In the Company of Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein is a poet and essayist. FSG published his most recent book All the Whiskey in Heaven in March.
Robert Creeley liked to call those of us who shared his life in, and commitment to, poetry company. Over the last few years, I find the company I keep ever harder to keep up with, just in terms of the sheer and exhilarating range of work. Still, there is nothing I like more than making my way through the wealth of new poetry books, both by younger poets and so many of the poets who have formed my poetic horizon.
In the last few months there have been new poetry books by three of my favorite poets: Leslie Scalapino's Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows (Starcherone), Tan Lin's Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking [AIRPORT NOVEL MUSICAL POEM PAINTING FILM PHOTO HALLUCINATION LANDSCAPE] (Wesleyan), and Myung Mi Kim's Penury (Omnidawn). And in the last few years there have been collected poems by Jack Spicer (Wesleyan), Barbara Guest (Wesleyan), John Ashbery (Library of America), and Philip Whalen (Wesleyan); a collected poems and essays by Robin Blaser (California); as well as selected poems by Nicole Brossard (California), Frank O'Hara (Knopf), and Creeley (California); not to leave out Lydia Davis's Collected Stories (FSG), which may not be poetry but oughtta be (I included a few of Davis's short works in 43 Poets (1984), an anthology published as a special issue of boundary 2).
The book of the year for me is the four-volume Stanford University Press edition of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (Grenier's introduction is online at Sibyl). This immense undertaking puts the awe back in awesome. Eigner is one of the key poets of the "New American Poetry" generation, whose work extends the poetics of the ordinary developed by William Carlos Williams and Charles Reznikoff. Eigner's poems transform everyday language into a calculus that grapples with the gravity (and levity) of experience. His poems are less about any topic than 4-dimensional revelations of particularized moment in time. Since birth, Eigner lived with -- I want to say next to -- the effects of cerebral palsy, which limited his mobility and speech. Confined to wheelchair, he created verbal construcitons that allow readers to experience what Emily Dickinson once called "finite infinity": infinity in a bound space. Using two fingers to type his visually exquisite work, the typewriter grid became fundamental to his sense of measure. Faville and Grenier have kept the typewritter spacing and the 8 1/2 x 11 page for this monumental edition, which is both a labor of love (the editing was a difficult project and the results superb) and a cause for celebration.
Al Filreis and I provide a carnival of voices to the "company" with PennSound, our now gigantic archive of sound recordings (all available free for downloading) at PennSound. Among our recent acquisitions: David Grubbs's acoustic setting of Susan Howe's magnificent last book, Souls of the Labadie Tract (New Directions). & what better extension of the company of poets than poets theater, which ranges from verse drama to multivoice performances to neo-Dada live acts. The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985, edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil, is as engaging as it is capacious, with an extraordinary set of notes in the back, giving detailed information on these often ephemeral works.
With Hank Lazer, I edit the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series for the University of Alabama Press. Among the books we published this year is Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Practice, edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris; I also a contributed an essay to the volume. A recent favorite in the series is Jerome McGann's The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present, where McGann collects several of his paradigmatic essays in dialog (call it critics theater). Our magnum opus is the 2008 edition of Ron Silliman's glorious The Alphabet: 26 long poems that have redefined the epic poem our time.
Finally, two books of my own. Last fall, Duke University Press published a collection of essays (and a few poems) I edited for a special issue of boundary 2 called "American Poetry after 1975." (My introduction is online.) And just last month Chax Press published Umbra a pamphlet of my translations of Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Drummond, Cabral, Royet-Journoud, and others -- many haunted by the company of shadows. Here is my version of an 1847 poem from Victor Hugo's Les Contemplations:
Tomorrow, dawn, when the countryside’s almost white
I’ll depart. You see, I know you’re waiting for me.
I will go by the mountains, I’ll go by the woods.
I can’t be faraway from you any more.
I will be walking with my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without looking around, without hearing a sound,
Alone and unknown, with back bent, with my hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.
Then I won’t look at the golden evening, so grave
Nor at the faraway sails veering toward Harfleur
And when I do get there, I will put on your grave
A green holly bouquet and flowering heather.
Related: Charles Bernstein recently read at New York's Zinc Bar. You can hear a few of his poems below. The full recording and more information can be found at PENNsound.