Charles Bernstein is an important thinker of poetry

Helsingin Sanomat, September 30, 2006

Translated from Finnish by Make Copies

Charles Bernstein: Runouden puolustus. Ed Leevi Lehto. Transl. Leevi Lehto, Markku Into, Teemu Manninen, Tuomas Nevanlinna, Tommi Nuopponen, Aki Salmela. poEsia. 254 p. 18 e.

This collection of translations begins as if a short-circuited, jerking Docent was giving a lecture to the wall – or beating a keyboard: the only aesthetic quality are the typos that keep repeating at regular intervals.

“The problems that I have a word kuetn / nonsenex / exercise in these cases, the Asian equivalent to / your / kirtiikkiäsi to target the term ideobuginen …” [Google’s transl. of the Finnish of Tommi Nupponen – transl.]

No smart ideas, no eloquence of language. The Docent pours out half-digested residue of some incomprehensible academic discourse. Except that even this description supposes too much.

Maybe the text was not produced by a human at all. Its author – the internal or external – may as well be a machine. In this poem, there is absolutely nothing to immerse oneself in.

Immersion, absorption, is the theme of an essay in verse form that included in the selection. As an introduction to the theme, there’s a quotation from the French Cultural Anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Srauss.

The word, “absorber”, means, among other things, to attract, to suck in, to eat, to swallow. Lévi-Strauss divides societies into the ones that practice cannibalism, and those where the social body defecates dangerous individuals into, say, prison.

In many ”primitive” societies, it’s been habitual to absorb, to concretely suck into the organism, the dangerously inclined. With this reference, Bernstein starts the poem’s passage on ”absorption & its oppositions”.

In poetry, ”the body’s narrative” takes place on several levels.

First, it is customary for a poem to absorb into itself elements that resist reading – ideas, images, rhythms, vocabulary, reference. Secondly, the reader either devours or resists the text. Thirdly, the work my, at least at moments, swallow the reader inside it.

It is customary for poetry to absorb elements that resist reading. Contradictory logics, overlaid sound registers, and mutually competing rhythms are the poem’s ways to achieve a corporeal contact with the real.

All texts resist reading to some degree. The author may strive to either one – to facilitating or to preventing [the reader’s] immersion – but there’s no way for him out of the interaction of swallowing and rejecting.

Bernstein speaks about anti-absorption as a tool for a ”stronger” absorption. According to him, textures that are opaque are important in time when many people are suspicious about, say, the transparency effect of traditional novelist discourse.

A language that resists easy immersion makes reading physical. When the word ceases to be a mere vehicle for sense or meaning, its sounding, tasting and visible materiality is revealed.

What, then, is the absorbing and rejecting corporeality of Bernstein poems like?

He himself describes the dynamics of absorption with the help of a sexual analogy: a propensity to interrupt ”strengthens & lengthens desire”, and ecstasy contains elements of “rejection & transpassing”. According to him, they are conditions for a strong sexual pleasure.

A poetic vocation like this promises much. I got mild textual pleasure from a few poems in which the word-meat’s elasticity and rhythmic movements in a playful way combine with a scratching resistance.

These include ”A Flame In Your Heart ( “As slow as Methuselah and as old as / molasses, time passes”) and, in particular, Leevi Lehto’s adaptive translation of ”The Harbor Of Illusion”, ”Lakkaan satamasta”. Pleasure is to be found in a number of other reckless translation experiments as well.

Translations based on the similarity of sound may be curiosities, yet they, in a joyful way, come to emphasize the fact that there’s something in text that is even more essential than their meaningful content. Sound, for example.

Then there are poems in the selection, whose principal way of being seems to be resisting. Of a number poem, you can see that they were originally written against this or that poetical convention or power center.

Even these poems certainly do have their political or poetical relevance, but it would be a pity if poetry were reduced to mere passive-aggressive reacting against the injustices in the literary field.
The selection shows Bernstein to be an important thinker of poetry.

Many of his poems, however, rely too much on the assumption that an interesting poetics would be all you need to write interesting poetry. From a poet, who in his essay emphasizes corporeality, you would expect, say, sensual sentences.

Perhaps someone among his acolytes will take the challenge and write non-absorptive textuality that rejoices in its corporeality. And perhaps even the maestro himself will surprise us – many of the best poems in the selection are, after all, from his two most recent books.