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Today’s Reading: With Strings, Charles Bernstein

Confessions of a former academic #1: I managed to write a dissertation chapter, and attempted to publish an article, on Charles Bernstein without ever actually reading one of his books from start to finish. I did, however, skim and spot-read enough of them to develop a firm—if not well-tested—theory of the shape of his career: the trenchant, almost proto-conceptualist experimentation of the seventies; the meaty, well-orchestrated, and obliquely hilarious anti-soliloquies of his mature period in the eighties and early nineties; the careless and often merely silly doggerel of his ongoing decline ever since.

Collecting poems written from 1986 to 1999 (with one outlier from 1982), With Strings offers tentative support for parts of this hypothesis. The book includes a remarkable range of different sorts of poetry, but unfortunately only about two that are regularly any good. The best resemble the poems of Bernstein’s high period (I bet)—extended, dissonant symphonies composed from competing modes of discourse, each hollowed out, flipped upside down, and sat on its head by Bernstein’s determined wit. That wit falters more in these apparent out takes than it did (I predict) in the poems that made it into his collections from Controlling Interests through Dark City; but where the humor flags a surprisingly almost-lyrical warmth can step in to take up the slack:

       The song is not in the melody
     but what comes after, in the space between
     cup & lip. For we have been spared nothing –
     but nothing is the one thing we might spare.
     Bobbing & tossing in the crank. midget
     rats invade pluto. This is what I always want-
     ed, to return to the replica of
     the simulation in which I am borne. 

                                   – “Like This”

Excessively spacing these achievements are shorter poems that vary widely in quality. The best are like shorter, more chiseled versions of the long poems. Then there are the hit-or-miss parodies—funny but in ways that seem a bit too easy for a former Language poet—and finally the truly mystifying doggerels and attempted nursery rhymes. So for every poem like “Like This” or “Log Rhythms,” you’ll have to sift through a handful like “O! Li Po!” (which is not atypical in that the title is better than the actual poem):

     My Murphy bed is rusted
     I took it to the store
     They charge me $50
     Won’t see that cash no more

Fortunately, with a few exceptions, the quality of the poems tends to be in direct proportion to their length, so you’ll spend little time sorting out the throwaways and can really settle in with the good stuff. And the good stuff, being close to if not quite Bernstein’s best, is well worth the effort.