BERNSTEIN'S ROUGH TRADES
American Book Review (Feb./March 1993)
1. FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Half way through you turn around wondering where the hell you are. Neither hell nor heaven: the speed of the thing, of the language will not permit tragedy. You are entering a building through a dark and musty subbasement. Genre goes all funny, quick dissolves of & into humor. We'll come back (to that) later. Proceeding a few steps you trip an elevator platform and are whisked to what is something like the 23rd floor.... Then you meet yourself and wonder who the hell you are. Or are those two related? Does it matter? Or are you only where, not who, you are? …where you are stepping out into an abandoned soundstage for a 1930 production of a Fenimore Cooper story. I am a reader but that makes me different from page to page. Sighting a ladder, you climb up a flight onto a floor filled with hundreds of irregularly shaped cubicles populated by women dressed as Matadors… But that's from another text by Bernstein, back to the book at hand where the author, the other, the auto-pilot lights you up: “The reader crowds the page / with the rush of ideas: a portable / altar strapped to his back, waving fables and faces and maneuvering / between points, holes in clouds, / condensing into a stream of ink.” You have been surprised by the many you have just met — not just readers, authors & yes, even critics, as well as the whole gallery of quick change artists that make up the inbetween world of textual couvades. “Who am I to be critical?” in a Burroughsian drawl, and that's not the reviewer either. Rest, but not assured, the erased author seems to say & the next minute he has you in stitches. At least you seem to realize that it's all done in good humor, but with a bite: ice cream man slaughters ice dream, I's dream, eyes' dream. That at least seems clear as you rem it home, remembering the fourth page of the cover, as the French say, which with the authority of reversed print sends you to Burns (George, not Robert) for straight lines filled with pregnant pauses. Poetry is a quest(ion) for lines. Breaks. Give me a break. Line breaks ionize the quest. Bernstein lines them up, gets them ready. To do what? Then we read on. Who is we? “I hasn't had as much fun reading a book since the mini-skirt went out of fashion.” In stitches again. & now the two “seems” above are spelled “seams,” which is what the stitches have us do, and along that map of mise-en-abîmes where “tautologies are our topologies” we step gingerly (says the reviewer, suddenly remembering he's supposed to talk straight.) Who is talking? We all are, the I's all are & no one's doing the caulking. Call it seam-talking, what this plethora of voices does. Which this? We've come a long way baby. You're all grown-up now & yet you play (hard) (to get). Or do you. Or who does. I & the other I's do too. Do onto etcetera.
2. SECOND THOUGHTS
The day-thought brings this: it is difficult to respond to this book without being lured into theory, into yet again exposing, maybe more weakly, what the poet has expounded in excellent essays (cf. Contents Dreams, Sun & Moon: 1985, & Artifice of Absorption, Paper Air: 1987). But if the book demands it, so be it. Rough Trades is Bernstein's largest collection of poems since his 1987 book, The Sophist. Its roughly 90 pages of poetry are divided into three major sections. The first one of which, entitled “The Riddle of the Fat Faced Man,” consists of 14 short works, meant to warm our appetite & set the stage. The first line of the first poem gives us a poetics of sorts: “I want no paradise only to be / drenched in the downpour of words…” The entrées are to be found in the other two sections which, besides one-pagers & a few programmatic poems (such as the hilarious meditation-collage “Of Time and the Line,”) contain several longer works, most notably the 2-poem sequence “Reading the Tree,” & the two last poems, both bernsteinian tour-de-forces, “Pockets of Lime” and the superb finale, the “Blow-Me-Down-Etude.”
The majority of these poems are constructed from a cornucopia of found (read, overheard) phrases & sentences: they are a collage of discourse-fragments from extremely heterogeneous origins. These origins are at times hidden and at times foregrounded (thus the “Reading the Tree” sequence, the author tells us, draws its lines from poems in Ron Silliman's anthology In the American Tree). What comes into play (both in the literal and the mechanical-compositional sense of that phrase) is a by now classical concept & practice of intertextuality, entailing a rapid — not to say instantaneous — decontextualization and recontextualization of language shards. The effect is oddly painterly in that stricto senso you can start looking (reading) anywhere — most of the texts adamantly refuse to unfold a narrative continuity that would create a progressively developing reading/meaning.
One effect of this is to create a continuously shifting ground, “true” temblor topographies, seem- & seam-scapes lacking any ontologically secure “ground,” in the Heideggerrian sense of that term. The “seams” do not necessarily follow the visible “poetic” markers of lines or stanzas, they happen(stance) for example inside lines as well, making for cracks in the syntax & shifts in the voice(s) at times visible & audible in the discourse, at times invisible & inaudible. A central aim of this constructive approach is to dislocate & dismember the speaking subject in order to refuse the appearance (in both meanings of that word) of an all-knowing “I” claiming to speak from an assumed or implied position of uni-vocal, of unequi-vocal truth.
This leaves the reader with much work to do, for it is she who in most instances has to make the decision as to how the poem should be read, how the meaning(s) should be put together as they shift back & forth, depending on context — a context that can change from line to line, so that a given line will have another “meaning” when attached to the previous line than when linked to the line following. Such shifts & uncertainties furthermore pertain not only to a given poem as single unit, but to the construction of the book as a whole. As Bernstein put it in a recent interview with Alan Davies: “It interests me… that borders between poems be occasionally confused (I don't mean blurred): sometimes a stanza of a long poem may not be formally different from a discrete short poem in the same book, or a short poem in one book becomes part of a longer poem in another. Various sequencings of contrasting styles or rhetorics attracts me as a model.... The invention of meaning is a product of choosing specific sequences. Think of it in terms of polyphony: a particular trio of voices/themes/grammars introduces a ground — lays down the sound in the room, as a musician might say — upon which you build, layer by layer.” The suggestion is that Bernstein may (& does) have a “learned intuition” of what meanings he is folding into the sequencing of both the poems & the book. The reader will of necessity have another or several other such intuitions, more or less learned as the case may be, as s/he moves along the fracture lines of these mappings, even if that experience is, like “all experience..., conditioned by expectation.”
An expectation which, fuelled by the preceding theoretical discussion, would put this book squarely among the writings of what is referred to as “postmodernism.” I hesitate, however, to do that & keep thinking of Bernstein's work as essentially (late) modern. For the following reasons: although postmodernism can be described as essentially an aesthetics of citation (often, if not always lacking an ethics) those citations are traditionally arrayed against an unstated but implied & fixed background in relation to which they acquire their aesthetic/decorative/ironic value (this is most clearly visible in postmodern architecture). In literary terms, postmodern genres that fulfill this structure of citation/background are most easily recognizable in pastiche-based works, i.e. writings taking off from & referring back to a well-defined past literary “genre” that is spoofed or deconstructed in the process — though in writing, as opposed to what happens in architecture, this original “architexture” can be absent as such & only be implied & referred to. It seems to me that in Bernstein's work no such archi-text exists, rather, what we have is not a re-construction or ironic de-construction of past genres, but the processual construction of a new or, better, another space of discourse, even though the seams of this construction are a patchwork of citational fragments. I said “even though” when in fact I could have said “exactly because,” as such a multi-voiced construction is indeed firmly anchored in the tradition & methodology of twentieth-century art based on the principle of collage. It is an art that requires from both reader & writer essentially that quality defined in the early nineteenth century by Keats, namely “Negative Capability,” an attitude totally foreign to Postmodernism, as its core is an ethical stance, rather than an aesthetic one.
Not that aesthetics play no role in Bernstein's work: they are central, but as something to be continuously questioned & critiqued, rather than as a goal or an achieved & static surface. Central to his writing — both in this collection & in his other books & anthologies — is an exploration of the relations between aesthetics and politics. As he puts it in Rough Trades: “The lines of an / imaginary arc inscribed on the / social flesh by the knife point of history.” This political stance is visible in the language itself: one of the effects of using de- & re-contextualized citations is to challenge the conventions not only of traditional poetic language, but of public speech as well. In his essay in The Politics of Poetic Form, Bernstein puts it thus: “In its counterconventional investigations, poetry engages public language as its roots, in that it tests the limits of its conventionality while forging alternate conventions (which, however, need not seek to replace other conventions in quest of becoming the new standard.)” And further on: “The poetic authority to challenge dominant societal values, including conventional manners of communication, is a model for the individual political participation of each citizen.”
3. THE GOOD HUMOR ICE DREAM MAN
Another aspect of Bernstein's work that has political and aesthetic-critical implications is his use of humor. The latter is present on many levels of the text, arising at times from the quick and radical contextual shifts and recombinations, and at times from more classical or traditional semantic language devices such as puns, double-entendres, rhymes, etcetera. The postmodern form of humor is essentially irony — & irony is an elitist mode, in that it speaks condescendingly from an assumed position of superiority, from a know-it-all stance that implies that the speaker knows the truth. This is not what happens in a Bernstein poem, where the use of humor is — to use his own term — much more ambivolent, collapsing “into a more... destabilizing field of pathos, the ludicrous, schtick, sarcasm.” Irony is defensive, augustan, a shield, while sarcasm is investigative, or, in Bernstein's words, “a probe.” The political implications of such an approach are clear, & well summed up by Steve McCaffery who speaks of “humour as a useful tonal-ideological destabilizer, an agent of relativization, dispersal and inversion (similar to Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalization of literature). Humour tends to operate as a visceral, or tactile investment upon the level of the verbal order; it is not entirely ‘of’ language.”
4. THE LIVE VOICE CONUNDRUM
McCaffery's conclusion brings up one last area I would like to mention in relation to Bernstein's Rough Trades. In its effort to foreground language strategies and constructs, language-based poetry (such as that, though not exclusively that) of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group — to whose East Coast & more cosmopolitan branch Bernstein belongs — runs the risk of remaining stuck exactly there: in linguistic auto-referentiality, short-circuiting the desired & proposed (fiction of) non-referentiality. Bernstein's work avoids this trap not only through its clear political implications but also, & maybe foremost, through the mediation of humor, because humor, as McCaffery points out is ”not entirely ‘of’ language.” The visceral investment of the humor comes through most visibly when one hears Bernstein read his work: all of a sudden one is confronted with work that transcends its “mere” linguistic elements, foregrounding through & beyond the humor a voice — New York, Jewish, angry, gutsy, involved — that subsumes, reflects & deflects the many voices of the (printed) text. Paradoxically enough, one could therefore argue that it is exactly this kind of language-based work that needs the live presence of the poet's performance to achieve its richness & its (always again to be renewed) completion more so than the work of, say, the New American Poets, despite the latter's insistence on breath & voice. This is so exactly because in the latter's work the singular presence of the poet's voice is already & insistently inscribed in the text as (overdetermined) score, in a way it is not in language-oriented poetry.
Rough Trades — & starting with the title's witty punning on atmospheric conditions, sexuality, labor relations — does not only give pleasure through its intelligence & wit. It is also a book that demands the reader's constant rethinking of her own “ground” & poetic presuppositions. To return to the opening lines, Bernstein “want[s] no paradise, only to be/ drenched in the downpour of words…” But the way the water falls, the patterns the word-drops make, create meanings that both stage and light up our world while quenching our thirst for what Barthes called the “pleasure of the text.” This is exhilarating & liberating work, partaking of the strategies of destabilization & questioning that Nietzsche's concept of a “Gay Science” first demanded. I'll stand under that shower, ears & mouth open, whenever I can, day or night, when, as he writes in [a collaboration with Nick Piomino] “Slowed Reason,”
Poetry is sediment