Bar and Cone
In a salvo of interviews of late, undoubtedly design’d to promote All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems
(FSG, 2010), Charles Bernstein’s made a point of the supposed variousness of the collection, calling it “a sampler or array.” “It’s a constellation of approaches to poetry. Beyond the experience of the poems themselves, I hope the book brings to mind the possibilities of poetry.
” Okay, pioneers, on commence.
Here’s one possibility. It’s call’d “The Measure” (1983)*:
The privacy of a great pain enthrones
itself on my borders and commands me
to stay at attention. Be on guard
lest the hopeless magic of unconscious
dilemma grab hold of you in the
foggiest avenue of regret.
Semi-lyric, disjunct, seemingly abandon’d halfway. A kind of poor man’s Frank O’Hara (Bernstein probably thinking of “Sleeping on the Wing”—“Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness, / as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries “Sleep! / O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!” / that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city . . .”) Even the “stay at attention. Be on guard” is O’Hara’d. A poetic approach that, shtickless (“foggiest avenue of regret” nods a slight smirk “at” Pound’s “dim lands of peace,” though the reference isn’t obvious enough for broad slapstick), diminishes mightily with the years, replaced by less sincere, crueler forms. Exemplary of the type: “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree,” beginning “I want no paradise only to be / drenched in a downpour of words, fecund / with tropicality. Fundament be- / yond relation, less ‘real’ than made . . .” and ending, “The first fact is the social body, / one from another, nor needs no other.”
Bernstein’s work begins with broken up arrays of jittery particulars, mimicking Olson / Duncan composition by field techniques. “Asylum” (1975) arranged found material, attending largely to the semantic possibilities where sentence-seams (normally mark’d illegible by the presence of periods, &c.) occur:
undressing, bathing, disinfecting, haircutting
nakedness. Leaving off
clothing, combs, towels, soap, shaving sets, bathing facilities
shock therapy, surgery,
integrity. At admission
movements, postures, and stances
Roughly fifteen pages. (Rule of thumb: Bernstein’s pieces dither interminably.) He pursues a similar method in “Dodgem” (1978) (“some / opens & our / brought luck / place, before / cash. The / I live . . . / too! / my hand / clarifies”) and “Standing Target” (1980)’s got a page or so, a shotgun blast of idle prepositions and vocables (“fatigue / of of / open for / to , sees”). A finer-mesh’d array of core samples of language—“little irritating isles” one’s supposed to think (one supposes)—is Bernstein’s “Islets / Irritations”:
sealed topiary delights, topological regressionsTorque
current as of noisome targets toe tapping tabulation
exquisitely contoured schmuck mistrusts what alone
abjures indecent confidence flaunting their contusions
I describe a square, a parking lot, a battering ram—you
begin to cast archeologic tires rhythms, braces
awash to climate torque
is where I turn off that period piece. Stupefyingly enough, Bernstein’s still reworking Olsonesque splay techniques in the ungodly long—roughly thirty pages—“The Lives of the Toll Takers” (1994). Here, syntactically “normalized” utterance (largely) reigns, doggerel strains impinge, and faux-folksy verbiage, and impudent homily, along with puns and some equivalent of mental doodad-making. Excerpt:
Phone again, phone again jiggity jig.
they do good eggs here.
Funny $: making a killing on
junk bonds and living to peddle the tale
(Laughing all the way to the Swiss bank where I put my money
in gold bars
[the prison house of language]
.) Simplicity is not
same as simplistic.
Of note in “The Lives of the Toll Takers”: the “field” as late typographical annoyance à la e. e. cummings—
hness is it
s own rewa
some pseudo-lettrist rabble, monkey with a keyboard gobbledegook reminiscent of Bernstein’s early “Lift Off” (1979). Here it reads: “[p- / =]ovwhiu2g97hgbcf67q6dvqujx67sf21g97b.c.9327b97b987b87b87j7 . . .” Another “approach” in the constellatory mayhem! The echoes of the earlier (possibly overwork’d, mannerist) “Lift Off”: un peu partout.
One recalls with fondness its opening line, like a houseboat moor’d below the bouquinistes
along the Seine: “HH/ ie,s obVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineopcv i iibalfmgmMw.” Sophomoric hoots and cleverness notwithstanding (one’s “supposed” to figure out that the letters were transcribed off a spool of typewriter correcting tape—one presumably “used” by poet Bernstein himself), “Lift Off” is here only one of a series.
It strains to outdo the masterly “Azoot d’Puund” (1979) with its swatch of mock speech-impediment’d vocables:
iz wurry ray aZoOt de puund in reducey ap crrRisLe ehk nugkinjUnd so weiter
sJuxYY senshl. ig si heh hahpae uvd r fahbeh aht si gidrid. impOg
qwbk tuUg jr’ghtpihqw. ray aGh nunCe ip gvvn EapdEh a’ gum
riff a’ eppehone. Ig ew oplep lucd nvn atik o im. ellek Emb ith ott
enghip ag ossp heh ooz. . . .
for another page or so. Funny stuff. So funny that Bernstein’s at it again (a mite’s worth less strenuously) in the late “Johnny Cake Hollow” (2001): “Xo quwollen swacked unt myrry flooped / Sardone to fligrunt’s swirm, ort / Jirmy plaight org garvey swait ib / Giben durrs urk klurpf. Sheb / Boughtie bloor de dazzy dule dun / Fruppi’s . . .” The hell with Fruppi. City slicker scoffing “at” bumpkin ways. A similar strategy (or tic?) is evident in “A Defence of Poetry” (1999): “My problem with deploying a term liek / nonelen / in these cases is acutually similar to / your / cirtique of the term ideopigical / unamlsing as a too-broad unanuajce / interprestive proacdeure.” Misfiring typists, incomprehensible speech, dumb stuff
: one begins to ascertain a Bernstein modus operandi,
a “comic” poetics of make fun of.
Repeatedly, with a limit’d number of shticks. Refuge of the insecure, and the insincere.
Another “approach”: ventiloquism and mimickry. Mock voicings (a means of policing sentiment). Seems as if—“through with” the found language of “Asylum”—Bernstein, with “As If the Trees by Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us” (1979), latch’d onto Ashbery. A few lines (note both Ashbery’s voice and Ashbery’s way of allowing other voices—and ironic’d bits of Doxa
A new place, under different circumstances:
& yet we don’t seem to have changed, it’s
As if these years that have gone by are
All a matter of record, “but if the real
Facts were known” we were still reeling from
What seems to have just happened, but which,
“By the accountant’s keeping” occurred years
Ago. Years ago. It hardly seems possible,
So little, really, has happened.
We shore ourselves hour by hour
In anticipation that soon there will be
Nothing to do. “Pack a sandwich
& let’s eat later.” And of course
The anticipation is quite appropriate, accounting,
For the most part, for whatever activity
We do manage. . . .
Clumsy Ashbery. Ashbery unlikely to’ve repeat’d that “Years ago
”―that’s aimless ventriloquistic hysteria approaching. Unlikely, too, to’ve plugged that emphatic “really” into “It hardly seems possible, / So little, really, has happened,” slowing the thing up so. And he’d likely erect (like a pup tent) something tangible: a boat show, a regatta, anything to convince of we weren’t in the hands of an accountant turn’d versifier. Ashbery rehash drops out―beyond one key model―of Bernstein’s work rather quickly—in “Matters of Policy” (1980) there’s dimming notes of it—“‘If the / great things of religion are rightly understood, / they will
affect the heart.’ Still, what an absurd / figure a poor weak man makes who in / a thunder storm goes against the flashes of / lightning with sword in hand. ‘No vision of / loveliness could have touched me as deeply / as this sad sight.’ In the summer / blackouts crippled the city & in the winter / snowstorms . . .” The Ashbery who becomes central to innumerable late Bernstein pieces is the Ashbery of “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” (1980):
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level. Et cetera.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.
The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level?
Here is the root for Bernstein’s many “talking down to the reader” (Ashbery’s affectionate, cuffing tone replaced by Bernstein’s smarm-hectoring) pieces. How “Thank Your for Saying Thank You” (2001) begins:
This is a totally
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
All the words
are simple &
to the point.
There are no new
ideas to confuse
you. This poem
has no intellectual
pretensions. It is
purely emotional. . . .
Or see the earlier “This Line” (1999), même combat
: “This line is stripped of emotion. / This line is no more than an / illustration of a European / theory. This line is bereft / of a subject. This line / has no reference apart / from its context in / this line. . . .” Ashbery’s “What’s a plain level?” likely informs, too, Bernstein’s “A Test of Poetry” (1999), indeed, Ashbery’s name graces its opening line:
What do you mean by rashes of ash? Is industry Und
systematic work, assiduous activity, or ownership
of factories? Is ripple agitate lightly? Are
we tossed in tune when we write poems? And
what or who emboss with gloss insignias of air?
Is the Fabric about which you write in the epigraph
of your poem an edifice, a symbol of heaven?
Does freight refer to cargo of lading carried
for pay by water, land or air? Or does it mean
payment for such transportation?
so to its unenviable ending—five we-got-the-point pages later!—“In No end to envy,
does the envy refer to admire or / in the bad sense?” (Mocking studentry, a sport amongst one breed of academic.)
Hardly constellatory, Bernstein’s work, hardly stellar. (Is it hommage
or rip-off to write: “this poem intentionally left blank
” (2001) across one page (see Tom Raworth’s “University Days” with its neatly box’d “this poem has been removed for further study”). In the later work, a species of intentionally execrable doggerel’s arrived like a curse: “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” (2000) with its opening, “Fill my plate with boudin noir
/ Boudin noir, boudin noir
/ Fill my plate with a hi-heh-ho / & rumble I will go . . .” “Doggy Bag” (2001): “have you seen my doggy bag / hate to nag, hate to nag / have you seen my emerald chain / hate to brag, hate to brag . . .” “Boy Soprano” (2001): “Daddy loves me this I know / Cause my granddad told me so / Though he beats me blue and black / That’s because I’m full of crap . . .” Zukofsky work’d such forms a little, though without the condescending mien. Even the “envoi” (and title poem to the collection, the only piece previously unpublish’d) couches its sentiment in doggerel’s semi-goof: “Not if you paid me in diamonds / Not if you paid me in pearls / Not if you gave me your pinky ring / Not if you gave me your curls . . .” Usual “never stop loving you” rodomontade.
Someone ought to examine the nature of Bernstein’s voices, measure of what? the American oaf? (See “Dear Mr. Fanelli” (1999):
I can’t get your attention
Mr. Fanelli because I really
believe if you ask
for comments than you
ought to be willing
to act on them—even
if ought is too
big a word to throw
around at this point.
I hope you won’t
think I’m rude
if I ask you a
personal question. Do
you get out of the
Do you go to the movies
or do you prefer
quiet evenings at a
local restaurant? Do
you read much, Mr. Fanelli?
I don’t mean just
Gibbons and like
that, but philosophy—
have you read much
Hanna Arendt or
do you prefer
a more ideological
A peculiar combo of naïveté condescendingly deliver’d and taunt.) The voice-mimicking is such a predominant “approach” that one wonders if it isn’t a scrim, mockery filtering a nervousness “at” unabash’d delight? (In “Standing Target” (1980): “Much / of the time he is a pretty serious / fellow, but more and more we see Charlie / forgetting his mien and living the / life of a pretty frisky little boy.”)
Enough. If Bernstein’s All the Whiskey in Heaven
is “a sampler or array” of poetry’s possibilities, it’s rather tinier than the average Whitman’s.
* Dates refer to the date of the collection wherein the poem, according to the contents listing, appear’d. The book is arranged chronologically.