Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For the past couple of days, I’ve been toying in my head with which goofball baseball analogy to employ to start off a review of Alan Bernheimer’s The Spoonlight Institute, just out from Adventures in Poetry & deserving of every award they give to books in next year’s round of awards. My options are:

(a) Alan Bernheimer is the Sandy Koufax of poets, recognized & cherished for the brilliance of his writing although the absolute quantity of that work is rather slender;
(b) Alan Bernheimer is the Bert Blyleven of poets, his mastery of the startling phrase – like Blyleven’s of the curveball – unequaled for all time.
Perhaps I should go with the former. People routinely acknowledge Koufax as the best pitcher who ever lived, even though he won just 165 games (to, say, Cy Young’s 511) & retired at the age of 30. Blyleven’s not even in the Hall of Fame [he made it in 2011], tho it’s easy to make the case that he was a better pitcher than many who are.

What makes these analogies goofy isn’t that they aren’t true – both are – but rather than Bernheimer is one of the last American poets I would think of yoking to a metaphor of baseball. It’s a little like asking which football lineman John Ashbery is most like. It just doesn’t compute.

Not computing is something that Bernheimer does very well. Actually, much better than just very well. “Carapace” is an early poem, predating Bernheimer’s move to the Bay Area in 1976 (it first appeared in Provincetown Poets), but it already shows him to be a master at the effortless slide of metaphor:

The face of a stranger
is a privilege to see
each breath a signature
and the same sunset fifty years later
though familiarity is an education

who likes what most?

high rounded cornices with baby
moon hubcaps played by the wind

electricity travels from time
to time on the surface of these lips

thoroughly tropical pleasure
forms the customary features
combination eyeteeth and semaphore

everything I touch turns
to flesh and vice versa

Most of us, myself included, will go our entire lives without writing a poem half so perfect as that. The first time I read “Carapace,” in Bernheimer’s first book, Celestial Mechanics (one of the last great works of the mimeo revolution), I remember thinking that somebody had just raised the entire stakes of the game. As indeed he had.

Not that Bernheimer is without his influences. He attended Yale in the late 1960s alongside Kit Robinson & Steve Benson, studying literature with Harold Bloom & A. Bartlett Giamatti¹ & poetry with that most unlikely trio of Yale professors, Ted Berrigan, Peter Schjeldahl & Bill Berkson.² While one can, at moments, as in the above, hear the faintest echo of Berkson, Robinson has had the deepest impact over the decades, the two friends collaborating on Cloud Eight, an aspect of Bernheimer’s career that is not represented in The Spoonlight Institute, Also absent is Bernheimer’s translation of Valery Larbaud, The Hamlet of the Bees, first published by Whale Cloth in 1981.

The Spoonlight Institute is in this sense a new & selected: it proceeds roughly in reverse chronological order, starting with a dozen new poems³ written in the decade since Billionesque was published by The Figures. Then come the 14 poems of Billionesque, published in an edition of 350 copies by The Figures in 1999, and essentially including everything written between 1981 & that year. The first 49 pages account thus for over a quarter century of work at roughly one poem per year, omitting only the Cloud Eight collaboration. The poems are brilliant &, perhaps most important, they don’t have the petrified feel one might get with texts that have been labored over for months at a time. Here is “The Opposite of Proust,” the very first poem in the book:

Old families last not three oaks
but stave off elimination
with endless paper and unmatched shoes

seeing film stars everywhere
set big machinery in motion

and never know what to do
in the presence of heartbreak

Could success amount to nothing
more than showing off
particles of the world?

Swaps, caps, floors, and costless dollars –
they’re not real
and too many eggs in that basket
are not performing

Errors approach infinite sparseness
as the Lord raptures your hand
and the way up is rounded and slow

with small lamps at the clearance points
for the unknown relation between objects and beings

Though the gap between “The Opposite of Proust” and “Carapace” is almost certainly over thirty years, the deft hand at correlating image to line is just as sharp. The sense of logic has shifted a little over the decades, a smidgen less surreal than in the mid-seventies, a little closer say to the work of Rae Armantrout, of whom his poems sometimes remind me. As readers of this blog will recognize, that’s about the highest praise I can accord anyone.

The last 59 pages of The Spoonlight Institute, the selected portion, operate somewhat differently. First, Bernheimer flips the order in which volumes of work originally appeared, presenting his edit of Café Isotope, published by The Figures (this time in an edition of 500 copies) in 1980. Fourteen of the 32 poems in the core of that collection have been omitted here, in particular prose poems and those whose lines stray from the left margin. Celestial Mechanics, which is reprinted from its 1978 edition in Café Isotope as a final suite, appears here in exactly the same position, followed then by a taste of State Lounge, originally published by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press in 1981. That volume included just three works, “Passing Strange,” a poem in Bernheimer’s signature style, “Wave Train,” a five-plus page prose poem not included here (but which can be found in In the American Tree), & a 16-page prose work, “State Lounge,” reduced here to just 1½ pages. Finally, Bernheimer includes Particle Arms, his 1982 play for Poets Theater, originally printed in Hills 9 the following year.

If I have any qualm with this edition, it lies with the reduction of so much of Bernheimer’s work in prose. His sense of phrase to line to logic is so powerful that it’s interesting – beyond interesting – to see him try to work without that key element of the verse line functioning as a sort of safety net. You really can’t get a sense of the balance of sentences vs. lines, alternating between italics & roman fonts, in “State Lounge” in less than 5 or 6 pages, and what we have here is a single fork’s worth of a great entree. You catch glimpses of just how good he can be in the dialog of Particle Arms, tho that’s not prose in the usual sense, as it’s written to be voiced & even directed at others on the stage. Consider this passage spoken by Eileen Corder’s character Nyla. Also on stage in the original production were Karp, played by Tom Mandel, and Bunker (possibly Nyla’s ex-), portrayed by Steve Benson, who is attempting to get out of town:

My personality does not evaporate. There are times I need a ballad, but the feeling is not for your amusement. Someone your shape shouldn’t wear those shades. I’m having a hard enough time with underlings without contributions from the bemused. Minerals thrive on benevolent neglect, while biology sheds a tear for the uninvited. You opted for a limited scenario. On-the-job habits become dream metaphors. Now you spend nights touching up days, a little twist here and there, up and down the chain of command.
Anyone who was present at Studio Eremos when Particle Arms was first performed will recall just how riveting it was.

I’ve known Bernheimer for over 30 years, been his upstairs neighbor & worked with him in the computer industry, so I’m not a disinterested party when I argue that The Spoonlight Institute positively glows in the dark with brilliant writing. This is a book we have needed for a very long time, and it’s great to see it here.

¹ A legit baseball reference here. Shakespeare scholar Giamatti went on to become the president of Yale University & then the Commissioner of Baseball. His sons, Marcus & Paul, went into acting, with Paul bringing the family full circle when he played the seminal literary figure Harvey Pekar in American Splendor.

² In 1969, Bernheimer co-edited (with David Watson) an issue of the Yale Literary Magazine that included Berkson, Schjeldahl, Michael Brownstein, Steve Carey, Jim Carroll, Tom Clark, Clark Coolidge, Kenward Elmslie, Larry Fagin, Dick Gallup, James Koller, David Lehman, Phillip Lopate, Ron Padgett, Carter Ratcliffe, Johnny Stanton, Tom Veitch, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Trevor Winkfield & Bill Zavatsky.

³ I’m counting “Directions for Five Poems” as one work, albeit in five sections.