Bernstein reading selections from 'Girly Man.' Check out his reading of 'The Bricklayer's Arms!'