Douglas Messerli

The Possibility of Rectitude

 (originally published in The New Review 2:2 (2005)

Since his first book publication in 1976, Charles Bernstein has been producing some of the most important poetry and critical thinking about poetry in the United States—perhaps in the world. Over the years, in 25 books and chapbooks of poetry, according to my account, he has charted both familiar and new territory. His most recent work, Let’s Just Say, a short chapbook of just four poems, is as probing and charming as ever, and, although short in length, is strangely as representative of his work as many a longer publication.

“In Particular,” beginning with a quote from his son, Felix (“I admit that beauty inhales me / but not that I inhale beauty”) is typical of Bernstein’s appropriation of his own children’s and others’ innocent wisdom. Indeed, in the past few years no other poet I know of has so engaged children’s language and play in the context of philosophical investigation. This poem’s first line calls up an ordinary image of “A black man waiting at a bus stop,” and ends some nine pages later with a similarly everyday “black woman waiting at bus stop.” But in between, through rhyme, oxymoron, and antithesis, it presents us with a world driven by a mad sexual, religious and racial diversity. An adolescent Muslim writes terza rima, a Mongolian imitates Napolean, a Syrian swami appears on Lake Oragami, and a stuttering Iranian is caught up in a blue and gold fog. In its often funny juxtapositions, the poem reveals a strong sense of isolation for its sexual and racial types: there is something terribly sad in the tell-tale somnambulist rehearsing Gypsy followed by “A homosexual child in a taxi.” The diaspora of “In Particular” is oddly unparticular and dehumanizing. In a world where anyone from anywhere does what everyone does everywhere—which we know is the reality of life—there is no longer any need for racial and sexual stereotypes, but neither is there any thing to cling to, is there any identity remaining. In a world in which a Latvian miner break dances with the coroner, it means little to be either a coroner or a person from the country of Latvia. The black man and woman waiting at the bus stop—images which in other hands might have begun a commentary on social conditions—in Bernstein’s poem become images of us all. But as in cartoon drawings titled “What is missing?” we recognize that in this grand cultural and social leveling something perhaps has been lost.

“Thank you for Saying Thank You” is a brilliant satire on those critics who have claimed Bernstein’s poetry and others’ early connection with “Language” writing, in its linguistically probing underpinnings, is without emotion. Like those many poets who drearily argue to be completely understood by their readers through the use of “everyday” language, Bernstein faces the subject head on: “This is a totally accessible poem” Indeed it is. “There is nothing in this poem that is in any way difficult to understand.” As Bernstein argues, the poem expresses “the feelings of the author: my feelings.” The poem is indeed all about “communication” and celebrates—as many an academic and would-be best-seller poet argue for—“the triumph of the human imagination amidst pitfalls & calamities.” But unlike nearly any of his other poems, Bernstein’s “Thank You for Saying Thank You” has utterly no emotion, no soul. Without enigma, obviously, there is no wonderment; without anything left to the imagination of the reader, there is no imagination possible. And without any dogma, ideas, or commitment, the poem is not a poem. It is, just as the author proclaims, “real.” It is not art.

I have long argued that Bernstein writes some of the best love poetry around. “Let’s Just Say” is a good example of that genre—although, as many miss the forest for the trees, some might here miss the subject for the words. The repetition in every line of “Let’s just say” hints that the reader has been plopped down into the middle of some combative discussion in which, since the couple cannot agree, the speaker attempts to find a simpler solution, a ground on which he and the other can begin to build a consensus. But the images following the phrase are anything but simple, are filled with melancholy, insomnia, dreams, hunger, knives in the back, and loss. Yet a sort of peace is reached through language in this short poem: “Let’s just say that mankind suffers its language,” “Let’s just say that little is gained when nothing is lost.” As Bernstein has expressed in his writing time and again, language is necessary, and action needed to be perpetually repeated if there is ever to be the “possibility of rectitude.”

Los Angeles, June 2004