(University of Chicago Press, 2018)
Charles Bernstein abandons us to a strange land of class humor, street lingo, impressions made to provoke, exuberant language that flies into the clouds, and playful jaunts into literary conundrum. It is an invitation to join him on the high wire. Be prepared to bounce and change direction at any moment. He will juggle while crossing, words will fall all around, irreverence even turns toward the lives of poets, exploring their foibles, as meditations over mortality rise. Yet the poet is clear-headed as he somersaults through Near/Miss (2018), a book that is a blast to read. The problem is that we live in muddled times. How can a poet avoid reflecting that? So many beautiful works of art begin in turmoil. We often wander between innocence and guilt. When a poet comes along to plead the human predicament in bold form, it behooves us to pay attention. I did not know that this erudite poet, literary theorist, and professor of poetry would even attract me. His latest book is a guide through puzzles and perplexities. An audacious terrain of tempting, mysterious landscapes call attention to themselves. I am reminded of the concept of poetry as a vast space of emotion, intellect, joy, and fear. Are you part of the pain that exists everywhere? Can you cure? Does William Blake’s lamb and his tyger circle round?
I wonder, does Bernstein use a lot of professorial chalk in the classroom? The ash of old poetry clings to his page. His writing is imbued with the taste of it. What is a “near miss”? Well, for one thing, it is a good book title. But it is also an invitation to twirl on a straight line with the poet at the top of his form. Over many years, I’ve read individual poems and for some time carried around a copy of Rough Trades (1991), a now classic text. It is full of one-liners such as “It’s not where you’re going, it’s where you’ve been.” Titles such as “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree” and “Pockets of Lime” suggest his playfulness. Then there are long ministrations on the state of poetry, which some will find comforting. It is this poet’s way—to be inclusive, mirroring the traffic in the mind.
Near/Miss arrived on my laptop as a work of sound. I had the pleasure of listening to it on an afternoon blessedly free of traffic noise thanks to COVID-19. Even the dog kept quiet. I thought: this manner of becoming familiar with poems works, the poet is the founder of PennSound, the largest compendium of online spoken poetry, and has guided it through the years. In recognizing this I also recognize that Bernstein’s importance extends beyond the poem to poetry as an art and craft that can be heard as well as experienced on the page. Bernstein is well-known for tracking down tapes of readings both lost and forgotten. But whether heard or read, the opening of his new collection, “This is a totally inaccessible poem” toys with the truth, or perhaps, as Emily Dickinson advised, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” When I say, this poet will go as far with a literary treatise as he can before leaving through poetry’s exit, what does that mean?
I listened to Bernstein, and then, late at night, sat with pen in hand and took notes, as much hoping to discover myself as Charles Bernstein. The idea was not far from what I do while writing my own poems. I used to scrawl in book margins; now I use a notebook. And so, I listened, pausing now and then to jot something down. My first Near/Miss note refers to the poem “Thank You For Saying You’re Sorry.” Is Bernstein tackling literary snobbery? He talks about the author of a pristine poem that only a rarefied few may understand. That provoked a further note: Bernstein’s territory is wide open. His mind is fluid and agile, despite his theories, or maybe because of them. Was I referencing his reputation as a critic and one of the founders of Language poetry? I listened, catching phrases that hadn’t sunk in the first time. Who is the “bubblehead” he refers to in a poem about a professor?” For the last few poems I coasted along, and then: “What would I write for a blurb if I had been sent the manuscript?” My last note? What happened is that I felt connected to this poet as if we were old pals, not so far-fetched as I often feel close to poets I’ve just met.
When the book arrived, I had a text before me. How different. I was familiar with Bernstein’s form of expression, able to mentally skateboard down the pages as I turned them. I appreciated more than ever the forthright attitude he has when dealing with poets and poetry. Could I hear swords clanging and shields clattering as he battled with poets at the barricades of ego? What he often seems to do is point out another path. In my mind, now, using my eyes (ears in the back seat), reading Near/Miss brought me to places I had missed when I was relying on my hearing alone. Radical line breaks suddenly provided inroads that had not been there before, especially in “Thank You For Saying You’re Welcome.” Some words are broken, elements and etymologies flying. What can be enticing about seeing the word “reader” as “read-/er: or “coterie” as “co-/ter-/ie?” all for the sake of a skinny poem? Often, because I had heard it so much by this point, his voice intruded on my reading. How do I separate the vocal from the written? Should I bother?
Is the written Charles Bernstein equal to the spoken one? I caught a conversational tone on the page that I had barely noticed in the recording. This poet-professor and author of laudable essays on poetics, was eager to chat when I called him on the phone. “Yeah. I know. All that horizontality. It’s enough to drive you to drink.” He is never obscure and doesn’t need to struggle for ambiguity. “No moment like this / Even this” is one of his shortest complete poems (“Beyond Compare”). I kept going back to it, contrasting it with poems where it seems at least three-quarters of human history had been thrown into the mix. Bernstein has described himself as growing up in the wilds of the Upper West Side. His tone is hardly rural. Can I picture him walking in the deep woods?
The title “Near/Miss” may be understood as a refusal to “fix” the truth. Why not say that truth lies before us? But what we find are only inroads. The sense of surety is consistently undercut, often with a humor bordering on a shtick. “Better truth in the shade than a lie in the sun,” (“Me and My Pharaoh”). This, from a long meditation in which he puts into a poem what is often implied in his essays. What I find particularly appealing is this modern American sentiment, reminiscent of Dickinson’s philosophy, “God has no doctrine, no morality,” and shortly thereafter, “It’s true but I don’t believe it.” He’s not so much a skeptic or agnostic as he is a poet in search of the poem, to set one’s mind free and engage in self- revelation. If there is any sense of the sacred left this is where it lies.