Charles Bernstein Makes Lovely Cacophony in his Latest Collection

Secular Avant Garde Poet's Most Jewish Work

Bernstein’s New Collection: Famed poet explores Jewishness in his latest work.
Courtesy of University of Chicago Press
Bernstein’s New Collection: Famed poet explores Jewishness in his latest work.

By Jake Marmer

Published June 11, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

● Recalculating
By Charles Bernstein
University of Chicago Press, 189 pages, $25

As an old joke goes, there are three types of people in the world: schlemiel, the guy who will spill the soup; schlimazel, the one whose lap the soup will get spilt on, and the nudnik, who asks, “What kind of a soup is this?” When avant-garde poet and thinker Charles Bernstein, in his composition “Talk To Me,” writes “Talking to other people is OK but / really I only want to hear the dialog / that I create myself. / That’s the problem with poetry: I want other voices / but I want them always to be /// My own voice,” it seems to me that he’s channeling the trio of classic Yiddish archetypes all at the same time — In a good way, metaphysically speaking. Bernstein’s poetry has a dialogical, polymorphous and playful nature: Instead of spoon-feeding his readers bits of transcendence, he spills the whole bowl, and it is funny, and hot, and painful, and above all, a self-inquisitive process.

Co-founder of American avant-garde’s singularly impactful magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Bernstein once summarized his poetic stance this way: “Against the priestly function of poet or poetry I propose comic and bathetic, the awkward and railing.” Three decades of Bernstein’s writing life were recently gathered in “All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems.” “Recalculating,” however, is Bernstein’s first collection of actual new poetry in seven years. The collection is vast in its scope, and in many ways it’s a culmination of the ideas the poet’s dealt with throughout his writing career — questions of language and reality, poetic tradition and popular culture, philosophy and clowning, writing and performance. Emotionally, too, the range surges from lightweight slapstick to unbearable tragedy. And here more than ever, the poet engages with his Jewishness.

Using a Calculated Approach: ‘Recalculating’ is Bernstein’s first new collection in seven years.
Alan Thomas
Using a Calculated Approach: ‘Recalculating’ is Bernstein’s first new collection in seven years.

In the poem “Unready, Unwilling, Unable,” Bernstein writes “I am a Jewish man trapped / in the body of a Jewish man,” which at the first glance, comes across as a quip. Yet, juxtapose this against the “Radical Politics and Secular Jewish Culture” essay from a number of years back where he defines chosenness: “… doesn’t mean you get to choose: you’ve been chosen and you can fight it, deny it, explain it away, or accept it, but none of that changes if not the historic, then the psychiatric insistence (not to say intrusiveness) of Jewishness.” One might just get a feeling that the quip isn’t merely there for a laugh. But this isn’t about self-loathing — it certainly ain’t your grandmother’s self-loathing — for Bernstein’s is a wrought but not unhappy definition that hints at some larger stakes.

“I was on my third scotch and Maalox / when the phone rang. It was Veronica / again” opens the poem “Stupid Men, Smart Choices,” a virtuoso remake of a pulp fiction narrative, which soon enough swerves where no pulp fictions go: “She’d fallen / again, this time so hard and so fast / she felt she had been clobbered / by an Acela running amuck / on the slow track from Boston to / Gloucester.” The poem is a tour through literary traditions and mindsets, a witty, enjoyable play of overlaying voices and ideas. Yet underneath it all, there runs a current of a very serious concern: the fear of being locked into an unbearable predicament — set by inherited ideas, behavior patterns and enough self-awareness to not only recognize it, but even equate it with something more mysterious and irrational, like fate or quintessence of being a human. Could this be originating in the same place as the sense of being trapped inside one’s historical and psychiatric Jewishness?

“Recalculating” is an immense book, hitting the extremes — of slapstick and tragedy, wisdom and buffoonery. The book’s accomplishment, ultimately, is its constant attempt to expand what it is in us that is affected by poetry. “Good poets make analogies; great poets make analogies between analogies,” as Bernstein himself put it. It isn’t merely the mind or imagination, not the preconceived ideas versus vertigo of contexts. It is always something further, deeper in — or as it were, out — an orchestral blast of meaning; the spontaneous delight of a lifted burden; a clarification or a clearing through a distraction; a hope amid the awkward, woeful predicament. And this is the method the poet the reaches toward in the culminating stanza of his poem “Jew”: “The scholar cannot understand an unusual diacritic mark over a word in the text he is studying and ponders on it several days before asking a Jew. ‘It means nothing,’ says the Jew, blowing a speck of dust off the page.”

Jake Marmer is the author of “Jazz Talmud” (Sheep Meadow Press, 2012) and a frequent contributor to the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.