Online Edition: Summer 2000

Republics of Reality, 1975-1995 by Charles Bernstein

Republics of Reality, 1975-1995

Charles Bernstein

Sun &' Moon Press ($14.95)

by Patrick Pritchett

Beginning in the late '70s as the co-founder of the seminal magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Charles Bernstein has exerted an enormous influence on three generations of poets now who have made it their concern to explore the possibilities of language as an instrument of social inquiry, philosophical speculation, comical dysprosody and linguistic liberation. The publication of Republics of Reality, which brings together in their entirety many of the poet's early, out-of-print books, along with newer poems, is a welcome event.

As the title implies, Bernstein's poetics celebrates a radical heterogeneity; the idea that a republic is "a thing of the people" (res publica) is given full, polyvocal play in this collection. Bernstein's conception of poetry as a public form of speech grows out of and contests Olson's longing for a poetry that would speak for the polis. But where Olson's project was founded on a nostalgia for a unified social order, even one organized around the savvy recognition that totality should consist of distinctly separate singularities, Bernstein starts out from the premise that the polity is a mess. In Beckett's phrase, he "admits the chaos and does not try to say that it is something else."

For Bernstein, the field of our daily social practices and its systems of classification, its habitus, is the very stuff poetry is to be made from, rather than out of overarching appeals to the lost visions of Greek or Mayan cultural orders. If it sounds like I'm putting forward an image of Bernstein as anti-theoretical, I'm not; the body of his critical work is as rigorous as any around. What's fascinating about his work, though, is that for all the theoretical sophistication that both writes and underwrites it, the poems themselves behave with an unruly, capricious goofiness that feels unbeholden to any theory. The early work especially, like the poem "Sentences," reveals a gift for satire mixed with joie de vivre that calls to mind the New York School more than Wittgenstein.

It's an automatic thing. It doesn't require any
thought. It's a parade in and out.
It has its ups and downs.
It doesn't affect me one way or another.

* * *

It sort of comes to you. I never look at it. The touch.
My hands fit. It's the feel. I just look at them.

* * *

It'll sound terrible. It's true. It's nothing really.
I like to fuss. I sit and relax and read, take a bath, & #9;have my ice cream. I fill the day.

I wasn't fully prepared for the lyrical tone that runs throughout much of this book. Bernstein's name is not one you'd associate with, say, Palmer's or Howe's, as a practitioner of the postmodern lyric, yet many of these poems give off a laughing efflorescence that's both graceful and, of all things, oddly moving. The 1978 volume Shade begins with the painterly sounding lines of "Long Trails of Cars Returning from the Beach":

I saw the power
of the word in
legend. Cast
shadows & I hid
under, lasting,
crevices making
jetty markers
stretching out
to sea.

In a recent interview in Contemporary Literature, Bernstein has said that what he wants to bring into poetry are "things that seem clumsy or awkward ... the beauty in a lack of grace." The song-like rhythm of the passage above belies this remark, but much else of what appears in Republics fully supports it. Here is the entirety of "Air Shaft," from Resistance (1983):

Quick as a whip
Wide as a gap
Is wide. Somewhere
Someone sears.
Cachet in the hypochondriac
Moonlight, sway in
The censorious
Goon flight.

The Bernstein approach to the poem might be labeled, in imitation of the arcane medical terminology he's so fond of, "rapid protean swarming," or RPS. If you blink, you might miss something. Or better still, "get" something. This is a poetry of the blink, the wink and the blur. Words reflected in it are not their ordinary size. Neither is the poetry itself, for that matter.

Though clearly visible in the literary landscape for at least fifteen years now, Bernstein's continued presence as our most invigorating agent provocateur cannot be overvalued. In a time when apostles of "official verse culture" like Robert Pinsky can extol the virtues of Frost on PBS, Bernstein offers an image of the poet as someone who defies the marginalizing (or as he might put it, margarinizing) tendencies of consumer culture. Bernstein recognized from the outset that the evil genius of capitalism is its ability to take anything resembling dissent and quash it, not through outright suppression, but by sucking it up and spitting it back out at bargain discount prices. His practice has been to resist this rush to the totalizing economies of cultural and aesthetic entrenchment by keeping poetry open to difference, strangeness, and otherness, to the overflowing prolixity of language itself, "the better," as he puts it in My Way, "to make music of our flailing and of our incapacities." The sound of such a music may at first strike the ear as harsh, but with repeated reading and listening it takes on a note of deeper recognition. Or say instead, misrecognition. In a Bernstein poem we see ourselves--our culture and our language--reflected back as in a Lacanian funhouse mirror. All those common everyday phrases--the schtick and locutions of the quotidian--by which we express ourselves at our most basic, come back in odd shapes and sizes.

Bernstein's prescription for language is one that goes beyond the register of the social protest poem's often simplistic challenge of the political status quo. Rather, he's interested in examining the basis of the cultural scripts we operate from, the "natural" sense of reality generated by our seemingly transparent language. The poet assumes the role of arch-parodist/talmudist, endlessly interrogating the structure and possibilities of the words we so blithely take for granted. There is a sense in which Bernstein's poems are not only (for the most part) defiantly non-lyrical, but resolutely anti-memorable. This raises a vexing question. Is it the task of the poem to be memorable? Or should it instead defy the easy commodifications of memory itself? Bernstein's "difficulty," his deliberate awkwardness, is calculated to estrange the reader from her usual strategy of absorbing texts. In this way, his poems aim at inducing an ethics of readership, one in which the reader is compelled to examine his relations to the book in his hand. In a time when poetry is increasingly succumbing to the virus of paraphrase and the cliches of identity, this is radical, indeed. Bernstein's motto might be taken from Wittgenstein: "Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information." Or, as he puts it in "Have Pen, Will Travel," from the new selection of work entitled Residual Rubbernecking:

It's not my
business to describe
anything. The only
report is the
discharge of
words called
to account for
their slurs.
A seance of sorts--
or transport into
that nether that
refuses measure.

To refuse measure is, as Bernstein writes in A Poetics, to struggle "to wake from the hypnosis of absorption." It is to reject the conduit metaphor of language, which insists that meaning exists somehow apart from the words used to express it. It is to recognize that words behave according to their own quirky set of rules and the best we can do in following them is to become attentive listeners, that is, citizens in good standing of the numerous republics of reality.

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Summer 2000 Table of Contents