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Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Poetics of Bewilderment (on Charles Bernstein's Recalculating)

the poetics of bewilderment
by Douglas Messerli
Charles Bernstein Recalculating (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Given the wide range of his publishing, teaching, and performative activities, it is hard to imagine that this year’s collection of poems, Recalculating, is Charles Bernstein's first full-length collection of new poetry in seven years. Of course, that does not include the wonderful selected poems published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in All the Whiskey in Heaven (2011). Nonetheless, there is something different, almost groundbreaking, about a work which, through its title, admits of a “change of direction” resulting from a wrong or mistaken turn.
     The “turn” for Bernstein is nearly everything: the tragic death of his daughter, Emma, old age (or, at least, the recognition that one is growing older), and the not-so-simple vicissitudes that define themselves in maturity. And this is, accordingly, a darker, mature work—not that anyone could possibly describe Bernstein’s work to be without seriousness of purpose before this. Indeed some might argue that Bernstein has, from the very start, written in a mature voice, as if he had almost been born as an older man. But there was a kind of brightness—despite the darkness sometimes of the subject matter—in early works such as “Sentences My Father Used” or “Controlling Interests,” a lightness of method in his “clumsy, clumpsy” approach to language. As Bernstein admits, time and again, in this new work—something I don’t think he would have claimed in his other works—he seeks “not to remember,” (“I write to forget”) and, as he brilliantly expresses it through a variation of Baudelaire’s “Enivrez-vous,” a desire to remain drunk (even if one may also be drunk on poetry or virtue), or as he expresses it in the little poem “Later”:
                           Wake me when the movie’s over
                           Let me sleep till then
                           Wake me when I care no longer
                           To ever get sober again

     This kind of darkened vision appears over and over in Recalculating, as, in often heart-breaking admissions, this professor of poetry (and Bernstein, more than anyone I know might be described throughout his life as one who professed his passion for poetry) questions his own limitations, his own knowledge:
                           Each day I know less than the day before. People say that you
                           learn something from such experiences [presumably Emma’s death];
                           but I don’t want that knowledge and for me there are no
                           fruits to these experiences, only ashes. I can’t and don’t want
                           to “heal”; perhaps, though, go on in the full force of my dys-
                           abilities, coexisting with a brokenness that cannot be accom-
                           modated, in the dark. (“Recalculating”)
Or, as he quotes Wilde in “The Truth in Pudding”:

                           But the world will never weary of watching that troubled soul
                           in its progress from darkness to darkness.

      It is not that Bernstein has abandoned his older ideas; indeed, this poet has always sought out what he describes as a “poetics of bewilderment” (“How Empty Is My Bread Pudding”). And his push toward fragmentation in the form of “disjunction, ellipsis, constellation” (“The Truth In Pudding”) would have been equally at home in his early book of poetics Content’s Dream, where he argued for a language that moves toward denseness and opacity in order to “actually map the fullness of thought and its movement.”

     Yet, we also recognize that something stylistically different in occurring in this most recent work. Bernstein has often in the past combined what one might  call “poetics” with “poetry,” refusing to distinguish between the two, the one being what the poet creates in writing his “poems,” but the major works of Recalculating take that even further, combining in five larger works—“The Truth in Pudding,” “How Empty Is My Bread Pudding,” “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, and Implausibly Deniable Links,” “Unready, Unwilling, Unable,” and “Recalculating,” what might be described as a combination of diary-like comments, aphorisms in the manner of Stein and Wilde, poetic quotations, and personal revelations. Strangely, these multi-genre works seem to be the most representative in this volume of Bernstein’s thinking, as he winds his car of the mind through the twisted streets of his thinking, braking, even stopping momentarily to move forward again with gusto. The result not only defines what the poet means by “recalculating,” but represents what he clearly perceives as his winding journey through life, moving on through “disjunction, ellipsis, constellation,” and, perhaps, most importantly, a now flawed memory.
      If Bernstein argues that he wants to forget, he is also desperate to remember, to bring all the
assimilated (and even his unassimilated) past into a new future. This poet has often “recreated” the works of other poets, but in this volume we note that Bernstein is, at times, almost repeating the structure of one of my earlier books, After, rewriting, reinterpreting, and remaking poems by figures as various as Baudelaire, Pessoa, Leevi Lehto, Osip Mandelstam, Sylvia Plath, Frost, Régis Bonvicino, Wallace Stevens, Cole Porter (via Chaucer), Walt Whitman, Paul Celan, Velimir Khlebnikov, Paolo Leminski, Juão Cabral de Melo Neto, Victor Hugo, Guilliaume Apollinaire, William Wordsworth, Nerval, and even me (a work that certainly captures the sense of the poem on which it was based). Some of these are among the strongest works in this volume, particularly the Baudelaire, Hugo, and Apollinaire imitations; but all are interesting in that they reveal a great postmodern poet (Bernstein’s definition of “Postmoderism”: modernism with a deep sense of guilt) exploring international poets of the past and present.

       In “The Jew,” dedicated to Jerome Rothenberg, and certainly among the best of works of this volume, Bernstein takes on voices of legendary rabbis, using the often convoluted and sometimes inverted logic of the Talmud to make another “turn” in the voyage, often toppling many seemingly logical propositions. Even more tellingly, the poet, at points, returns to his own past poetry, toting up the most frequent word choices in his earlier poetry collection Girly Man,  with its satiric title-poem that points to then-California governor and movie-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and creating a poem through the last words of his early masterwork “Sentences My Father Used.” Along with homages to fellow friends and poets, this collection can be seen—although certainly not exclusively—as a kind of self-reflective, meditative map of Bernstein’s life, a true “recalculating” of what the voyage to date has meant, and where he might be going in the future. And, in that sense, despite the usual humor and high-jinx of all of Bernstein’s wonderful poetic explorations, it is a “darker” book.

     I say that, obviously, with some distress; it is always a bit startling when the total optimism of one’s youth meets up with “Charon’s Boat” (the title of one of Bernstein’s poems).  Or as he expresses the difference in “Today Is the Last Day of Your Life 'til Now”: “I was the luckiest father in the world / until I turned unluckiest.”

     If things take a turn into a darker road, more frightening for both poet and his readers—I say this as a long-optimistic poet whose most recent book itself is titled Dark—these poems also continue a long trip begun as early as the poem “Long Trails of Cars Returning from the Beach,” of 1978, in which the traveling poet also gets ensnarled in traffic, unable to move forward. And its first Whitman-cum-Ginsberg inspired lines “I saw the power / of the word in / legend,” almost mirrors Bernstein’s somewhat darker position today: “The poem is a constant transformation of itself.”

      The works of Recalculating brilliantly reveal just that realization as they turn in on themselves and the sources behind the originals from which these works have risen like phoenixes to express a possible new present. Like a naughty schoolboy, Bernstein scrawls across one of his pages “I will not write imitative poetry.” 16 times, and despite his use of numerous pre-existent sources, he lives up to his promise.

Los Angeles, August 28, 2013


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