Girly Man, Charles Bernstein. University of Chicago Press. 186 pp., $15.00.
“I’m only speaking of the San Francisco Language scene; I think New York Language scene was very different.” So said Leslie Scalapino in a May 2007 speech during the Seque Panel “Language Poetry and the Body” titled “History/Memory/Body: Language is the Trace of Being.” Note that Scalapino never provides support for this statement, leaving it merely as conjecture. Perhaps a comparison and contrasting of Bernstein, instrumental in the founding of the New York Language scene, and Silliman, instrumental in the founding of the San Francisco Language scene, can provide a glimpse into this purported difference. Whether a balancing here is going to be achieved is questionable, with Silliman’s work (or, depending on how you look at it, 26 works), The Alphabet, being six times longer than Bernstein’s Girly Man. But it will be attempted and, at the least, an insight should be gained.
For those few who remain unacquainted with Bernstein and his history (perhaps there are one or two non-novitiates left), here is a brief bio. Graduating from Harvard University in 1972, Bernstein, who was born in New York City on April 4, 1950, co-edited (along with Bruce Andrews) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which, during its 13 published issues between 1978 and 1980, set the groundwork for much of what became known as Language Poetry, Language Writing, or some similar moniker. Wikipedia says that he is “one of the foremost poets associated with Language poetry, and his two collections of essays, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975 (1986) and A Poetics (1992), as well as his My Way: Speeches and Poems (1999), expand a position on poetry based, in part, on his close reading of the philosophy of Karl Marx and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the writings of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and William Carlos Williams.”
Girly Man consists of seven parts, some of which have been previously published as chapbooks. The first part, “Let’s Just Say,” opens with the poem “In Particular.” It begins “A black man waiting at a bus stop / A white woman sitting on a stool,” proceeds through rhyming “A Burmese tailor watching a trailer / An Idaho man getting a tan,” and then launches into more complex grammatical territory: “A Montenegrin taking Excedrin / A D.C. dervish dribbling dodecahedrons / A Denver doyen davenning defiantly / A Bali busboy getting high.” The end is a reversal of the beginning: “A white man sitting on stool / A black woman waiting at bus stop.” A later poem, “Lets Just Say,” is reminiscent of what Kenneth Patchen would write if he had a touch of Webern in him: “Let’s just say that the girl is the mother of the woman // Let’s just say that without disorder there can be no harmony. // Let’s just say that the aim is not to win but not to lose too bad.” “Thank You for Saying Thank You” is a story of a straightforward poem, with the story of writing that straightforward poem being in fact the straightforward poem: “This is a totally / accessible poem. / There is nothing / in this poem / that is in any / way difficult / to understand,” but then Bernstein adds “. . . While / at times expressing / bitterness, anger / resentment, xenophobia / & hints of racism,” leaving the reader to ask: “Where?”
We might begin to think that perhaps the difference between the East coast and the West coast is in the use of lyric versus prose poetry. But then we come to “Some Of These Daze,” in which the poems are written in prose. For example, in the first poem, “It’s 8:23 in New York,”
I can’t imagine Manhattan without those two towers looming over the south end. As I was walking across the 59th Street bridge I couldn’t stop thinking of that Simon and Garfunkel song named after the bridge, “Feelin’ Groovy” (“Life, I love you . . . all is . . .”).
The other poems in this part concern the bombing of the Twin Towers and are written in prose form. “Report from Liberty Street” is an interesting innovation in prose poetry, as Bernstein includes a refrain: “They thought they were going to heaven.” One of the most interesting passages occurs at page 28:
So it’s almost no surprise to see someone with a T-shirt that says “What Part of Hatred Don’t You Understand?”
I guess when two planes filled with passengers and tanked up with more fuel than it takes to get my moped from here to Mars and back hits skyscrapers with 20,000 people in them, it doesn’t take a political scientist to know there’s a lot of hate there.
The scary thing is that maybe what they hated most about America is not the bad part.
They thought they were going to heaven.
Note that Bernstein never indicates what “the bad part” is.
“World On Fire” returns to lyricism, where contemporary society is condemned and the song is not to be. The adman in “Didn’t We” takes control with his “pillow talk to / Whosits & Whatsits of Nob & // Kebob, Insley & Ufragious, / Ackabag & Boodslip” and “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” gives us “the same old lorry / Astronaut / meets Mini-Me in a test tube in Rome, / Regis spurns Veronica, / Merv buys casino, / goes to another season.” Later on, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” “spills out / summer’s plain completion, the auguries / of trounced and trudged, a minute away from / destabilization” running at the end into “the shank / of the evening, gather all available stems / but refute closure.”
In “Warrant,” while still being written in lyric structure, Bernstein takes us to a version of Saturday Night Live—the old one with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd (imagine the samurai). This part moves from contract (“Warrant”: “I warrant that this / poem is entirely my / own work”) through Tin Pan Alley (“He’s So Heavy, He’s My Sokol,” ostensibly based on a Danny Kaye number), to a “Questionnaire,” and then to a translation—”from Canti Antichi” supposedly “By Antonio Calvocressi (1538-1574)”—although skepticism arises when the line “My head is broken on the cement!” appears at the end of the first stanza. It concludes with one of Bernstein’s longest poems, “Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark’s History,” a “poem” that the creators of Monty Python would be proud of.
The poems in “In Parts” are collaborations with visual artists, sans the presence of the visual artists or their art, so that they hang like epitaphs in a doorway.
We move into the truly lyrical in “Likeness.” “Castor Oil” is almost zen-like: “I went looking for my soul / In the song of a minor bird / But I could not find it there / Only the shadow of my thinking.” The almost is removed when we get to the haiku “Jacob’s Ladder,” dedicated to Nam June Paik: “Spent light’s pooled mirror / Wet green in vertical beam / Chill out—chaos binds,” which not only follows the standard haiku structure but, in the last line, achieves satori as it should. This section contains two poems written in (my God!) iambic pentameter, before ending in a list, “Likeness” (“the heart is like the heart / the head is like the head / the motion is like the motion,” etc.), which sits well beyond the extreme of the lyrical continuum.
Girly Man concludes with “Girly Man,” which opens with “War Stories,” a series of epitaphs on the art of war whose structure is indebted to Wittgenstein: “War is conflict resolution for the aesthetically challenged. // War is the first resort of scoundrels.” The section ends with “The Ballad of the Girly Man,” (a tribute to Arnold Schwartzenegger), whose dissonant lyricism contains such stanzas as “So be a girly man / & take a gurly stand / Sing a gurly song / & dance with a girly sarong.”
It is impossible here to provide an evaluation/explanation of each individual poem. Bernstein can only be appreciated in the entirety of his oeuvre. Not only has he heard, he has also internalized the discussions that were taking place in Paris during the 1960s—in particular Roland Barthes’s What Is a Text?—and he has accepted the new dementsion where contracts and catalogs can become poetic texts in their own right, where the language of the street is accepted as equal to that put forth by Wordsworth, Eliot and whichever other poet might come to mind, where the lyric of the popular song has a Frosty reception. There should be a placard placed on Bernstein’s books reading ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,’ sans the distortions of Robespierre.
We will turn our thoughts now to Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet . . .
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