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Born in New York City, Alan Bernheimer graduated from Yale in 1970, and by the late 1970s found his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he still lives. There he joined a group of poets often called the “language school,” whose work is distinguished by a close attention to the puzzles and perils of ordinary syntax, in an effort to break the hold of conventional language on the reader’s mind. Bernheimer’s most recent collection of poems is “Billionesque” (Figures, 1999).

“20 Questions” is typical of Bernheimer’s slippery wit — the title refers to the guessing game, of course, though it’s very unlikely that any single answer could be derived from this set of enticing questions, which range from the humorous (“How many presidents say ‘nucular’ instead of ‘nuclear’”) to the luminous to the oddly poignant (“Would you be kind enough”). The wit is all in the subtle way Bernheimer unstrings common phrases and literary allusions — such as the reference to Hamlet’s own game of 20 questions, which begins with “To be or not to be….” By releasing these phrases from their old associations, new meanings float into view. To those sticklers for grammar who ask why these 20 questions bear no question marks, there are perhaps 20 answers, but one that comes to mind is that the game is all in the guessing, and there may be no punctuation for questions that have no final answers.

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20 QUESTIONS

What can be said of the unspeakable that has not already been unsaid

What kind of pill does it take

Is outliving enemies a hollow victory

Can moonlight prevent the leaves from stirring

How many presidents say “nucular” instead of “nuclear”

Is the brain constructed from activity

How is life on the natch

Is solid eye contact critical to being a hit

Who would fardels bear

What is the statute of limitations

Do you know you’ve arrived when carts are free

Do we get all the help we need from arithmetic

Who is as tickled as a dog with two dicks

Does something for everyone mean nothing for anyone

Would you be kind enough

How many lightbulbs does it take to change the world

Are you in this for the overalls

Do fine feathers make fine birds

Remember when a million was a billion

Can what they call civilization be right if people mayn’t die in the room where they were born

— Alan Bernheimer

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