I LOVE ARTISTS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by MEI-MEI BERSSENBRUGGETHOMAS FINK Reviews
I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
(University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006)
I Love Artists, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s New and Selected Poems gathers work from a 32 year span. The straightforward writing of her first book, Summits Move with the Tide (1974), published when she was 27, is represented by two poems that introduce an enduring interest in the perception of nature—often in the landscape of the southwest, where she has lived since then: “You go to the mountains/ stretch in the light aquariums/ and wait—/ stillness turns in its well” (“Perpetual Motion,” 4). The relationship of impressions of stasis and actual natural movement in this passage is further developed and questioned in later work. The idea that “the summit moves with the tide” (5) is interesting, but it took Berssenbrugge a while to learn how to make full use of such inventive observations in the context of a more complex poetic flux.
“Chronicle,” which conveys ancestral memories, and “The Constellation Quilt,” an account of a domestic patterning of astral mythology, collected from Random Possession (1979), follow the first book’s narrative impulse. However, “The Reservoir” and sections from “The Field for Blue Corn” show the poet trusting herself to encapsulate some degree of meditative drift about nature and other subjects in longer, looser poems.
The title-poem of The Heat Bird (1983) indicates a point of transition between Berssenbrugge’s early style and her signature mode. Lines, though not nearly as long as in later books, all of which have a necessarily horizontal rather than vertical format, are considerably longer than in the first two books. Even though the bird that the poet has mysteriously encountered is a presence in nearly all of the ten sections, the story of trying to characterize it is enmeshed with representations of other sensory experiences in nature, uncertain contact with a possible lover, a desire “to learn how/ to dance” (18), and most dramatically, radiation in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated: “And I can’t predict your trauma. Potent and careless/ as radiation here, which we call careless, because/ we don’t suspect anything” (17). Perhaps scientists’ deliberate pollution of the environment has forced the “bird” to absorb “heat.”
With Empathy (1989), Berssenbrugge establishes patterns that have endured for the last seventeen years: extremely long lines (sometimes in single-line stanzas), very abstract language that can be scientific, psychological, philosophical, theological, etc. interspersed unpredictably with highly sensory imagery, recurrence of motifs but a thwarting of narrative flow, and a title that refers to one thematic aspect but does not unlock the poem’s “meaning.” Further, poems tend to have several sections that span three to ten pages. Multiple “themes” are never laid out in an orderly, essayistic way. Usually, aphorisms knock against concrete observations without quite yielding their precise relation yet not seeming nonsensical.
In “Alakanak Break-Up,” the longest poem culled from Empathy, a witnessed transformation of “ice” into “foam” (30) occasions extended consideration of how an individual’s perceptual encounters with nature develop. The remarkable opening lines exemplify the “magic” of environmental processes: “To find out the temperature, she tosses a cup of water into the air,/ because it will evaporate before it hits the ground.” In the perceiver’s contact with “the event horizon,” active selection of focus is a necessary antidote to an “infinity” of sensory information that encourages undifferentiated seeing/thinking in such a scape: “You can focus on a cone-shaped rock/ in the bay. You can make it larger and closer than the ice/ surrounding it, because you have the power to coax the target./ This breaks up you settlement in a stretch of infinity” (31). Berssenbrugge goes on to include, without transitions, various other contexts of perception, including car and perhaps airplane travel. At one point, “you are a blur of speed concentrating on heading in one direction” (32), whereas, at another, “you look/ down on a break-up of little clouds over the plain, as if the house/ you are in suddenly rises, to relieve the nervous pressure of light” (37).
Berssenbrugge’s interest in multiple perspectives is not solely tied to nature but also to the social realm; it includes open-ended speculation about conditions of dialogue or “communication.” In Empathy’s title-poem, the poet speaks of a woman’s “feeling of identifying with [a man]” as comparable to “a quick flash or a signal” that longing can dangerously morph into a narrative whose “rhetoric” of closure resolves obstacles to empathic connection too simply: “When it is intense, tormenting and continuous, it’s using itself to construct a rhetorical story again./ This state of confusion is never made comprehensible by being given a plot,/ in the same way a complicated plot is only further complicated by being simplified. . . “ (48). Instead, “the speaking is a constant notation of parallel streams of thought and observations,/ whose substance is being questioned in a kind of oral thought at once open and precise. . .” (50). However worthwhile, the goal of “empathy for what is good in life/ from” another’s “point of view” (51) is thwarted by desire, “a problem of interpretation that enters the stream of emotion itself,” and by “a liberty of interruption, or exclusion” (50). For Berssenbrugge, location of stable identity for oneself and others seems elusive. “Time-lapse” photography, “those collages that verge on trompe l’oeil,” may approximate self as process, and “Empathy” ends with a simultaneous acknowledgment of the limitations of self- and other-representation and an attempt to honor the desire to communicate by utilizing the fiction of unified selves:
Only when she looks closely
does she realize that that head is really not the one connected to that body,
although everyday gestures or tensions accrete an intimacy she can recognize.
Be that as it may, real and constant luminosity of the parts can create
a real self who will remain forever in the emotion of a necessary or real person.
To deny this is to deny the struggle to make certain meanings stick. (51)
In Empathy and Sphericity (1993, represented here by one poem), Berssenbrugge speculates about what one might call “fate” as a limitation of freedom encountered in the act of perception and in one’s situation in culture and language, whereas in Endocrinology (1997) and the title-poem of Four Year Old Girl (1998), both written during a long illness after she was exposed to a pesticide, the poet contemplates the body as source of limitation. Endocrinology includes suggestions that difficulties of perception and random processes trouble our attempts to regulate our bodies’ inner workings: “Hormones are molecules, material, invisible. Their flow is random,/ mesh through which a body is sensed, not an image” (68). The poet’s strange personification and preposition-use indicate the way that the body’s dysfunctioning can overpower the conscious will; this is followed by a strong natural image with possible symbolic resonance and attendant abstractions: “Because she’s in a body, it makes decisions./ Black rock in a dry river, weeds tangled at the base, something heavy enmeshes with something light./ The material, of non-negotiable contingency, the feeling, . . .” (69). Later, we learn that “the sick, immortalized cells don’t know to stop growing” (71). But despite corporal determinism, individual subjectivity exerts whatever influence it can. Further, various passages allude to a sexual relationship between the sick woman, who “feels desire for the man touching her abdomen,/ that feels like love” (70) and a man who “loved her body as much as he loved her as an individual” (71).
Telling of the “fate” of “genetic disease” as “extreme genetic change, against a background of normal variability,” Berssenbrugge in “The Four Year Old Girl” often presents precise medical data and abstract philosophizing near passages representing strong emotion like “A girl says sweetly, it’s time you begin to look after me, so I may seem lovable to myself” (83). Sometimes, a single sentence will incorporate striking differences: “Between what occurs by chance and, ‘Mother, can you see I’m dying?’ is the same relation we deal with in recurrence” (85). The poem articulates the anxious disjunction between the tragically afflicted daughter’s perspective and her mother’s, conflict between the girl’s effort to assert belief in a stable identity and evidence of deterioration (including eventual blindness) that proves her “transitory,” and the difference between individual loss and consoling macrocosmic continuities: “A species survives in the form of a girl asking sweetly./ Nevertheless, survival of the species as a whole has meaning./ Each girl is transitory” (84).
Various poems taken from Nest (2003) and four new poems offer fresh approaches to issues of natural and social perception, dialogue (especially in “Hearing” and “Audience”), love, and family that have preoccupied Berssenbrugge since Empathy. Of Chinese and Dutch parentage and born in Beijing, the poet is drawn toward lament for the displacement of her Chinese origins in “Nest” and a charting of intergenerational (female) continuities and discontinuities:
My mother tongue, Chinese, has an immemorial history before me.
I was inserted into it, a motive for my language.
I learned it naturally, filling it with intentions, and will leave it without intent for other children.
My mother and I speak local language and sometimes our mother tongue, as in my dream, with its intent.
What to intend in changing the mother tongue of my daughter, compassion, not being ill, sleep in which a daughter resonates depth, like a bell. (112)
The adjective “immemorial” conveys temporal vastness and, in the potentially negative prefix “im-,” a hint of a cancellation of memory. The fact of the speaker’s “insertion” into Chinese and her “natural” appropriation of it as a vehicle for “intentions” is poignantly contrasted with the ambiguity of the verb “leave” (present or abandon) attached to a lack of “intent.” The poet’s dream of conversation with her dead mother involves the heartening nostalgia of a return to the “mother tongue.” However, holding herself responsible (though her parents moved her to an English-speaking country) and hoping her own parental intentions have been proper, she seems haunted by the difference in her own daughter’s original language. Fascinated with interstices, with liminality, Berssenbrugge “confesses” her linguistic “border” status: “I want to tell you what’s difficult to admit, that I left home.// Change of mother tongue between us activates an immunity, margin where dwelling and travel are not distinct” (113). Out of this, a rich multiplicity, as well as sadness, could emerge: “I feel the right to have my invitation accepted, an open house” (115).
Relying on a simplifying account of themes, a pastiche of quotations, and brief glosses, my commentary on exemplary poems in I Love Artists has registered only a small fraction of the intellectual, tropological, and affective complexity (at times, even productive disorientation) that comprise my reading experience. To approximate what transpires in a single poem would take a tremendous amount of space. This is especially evident in new poems like “Concordance,” in which the push/pull between adjacent lines can be hard to characterize, even as diction is relatively straightforward: “Then, it’s possible to undo misunderstanding from inside by tracing the flight or thread of empty space running through things, even a relation that’s concordant.// Seeds disperse in summer air.// Sunrays cease to represent parallel passages in a book, i.e. not coming from what I see and feel” (133). Negative space remains full of potential. In Berssenbrugge’s poetic collage-fields, there is a continual slippage from fixity and a demystifying play that, nevertheless, maintains the pleasures of the mysterious.
Thomas Fink, a Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, is the author of four books of poetry, including NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY (Moria Poetry, 2006) and AFTER TAXES (Marsh Hawk Press, 2004), and two books of criticism. Beard of Bees will publish his e-chapbook, STACCATO LANDMARK, this fall. His paintings hang in various collections.