Psalm 151

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
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Charles Bernstein, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is known as a theorist and writer of “language” poetry. Among his 12 collections, the two most recent are “With Strings” (University of Chicago Press, 2001) and “Republics of Reality: 1975-1995” (Sun & Moon Press, 2000). But he’s also an active essayist, editor and translator, and has collaborated with composers.

Our excerpt — four sections from “Doctrine of Similarity (13 Cannons)” is the third scene of the libretto for “Shadowtime” (1998-2000), a collaboration with composer Brian Ferneyhough on the life and work of the German Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin. The opera was commissioned by the Munich Bienalle for May 2004, and will have a U.S. premiere in July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

“Doctrine of Similarity” refers “to a key essay by Benjamin in which he explores the mimetic/echoic relation of language, world and cosmos,” Bernstein told the Forward. There’s lots of mimicking and playful echoing in the poems as well. Bernstein works with words as meanings and words as words — as objects to be manipulated, shuffled, distorted and juxtaposed, often exposing new meanings not apparent at first glance.

In “Sometimes,” the burning book and “staying alive at a particular time” clearly refer to dramatic events in Benjamin’s lifetime, cut short at age 48 — he was an influential literary theorist who escaped from Germany, only to die crossing into Spain in 1940. In the second half of the poem, Bernstein rearranges the opening phrases, redirecting the text toward our present predicament. “Sometimes/ you burn a book because” — the phrase is not completed because “because” cannot make sense, or perhaps because for those who burn books, “because” is its own reason. Bernstein produces a new text with multiple possible readings that resonate with and extend the initial expression.

A similar approach can be seen in “Schein,” a German word with many meanings — sheen, shine, glow, illusoriness, sham — that Bernstein puns over into English, researching the “space between shine and shame.”

Finally, in “Anagrammatica,” Bernstein obsessively rearranges the name Walter Benjamin into a series of identities, some apt epithets — “Brain mantle Jew/ Brain mental Jew” — others at best cryptic, like “A mint bran jewel.” The work reaches cadence with “Atman Berlin Jew,” attaching the universal soul of Hinduism to a very particular identity that proved to be Benjamin’s fate. In one deft anagram, Bernstein tersely eulogizes a major thinker who lived in complete freedom of mind, but died as a Jew.

——–

Excerpts from Doctrine of Similarity (13 Cannons)

3. Sometimes

Sometimes

you burn a book because

it is cold

and you need the fire

to keep warm

and

sometimes

you read a

book for the same reason.

This is not a theory of reading

this is about staying alive

in a particular place and

a particular time.

This is not

because

you are weary of learning

but what it means to die

in a particular moment and

a particular space.

you are weary of learning

a particular time

a particular space

it is cold

this is about staying alive

you read a

in a particular place and

this is not a theory of reading

but what it means to die

and you need the fire

book for the same reason

in a particular moment and

This is not

to keep warm

because

sometimes

you burn a book because

and

sometimes

4. Schein

There’s no crime like the

shine in the space between

shine and shame.

No shine like the mine between meaning and history. No space

like the rime between shine and face. No rime like the

lace between time and memory.

6. Dust to Dusk

The leaves turn dark before the trees are shot with light.

12. Anagrammatica

I’m a lent barn Jew

A mint bran jewel

A barn Jew melt in

A rent Jew in balm

A Jew lamb intern

Brain mantle Jew

Brain mental Jew

A bawl intern jem

Arab Jew melt inn

Blat ma inner Jew

Bam rat linen Jew

An altern IBM Jew

Ran tan lib Jew me

Balm at inner Jew

Rat bam Lenin Jew

Balm tear Jew inn

Atman Berlin Jew

— Charles Bernstein






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