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Rattling the Chains Of American Poetry

Girly Man
By Charles Bernstein
University of Chicago Press, 186 pages, $24.

In the late 1970s, when I was studying creative writing at a fancy Eastern college, I spent a good deal of my time worrying about “finding my voice.” Like most of my friends, I dreamed of achieving a sincere and brandable style, one that would blend authenticity and real-time insight with fashionable touches of surrealist whimsy.

If only I had read Charles Bernstein then.

Over the past three decades, Bernstein has tried to free American poetry from such decorous pieties through polemic, parody and just plain invention. Riffing on Rousseau’s

“The Social Contract,” Bernstein has written that “[v]erse is born free but everywhere in chains. It has been my project to rattle the chains.” He has rattled the chains in close to 30 books of poetry and three spirited and quite wonderful books of essays. At the same time, and almost coincidentally, Bernstein has come up with a bracing way of being both a very political and a distinctly Jewish writer.

“Girly Man” is perhaps Bernstein’s most approachable and focused collection. As a rule, his poems do not aspire to recount some experience that lies tantalizingly out of the reach of language. They have nothing to do with the tasteful matching of situation and epiphany. Rather than strive for the heights or the depths that I yearned for in college, Bernstein’s poems insist on their unsettled surfaces, on the way they patch together incompatible levels of our everyday speech, from the most vapid self-affirmations to the densest inanities of professional jargon.

The basic unit of Bernstein’s poetry is the exploded cliché or the dislocated fragment of conventional unwisdom:

As slow as Methuselah and as old as
molasses, time passes but nobody ever
does anything about it…

As far as I can tell, Bernstein has stitched four commonplaces here: “old as Methuselah,” “slow as molasses,” “time passes” and “everyone complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” Of course, other connotations flit through these lines (“old father time”) as well as some truly odd questions (How old can molasses be? Does it keep?). At one level, this is all just meaningless play, the kind of play that makes you notice the repetition of sounds in “slow” and “old.” But the meaning, or rather, the point, lies precisely in that meaninglessness. For the point is on the one hand to undermine our lazy desire to rest not on our laurels but on the stereotypes of our language, and on the other to make some new, ungainly music from those stereotypes. Sometimes the effect is actually musical, even if the tune reminds you of Gertrude Stein:

It’s over &
Over & then it’s not, as long as you never —
Well, sometimes endeavor — as long as you
Never, as long as ever, say never nor ever again

At other times, Bernstein is content to offset what appears to be a flat truism with an oddly goofy pun: “Everybody’s got to be somewhere./Save the last chance for me.” (“Sign Under Test”) The truism here, though, is a Henny Youngman punch line, the retort of the adulterer caught in the broom closet. And it is the spirit of the punch line and the one liner and the pun — that is, of Jewish vaudeville and its stand-up heirs — that animates so much of Bernstein’s work.

By his own account, Bernstein grew up watching television in the late 1950s and early ’60s — that is, at the moment when a certain unabashed Jewish sensibility went mainstream. And Bernstein learned his lessons well. His choppy, chopped rhythms are both nervously, if not nervily, Jewish. He is, as everyone who has ever written about him has noted, a funny guy. But poetry is not supposed to be funny — it is about serious things, after all — and so it is tempting to dismiss Bernstein as something of a merry prankster, a man who is daring his audience to accept jokes and aleatory noise as real poetry.

Not so fast there, buddy. The genius of Jewish comedy — hell, the genius of Yiddish, if we follow Michael Wex — is that it puts linguistic invention at the service of a militant deflationary zeal. The wiseass Jewish waiter whom Bernstein sometimes resembles devotes his deadpan wit to exploding pretense and false comfort. When that waiter reads the papers, this demolition work can take on a markedly political edge.

Bernstein most definitely reads the papers. If “Girly Man” is both focused and approachable, it is, in large part, because it is sustained by the poet’s horrified reaction to the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. Here are some lines from “War Stories”:

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.

Bernstein does not usually engage this directly, and in a section called “Some of These Daze,” Bernstein takes an uncustomary turn. In a short series of blogs and letters written on and after 9/11 (here Bernstein is obviously thinking of the diary entries that Whitman published as “Specimen Days”), he confronts the event more or less head-on:

Tuesday morning I rouse my friend Stu from a profound slumber to tell him what has happened to the twin towers. — “They’re ugly,” he says, after a pause, “but they’re not that ugly.”

This interchange sets up a moment, a few lines later, that looks very much like an insight:

We’re ugly, but we’re not that ugly
&, hey, Joe, don’t you know —
We is they.

A number of the subsequent poems in “Girly Man” quite literally flow from there.

Bernstein has made a habit (and a career) out of questioning modern American poetry’s love affair with personal experience and “voice.” Now that his critique is something of an institution, it makes perfect sense that this poetic kochleffel should double back and try a cockeyed version of it himself. In “Girly Man,” Bernstein is stirring it up again and — he would love this scrambled metaphor — adding something new to the mix.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

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