Sun, Dec. 31, 2006

REVIEW | Girly Man

Book review: Poet Charles Bernstein explores language’s many forms

Poet’s latest collection appears to be his most accessible work.

Special to The Star

Charles Bernstein is one of the major voices of contemporary American poetry.

From 1990 to 2003, he operated the Electronics Poetry Center, directed the Poetics Program and taught English and comparative literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He currently co-edits PENNsound and serves as Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He was recently appointed a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He is widely regarded as a difficult poet. He challenges readers to rethink syntax, to see the relationships between words in new ways. He employs aphorisms, clichés and wordplay to question the assumptions of everyday speech and poetic language. He even pushes us to reconsider what constitutes poetry.

That said, Bernstein’s latest book, Girly Man, is his most accessible and rewarding volume to date. Its opening poem, “In Particular,” presents a series of declarative phrases ascribing certain actions and characteristics to various ethnicities as a way of questioning one’s assumptions about identity.

His poem, “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” opens with the lines “This is a totally/ accessible poem./ There is nothing/ in this poem/ that is in any/ way difficult/ to understand.” He goes on to discuss poetic voice and mood in the simplest of terms, all the while humorously poking fun at conservative poetics and ideology.

Bernstein is a very gifted poet who writes comfortably in many forms of language. He can make syllogistic arguments like a logician. He can sing musically like a lyric poet. He can mock translations like a comedian. He can parody popular songs. And he can even satirize narrative modes of communication.

His interests in language and politics are all part of a larger comic vision in Girly Man. He delights in parody. One series of poems spoofs popular Tin Pan Alley songs from the 1930s and 1940s. Another series mocks translation as an academic form of pedantry.

His supreme comic effort in this volume, though, is his long poem, “Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark’s History.” Bernstein assumes the voice of Michael Anthony, the man who arrived at people’s doors to present a cashier’s check for a million dollars on the popular television series “The Millionaire” in the 1950s.

The real subject at hand is Bernard Duvivier’s painting Cleopatra. Anthony has taken his son Jimmy to the Memorial Art Gallery to give him a lesson in art history. What unfolds through the speaker’s down-to-earth, vernacular speech is Bernstein’s cunningly hilarious satire on the pretensions of art criticism, academic scholarship and contemporary high society life.

Bernstein shows his serious political side, too. As a native New Yorker, he felt compelled to address the aftermath of 9/11 in a series of elegiac, defiant prose poems.

His poem “Language, Truth and Logic” is based on the writings of language philosophers A.J. Ayer and J.L. Austin, who concluded that there is no criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgments and that moral judgments are merely expressions of feelings with no foundation in truth or falsehood.

Thus, Bernstein implies the tenuous nature of politicians’ promises and the unstable ground upon which they declare their moral certitude. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention inspired the title poem, “The Ballad of Girly Man,” which is both an indictment of lying politicians who wage war on false claims and a celebration of those “girly men” who pursue diplomacy through art, compromise and clear thinking.

By contrast, Bernstein’s difficult serial poems in the “In Parts” section of this volume sometimes probe too deeply into the problematic nature of language. He purposely eschews meaning at times to force us into a purely visceral reaction to poetry.

All in all, Girly Man contains enough entertainment and comedy, as well as political and philosophical insights, to make a strong argument that poetry can entertain us and address popular culture without compromising its value as high art.

Girly Man, by Charles Bernstein (186 pages; University of Chicago Press; $24)

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