Ron Silliman (from Silliman's Blog)

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Reading “In Particular,” the first of the four poems gathered into Let’s Just Say, an intensely beautiful chapbook by Charles Bernstein just out from Chax Press, I remembered listening to Charles read the poem aloud last fall at The New School as part of the launch activities for Short Fuse: The Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry, edited by Todd Swift & Phil Norton, where the poem first appeared.

At the time I remember being struck, as I have on other occasions when I’ve heard Charles read, especially over the past decade, at the degree to which Bernstein reminds me of the late Allen Ginsberg. They’re very different people, poets & readers, of course, but what they share in common is a fundamentally satiric approach to their art, an approach that, it seems to me, is not always understood or appreciated as such. In part, I suppose, that’s because our culture – Official Verse Culture as Charles would say (OVC), tho the issue extends beyond just that slice of the aesthetic torte – tends to devalue satire. But this similarity also is because each poet ultimately has proven so important to the history of American letters that their presence & influence can’t be understated. One way not to understate their importance, by this convoluted logic, is to understate the role of the comedic in their work. They’re hardly the first writers to suffer this misimpression – you have to wade through a lot of critical worshipfulness to reach the clowning in Pound or Joyce as well & a lot of readers still don’t get it in Olson.

Bernstein has inoculated himself from this problem partly by approaching the problem as Stein did, foregrounding humor. But he has also inoculated himself from the one problem that Stein in her lifetime never solved – not being taken seriously – through as judicious a management of OVC institutions as any poet in my generation.* Bernstein Amid the Bureaucracies will someday make for a fascinating exploration of the social structures surrounding verse at the end of the 20th century & start of the next. And it should be noted that Charles was careful not to foreground humor too often too early in his career. Whether one reads the narrative of publication as one of evolution, Bernstein becoming more of a comic over time, or one of the careful sequencing of disclosure as to just how funny he is, Bernstein is now clearly in a position to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. For an artist, that is as close to a perfect situation as one could imagine.

“In Particular” is a poem of 107 lines, virtually every one of which consists entirely of a complex noun phrase involving a person. Here is the opening passage, revised slightly from the version that appeared in Short Fuse:

A black man waiting at a bus stop
A white woman sitting on a stool
A Filipino eating a potato
A Mexican boy putting on shoes
A Hindu hiding in igloo
A fat girl in blue blouse
A Christian lady with toupee
A Chinese mother walking across a bridge
A Pakistani eating pastrami
A provincial walking on the peninsula
A Eurasian boy on a cell phone
An Arab with umbrella
A Southerner taking off a backpack
An Italian detonating a land mine
A barbarian with beret
A Lebanese guy in limousine
A Jew watering petunias
A Yugoslavian man at a hanging
A Sunni boy on scooter
A Floridian climbing a fountain
A Beatnik writing a limerick
A Caucasian woman dreaming of indecision
A Puerto Rican child floating on a balloon
An Indian fellow gliding on three-wheeled bike
An Armenian rowing to Amenia
An Irish lad with scythe
A Bangladeshi muttering questions
A worker wading in puddles
A Japanese rollerblader fixing a blend
A Burmese tailor watching his trailer

The last two lines of the poem reiterate in inverted form (but with the gender of the figures switched) the first two above.** While each line presents a complete image, if not statement, there are no predicates here – essentially the same formula as Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps. But where my 1978 prose poem focused on the question of what happens to predication & action when the verb is absent, Bernstein, by virtue of a much stricter parallelism, focuses instead on the construction of figures, one might say of social personhood.

Bernstein first begins to reveal his strategy to the reader in the fifth line, an incongruous juxtaposition of a Hindu “in (article absent) igloo.” The lines aren’t depictive, but representative, specifically of categories & structures. It very quickly becomes evident that each element in these seemingly simple ensembles is built up out of a repertoire of social codes that can fit together with the substitutability of a child’s toy – insert your favorite image of Legos, Tinker Toys or Mr. (or Mrs.) Potato Head here. Yet the humor rises precisely where (& how, & why) terms aren’t infinitely interchangeable. The presumed social neutrality – the “purity” – of syntactic structures becomes clotted, clouded & lumpy as the real world, with all of its biases & complex schema of race, class, age, body type, religion or what have you attempt to pass through it. This literally is the content of the two epigrams that head up the body of Bernstein’s text, the first from his son Felix:

I admit that beauty inhales me
but not that I inhale beauty

& the second ascribed to “the genie in the candy store”:

My lack of nothingness

Bernstein’s point, to the degree that a comic poem can be characterized as didactic, is that Chomsky’s infamous impossible sentence, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” becomes such in the everyday world – the sentence has long been shown to be meaningful within the realm of poetry – not for reasons of grammar, but reasons of society.

* Admittedly, Bernstein has not had as tough a problem in this regard. Stein seriousness was discounted because she foregrounded humor, but also because of her gender & sexual orientation.

** It would be a whole other discussion, although one worth having, to consider whether such a gesture toward symmetry – really a bracketing effect – constitutes real closure, a gesture toward closure or even possibly a satire of it.