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FROM WITHIN: on Bernstein poetry

I used a line by Charles Bernstein to begin the introduction to Histórias da Guerra: “the politics in a poem has to do with how it / enters the world” (“Sign Under Test”). Finally, Bernstein has arrived in Brazil, South America, a continent that, according to Marcelo Santos, Americans have a “racist, prejudiced and ethnocentric” relationship with.  Santos goes on to argue that, “in general, they refer to Latin Americans as backward, inferior, underdeveloped, barbaric, Catholic, mestizo, antidemocratic, unable to solve their own problems” and, as a result of that, he concludes, “they justify the intervention of the predestined, civilized, white Americans.”[1] The fair price of Latin American resistance to America is paid, paradoxically, by American high culture, specifically its poetry, which, as a whole, is the best of the 20th century along with that of the European avant-garde until the 1920s. Browsing through the culture pages of the major Brazilian dailies would suffice to verify that American movies and pop music are what guide them. It’s enough to turn on the TV or the radio. It’s enough to walk around the city to notice that store with an English name all of a sudden becomes “modern.” It’s enough to attend the yearly edition of FLIP (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty) to find mediocre American fiction writers among the guests. But not all American high culture exempted itself from political “service.” For instance:

Once again, the CIA turned to the private sector to advance its objectives […] Pre-eminent amongst contemporary and avant-garde art museums was the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Its president through most of the 1940s and 1950s was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, had co-founded the museum in 1929 (Nelson called it ‘Mommy’s Museum”‘). Nelson was a keen supporter of Abstract Expressionism, which he referred to as ‘free enterprise painting’.[2]

Saunders adds that for the status quo, abstract expressionism represented an anti-Communist art affiliated with the ideology of freedom and free enterprise because, by being non-figurative, it became silent and convenient. Abstract expressionism was the first American pictorial movement and it acquired international prestige through painters such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), the Armenian-born American Arshile Gorky (104-1948), Philip Guston (1913-1980), who worked with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Clark Coolidge, Willem de Kooning (190401997), and Mark Rothko (1903-1970), among others.

Other than ideological resistance, Bernstein’s poetry meets with resistance in Brazil because of its truly innovative nature, which destabilized the local circuit, nowadays, unfortunately, far removed from its better days. His poetry opens and expands possibilities. Furthermore, the results of his poetry are quite different from what was produced in Brazil under the label of “concretism,” with the exception of a few commonalities that all so-called contemporary pieces may have, such as parataxis, collage, the break with traditional forms of signification, etc. His poetry does not “encounter” the reader—it runs counter to the reader. It is a poetry of “beyonsense,” to use Anne Mack’s expression—a poetry that disappoints the reader by distancing itself from “‘a balance and reconciliation of opposite and discordant qualities.'”[3] She asks, “And why do you expect a ‘comprehensible’ meaning from a poem anyway?”, and she characterizes Bernstein’s poetry as that which “‘censers’ the ‘censors'” so that the reader can imagine a literature that suggests its own interpretations, a literature that makes the production of its ideas tangible through the cuts, sounds and design of the poem on the page. Bernstein does not create poetry as a vehicle of readymade meanings in their usual repertoire. His greatest effort constitutes the creation of possibilities of meaning based on the deconstruction of usual meanings. Mack also notes that for Bernstein meaning does not preexist the poem but rather, it is “created” in language.

João Cabral de Melo Neto used to say that Joan Miró did not paint paintings, but that he painted, period, and that by privileging lines and strokes he broke with the “Renaissance balance” of representation which led other painters to the canvas with preconceived compositions. Cabral defined Miró’s poetry as a “constant dynamic,” with no aspirations of becoming a grammar, something that can also be said about Bernstein’s poetry. That’s why I decided to focus on Bernstein the poet, and not the exceptional literary critic or leader of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement launched by him and Bruce Andrews in 1978 in New York and which quickly enlisted some of the best American living poets: Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Michael Palmer—along with John Ashbery, who was initially inspired by French writing and surrealism. And today Charles Bernstein is not only a world-renowned poet but also one of the best in the United States, if we don’t consider official figures of the English-speaking world such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Louise Gluck, Anne Carson, Frank Bidart, Paul Muldoon ou C.D. Wright, not to mention a mummified Jorie Graham, the “queen” of official poetry. Bernstein, at 58, however, still has no access to the pages of The New Yorker or the The New York Review of Books. I do not want to dwell the issue of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement because, like any movement, it was diluted by hundreds of imitators, and it became a club in which a self- or mutual congratulation prevailed uncritically, although the term “language poetry” is still a “dirty word” and the movement in fact reconfigured and made American poetry richer. The Finnish poet Leevi Lehto reminds us that for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry group, Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept that “language determines reality” was key. And he adds, “that’s why L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was an American phenomenon which could not be mechanically transferred to other literary arenas, concluding that its influence occurs as a stimulus for other poetries to think themselves as language and as a “uncommonplace.” This observation is very apropos in a country such as Brazil, where “influence,” as Paulo Franchetti has noted, becomes a matter of “pride.”

Bernstein’s oeuvre is vast. As translation strategy, I decided to quickly sketch his beginnings and his present, drawing from With Strings (2001) and especially Girly Man (2006). The Sophist (1987) is considered one of the most important books of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. In the post-9/11 Bernstein, the Bernstein of Girly Man, the locked combat against the “I” and its clichés (“Sentences”), the fight against the culture of the flaccid post-World War II free verse, the “disagreement” with the reader give way to urgency and to aphorisms that—paradoxically—are direct, and to poems such as “War Stories”: “War is surrealism without art.” When I translated the poem, I noted a certain hesitation with respect to the Iraq invasion in 2003, which was perhaps due to Bush’s satanic injunction: “Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” The poem was written soon after the invasion, and I opted to translate “War is an excuse for lots of bad antiwar poetry” for “A guerra é um poema ambíguo, que tenta desqualificar a crítica da guerra” (literally, “War is an ambiguous poem that tries to disqualify critiques of the war”). At that time, for Americans to take a stance against the war (the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) entailed —to a certain extent—a legitimizing of terrorism, although the impasse reveals, in the leftist author, the traces of American “manifest destiny,” and in the translator, the Latin American “rebel.” The poem is a panel of American culture under the pretext of tackling yet another war: “War is an SUV for every soccer Pop and social Mom.” And I should note, in passing, that senator Barack Obama voted against the invasion. And that the United States became a terrorist state, as was seen in Abu Graib and Guantánamo.

Half of Bernstein’s poetry is decidedly American. I tried in vain to translate “The Ballad of the Girly Man,” which in English flows so smoothly. The author himself explained my lack of success thus: “As you know, a poem like that is so culturally specific, in this case local American culture is not an export product” (Letter dated March 14, 2007). The title Girly Man was an expression used by the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger during the Iraq invasion saying that, “only a girly man is against the war.” I tried to translate a number (although not all) of the devices used by the author of With Strings: the prose poem, the poem crafted like a sculpture (“For”), the ones that dialogue with popular culture, the lyric poem (“Rain Is Local”) and a zaum poem (“Use No Flukes”), zaum being the word used by the Russian futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh to describe their sound poetry experiments. I am not a “translator,” but rather a poet in dialogue with another poet, hence the liberties I took in the body of the translations.

The literary critic Marjorie Perloff—a great admirer of Bernstein and who has written several essays on his work—notes that Bernstein’s poetry makes language work from within.  In this respect, I hope not to have cheated the Brazilian reader.


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[1] O poder norte-americano e a América Latina no pós-Guerra Fria, São Paulo, Annablume, 2007.

[2] Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London, Granta Books, 1999.

[3] Anne Mack, J. J. Rome & Georg Mannejc, “Private Enigmas and Critical Functions, with Particular Reference to the Writing of Charles Bernstein”, New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 2, 1991.

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