Corinne Robins
Talisman #34 (Winter/Spring 2007) pp. 119-120

Charles Bernstein, Girly Man
University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Girly Man, Charles Bernstein's latest assault on contemporary life, is poetry to be read for pleasure and solace in our rather sobering time. A collection of warnings, aphorisms, journal entries, inverted definitions, it also includes, "Some of These Daze," a sixteen-page chronicle of life in New York City after 9/11, delineating time, the weather, and rhythms of the streets. Before and after this section, the poems give a conglomerate of orders, such as Don't touch, make sense, and parade your legalease. In the wake of 9/11, humor is a serious business. But Charles Bernstein’s seriousness is an uncertain business. The poems discombobulates the reader so that she will never know/ when and where Henny Youngman, Danny Kaye and Charles are not joking.

The answer to that as of a third rereading is always and never. Meanwhile as Bernstein writes in his poem "Choo, Choo, Ch 'Boogie," "Refurbishment is just around the hospital coroner." The book's assembled sections will not be pinned down. The poem “A flame in your heart" ends "for infinite finitude: just a walk down the street / of the imaginary enclosure that becomes real // when shared." These two poems are from the section in Girly Man titled World on Fire. If you have not up to now made the acquaintance of Bernstein's postmodern lip, Charles Bernstein to date is the creator of the movement Nude Fonnalism and more than twenty other poetry books. Girly Man, according to Susan Howe on the jacket cover "is his most accessible collection." Maybe so. Meanwhile, I miss Susan Bee's blithe images of mother goose and others that dance through the earlier pages of his books. It seems to me maybe the pre-9/11 poems were lighter and lither. I am not questioning Bernstein's wit. It's not flagging here. But the earlier books presume a kind of light-hearted indirection in some of the poems. His cartwheels with language never reached higher. In the last twenty-five years, Bernstein has achieved a gray eminence. He has become the Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and his last two books, My Way and Girly Man, bear the imprint of the University of Chicago Press. But before allowing ourselves to be drowned in his current academic respectability, if we examine the poems we will see Bernstein redeem himself over and over and especially in the book's two final poems, "The Bricklayer's Arms" and "The Ballad of the Girly Man," which manage to also make clear how and why the congressional election turned out how it did for the Democrats. This is, by the bye, not to be taken for a complaint, Charles Bernstein manages to make his political points via merciless wit. "So be a girly man [he writes] / & sing this girly song / Sissies and Proud / That we would never lie our way to war."