Reviewed by Thomas Fink
Lamenting poetry’s lack of centrality in American culture, not a few writers blame this “shame” on intellectual difficulty, lack of direct emotional communication, and presumed elitism in the work of most practitioners. They dream of a populist poetry as antidote. These folks should have a look at an early poem in Charles Bernstein’s Girly Man, “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” which begins “This is a totally / accessible poem” and ends by calling itself “real.” This self-styled populist poem provides the reader with myriad reassurances:
There are no new
ideas to confuse
you. This poem
has no intellectual
pretensions. It is
It fully expresses
the feelings of the
author: my feelings,
the person speaking
to you now.
It is all about
Heart to heart.
As Bernstein’s satire reveals, with the marvelous baldness of its “hyper-plain style,” such abstract assertions disingenuously mask the “theories” and “pretensions” that underwrite them: emotional “communication” is possible through the language of feelings tied to personal pronouns and through elimination of tropes, intellectual allusions, etc.; “feelings” can be fully grasped by the speaking subject without the interference of something like the unconscious; writing is a transparent adjunct to speech, which embodies feeling. Fascination with uncertainty, as in “Sign Under Test,” would threaten this confidence in representation and must be squelched: “Then again, there are certain things I never understood, yet lately I find myself mesmerized by these blank spots. They have become the sign posts of my consciousness.” For those who wish to posit the emotional coherence of a self in direct contact with other emotionally coherent selves, getting lost is the wrong set of directional signals.
Further, Bernstein’s poet of “simplicity” in “Thank You . . .” presumes that the attempt at transparent referentiality shows respect and even affection for the reader: “This poem appreciates / & values you as / a reader”; “This poem / represents the hope / for a poetry / that doesn’t turn / its back on / the audience, that / doesn’t think it’s / better than the reader.” As the poem’s title suggests, the writer’s “courtesy” will result in the reader’s gratitude. Both parties can be self-congratulatory while flattering the other. I would argue, though, that Bernstein shows respect for the audience through the sizeable demands he often makes on it in a poem; he implies that it needs no pandering and can handle how he stretches possibilities of “communication.” Take “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” a typical wisecracking Bernstein poem, in which he rewrites a line from a revered Shakespeare sonnet and one from an old nursery tune and tweaks a commonly used phrase to produce a double pun:
When in a race
with cartoons and French fries, spackle before
The rink around the
posing is closed for retrofitting.
is just around the hospital coroner.
Respect for the reader comes with Groucho Marxist fun. While it is easy to see Bernstein’s point that speed of consumption characterizes people’s interaction with popular culture (including fast food), the connection between “spackling” and removing a “cartoon” cassette or DVD from the machine with a remote (temporarily ending the “race”) is tougher. “Spackle” might be a trope for critical analysis that fills in cultural gaps prior to adding a new layer to culture and its reception. The perceiver interrogates how the “posing” (presentation and/or duplicity) of a frame (“rink”) produces or conceals meaning; one frame is “closed” so that a more useful frame can replace it. Further, as a section of “In Parts” (one of several poems responding to Richard Tuttle’s conceptual/ minimalist sculpture) tells us, all frames are eventually vulnerable to dismantling: “first, space becomes the frame // like every solution, it looks good at first // the next step: make the frame the first layer of the visual experience // the third is getting rid of it.” Around the “corner” of “the hospital,” beyond strictures of a precise way of bed-making, and after the “coroner” has performed a post-mortem on an old “frame,” readers’ acts of perception can be “refurbished,” not disrespected.
Even as “Thank You’s” persona brags about how he appreciates readers, one egregious slip makes disrespect for some of the potential audience evident: “While / at times expressing / bitterness, anger, / resentment, xenophobia, / & hints of racism, its / ultimate mood is affirmative.” Affirmation of a limited community and negation of others comprise a sinister yes and a contradiction of the idea that the poem “has no / dogma.” In fact, Bernstein does not make right wingers feel “comfortable” with his work; in various poems, he expresses relatively direct, if linguistically playful opposition to the conservative Republican agenda, especially the pursuit of war in Iraq. Here are five quatrains from “The Ballad of the Girly Man”:
A democracy once proposed
Is slimed and grimed again
By men with brute design
Who prefer hate to rime
Complexity’s a four-letter word
For those who count by nots and haves
Who revile the facts of Darwin
To worship the truth according to Halliburton. . . .
So be a girly man
& sing this gurly song
Sissies and proud
That we would never lie our way to war
The girly men killed christ
So the platinum DVD says
The Jews & blacks & gays
Are still standing in the way
We’re sorry we killed your god
A long, long time ago
But each dead soldier in Iraq
Kills the god inside, the god that’s still not dead.
Like a handful of poems or sections of poems in this volume and earlier books by Bernstein, this irregularly rhymed and metered “ballad” borders on doggerel--and propagandistic doggerel at that. The internal rhymes “slimed and grimed” join surprisingly with an end word in a slant rhyme, “rime,” and the end-words “Darwin” and “Halliburton” make for a potent juxtaposition. However, the childishly worded apology of those (for the most part) erroneously tagged as “christ-killers” and the awkward, pleonastic wording in the last line above are the most egregious examples of “bad” verse. Because these aesthetic flaws are situated among the numerous stylistic approaches of poems in Girly Man with political content, as well as the prose section “Some of These Daze,” it is obvious that the poet is having fun composing what he knows very well is “bad” poetry from both a traditional and an experimental perspective, but he is also taking an unusual, useful opportunity for the development of a direct, almost linear argument. (Imagine Bernstein being pressed into service as a lyricist for a political rock band.)
The social resonances of “The Ballad” most obviously engage in dialogue with the diary-like prose reflections of “Some of These Daze,” which offer a detailed, “realistic” report of how people in New York City and elsewhere responded to the tragedy of 9/11, and with “War Stories,” one of the most politically acute catalogue poems (that I know of) done by a U.S. experimentalist. The seven-page poem begins:
War is the extension of prose by other means.
War is never having to say you’re sorry.
War is the logical outcome of moral certainty.
War is conflict resolution for the aesthetically challenged.
War is a slow boat to heaven and an express train to hell.
War is the first resort of scoundrels.
War is the legitimate right of the powerless to resist the violence of the powerful.
War is delusion just as peace is imaginary.
Revising Clausewitz’s famous sentence and following a binary opposition that appears in Dickinson’s poetry, Bernstein damns prose--surely not the prose-(poetry) of the “New Sentence” by west coast Language poets!--but more generally, the notion that war as a choice reflects the limited imagination of “the aesthetically challenged.” Thus, he links “moral certainty” and indifference to or incompetence in assessing aesthetic value. (Note the allusion in the second sentence to the biggest cliché in Erich Segal’s smarmy seventies pop novel, Love Story.) By “aesthetics,” the poet means something very different from, say, aspects of German Romanticism culled for the architecture of Nazism. Later, we learn that “war is poetry without song” and “an excuse for lots of bad antiwar poetry,” which may allude to some “New American” Vietnam era protest verse. The kind of poetry that Bernstein implicitly valorizes as the opposite of bellicose prose entails exploratory, non-dogmatic negotiation, which offers a better chance for “conflict resolution” than the stultification or proscription of dialogue.
However, unlike Edwin Starr in his celebrated Motown song, “War,” Bernstein resists a thoroughly negative view of war, which can be legitimated as the sole available instrument for “the powerless” to resist “the powerful.” Of course, when he ventures even a slightly pro-war statement, it is productively unclear whether he is being serious or mouthing dubious rationalizations: “War is the reluctant foundation of justice and the unconscious guarantor of liberty”; “War is justified only when it stops war”; “War is an inevitable product of class struggle”; “War is the right of a people who are oppressed”; “War pays for those who have nothing left to lose.” The concepts in these sentences have been supported by a great deal of left-liberal and Marxist thought, especially by notions of oppressive forces’ implacability. Yet other sentences might be used to critique these ideas or to demand that they be severely qualified: “War is the principal weapon of a revolution that can never be achieved”; “War is two wrongs obliterating right. // War is the abandonment of reason in the name of principle”; “War is unjust even when it is just.” Such sentences expose the idea that war can deliver a just, enduring peace as illusory, but Bernstein is aware of how nations (and smaller groups), absurdly, can be backed into war: “War is like a gorilla at a teletype machine: not always the best choice but sometimes the only one you’ve got.”
Many other sentences in “War Stories” make excellent use of allusion. Two more examples should suffice: “War is pragmatism with an inhuman face”; “War is the opiate of the politicians.” The second one needs no gloss; the first may: before the Soviet Union bulldozed its way into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to assert its absolute control of the country, Czech leaders instituted the refreshingly liberal “Prague Spring” with the slogan, “Socialism with a human face.” Bernstein suggests that war is a pragmatic way to impose a particular ideology on those who do not want it and to allow a select group to reap the benefits of that imposition. In dialogue with others in the poem, this aphorism can facilitate analysis of the U.S.’s current perilous adventure in Iraq.
Turning back to “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” we learn that “all / good poems” tell “a story.” “War Stories” and numerous other poems in Girly Man do not; they encapsulate multiple stories--ones without a determinate beginning or end--and perspectives on stories in challenging juxtapositions. Against the boast for the populist poem that “A hundred / readers would each / read the poem / in an identical / manner & derive / the same message / from it,” Bernstein’s poems could bring a hundred readers into a chat room to discover some common ground, engage in many fascinating disagreements, and fill in each other’s gaps.