Charles Bernstein expresses the aesthetics of Recalculating, his first collection of new poetry in seven years, partially through his translations — not necessarily through how he translates the works, but from what he translates. Lots of Baudelaire, including “Be Drunken” and “Venereal Muse,” and poems by Osip Mandelstam, Apollinaire, Catulus, and the more obscure Velimir Khlebnikov and Regis Bonvicino. Poems of darkness and daring, with the absolute thrust of “Catulus 85” and the Dada sound transformation of Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by Laughter.” Those familiar with Bernstein’s sometimes-confrontational criticism will see a direct connection between what he argues for in poetry and the poetry he translates and includes in this collection. Bernstein celebrates poetry that pushes us.
But for a poet who pushes, Bernstein looks backwards in much of this collection. Along with translating, he imitates, with poems “after” Fernando Pessoa, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Paul Celan, Wordsworth, and others. One could interpret these homages as attempts to prove legitimacy, examples that prove his grasp of the canonized masters. He opens with his homage to Pessoa, the explosive “Autopsychographia,” and “Loneliness in Linden,” his homage to Wallace Stevens, has the quiet, complex beauty of Stevens’s best work: “The measure of the town against a dampening sky/ Cobbling together six million tunes/ Into more than the tones tattoo/ Or their scrambled mosaic forecloses.” There is some truth to the idea that, by demonstrating mastery of the canon, Bernstein earns permission to attack the contemporary mainstream, but taken with the rest of the collection, the homages and translations are part of a grander project, one with no concern for defining and identifying legitimacy.
Other poems in Recalculating focus on the units of poetry: words, phrases, and lines. Bernstein plays with spelling, structure, and construction, including Oulipo-style formulas, to reveal meaning and show us the action of writing poems. They are poems of the idea and of the pen moving across the page. For example, “Last Words: from Sentences My Father Used,” reveals how every poem is actually a stabilized field of potential poems by listing the last words of every line in Bernstein’s own poem, “Sentences My Father Used,” concluding with “recover/ your/ mind/ and/ its/ circular/ transparent/ rectitude.” Where many works of literature explore the despair and freedom of death, the repetitive structure of “Mortality” shows us just how damn annoying death can be, and the receding line in the final poem, “Before You Go,” captures the act of leaving and generates a haunting, strangely beautiful image, “Lie still, who sings this song, bef/ A token, a throw, a truculent pen, be/ Don’t know much, but that I do, b/ Two lane blacktop, undulating light.” Through these poems and others including “I Will Not Write Imitative Poetry,” “Joint Dark Energy Mission,” and “The Most Frequently Used Words in Girly Man,” Bernstein argues there is a communicable value in the action of writing a poem. In the way that Jackson Pollack revealed the beauty and substance of the motion of painting, Bernstein reveals the beauty and substance inherent in the action of writing.
But even with the precise understanding of the units of poetry and construction and his mastery of how others once used those units, Bernstein is at his best writing manifestos. Any one of the long, difficult, didactic poems in this collection could be someone’s moment of intellectual renaissance. “Language is an event of the world, just as, for language users, the world is an event of language. Even the world is a word.” “Poetry is metadata without code, free-base tagging cascading style sheets with undefined markers.” “The truth of the poem is neither the representation nor the expression. Its truth dwells in what has never been and what will never be. Where possibility and impossibility collide, here the poem is forged.” “Writing poems that try to be available, by using familiar styles and subjects, or telling stories, or avoiding complication, doesn’t necessarily make the work more accessible.” “All problems of language are problems of translation.” Standing on the courthouse steps, at the base of a corporate sculpture, in front of an open guitar case littered with discarded change, before shocked students, Bernstein is a brilliant pontificator, profound and angry, committed to a poetry that counts for something.
The brilliance of his manifesto-poems and the key to their success as works of poetry and works of philosophy and politics might be most directly demonstrated in “Strike!” There are many reasons to resist “Strike!” Its content, construction, and exhortation to action can feel like a parody of the Occupy Movement, with a flaccid nostalgia for a time of protest that didn’t change anything. But Bernstein has a point. Over and over again, Bernstein is right. Bernstein’s reasons to strike are damn near definitive. “Strike because even demons are mortal,” “Strike because power is a two-way street with back alleys,/ overpasses, byways, and unexplored tunnels,” “Strike because we criminalize poverty and legalize corporate theft,” “Strike because in order to fully appreciate sitting sometimes you got/ to stand,” and “Strike because the revolution is not an end but a meeting,” The manifesto might not be today’s preferred mode of communication, but Bernstein has something to say, what he has to say is brilliant, and in his manifestos he says it brilliantly.
With translations, imitations, and homages, and with poems of poetry’s motion, and manifestos of politics and poetics, Bernstein has gone beyond a personal anthology of poetics to write a book I struggle to categorize. If you could remove all the term’s negative connotations, all the personal and cultural associations with boredom and restriction, if you could extract the term from the worst of academics and education, you could call Recalculating a textbook. It is the syllabus, the required reading, the example, the supplemental critical exploration, and the challenge. It is a shiv tearing at the fabric of poetry for a glimpse of the poetic future. It is the wall, the empty cans of spray paint, and the graffiti. It is the schematics for every part of the bomb but the fuse; the reader is the fuse. But as explosive as Recalculating is, the image of a bomb isn’t right, for, ultimately Bernstein is not a destroyer but a motivator. At the end ofRecalculating, Bernstein wants you to believe poetry has not met its potential.
The “recalculating” moment happens when we go off course, miss a turn, take a wrong turn, or misinterpret a direction. “Recalculating” is the GPS both following your lead and keeping you on track. It’s a strange kind of modern freedom; no matter how many “wrong” turns you take, no matter how much you wander from the ideal course, the GPS will always lead you to your destination. It’s an odd titular image for a poet defined by defiance, who celebrates what the mainstream rejects, who challenges when others acquiesce, who values difficulty, obscurity, and actual break-a-sweat intellectual poetic engagement when most are content to see poems as postcards. You’d expect Bernstein to throw the GPS out the window. But all the defiance and revolution, all the polemics and pontifications, all the shouting and laughter, come from the same core source; Bernstein’s profound love of poetry. All the wrong turns, all the deviations, all the explorations, all the escapes, they all return to one fundamental idea; poetry is beautiful and poetry is important. And so is Recalculating.
This review originally appeared in Booklslut.