Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Republics of Poetry: 1975-1995
by Charles Bernstein
Poetic Justice (1979)
Senses of Responsibility (1979)
The Occurrence of Tune (1981)
The Absent Father in ‘Dumbo’ (1990)
Residual Rubbernecking (1995)
The title of Sun & Moon’s collection of Charles Bernstein’s poetry, ‘Republics of Reality,’ suggests a governmental, or at the very least, a politicized space. What is the political agent in poetry? Does it also possess an aesthetic value? But then, we must consider the perimeters of a space, both its content and boundaries. A space may be defined by its possibilities, just as it may be marked by what is disavowed. What is the role of the poet in the politicized space, in the republic of a sequestered or mandated reality? ‘Republics of Reality’ collects eight rare & out of print chapbooks spanning over twenty years in the career of poet and critic Charles Bernstein, in addition to a new selection of poems called ‘Residual Rubbernecking’ – that’s a lot of space to cover.
Now, the book isn’t a Collected Poems. We aren’t getting a definitive statement or anything of the kind; Charles Bernstein is very much a living writer and he continues to publish invigorating work in a variety of fields. Instead, this is a published progression, an account focusing on Bernstein’s poetry directly prior and concurrent with his influential work as editor with Bruce Andrews on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine, but extending well into the nineties. The book retains an imaginative focus despite its giddy predilection for swerves and digressions. This is an exploratory text. Bernstein is a voluminous writer, his work comprises both poetry and critical theory, and in seminal pieces such as ‘the Artifice of Absorption’ he has questioned the distinction between the two, effacing a generosity of genre. Over the course of his career, Bernstein has persuasively arguing that a poetics that isn’t itself poetry can be of much worth, just as the assumption that a poem must be illuminated by a third party does a disservice to everyone. Bernstein’s body of work can’t be neatly collected into a single volume or under an encompassing header; instead we have in ‘Republics of Reality’ a book that invites the reader to consider how the perimeters of form and language shift and expand.
Considering the large span of time covered, these poems do not convey or investigate the life of the poet as much as they comprise a life. They become in a sense a lived thing. Bernstein writes “…the things that are really valuable don’t/ so much happen as you experience them/ in the actual present/ a lot of what I experience/ is a sense of space/ & vacant space at that…” Here we return to space, but it is an absence, rather than a geographic space. Bernstein argues for an exploratory space within poetry, a region of possibility instead of a sequestering of form. He notes that “…when I do feel almost best/ is when I don’t care/ whether they make me feel good/ whether they have any relation to me/ that’s a very pleasant/ that’s a real feeling of value/ in the present moment/ to just sit & do nothing/ & that’s what writing is for me a lot/ or just sitting/ sometimes when I/ I sit in my office/ with my eyes closed/ on my chair/ & let my mind wander/ there’s a certain sense of not caring/ & letting it just go by…” He concedes there is “…something/ in/ the/ actual/ experiencing/ of/ it/ that does seem/ vacant/ in the way a lot/ is vacant/ but also/ the way/ yeah/ okay/ new mexico/ is/ vacant.” Bernstein uses ‘vacant’ to convey a sense of ‘space,’ but it is the absence of a space – that is, again we return to possibility. It is within these vacancies, such as when Bernstein just sits and allows his mind to wander, that confluences and adjacencies occur beyond a notion of worth or value. There is a potentiality, instead of a product.
Bernstein, a one-time student of philosophy, playfully picks at Plato’s notion of an encompassing republic – a governing body in which the poet is quarantined and censored as danger or licentious. Within the wide breadth of these poems, we see Bernstein as the skeptical, yet bemused sophist. He does not envision a sanctified republic, but the possibility of republics – there is a pluralism of reality. Reference to truth or a Socratic inalienability is dismissed, and we reproach a core in the language, as “…love of language – the hum – the huhuman- excludes its reduction to a scientifically managed system of reference in which all is expediency and truth is nowhere. Schooled and reschooled. The core is neither soft or hard. It’s not the supposed referent that has that truth. Words themselves. The particulars of the language and not, note, the ‘depth structures’ that ‘underlie’ ‘all languages’ require the attention of that which is neither incidentally or accidentally related to the world. It’s sweet enough. Not mere grids of possible words, as if truth were some kind of kicking boy, a form of rhetoric.” Poetry cannot be reduced to an economic function, but is instead an opening up of a wider field.
Elsewhere, Bernstein writes of “the sight of the ocean implying all kinds of knowledge.” There is a limitless to this space without boundary, to the consistency of change within the ocean as observed by Bernstein. But such a statement doesn’t consider the ocean as a resource – not in the sense that it can be mined for knowledge; that an economy of wisdom can be fished out like a sunken tanker or pirate doubloons. We should note that the sight of the ocean “implies” knowledge, instead of containing it. Bernstein’s poetry implies, or suggests meaning, while denying the desire to codify. We read the ghost images of a sense, with “each part passing away in a look.”
In a poem such as ‘the Taste is What Counts,’ Bernstein locks onto, slantwise, the persistencies of sense, as “consciousness solitary in the way it insists on forming signs, hovering above an event, constituting and reconstituting its meaning… the signs constructed by the borders projected by a language hover in actuality around the crisses and crosses obediently answering to my expectations.” These poems flaunt the geographic limit of meaning, as “the boundaries perceivable in a form attended on both sides by a border within which limitlessness lives, hung as a press of confusion. I in boundary, the very hum of it.” Plato’s walled republic bursts with its confluence – its winding arcades and dark verandas of recompense and diversion.
The later poems of ‘the Absent Father in ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Residual Rubbernecking’ skirt a sort of shadow sense. The Bernstein of ‘Have Pen, Will Travel’ retorts that “It’s not my/ business to describe/ anything. The only/ retort is the/ discharge of/ words… transport into/ that nether that/ refuses measure.” But there is a musical cadence and a philosophical ghost of meaning that betrays his appreciation of poets such as Swineburne. The humor and sidereal associative vaudeville of this more recent work calls to mind John Ashbery. Bernstein strikes upon beauty in lines such as “a soul is an imaginary thing we bestow on what we love,” but he also finds it in conflagrations of sense more willfully indeterminate or disruptive. Take “the Vanishing of Aporia,” where the cadence of musical verse hiccups and decays: “Slowly as advent/ Fixed as the mad/ Poltergeist reflects/ Contagion at an/ Unknown, unapplied/ Exposure, where/ Willing as charms/ Glide to attention/ When only invention/ Keep the.”
While the individual poems herein often imply the fluencies of meaning, “Republics of Reality” as a book provides only the implication of Charles Bernstein’s wide body of work. The chapbooks assembled here are often startling in their brilliance, from the leap-frogging of sentence-length banalities in “Parsing” to the “Poetic Justice’s” didactic opacity and the musical lyricism of the more recent material. Yet this work only implies the riches available elsewhere in Charles Bernstein’s oeuvre – whether it be the poetry of ‘the Sophist’ or ‘With Strings,’ the essays of ‘Content’s Dream’ and ‘A Poetics,’ as well as Bernstein’s continued work towards the formation of a poetic community, whether through reading series or within academia at SUNY Buffalo and the University of Pennsylvania.
This is a book warranted its diversities.