Pigeonhole Magnetic North
If Ron Silliman exerted authoritarian control over literature, all poetry would be classified according to the two essential poles of that poetic globe: the school of quietude, and the realm of post-avant — and the work of Charles Bernstein would exist as an avant magnetic north. But, while Bernstein is a key figure in nearly all post-avant movements, his work is not hopelessly bound by cold Literary Theory and formal experimentation. All the Whiskey in Heaven, a new selected edition of Berstein’s poems, brings his poetic range to the forefront. As Bernstein himself writes in “Solidarity is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold,”
[I am] a dialectical poet, a polyphonic poet, a hybrid poet,
a wandering poet, an odd poet, a
lost poet, a disobedient poet, a bald poet, a virtual poet.
& I am none of these things,
nothing but the blank wall of my aversions
writ large in disappearing ink—
By labeling him, in other words, we negate him. By negating him, in turn, we impose elusive concepts on a body of work that always remains elusive. Bernstein’s corpus contains many poetic avenues (not all of them equally compelling), but it is the intersections of these avenues that reveal the movements from clarity to confusion and from voice to voice that make his poetry too myriad to pigeonhole.
Bernstein, of course, has long been associated with Language poetry, and it would be a mistake to downplay this association. Indeed, as All the Whiskey in Heaven makes eminently clear, he concerns himself with the limitations of language and the implications of those limits. Bernstein’s earlier work, for instance, takes Derrida as its heart. “Dodgem,” from his 1978 collection Shade, joins fragments with fragments to produce something mysterious and, perhaps, impenetrable to interpretation:
the naturally enfolded
each. . . of. . . of. . .
opens & our
Reading these lines, it seems that Bernstein has spent ample time with Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy and here attempts to construct a text following such assertions as, “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, from the laws of its composition and the rules of the game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.” There is no attempt at coherence in “Dodgem.” At first glance, it looks like a syncopated set of meaningless bits — exactly what a deconstructionist might say about any text. This engagement with French post-structuralism has its virtues. Obviously, it challenges the reader’s innate sensibilities. But, more importantly, it interacts with a critical apparatus that wants to pry open the poem itself and reveal all the irreconcilable contradictions that build it up. A closer inspection of “Dodgem,” however, also reveals aspects of Bernstein’s poetry that is more theoretical recitation than versification. The opening lines — “The naturally enfolded / erases” — read not an idea put to play, but are a sentence Derrida might have actually written. Yes, Bernstein implies, we can always erase what seems natural because what seems natural is, in fact, constructed — but others have already made this point, and have done so in more pointed language than this.
Similar rehearsals occur frequently throughout this anthology and underscore a key weakness that springs from the poet’s preoccupation with theory. “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” for example, asks “but who is writing? / what is writing?” The emphasis on “what” here reproduces arguments made by both Barthes — that the author, a “product” of certain historical circumstances, no longer represents a viable concept — as well as Foucault — that discourse is what really writes. Such theses are undoubtedly significant; but, does Bernstein need to recapitulate them so bluntly, so often? They highlight his influences, but add little to the poetry. Meanwhile, the political statements — such as, “DuPont, a broadly diversified company dedicated to / exploitation through science and industry” (also found in “The Lives of the Toll Takers”) — which sometimes accompany these post-structuralist recitations, only serve to aggravate; unlike the theoretical musings, these political positions sound both strained and banal. Remarks, as Gertrude Stein once said, are not literature.
While these continental maxims are sometimes less than compelling, they yet only marginally detract from the work. Bernstein writes best when he gathers a multitude of voices — running the gamut from teenage colloquialisms to medical jargon — and distills them into verse that is imaginative, energetic, and humorous. In “Standing Target” we hear the neutral tones of corporate communications in the midst of more challenging, disrupted lines:
As President and Chief Executive Officer
of Sea World, Inc., David DeMotte is
responsible for managing all aspects
of the Company’s operations at Sea
World parks in San Diego, Aurora,
Ohio, Orlando, Florida and the Florida
Keys. A native Californian, DeMotte,
and his wife Charlotte, enjoy hunting,
fishing, and tennis in their spare time.
The coexistence of these two stanzas is not arbitrary. By juxtaposing the Sea World, Inc. CEO’s biography with these ethereal language fragments, Bernstein demonstrates how the clearest text can appear ridiculous even as it attempts to inform. And this passage (the David DeMotte one) also made me laugh: writing to enlighten and entertain is one of Bernstein’s true strengths, and he can do it with great subtlety.
“Dear Mr. Fanelli,” for example, appears to mimic a naïve child’s voice until it reveals an unlikely depth of intelligence. “Mr. / Fanelli—there are / a lot of people sleeping / in the 79th street station / & it makes me sad / that they have no / home to go to,” the poet intones in the early lines. Many readers of Bernstein would presume such statements to be indicative of his wit, irony, and bathos. Such readers would, however, be mistaken. As “Dear Mr. Fanelli” progresses, we observe this naïve voice becomes more melancholy and intelligent. When the speaker asks, “have you read much / Hannah Arendt or / do you prefer / a more ideological / perspective” we are slightly confused. The poem suddenly seems to divulge the thoughts of a psychiatric patient, or a grieving adult, or a tired old woman. In other words, “Dear Mr. Fanelli” demonstrates that, while Bernstein can juxtapose disparate voices for aesthetic and thematic effect, he can also channel a unified, offbeat voice that remains deeply felt.
For all the experimentation that it displays, certain passages of All the Whiskey in Heaven reveal Bernstein’s gift for balanced, musical, even lyrical language. The lines may be fragmented, the tropes impenetrable, but the poetry often — and surprisingly — unfolds in highly controlled rhythms. “Of Time and the Line,” for instance, marries wit with lucidity without being extravagant or cute:
. . .The prestige
of the iambic line has recently
suffered decline, since it’s no longer so
clear who “I am,” much less who you are.
Bernstein may be documenting the dissolution of formalism and the discrediting of the “lyrical I” here, but he does so with a clear knowledge of classical poetics. These lines are, partially, written in iambs; they include one rhyme and two caesurae. Some post-structuralist hack did not write these: this is the work of a clever and accomplished poet. Even the more disjointed entries in this anthology exhibit some of the same syncopated, musical qualities. The staccato poetics of “Asylum,” the first poem of the anthology, are jarring but energetic: “‘done’ or ‘marked’ or ‘put in’ or ‘pulled’ / hard. This time / sense / dead and heavy hanging.” This ability to write verse with a hammer makes Bernstein’s writing forceful, memorable, and, I would argue, it may be his finest literary quality.
Given his affiliations — with Language poetics, with academia, with the so-called post-avant school — Bernstein will always have detractors, and many of those will regard his career only partially, or with a biased eye. It is the responsibility of future readers to dislodge the animus from the page, finding merit or fault in the poems. His work is steeped in, and sometimes soggy with, theories and jarring experiments; it displays a shocking knack for formal technique, too easily and often overlooked; and, equally surprising, it shows he can pull off moments of sentiment (although he’s hardly sentimental). All the Whiskey in Heaven, fortunately, brings the poetry into the public’s unobscured gaze.