Through Fogged and Fumbling Shallows

All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems
Charles Bernstein
FSG, 2010
320 pages

'Don't use such an expression as "dim lands of peace". It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Go in fear of abstractions.' - Ezra Pound, 'A Few Don'ts' (1913)

'Go in search of abstractions', Pound might have written had he really had his finger on the American pulse. For over a century now, a major strain of American poetry has flourished precisely by ignoring Pound's directive; in fact, by doing its opposite. Turning to specific practitioners, one thinks of John Ashbery, who throughout his career has found his 'dim land of peace' in places like 'the mooring of starting out' and 'the delta of living into everything'. Or T.S. Eliot, who wrote so stirringly in his youth of 'the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world'. Or Wallace Stevens, with his 'complacencies of the peignoir’ and ‘green freedom of a cockatoo'. One could play this sort of trick with almost any American poet. The apparition of these faces?

Which is not to sell short the clinching astuteness of Pound's avant-guerre pronouncements on the dos and don’ts of modern poetry. After all, every student of modernism knows why the disgraced phrase 'dim lands of peace' is weak. But how many know where it comes from? In fact, it comes from the pen of Pound's sometime mentor, Ford Madox Ford:

Past all the windings of these grey, forgotten valleys,
To west, past clouds that close on one dim rift
The golden plains; the infinite, glimpsing distances,
The eternal silences; dim lands of peace.

Like all true doggerel, these lines from ‘On a Marsh Road (Winter Nightfall)’ might be forgotten but their spirit lingers on. Charles Bernstein, for one, has made a career of mining the experimental potential embedded in this kind of bad writing. Indeed, Ford’s much-maligned ‘dim lands of peace’ offer a handy organizing conceit for a study of Bernstein, the undisputed master of atmospheric doggerel. Consider ‘The Measure’, from Islets/Irritations (1983), an exemplary Bernsteinian fog machine made out of words:

The privacy of a great pain enthrones
Itself on my borders and commands me
To stay at attention. Be on guard
Lest the hopeless magic of unconscious
Dilemmas grab hold of you in the
Foggiest avenues of regret.

Since the mid-1970s, Bernstein has found his ‘dim land of peace’ again and again in this sort of ‘foggy avenue’ of literary regret. Elsewhere, he finds it in ‘The Harbor of Illusion’, where ‘at midnight’s scrawl, the fog has / lost its bone and puffs of / pall are loamed at / tidal edge.’ With Bernstein, it’s all smoke and mirrors, broken mirrors, foggy borders, doggerel word orders. ‘Oh Shenandoah’, he writes,

I long to near you
Through fogged and fumbling shallows
Oh Shenandoah, why don’t you hear me?
Astray, I’m bound to sway
Midst these stifling borders

Sadly, ‘Shenandoah (for Ben Yarmolinski)’, was excluded from All the Whiskey in Heaven, a volume which otherwise hits all the highpoints of Bernstein’s thirty-five year career. Published in Girly Man (2006), ‘Shenandoah’ gives us Bernstein at his finest. Reading these clumsy lines to the tune of the original ‘Shenandoah’—there is no choice—forces us to commit violence on the old shanty, to cut through its burnished cantabile surface to a central governing mawkishness. By extension, its fumbling language and shallow sentiments foreground the scripted mawkishness of many of our own attempts at self-expression. Like Bernstein’s best poems, it rewards us with a hazy sense of unease somewhere between indignation and shame; it purifies the twitterish dialect of our late-capitalist tribe.

Jerome McGann, one of Bernstein’s finest explicators, has commented with characteristic acumen on this ‘klupzy’ homage to the beloved ballad: ‘Bernstein’s “Shenandoah” seems a kind of travesty of the old song […] [His] burlesque and doggerel moments enact those engulfments, where poems are reborn—old songs, new poems—in a comical despair of their possibility.’ ‘Comical despair’ is well judged. Here we have the arch-comic of despair, the despairing comic balladeer de nos jours, author of such transparent gems as ‘Rivulets of the Dead Jew,’ ‘Dysraphism’, and ‘Doggy Bag’. Here we have the Jackie Mason of post-humanism, the St. Elmo’s fire of Sesame Street, the refining fire of postmodernism. ‘If I should die’, Bernstein writes, ‘cut out my throat / and burn it on the pyre / of their indifference.’

Bernstein is many things to many people, and to himself (a list can be found in ‘Solidarity Is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold’). Only a figure as multitudinous as he could have reconciled, or at least found arable common ground between, such disparate colossi as Pound and Ashbery. Where Pound masks himself in his various personae, and Ashbery wanders in and out of the convex middle distance, Bernstein cloaks himself in the smoke and shadows of his language-centered (a)poetics.

Who, then, is Bernstein’s Pound? Certainly not R.P. Blackmur’s or Hugh Kenner’s, Robert Lowell’s or W.S. Merwin’s. In part, he is Marjorie Perloff’s Pound—a kind of proto-postmodern hypertextualist, whose collage, parataxis, and ‘strikingly rhetorical surfaces’ opened the field for so much experimental innovation from the mid-century onward. But, perhaps more importantly, he is also the polemical, peacockish king of bluster who if not forgiven for his political sins will not be forgotten because of them either. No contemporary figure has taken up Uncle Ez’s gadfly mantle with as much bravura as Bernstein. His early exercise in nonsense verse, ‘Azoot D’Puund’, delivers a one-off pastiche of Poundian vulcanism:

iz wurry ray aZoOt de puund in reduce yap crrRisle ehk nugkinj
sJuxYY senshl. ig si heh hahpae uvd r fahbeh aht si gidrid. impOg
qwbk tuUg. jr’ghtpihqw. ray aGh nunCe ip gvvn EapdEh a’ gum
riff a’ eppehone.

And so this ‘Salute to Pound’ continues for another page and a half, only a shade or two closer to pure nonsense than one of ‘Ray’ Pound’s more apoplectic letters. It also partakes of the same irreverent spirit guiding John Cage’s ‘mesostics’ and Jackson Mac Low’s ‘diastics’ of Pound’s Cantos, both published in the 1980s. Cage’s and Mac Low’s aleatory reconfigurations of Pound would have gone a long way toward rehabilitating him for the young Bernstein (who concluded a controversial talk at the Pound Centennial at Yale in 1985 with a reading of Mac Low’s ‘Words nd Ends from Ez’). Note ‘Azoot’s’ typographical similarity to Mac Low’s diastics, as in this excerpt from ‘Cantos I-XXX’:

En nZe eaRing ory Arms,
Pallor pOn laUghtered laiN oureD Ent,
aZure teR,
tAwny Pping cOme d oUt r wiNg-
preaD Et aZzle.

ool A P.’

Mac Low’s, Cage’s and Bernstein’s repurposing of Poundian raw material offers direct insight into the corrosive, corrective aims of their respective projects. Their spasmodic, syncopated lines short-circuit the hieratic pretensions of Pound’s original, leaving us with the charred, disfigured remains of a once-vital high modernist showpiece. Turning Pound’s infamous dictum about the curative power of fascism on its (hieratic) head, this trio asserts: ‘Fascism is the cancer of the world which only the surgeon’s knife of aleatory anti-monumentalism can cut out of the life of nations.’

Drastic medical intervention is an especially apt metaphor for Bernstein’s poetic practice (he worked as a freelance medical writer in the late 1970s). ‘We have to get over, as in getting over a disease’, he writes, ‘the idea that we can “all” speak to one another in the universal voice of poetry’. Pushing the medical analogy a degree further, he has made extended and inspired use of various terms from human pathology, such as amblyopia and dysraphism (the titles of two poems from The Sophist, 1987). Dysraphism—‘the congenital mis-seaming of embryonic parts’—Bernstein has noted, derives from the Greek verb rhaptein, to sew; hence rhapsody, ‘songs sewn together’. Drawing a comparison between Ashbery’s ‘dysraphic’ poetics and those of Hart Crane, Brian Reed, following Bernstein, has defined dysraphism as ‘the stitching together of disparate “embryonic” elements, Frankenstein-like, in order to see if a viable poem develops.’ What follows, in Reed’s formulation, is not strict parataxis, à la Poundian collage, but ‘attenuated hypotaxis’, whereby disjunctive sentences and clauses are made to seem connected to each other by various means of grammatical legerdemain (i.e. strategic use of conjunctions and other connectives):

‘Ma always fixes it just like I
like it.’ Or here valorize what seem to put off
in other. No excuse for that! You can’t
watch ice sports with the lights on! Abnormal fluid retention,
inveterate inundation. Surely as wrongheaded as
but without its charm. No identification, only
restitution. But he has forced us to compel this offer;
it comes from policy not love.’


‘Extension is never more than a form of content’, Bernstein writes further on in ‘Dysraphism’, inverting the old Black Mountain chestnut. The kind of extension of content he has in mind is not only that which we find in Pound and Ashbery in their more expansive modes but also that which comes from, say, channel surfing, or thumbing through the Yellow Pages or the TV Guide—anywhere that disparate units of meaning are aggressively yoked together by a totalizing force, be it an artist or a cable network. The point is that ‘the powers that be’, from the depths of pop culture to the rarified heights of experimental poesis, have something to gain from convincing us that that which seems disjunct is truly unified. Again and again, Bernstein stumbles all over himself to alert us to this conspiracy.

Bernstein has noted this sort of effect—so central to his own poetics and politics—in many of his favorite artistic models. Of Louis Zukofsky’s ‘Poem beginning “The” ’, for instance, he writes:

Composed of 333 [sic] separately numbered lines, including one left blank, the poem is a masterpiece of pointillist collage, in which the basic unit of composition, the numbered line, is allowed to stand by itself, discrete, while simultaneously being stitched together with the other lines. This concern for the relation of part to the whole—specifically that the part is neither consumed by the whole nor isolated from it—is a key aspect of Zukofsky’s poetics and politics.

(Introduction to Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems, 2006)

Note, once again, the importance of stitchery as a metaphor for poetic practice. In a similar vein, Bernstein recently praised John Ashbery’s ‘contingently consecutive’ transitional technique in his contribution to the Conjunctions Ashbery tribute of 2007. With Rivers and Mountains (that is, with all the work that followed The Tennis Court Oath), he argues, Ashbery ‘introduces a nonlinear associative logic that averts both exposition and disjunction’. This aversion ‘gives his collage-like work the feeling of continuously flowing voices, even though few of the features of traditional voice-centered lyrics are present in his work’. As a result, ‘the connection between any two lines or sentences in Ashbery has a contingent consecutiveness that registers transition but not discontinuity’. In other words, Ashbery’s writing only seems to flow syntactically from one semantic unit to the next, its true disjunctive nature deftly concealed by dilatory syntax. This is one reason why no one can paraphrase it.

Needless to say, placing the part—poetic, political—on separate and unified footing with the whole has been of signal importance to the Language poets from the outset. Ron Silliman’s ‘new sentence’, for one, shares a similar scruple. Sameness and difference, wholeness and fragmentation are just relative terms. In flattening out our capacity for critical judgment, this sort of thinking voices a plea that we not be seduced by flattened out accounts of the world—political, commercial, or otherwise. Note, too, how seldom we have seen Zukofsky and Ashbery paired (outside of Language circles) in discussions of twentieth-century experimental poetics—and how obvious the pairing seems once it has been made on these grounds. For a poet as deeply interested as Bernstein is in the materiality of language, common speech, and the duplicities of poetic form and syntax, Zukofsky and Ashbery make the most natural pair in the world (in the same way that figures like Gertrude Stein and Ludwig Wittgenstein do when looked at in the right light, as Bernstein himself did in his Harvard undergraduate philosophy thesis on the two “Steins”, supervised by Stanley Cavell).

Bernstein has said that he thinks of his work as the poems Ashbery did not have a chance to write; or rather, the poems he might have written had he followed up the implications of The Tennis Court Oath. So who is Bernstein’s Ashbery? Certainly not Harold Bloom’s or Helen Vendler’s, W.H. Auden’s or even Wallace Stevens’. Again, Marjorie Perloff’s Ashbery is close to the mark, insofar as she helped create the taste by which he has been appreciated as a master of the ‘other tradition’. But there are other models, too. In an essay on Ashbery’s ‘haunted landscapes’, Willard Spiegelman has remarked on the poet’s ‘use of space, specifically a landscape always changing and always heaving into the present tense through the radiant illumination or foggy mists of nostalgia.’ Far less than the ‘radiant illumination’ (‘rashes of ashes’!), it is the latter Ashberyan quality that most interests Bernstein, and which he is best positioned to explore and exploit. His shtick is the ‘foggy mists of nostalgia’, infused with wash after wash of Deleuze and Derrida. Let’s imagine his self-portrait in a convex mirror: equal parts wrecking ball and Lucille Ball; strobe light and Peter Straub; stray straw and stray man.

When Pound spoke of ‘natural objects’ and ‘adequate symbols’, he took it for granted that poets would always be using symbols in the first place. In 1913, he had not anticipated the decisive turn from figurative language that would emerge (and was already emerging in the work of writers like Pierre Reverdy and Velimir Khlebnikov) in the late modernist moment, partly in reaction to his own work. The ‘turn to language’ of the late 1960s would constitute a notably strident expression of this shift. The jettisoning of New Critical ‘well wrought’ effects like paradox, irony, and tension by the New American Poets (or at least some of them) forms the most important background for Bernstein’s work because it is the most immediate. Despite the talismanic prestige now accrued to Don Allen’s The New American Poetry, so much of the counter-response to the stifling norms of mid-century ‘official verse culture’ turned on anti-canonical sentiments tub-thumping the ephemerality of the poetic productions and its contingent emergence from a more politicized place than the poet’s pure imagination.

That being the case, what does it mean to hold in one’s hands a selected Bernstein from Farrar, Straus & Giroux? As pious Zukofskyans, we might begin by noting that it is a selected, not the selected. In a Poetry Foundation interview last spring, Bernstein pointed out that this particular Selected Poems itself can be thought of as an independent volume of poetry or art installation, with its own quirks, preoccupations, and governing themes:

I wanted All the Whiskey in Heaven to stand up in its own right as a book, comparable to The Sophist (Sun & Moon, 1987) or Islets / Irritations (Roof, 1992), in which there was a marked contrast of styles, approaches, tones, and moods, poem for poem.

And why not? Reading his collected work at 56, Robert Lowell saw only ‘this open book . . . my open coffin’. At 75, Wallace Stevens observed ‘The Planet on the Table’. Reading himself at 60, looking back at a career marked by dogged resistance to all things settled, final, self-regarding, and harmonious, one imagines Bernstein feels altogether less grave and cosmic about it. Mark Scroggins said it best when he dubbed Bernstein a ‘Tinkertoy poet’. All the Whiskey in Heaven might then be read as this poet-tinker’s latest toying with dysraphic composition on a book-length scale. Less an open grave or exotic world, it is a kind of toybox, a ‘vast department store of the imagination’, as John Ashbery has it on the book’s back cover. It’s certainly a lot of fun to read, in a cringe-worthy sort of way (somewhat reminiscent, I find, of reading Billy Collins, whose maudlin transparency unintentionally smacks of Bernstein in fascinating ways).

In the end, though, it is less tempting to read All the Whiskey in Heaven as a toy chest than as a richly heterodox primer of experimental poetics from the past half century. The choice samplings from Bernstein’s earliest works, bearing more than trace elements of Olsonian ‘field composition’ and of New York School shenanigans, give us a nascent (a)poet poised to depart in any number of fascinating directions. As the volume shows, Bernstein would go on to explore many of them with great vigor.

The book opens with ‘Asylum’, from Bernstein’s eponymous 1975 first collection, which was set on a manual typewriter, staple-bound, and circulated in a limited edition of a few dozen. Composed of collaged cut-ups from Erving Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961), the poem strikes an apt introductory note of claustrophobic gloominess. Welcome to the madhouse. Indeed, Bernstein observed in interview that the poem ‘establishes an ongoing motif for the book, which has to do with closed systems—socially closed systems as well as linguistically closed systems [...]’. Against Lyn Hejinian’s rejection of closure, Bernstein would posit closure’s inescapability. But perhaps they are the same thing. ‘Asylum’ begins:

rooms, suite of rooms, buildings, plants

			  in line. Their encompassing total character
	          intercourse with the outside and to departure
	such as locked doors, high walls barbed	
		      wire, cliffs, water, forests, moors

	            conflicts, discreditings, failures

			 of assimilation. If cultural change

                 the outside.

And just like that we are thrust in, straitened out. Bernstein took many of these fragments from the beginnings and endings of Goffman’s sentences, enforcing an entrapped sense of abortive meaning. As forewarned, the ‘encompassing total character’ of this reading experience will entail one ‘failure of assimilation’ after another.

Other salient early works include ‘As If the Trees By Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us’, from Senses of Responsibility (1979), seemingly a parody of then-ascendant “confessional” modes. And then there’s “Lift Off”, which transcribes the frenetic correction tape text of an IBM Selectric typewriter (born in 1985, I had to look this one up). ‘Azoot D’Puund’ also hails from this period, as does ‘Standing Target’, another tour de force of faux-confessionalism into which Bernstein managed to squeeze excerpts from his former camp counselor’s progress reports: ‘If anyone has blossomed this season / Charlie has!’; ‘Charles has done extremely well in swimming’; ‘Last spring Charles put himself on record / that he didn’t like crafts’; ‘Charlie has grown to enjoy our organized games’. One imagines little Charlie Bernstein, on a campout at Camp Wattahunka, roasting a marshmallow and reciting Howl.

It was of course during this time (February 1978—October 1981, to be exact) that Bernstein collaborated with Bruce Andrews on the thirteen issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the influential mimeographed avant-garde magazine. By his thirtieth year, Bernstein had established himself at the forefront of the bi-coastal, loosely affiliated poetry collective which concerned itself with the ‘wordness’ of language and which casual critics had begun to call ‘Language’ or ‘Language-oriented’ poetry. Now, thirty years on, we find the release of All the Whiskey in Heaven coinciding with the Language poets’ ascent to a kind of grey eminence—one almost feels tempted to call it a second life. Ron Silliman’s blog has received over three million hits; Bernstein himself teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Bob Perelman, and co-edits the indispensable online multimedia poetry archive Pennsound; and Rae Armantrout won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Other Language poets hold important posts at prestigious institutions. The Language star, whatever that may be at this point, is clearly on the rise. The upshot of its ascent remains to be seen.

Returning to the selected, we might note that selections from individual volumes begin to thicken around Islets/Irritations (1983) as Bernstein presumably found his stride. This volume contains ‘The Klupzy Girl’, with its famous first lines: ‘Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference:/ it brings you to your senses’. The Sophist came out four years later and included ‘Dysraphism’ and ‘Amblyopia’. By the late 1980s, when he would take up his post as Director of the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo, we find him attaining new heights of ungainliness:

as it burps. FIRST BURP, BEST BURP. “You take it very well,”
he says admiringly. “I don’t think I would have been as
cheerful if Uncle Bill hadn’t given me money.” The
Case of the Missing Coagulate. Emphysema / Nice to see ya.

(‘The Simply’)

And, surprisingly, of beauty:

	 “Come, Shadow, Come”

	     return to a shadow

	as slope of mind,

		        veiled air,

	         (the way a thought will turn

			   with a gesture in its direction—

			            you are a thing

	your voices are unreal

		blade, pool,

		 	paper, shavings

			its glassiness waving for us

	(‘A Person Is Not An Entity Symbolic But The Divine Incarnate’)

Glaringly absent from All the Whiskey in Heaven is a selection from Bernstein’s libretti and from his formidable and often illuminating body of prose works. In the critical writings, he has not shied away from stating baldly his aims, his biases, and his methodologies, with equal recourse to poetic tradition and to contemporary critical theory to buoy his arguments. Often, the prose pieces are used as staging grounds for sounding poetry’s more vexatious existential questions. ‘Artifice of Absorption’, perhaps the most notable work within this hybrid genre, did not make it into All the Whiskey in Heaven, but deserves brief mention. It is an 89-page critical essay lineated like a poem which begins by applying direct pressure to its own tenuous status:

The reason it is difficult to talk about
the meaning of a poem—in a way that doesn’t seem
frustratingly superficial or partial—is that by
designating a text a poem, one suggests that its
meanings are to be located in some “complex” be-
yond an accumulation of devices & subject matters.
A poetic reading can be given to any
piece of writing; a “poem” may be understood as
writing specifically designed to absorb, or inflate
with, proactive—rather than reactive—styles of

In the more recent work, we begin to see Bernstein toying more and more frequently with forms of radical clarity. Emerging from nearly two decades of ‘fumbling shallows’, he starts to write poems from which it seems impossible for the mind to wander, poems like ‘This Line’, which begins, ‘This line is stripped of emotion./ This line is no more than an / illustration of a European / theory.’ Or consider ‘Thank You for Saying Thank You’:

This is a totally
accessible poem.
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
way difficult.

Perhaps the clearest poem of all is ‘Report from Liberty Street’, which appears to be an entirely earnest account of wandering around New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The prose poem has done away with the brittle irony of the two preceding poems; it’s the sort of candid, dazed reverie one would expect from a diary entry or an email to a friend. It allows itself its moment of bathos, whimsy, sentimentality, and even artfulness (its use of the refrain ‘They thought they were going to heaven’), but does not martial them to some subversive or experimental end. It simply asks, ‘The question isn’t is art up to this but what else is art for?’

‘What is language-centered poetry?’ an anonymous interviewer asks Bernstein in a recent Youtube video. ‘I really couldn’t say,’ Bernstein replies, ‘It’s a term that refers to a wide range of things that don’t seem to conform to people’s normal expectation of what poetry is, but in the process transforms people’s experience of what poetry could be.’ The most surprising transformation one is likely to undergo reading All the Whiskey in Heaven is a renewed openness to the primordial attractiveness of bad writing, the shock of pleasure we feel when an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing reaches out to us de profundis:

I would not
walk alone here, where the
dark surrounds, where your face
radiates beyond my swollen
misgivings and clarifies the mist
of my belonging. Stay near
that I may hold you lightly
else the fear inside tear
away what measures I have
held against the night.

(‘Dark City’)

Radiant illumination and foggy mists of nostalgia. These lines clarify the mist of Bernstein’s belonging and confirm that if we are lucky he will continue to belong to us for a long, long time.

Stephen Ross

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press.

___. All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

___. Girly Man. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2006.

___. My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago; London: U of Chicago P, 1999.

___. ‘The Meandering Yangtze: Rivers and Mountains (1966)’. Conjunctions 49 (2007): 263-71.

Cage, John. X: Writings ’79—’82. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1983.

Ford, Ford Madox. Selected Poems. Ed. Max Saunders. Manchester: Carcanet, 1997.

Lowell, Robert. Selected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Mac Low, Jackson. Prose and Verse from the Early Eighties. Elmwood, Connecticut: Potes and Poets Press, 1985.

McGann, Jerome. The Point Is To Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays. Ed. T.S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Reed, Brian M. Hart Crane: After His Lights. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Scroggins, Mark. ‘All the Whiskey in Heaven’. Review of All the Whiskey in Heaven, by Charles Bernstein. The Rumpus, July 7, 2010. heaven/.

Spiegelman, Willard. How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry. New York: NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. USA: Library of American, 1997.

Zukofsky, Louis. Selected Poems. Ed. Charles Bernstein. USA: Library of America, 2006.


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