“Orphaned by the World”: On Recent Bernstein

Charles Bernstein’s new poem, “Recalculating,” starts out as one of the lazy-seeming grab bags of aphorisms to which he’s recently been prone, whenever he’s not writing weird doggerel instead. It has all the usual usuals—the hackneyed semicontemporary references (see the title), the weak twists on familiar clichés (“Information wants to be free—from personification”), the played-out metacommentary (“The poem is a constant transformation of itself”). But then it starts to feature something not so usual: frank, agonizing passages about the tragic suicide of Bernstein’s daughter, Emma Bee Bernstein—or more so about the poet’s own process of mourning that death.

I think of Emma climbing the icy rocks of our imagined world and taking a fatal misstep, one that in the past she could have easily managed, then tumbling, tumbling; in my mind she is yet still in free fall, but I know all too well she hit the ground hard.

The hardest thing is not to look back, the endless if onlys, the uninvited what could have beens. I live not with foreknowledge but consequences; wishing I had foreknowledge, suffering the consequences of not.

Its startling candor aside, there’s nothing so exceptional about this passage, nothing especially poetic in its phrasing or beyond the normal, unnormalizable course of mourning in its content. But, partly by virtue of that very plainness, its sudden appearance transforms the poem. Suddenly all the seeming jabber belongs not just to the language or to a well-established poet but to a human mind, a mind like any other, grappling not only with this fresh loss but with the endless struggle of just existing, whose self-reflexive and seemingly compulsive dialoguing about poetry and politics is and always has been, after all, part of that struggle to make the world endurable for itself and all that it cares for.

Following that revelation, there’s real pathos in hokey one-liners like “That’s no phallus, that’s the election of my impotence, writ large,” or “I love art so much… but it never returns the favor”; and it’s a pathos that’s only heightened by the lines’ weakness, by the way they enact the impotence they talk about. In fact, it’s exactly this sense of existential disability, of shared helplessness in the face of unalterable reality, that has always been the subtext of Bernstein’s thought, all the way back to his discussions of dysraphism (a type of birth defect) as a poetic device in the 1980s. It may be only now, though, in the experience of personal tragedy, that Bernstein is able to fully articulate the emotional resonance underlying what has always come across more as an intellectual credo.

Not to “get over” (as a disease) but as a way of “living with” (as a condition).

I can’t and don’t want to “heal”; perhaps, though, go on in the full force of my disabilities, coexisting with a brokenness that cannot be accommodated, in the dark.

So much of what we can’t imagine we are forced to experience. And even then we can’t imagine it.
It makes me want to reevaluate a lot of Bernstein’s recent work, to see if his apparent self-judgment in this poem isn’t far too harsh: “He had the honeyed lips of someone who’d been in poetry too long, whose idealism had years ago become a manner of speech and whose only aesthetic aspirations were for a revival of the ideas he had rejected in his youth…” Or, even if that’s in some sense the truth, to see if there isn’t some poetry to be wrung from that specific form of a universal brokenness.