“A Commitment to the Sentence”
Reads the Roses at Poet’s House
Commentary on Hello, the Roses (NY: New Directions, 2013).
Hearing Mei-mei Berssenbrugge read a week ago at Poet’s House in New York from her new book, Hello, the Roses, reminded me of the very first time I “got” what she was doing with poetry and the sentence. That first time was not the first time I heard her read, I admit -- which was during a crazy book party before 200 people when We Who Loved to Be Astonished came out. No, that frenzied if fun fete was full of luminaries -- i.e., Bernstein, Silliman, DuPlessis -- the A-list in American poetry eating Fordham University cookies – joined by major poetry critics, like Charles Altieri, who had flown out from Berkeley to introduce Berssenbrugge's reading for that long-ago event. In the wash of my fatigue and excitement and the luminous bright lights, Bersenbrugge’s words -- so delicately chiseled -- were lost to my ears and poetry brain upon that occasion.
It was a bit later, at the old Dixon Place -- in a darkened quiet theater -- that I first “met” her words and they met me. Upon that tranquil stage, my ears could now hear Berssenbrugge’s words as parsed into winding gorgeous sentences, whose relationships one to the other cast themselves metonymically forward, like a skein of cashmire yarn entangled and enveloped and also warming me with strong resonance. Berssenbrugge stood in a single spotlight that Dixon Place evening also long ago. And the sparse but attentive audience was all “hush.” Phrases radiated out from Berssenbrugge’s singular light, toppling over and about themselves, melding into other words … the yarn spilling colors of a Southwest mesa or a ravine or sunset but arrived at with hands and voice fully guiding them through spools of relations upon / toward relations.
Desires like threads leading like desire -- “to know” an audience, as one’s “selves.”
Quiet-time, like the best dream – this was my initiation.
I was lead by some of the same majestic yarns threading amidst new loops and swings against their relationship with plants, animals, and especially “the roses” during this Poet’s House reading Nov. 5. The concept of “relation(s)” has grown in Berssenbrugge’s new work. Hello, the Roses is – as in all Berssenbrugge’s work since Empathy -- a book about the inter-connectivity of human “be-ing” in a subjectivity that refuses to privilege “subject” by creating of “other” any “object.” In Hello, the Roses human “be-ing” is clearly being in relation to one’s environment. What is Berssenbrugge’s special brand of eco-poetics -- or “environmental poetics,” as James Sherry calls it -- addresses and also creates subjects without objectified objects. More and more, Berssenbrugge’s poetry seems to be an inquiry into the imagination’s roping of the human be-ing thinking about human experience -- as a byproduct or experience of words-in-sentences themselves. Both highly constructed but completely plainspoken, colloquial and direct, Hello, the Roses relays potential paradigms of thought, memory and language as they make up their portions of a given reality – a reality in which conceptual hierarchies do not exist, in which time and space do not exist, at least not as linear sequences or erroneous separations.
And yet splicings and divisions – between this and that – DO exist in Berssenbrugge’s poetry in Hello, the Roses: in and within the boundary of human skin and its aura energetically touching and communicating with/against that of (other) animals, plants, or representations of earth’s formations (volcanic basalt, ridges in the desert floor). In the spatialized openings up of those boundaries, Berssenbrugge’s sentences thread themselves in order to create “expressions” of connection. Here lies the power of authentic poetic agency and the expressivity of “belonging” – to a poetry built from lines populated by finches, polar bears, flowers, arroyos, or “shade… with no edge between space, grass” (4).
Those splicings and divisions of experience are perhaps best metaphorized by the rationale of “the roses” themselves, whose title phrase engulfs the book’s observing wit:
“a summer rose, whitish on the outside of each petal and pink inside, expressing its gestalt visuality” … also, the different logic of “tiny white rosettes… the whole bush… a glory of feathery pink seed heads.” (51)
What I heard in “the roses” meta-image at last week’s reading were the sentences that behave more like unfolding petals than sequences of syntactic order. “Roses” are the sentences that pile line upon line, to layer the multiple dimensions whose “realities” do not cancel one another out but, instead, mutate one to the other – and also exist simultaneously -- without calling “the other” the other.
Hello, the Roses (I now have the book in my hands – gorgeous book, with a cover by artist Richard Tuttle) literally and figurally BOTH AT ONCE opens spaces that might exist within words strung together to form lines and yet do not form singular referents as in traditional syntax. Its sentences forming poetic lines generate their linguistic forms – to put this another way -- without closing up meaning through pre-ordained structures. They make circuits, instead, out of grammar, “circuits” that, once again, re-generate form. These are very energetic, electric sentences!
In their garden images, these are not still-life forms. They are living, breathing, adaptive ones (not "dead nature," nature mort, the French phrase for still life).
I listen to a book that makes ”room for my experience, as in a clearing filled….” (55).
A book in which “An experience is not one experience” (27) … This phrase comes from the poem “Winter Whites,” in which we are told “memory widens its focus” and that all “experience” (read, “poem”) is tangled or woven together, yet full of nuances that formalize the single fabric that is the structure of the poem itself. “Repeating becomes more like an associative process,” and “be-ing” now shifts its verbal weave into collapsing moments, recognizing: “I can’t depend on an event so thinking of it…/ And memory doesn’t end where my skin ends, but diffuses into my surroundings….” (27).
The only “time” is in the sentence phrase, the “moment” when those very singularities of “experience” are addressed.
In this book is a planting that makes a “nervous” kind of garden. It makes open-spaced “room” not for “the roses” per se, or live flora and fauna. It makes room for the letters of their stand-in verbal notations etched firmly on paper, in rows and rows of lines and lines that bud out and aren’t mimicry but are appreciative of “the sentence” -- firm and foundational.
A garden takes the shape of this harmony, fragrance through which my intention
Weaves for flowers to keep their equilibrium of blossoming together last summer,
One extending the other in wavelength as color. (“Verdant Heart,” 55)
To end on a wavelength as color. -- Laura Hinton
After Berssenbrugge read from her new book, Professor Altieri of UC Berkeley was on hand to respond to her reading. He started with a short commentary and then began to ask her questions Below is part of their exchange:
CA: I want to characterize your originality as the relation to the field in your work that an object sets up, so that feeling and thinking and being one and being many all move into one another. Imagine the radicalness of this! You have no sense of artificial fiction making in your poetry; and this sense is radical, it seems to me, and powerful.
You refuse in your poetry to do well on or in constructed fictive situations. Instead, everything is in the present tense of actual thinking and inhabiting.
The location of feeling is not in the fictive imagination in your work, but in the continuities of fictiveness, and the situations as they emerge. Your work is therefore quite revolutionary. How to you feel about being a revolutionary? How do you regard your originality as a poet? How to you relate to other writing, when you’re in such an original space of writing that you yourself are exploring? Does other writing irritate you?
To put it another way: How do you inhabit the space of literary conventions, in your refusal of artifice? The self is neither an empty hole, nor a defensive armor protected by irony – because there is never this situation that the self depends on. The self is as fluid as the world.
MB: I think that’s true, that the self is fluid. The interesting thing about other writing for me is that, in fact, most of my work is appropriated. So I get to my poems by reading other writing.
CA: What kind of writing?
MB: I read philosophy and other books, I make notes. I copy them and I put them out on a table. Maybe I read some Lacan, or I read some Buddhist text – your books I read. I make the notes and when I put them on the table I make a map of the poem. More and more I change the notes as I put them together. That assemblage is what the poem becomes. The voices also influence my notes.
CA: So the present world expands into the notes themselves?
MB: Yes, they make an armature for me, so that I don’t have to fall into what you say is “a fiction.” I don’t have to have a “story,” and I can stay suspended above the notes.
CA: One of the biographical facts about you as a writer is that you are very much a part of the art world as well as the literary world. How do you imagine that visual art feeds you work? Like the concept of armature, does the visual art world provide a certain kind of genesis that the poetry world might not?
MB: I think that seeing is something very significant. I depend upon seeing – a landscape, a work of art. It’s another way of putting things together without the narrative. Also, perceiving is something we do in our physical life…it’s a way of learning. But I’m also wondering if seeing is a way of expressing. That’s what I’m grappling with now – seeing can be a way of expressing. Yes, visual art is very important to me….
CA: Can you say more about the visual art? Does where “you” stand become part of the energy of perception in a poem? Maybe it’s like wearing clothes? Let me put it another way: If you can talk to a rose, can you talk to a dress?
MB: Yes. [Laughter.]
CA: So the proximity of those things through perception becomes the possibility of a certain kind of conversation. The other domain I wanted to ask you about concerns form. Where does formal attention become the focal dimension of your work? Obviously, from hearing you read, it sounds crucial. But I don’t see it, for example -- the armature of rhythm. I don’t hear it, at least. Instead, I hear the reliance upon sentence, the grouping of lines into sentences, which seems to prevail over the importance of the image, producing balances. What are the conditions of formal satisfaction for you when you write a certain poem?
MB: I made a commitment to the sentence when I was very young. That distinguished me from many people I knew. But I was also interested in the same qualities of abstraction that other people were interested in around me. And also, because I’ve listened to so much classical music all my life, I’ve internalized extensions of musical lines. I use the sentence as a line. It’s not a piece of prose. It has a rhythm of the line, the music of the line – it’s just a line that is more extended. Part of this quality of the line comes from my natural sense of the physical world. It is my experience of Western landscape. The sentence is a line, a rhythmic poetic line. And I hold it together sometimes with internal rhymes.
CA: One last short question: How do you imagine the three parts of Hello, the Roses working together?
MB: The first part of the book is about struggling. I needed that section to be by itself, because it doesn’t fit well into the last two-thirds of the book. I decided to put my beloved plants in the middle section. Then, the last section of the book is trying to move out from the plants into larger consciousness.
PHOTO: Charles Altieri and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in dialogue at Poet's House (courtesy of Laura Hinton's I-Phone). Thank you to Poet's House for their support of this post.