All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems by Charles Bernstein. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 320 pp. $26.00.
The name Charles Bernstein is synonymous with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Bernstein having founded that magazine with Bruce Andrews in 1978. Born in New York in 1950, he graduated from Harvard University in 1972. He published his first book, Asylum, in 1975, following which he went on to publish several more even as he launched a pedagogical career that has landed him in the Donald T. Regan Chair in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. It is Bernstein who is responsible for that university’s incredible literary archives.
Beyond that history, Bernstein himself needs little introduction. His work, however, does, particularly when it is gathered in a “Selected” volume. This is where Farrar, Strauss and Giroux have committed a serious error. There is no introduction. How they can release a selected work of such an important poet without one is not difficult to fathom—rather, it is impossible. Certainly, they might attempt to argue that these are very strained, difficult times. Indeed they are. If that’s the case, then I would argue that they ought to hold off on releasing such an important book by such an important author until they can afford to do it properly.
Having said that, this book is long overdue. For a poet of the stature of Bernstein to have to wait over thirty years for a selected volume to be released demonstrates the dismal straits into which poetry has fallen.
But let’s see what is on offer in the book itself. It opens with one selection, the title poem, from Asylum. At least one but generally more selections are provided from each of his other books, taking the reader up to his most recent, Girly Man (2006), from which five poems are included. There is also what is labeled an “Envoi,” containing the title poem, “All the Whiskey in Heaven.”
“Asylum” extends from Ashbery’s discursive, cubist lines. One wonders whether the essence of Eliot’s “J. Alfred Prufrock” perfumes the air this poem breathes. The nub of the poem is contained within the first several lines, where we find meandering on the page the words “They create and sustain//a particular kind of tension//dangers to it, with the welfare//jails, penitentiaries, P.O.W.” It is the words that are sentenced, imprisoned, confined; and it is Bernstein who releases them (or attempts to) creating the tension between sentence and line that cries out for release in this discursivity, the fracturing of the line as if a prison break is about to ensue, concrete walls crumbing in the process.
The two poems selected from Shade (1978) demonstrate Bernstein’s playfulness with words while refracting other influences. “Take, Then, These” begins with “Take then these nail & boards/which seams to lay me down,” which plays with seems/seams while distorting grammatical conventions. “Dodgem,” with its opening lines,
the naturally enfolded
each . . . of . . . of . . .
opens & our
is definitely inspired by Creeley.
When we reach Senses of Responsibility (1979), we encounter what appears to be a throwback to Elizabethan conventions where each line is capitalized. The reader quickly realizes, however, that the convention now serves a different purpose: retaining punctuation so that lines evolve into sentences, Bernstein’s capitalizations create supreme tension between the lines and the long, convoluted sentences that will become a hallmark of his style.
“Azoot D’Puund,” from Poetic Justice (1979), is an experiment that didn’t work. What are we to make of a poem that begins “iz wurry ray aZoOt de pound in reducey a crrRisLe”? There are clues as to interpretation interspersed in the piece, such as “sOond ap uld OOngLeesh” and “ee ‘ook ip an ays yr bitder,” which approach comprehension and seem to indicate that there are many language games at play here. But the clues are insufficient to sustain interest. It is possible that “Azoot D’Puund” is the written form of a sound poem, which would make for a completely different response—its great potential in that form is obvious. That’s yet another question that an introduction to the volume could have addressed. “Lift Off,” from the same book, is written in a manner reminiscent of computer code and is about as understandable.
Bernstein followed that book the next year with Controlling Interests. The four poems from this volume each bear the mark of Stein’s cubist influence. “The Italian Border of the Alps” begins “I’ve spent the years since. Primarily rowing. I’ll phone. Next week after the tube roses are installed. Vivid memories. People remain. I have occasionally. Shops, sorting out how to become useful.” “Standing Target” is not just a collage poem, it is the collage poem. So many different voices speak from so many different directions, and they all culminate in Charlie’s story as seen from the notebooks of the psychoanalysts who eventually witness (propel) his fragmentation. There are so many innovations here that a mere quotation would not do the poem justice.
The Sophist (1987) is, by far, one of his better books; it is the book to which all of the earlier experimentation has led—which explains why so many selections have been taken from it. Two examples: “The Simply” where we read:
I’m screaming at somebody or being screamed at, not
interesting enough to wake up for. Slurps
as it burps. FIRST BURP, BEST BURP. “You take it very well,”
he says admiringly. “I don’t think I would have been as
cheerful if Uncle Bill hadn’t given me money. “The
Case of the Missing Coagulate. Emphysema / Nice to see ya.
and “The Voyage of Life”:
If it be temperance, it is temper-
Ance that makes us hard; by strength of purpose
Turn Pinocchio into ox or gore
Melons with pickaxes, which the fighting
Back in turn proposes slugged advantage.
Slugged discomfit: rashes of ash, as
On a scape to ripple industry with
Hurls, the helter finds in shrubbing status.
Both are brilliant use of sound and wit.
But Bernstein’s tour de force is found in “The Lives of the Tour Takers,” from 1994′s Dark City, a work of poetic genius (there’s no other way to put it). As with “Standing Target,” quotations do not do this serpentine meandering of mind justice, but here are two anyway:
(studies show higher levels of resistance to double-bind
political programming among those who read 7.7 poems or
more each week
These are the sounds of science (whoosh, blat,
flipahineyhoo), brought to
you by Dupont, a broadly diversified company dedicated to
exploitation through science and industry.
This is the Ulysses of contemporary poetry.
Well, this review (and reviewer) is quickly running out of steam. But Bernstein isn’t, and neither is this volume. He still has another hundred pages of brilliance to go, which leaves little wonder why he has been (and remains) one of the leading poetic voices of (to use a shopworn phrase) postmodern poetry. This is good shit, man.
The author of poetry, reviews, and essays published in a number of literary journals in the United States and Canada, John Herbert Cunningham has recently become the host of the half-hour radio program “Speaking of Poets,” which is available streaming or as a download from the University of Winnipeg’s CKUW. He is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.
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