This article was written on 01 Sep 2013, and is filled under Literature.

On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, The Roses

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new book offers what I take to be an original way of reconciling realism and lyricism and, through that, finding roles for a lyric “I” that is not marked by lack or need or demand.  It is simply another fact, and another mode for building the relationships of care on which lyricism is grounded.

For these brief remarks I will have to focus on only one section of one poem, “DJ Frogs,” although it must be noted that other poems produce considerable variety for the principles I will try to establish:

We stand in a vernal marsh surrounded by spring peepers so loud I feel like a
tuning fork vibrating.
The half-moon rising over trees sends shadows across water in complexities of
light reflections, of opaque grasses, skunk cabbage, violet, indigo streaming into
saturation like blowing sand.
Why don’t we enjoy night more often?
A density of peepers, bull frogs, crickets, cicadas rounds the corner of my hearing.
Where rhythm should be there’s space around an expected beat that I don’t hear;
my pulse falls through subtracted space.
It’s not a communication break-down or break in feeling; it’s abstract.
Frogs communicate para-acoustically with the future, grabbing the potential beat
(silence) and materializing it from far off in light years.
High frequency animal noise is presence; discontinuity of hearing and future
alternates across gaps as variations in cone purples formally thought of as
gradual from tadpole or imago.
Wind, heartbeat, object falling into water, perception merges with the surface.
You open your hand near my face, a warmth like infrared, on two tiny frogs with
shining black eyes.
Any event has this invisible thickness, its other dimensions.
Where dark sky fills with breezes, currents, moisture, dust particles and so forth,
a parallel vault moves (as clouds merge and fuse) to form our psychological
climate, a growth medium, like creativity in a dream rummaging through nights
in the future for data.
Spaces fuse; skin takes on crickets, tree frogs; owls take on polyrhythms, magic
And its overlaps.
I like listening to night creatures and trying to bring elements into a composition
In which any sound can be used by the breakbeat for any thing.

One’s first question might be, where is the poetry here?  There is a situation and a speaker and a “you,” but nothing very much happens among them.  And the details obviously do not stretch toward lyricism or even toward the metaphoricity that issues from particulars as they expand their fields of resonance.  These lines are a striking example of what Oren Izenberg calls anti-artifactuality, which many contemporary poets think is necessary to break down the self-congratulatory displays of sensibility and sensitivity typically pursued by high-culture poetry in the West.  But then the test becomes what Berssenbrugge can put in the place of such displays.  She is patently not interested in the anti-absorptive, disseminating play of language, nor in any kind of aporia.  This poetry is adamant about making sense.  Indeed its anti-artifactuality stems not from lack of plain sense but from the density of details and abstract complexity of the relations into which the details enter.  Yet Berssenbrugge is also no Reznikoff, or from a later generation, no Schuyler.  The details do not comprise the poet’s world; they comprise the modes of relatedness that constitute the thinkability of the poet’s world as sustaining particular fascinations and abstract projections.

Perhaps it is most accurate to say that Hello, the Roses is Romantic poetry minus the symbolism and the rhetorical effusions that allow the self to merge with the force raising the objects of perception to the symbolic register.  But what is Romantic poetry without its symbols and the rhetorical energies they call forth—whether these energies solicit the egotistical sublime or Keatsian absorption in death and loss?  Traditional names are not going to help here.  We need to list the dominant qualities of these poems and then let those qualities suffice for our interests in naming.

The first quality is this proliferation of details moving from intimate moments to difficult abstractions, which puts consciousness ineluctably in a world, while resisting metaphor and symbol as claims for some kind of higher consciousness brought into play by the desiring ego.  Berssenbrugge seems never to have met a noun that she did not want to put in a poem. The other qualities involve complex sets of interrelationships among those details.  The second quality is how form becomes a matter of weights among phrases created largely by the differing length of line units.  The sentences read as prose, but a prose so insistent on being in the world and feeling the different textures of this world that it seems to take on the ontological density dreamed of by poetry.  Third, Berssenbrugge uses abstraction like no other poet I know because of its continuity with the world of perception.  The poem is simply the work of a mind alive to the possibilities of its own attentiveness.  The line “It’s not a communication break-down or break in feeling; it’s abstract” opens possible feelings for the functions of “tuning forks,”[i] “saturation,” “space,” and “subtracted space,” and then six of the last eight units offer an impersonal perspective stressing modalities of perception that are themselves abstract building blocks of the scene.  In these passages abstraction fuses with fact, and in so doing, gives the mind a home that it need not fight for or worry about: mental work constitutes simply one form for completing sensation.

Indeed the presence of so much abstraction gives considerable metaphoric reach to the role of “space” in the poem without aligning space with any given metaphorical register.  An intense physicality of space is created first by the sound of the frogs (as disk jockeys playing various records), then the play of light “streaming into saturation,” then night itself, then the strange figure of “the density of peepers … rounds the corner of my hearing.”  And then the space turns in on itself to create something like an additional dimension composed by thinking, and listening to the poem offer the rhyme of “subtracted space” with “abstract.”  Following this play on spaces, the poem works to build a new space in which it can observe both “Wind, heartbeat, object falling into the water,” and make of that conjunction a realization of how the abstract sense of “perception merges with the surface.”  On this basis the reach of the final units into “other dimensions” seems simply continuous with the order of perception, while beautifully moving out to psychological climate, back to dream that desires, and then to “polyrhythms”—at once utterly concrete as sound and utterly abstract as the mind’s gathering of those sounds.  The poem’s metaphoric reach is not symbolized; it is simply named—another noun for the space of perception that becomes that space.

Finally I want to comment on the poem’s use of personal pronouns.  I had to read these lines several times to even notice that “I,” “we,” and “you” all play their part.  And their part is simply to gather perceptions and note the impact so that the event might be a focus for quiet transformations in the scene.  The personal seems a mode of conduction that allows care to flourish without calling much attention to the personal features of the one caring.  This is why pronouns can suffice.  But imagine the poem without these pronouns, and you will have a powerful contrast indicating what roles humans can play in establishing these other dimensions for the event.  Each time a personal pronoun occurs, it brings what I think are the only metaphors and similes in most of the poem.  The similes when “I” occurs establish great figures of invested activity that nonetheless can be completely absorbed into the scene, without the kind of residue or lack that indicates the psychoanalyst may be not be far behind. And the emergence of “you” is even better. “You open your hand” offers a lovely contrast. It switches intimate perceptual densities that climax in the image of a couple of tiny black frogs with shining eyes, which magically reflects what all intimate gestures among couples might feel like, while anchoring Eros in continuity with the frog’s world—another dimension indeed. “I like” introduces a stunningly quiet passage. It identifies the “I” with the operator of similes, while allowing the simplicity and control of approval to provide satisfied acceptance of anything the scene or the “composition” might open into.  An affective tone is set for an endless proliferation of those nouns.

I cannot forget that this is only the opening section of the poem.  How it folds into a more complicated and expansive composition of the whole will have to be the topic of another post.

-Charles Altieri


[i] Had I space, it would be interesting to compare Berssenbrugge’s materialization of consciousness by such figures as the tuning fork, a function that many beings can be said to share, with the speculations of object-oriented ontology.

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