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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Thomas Fink reviews

With Strings by Charles Bernstein. University of Chicago Press, $12.
Source Codes by Susan Wheeler. Salt Publishing, $12.95.

This piece is 1,700 words or about four printed pages long.

There have always been ‘strings attached’ to Charles Bernstein’s poetry, and in With Strings, theoretical strings are ever more explicitly foregrounded. In his opening gambit, ‘In Place of a Preface a Preface,’ Bernstein wishes to ‘go further’ than merely speaking of Barthes’s and Foucault’s ‘death of the author’: he asks whether the text can ‘drop away’ and be replaced by ‘stations, staging sites, or blank points of radical metamorphosis.’ In hoping to turn ‘away from ideality in the pursuit of an ultimate concretion,’ Bernstein, no latter-day imagist, would honor the unassimilable fragment, uncanny relations among fragments within poems and ‘whole’ pieces within the collection. ‘The Throat’ begins: ‘Behind every figure stands another / insisting to be seen; but this is just / a temporary lapse.’ The ‘lapse’ is the norm; the aberrant is at the center. An epigraph from twelfth century poet Giraut de Bornelli, ‘But it’s my creed / That these songs yield / No value at the commencing / Only later, when one earns it,’ is a warning to readers who want lyric, narrative, or philosophical centers laid out for them.

In ‘Notes and Acknowledgements,’  Bernstein speaks of his book as a ‘vortex,’ a ‘modular’ ‘structure,’ ‘with each poem furthering the momentum of the book while curving its arc of attentional energy.’ If for the Vorticists, the individual poem was the locus of such energy, Bernstein views With Strings as ‘a string of interchangeable parts. Political, social, ethical, and textual investigations intermingle, presenting a linguistic echo chamber in which themes, moods, and perceptions are permuted, modulated, reverberated, and further extended.’ In place of a foundation, there is ‘original’ division: ‘Go / blow, go below and examine the hypothesis / as it burns its way into the deep / structurelessness that buoys the / girls and makes men sweep.’ The gender-jangling tropings of these lines from ‘Captain Cappuccino and His Merry Con Leches’ are typical of Bernstein’s ‘fooling with words,’ a wild excess that Bill Moyers could not have contemplated in naming his mainstream series.

Indeed, gooey, goofy humor, especially parody, is a major feature of Bernstein’s ‘echo chamber,’ on the door to which might be emblazoned: ‘Schools are made to be broken.’ This poet never met a pun he didn’t swipe. Like Clark Coolidge, a kindred wit, Bernstein whips up frothy titles — for example, ‘Fiddle of the Rat Faced Men,’ ‘But Pharoah Did Not Listen to Moses,’ ‘Immanuel Can’t but Sammy Can,’ and ‘Max Weber’s Tylenol for Teething.’ ‘From Talk Alone You Don’t Get a Poem’ includes a typically Bernsteinian bit of helpful domestic directions: ‘There are barbells in / the pantry, second shelf above the sag, / then a pound or two later all alone / with just your motor bike for a conscience.’ ‘Like This’ teaches us that ‘Men / are from Macy’s, women are from Gimbel’s.’ Responding to remnants of confessional earnestness in middlebrow contemporary poetry, this poem’s coda stresses the endless ironic spiraling of Baudrillard-style mediation: ‘This is what I always want- / ed, to return to the replica of / the simulation in which I am borne.’ The implied pun in ‘born(e)’ indicates that the contemporary cultural ethos is so loud and dizzying that there is no room for the old nature/culture debate.

With Strings’s long concluding poem, ‘Log Rhythms,’ exemplifies what is strongest and also least satisfying about the book. Bernstein could have done without a silly conversation between a lox and a frown, punctuated at times by symbols for chimes and followed by a pointless list of business establishments all beginning with ‘Bob’s.’ And yet, the poem involves an exhilarating struggle to keep balance on a thin, slippery log of logos. If the poem has a maritime log’s meandering rhythm, no destination is designated; instead, Bernstein offers a funhouse of language where much pertinent dejection — sometimes near hopelessness — is registered about pervasive, often seductive coercions, logarithmic inflations, and affective deflations of everyday life under ‘capitalism,’ which

may not
be destiny but it sure feels like it. Then again, weak
thought may not get us out of here but at least
it doesn’t upset the stomach, while strong
thought is too difficult for its own good —
you can’t leave the theater humming the critique.

Supplying neither ‘weak’ nor ‘strong’ thought but fragments of critique pointing to the presence of both, Bernstein invites us to ‘hum’ with contradictions. Right before ‘the alarm bells sound and / everyone’s dancing to their beat’ — note the pun involving job turf — there is an articulation of how labor is hemmed in to a complicity, not only with management, but with a gigantic system of domination: ‘Nothing suits us like our union suits / unless it be our transnational identification with / the flows of capital, with products not / producers, with UFOs but not ULPs (unfair / labor practices).’ While ‘commodification will never compensate / for the empty package of our liveried lives’ and ‘action is always compromised,’ the poet summons alliteration to preach a ‘Language’ poet’s engagement with linguistic potentials as compensation: ‘Lullabies reproach, laments detract, / the solemn songs delude — let language lead.’ Nevertheless, he knows that louder directives are broadcast to contemporary Prufrocks: ‘Do not grin & fidget, let us / go & make our widgets.’

In Source Codes, her third book, Susan Wheeler exhibits her own fascination with echo chambers. If ‘sources’ are generally supposed to ground interpretation, to provide the proper ‘code,’ for Wheeler, as for Bernstein, the concept of sources is ironized. Her book consists of forty-eight poems with numbers for titles, and, only in the table of contents, those numbers are followed by ‘explanations’ involving sources. The half-exotic, half-cliched cinematic flickerings of the long-lined Poem Sixteen — ‘Juncos light on the air conditioner // Shell of the room where the molls are powdering. How can gills really propel / Them past a pate or two holding forth at the rum punch? His interjected Gills?’ — are ‘explained” by a list of six movies including ‘Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick; King Lear and Weekend by Jean-Luc Goddard’ and ‘California Split by Robert Altman.’ An awareness that the poet uses plot elements and motifs from particular movies does not enable the fragments to coalesce into an overarching plot or ‘picture.’ Instead, as in much ‘postmodern’ work, Wheeler’s juxtapositions of relatively arbitrary selections from pop and high culture facilitate a movement from surface to surface whose strange imbalances give pleasure, especially when linguistic shimmer is cultivated: ‘The gowns glinting in front of the breakfront move // Characteristically. Gowns, they should. Can’t someone explain to her / The sparkling allure of the wager and the winning streak? On your mark —.’

A much more bizarre relation exists between Poem Forty-Two and the ‘explanation,’ ‘Cassius Marcellus Clay/ Sonny Liston bout, February 25, 1964.’ This elegant, anaphoric poem is a string of negative commands that alludes to Dylan Thomas’s famous poem against passive dying:

Do not fell the smallest to spare the tallest.
Do not braid with umbrage the hair of repose.
Do not trifle with holy expectations.
Do not make of me an exception.

Do not bargain fast the last of it.
Do not gentle go within that tower.
Do not splay the legs or tend the sour.
Do not make of me an exception.

Do not fail the one who loves you most.
Do not recognize the incognito.
Do not milk the sow of introspection.
Do not make of me an exception.

Facing this poem, a photo-collage by Wheeler features a man in a black suit and tie whose head and shoulders are almost entirely covered by white cloth standing in front of a statue of Jesus on a large stone pedestal. The book includes twenty-two of her photos. Are they ‘source codes’ for poems, or are the poems sources for them? The juxtaposition of Poem Forty-Two and the photo-collage might encourage interpretation of the text as a jaunty, decentering parody of Jesus’s sermon. If ‘Jesus’ insists that people should not treat him as ‘an exception,’ neither his persecutors nor his followers have listened. After winning the title, Cassius Clay turned into Mohammad Ali and had his ‘holy expectations’ trifled with, as the U.S. government made of him ‘an exception’ in the context of the Vietnam War and Black Power. The poem may be exploring parallel figures of non-conformity advocating for peace, but such a triangulation of poem, explanatory phrase, and photo does not crack the ‘code’ in every line, if one exists.

One final possible cluster of ‘source codes’ should be cited: the book’s three appendices. The ten and a half-pages of Appendix II is a string of HTML commands, perhaps a literal ‘source’ for the encoding of poetry on a screen, but more likely a hoax. If this is a Duchampian move asking us to consider computerese as poetry, I don’t feel like cooperating. The first and third Appendices, on the other hand, are, respectively, ‘source drafts’ from poems in Source Codes and Bag o’ Diamonds, Wheeler’s first book. Some are rather similar to the finished poem, whereas texts like the longhand first version of Two indicates that Wheeler changed a great deal. Once again, though, the relation of ‘source’ to final text reveals no breathtaking truth. To see successive drafts of a Yeats poem suggests how hard Yeats had to work to turn limping verse into song. In Wheeler’s case, we merely note the obvious — that revision involves the often arbitrary substitution of some words and phrases for others.

Fortunately, the appendix gimmick does not overshadow the musical and collagistic strength of various poems in Source Codes, such as Twelve, a wistful meditation on cross-dressing and its audience; Twenty, a passionate nature poem; Twenty-Six, a surreal suggestion of air travel in the midwest; and Forty, a lively staging of efforts to blast through flawed communication: ‘Stop spackling for a minute and listen to me. /I had a dream, and you were its Eve. /The room was leaden from the radiation, /The moths on the curtains put up a racket , /He called himself ironing but his arm was limp.’

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