Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Charles Bernstein, Topsy-Turvy
University of Chicago Press, 2021, $25.00

Review by Yi-Feng

For over forty years, Charles Bernstein’s poetry, with its witty word play, semantic obscurities, and stunning powers of verbal estrangement, has both intrigued and frustrated his ever-growing readership. The locomotive power of Bernstein’s poetics, with its unique array of sound patterns and visual strategies, produce a signature style that is his and no one else’s. The cover of his new book, Topsy-Turvy, is a painting by Susan Bee, in which a woman looks curiously at a man standing on his head, apparently observing the world upside down. Is Bernstein suggesting that we need such a perspective? Or is he criticizing our world, suggesting that it is itself upside down? If so, what does he suggest we do to rectify the situation?

The epigraph to Topsy-Turvy is “The Last Kind Words,” by the early blues singer Geeshie Wiley. It consists of four “books”: Cognitive Dissidence, As I Love, Locomotion, and finally, The Last Kind Words. The range of forms and subject matter is enormous, but all of the poems seem to echo each other in a great symphony of wit. Ideas carom against each other, creating new meanings from fragments of the old, embodying what Bernstein calls, in Pitch of Poetry, his “echopoetics”: “the nonlinear resonance of one motif bouncing off another within an aesthetics of constellation.” There is no one center in Topsy-Turvy, but rather multiple centers. Each poem is part of a single, great constellation. There are tiny poems and grand poems, poems with titles and poems without titles, poems as interviews, as commentary, poems dedicated to well-known poets and musicians, homophonic translation poems, and poems based on paintings. Each poem is given equal weight in Bernstein’s universe. The tiny poems are as essential as the longer ones, forming a kind of poetically diverse democracy, as he indicates in his essay “In Unum Pluribus: Towards a More Perfect Invention” (from Pitch of Poetry): “We were one among many. / In unum pluribus”. Thus, Bernstein's concern for social justice and equality is integrated into his quest for a multiplicity of poetic voices.

Many poems in Topsy-Turvy, such as “Jewish Heaven”, “Testament”, and “Poetic Citizenship and Negative Dialectics,” present multiple and distinct voices which counterbalance each other. Bernstein both questions and affirms some of these voices, as what he regards as the positive and the negative are intermingled and transformed. For instance, “Poetic Citizenship and Negative Dialectics” begins “Poetry is best that governs least. / No, it isn't. / Poetry and citizenship are inconsolably incommensurable, conjoined at the heart but beating time to different drummers. / From time to time.” (106). The italicized lines flippantly contradict the statements about poetry which come before them, resulting in a radical uncertainty regarding Bernstein’s “true” or “real” perspective. Formal and informal voices, proverbial expressions and colloquial exclamations, loud assertions and quiet suggestions, bounce off each other in order to interrogate the relationship of poetry to citizenship. These disparate voices and conflicting opinions result in tense contradictions, but also, through Bernstein’s negative dialectics, produce a transformative balance, leading readers to reexamine and recalculate their opinions, as if looking at Wittgenstein’s famous duck/rabbit image.

The transformative power of Bernstein’s language games likewise depends on a balance of sight and sound. The poem “aS if sTumbLing iNto pItChEd nIgHt inFusEd wiTh the muSiC of neW light” is dedicated to Brian Ferneyhough, with whom Bernstein wrote the opera Shaodowtime, and to Shadowtime’s pianist Nicolas Hodges. The poem can be read on at least three levels: aural, visual, and semantic. Sound, sight, and sense interact with each other to create entangled effects, completing and supplementing each other. Letters in the text are in seven different colors and many letters in the middle of words are intentionally stressed by capitalization. Through the use of open space, the lines of the poem are suspended in a dynamic pattern, making both the acoustic and semantic dimensions fluid and unstable. Plosive and fricative sounds are stressed by capitalization, creating uneven sound waves which undermine and defamiliarize the semantic level: “aS on / tHe mOon thE / foOd is nEveR the sAme aS /at/ h-/ oMe untiL tHerE iS / [no home or its] / tHe / onLy hoM- / e yoU k-/now” (97). The letters themselves are in seven different colors, symbolizing seven notes in music, with blank space representing silence. The visual and acoustic dimensions are reinforced at the semantic level, as in “consTelLatI / ons of uNe- / vEn / sou- / Nd” (96). As the poem ends, it “uSh- / eRs yoU inTo thE seN- / sU- / oUs / i- / mmmmmmm- / ediaCy of the iMp- / robabLe” (96-97). It is both a sparkling parody and a moving tribute to the music of Bernstein’s collaborators.

Bernstein’s constant movement between sincerity and irony, melancholy and humor, seems particular appropriate for the era of the pandemic, when we are continually reminded of life’s impermanence. For instance, “Karen Carpenter,” written in tiny, fragmented lines, begins “Her voice / weeps” (9). Bits of Carpenter's lyrics are inserted into the poem, and the fragmented sounds created by this word-cutting are both mournful and healing, heartbreaking but cathartic. Then again, some of Bernstein’s poems treat the impermanence of life more humorously. “Alphabet of the Tracks'' jokes with the unpredictability of the New York City subway lines: we are told that “O / terminates / unexpectedly" (92) and that “Late night / service” may be “suspended on every / other line / for an indeterminate / time” (93). Life’s uncertainties are reduced to a game of letters and nothing more. “How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?” (“No that’s wrong. / You readers don’t have a clue.” [102]) overtly mocks the reader’s uncertainty, reminding us of the aggressive Borscht Belt comedians whom Bernstein regards as some of his most important precursors.

Yet at times Bernstein addresses life’s uncertainties, however ironically, with the wisdom of an ancient Chinese sage. In “Twelve-Year Universal Horoscope,” readers can find their fortune based on their astrological sign over 12 years (from 2019 to 2030). The poem has 12 sections, each of which indicates one year's fortune, and “Each section covers one year, then rotates. Add 12 to each year to get dates after 2030, so “2019” extends to 2031, 2045, etc.” (150). This reminds me of a well-known Chinese saying, “Fortune's wheel is ever turning,” which implies that in life, good or bad fortune comes to us at any moment. The inevitability of change, the fluidity of change, and the unchanged in the changing, are the three principles of change in I-Ching, or The Book of Changes, which resonate throughout this horoscope poem. The poem reveals order in disorder and implies the unchangeable in the eternal changing circle of life. Indeed, throughout Topsy-Turvy, Bernstein shows the “duplexity” (his word) of life. The locomotive and metamorphic qualities of his poems echo the thinking of the I-Ching and Tao Te Ching. Change is inevitable, but also reversible and transformative. According to Tao Te Ching, “The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way; / The names that can be named are not unvarying names.” Likewise, “What is most perfect seems to have something missing” and “What is most full seems empty.” Tao Te Ching emphasizes life’s disparities and their transformation—Being and Not-being, the full and the empty, Yin and Yang. In “Swan Songs,” Bernstein quotes Tao Te Ching: “Great wisdom’s clumsy, true eloquence stutters'' (116). He then offers three commentaries, including one written for me:

COMMENTARY: For Feng Yi: Wisdom is awkward and unruly, eloquence stammers and stumbles.
COMMENTARY: For Ariel Resnikoff: There is nothing more bent than the straight.
COMMENTARY: After Adorno: The appearance of authenticity is a fabrication.

In the Way of Taoism, “the only motion is returning.” Bernstein’s vision of the impermanence of life, presented in his sparkling aphorisms, resonates with these traditional Chinese philosophical ideas.

In Topsy-Turvy, Bernstein’s poetry goes far beyond verbal play, swerving between order and disorder, the changing and the unchanged. Who is really topsy-turvy in Susan Bee’s cover painting? Is it the voice of the poet in his poems or the thought of his readers as they read them? There are multiple answers to these questions if we put Topsy-Turvy's way into practice. The wisdom of Wittgenstein, Adorno, and Lao Tzu, among many others, echoes through the poems. As in the oral tradition of the Midrash (which also stands behind Bernstein), truth in poetry has never been achieved by one voice or one person. Topsy-Turvy leaves us with a syncretic gathering of voices, both ambiguous and obscure, and clear and direct. Confronted with the realities of the pandemic, Bernstein’s poetry provides us with a way of appreciating life, despite its impermanence. He reveals order by resisting order, and gives us the world in a new light by playing brilliantly with the old ways.

Post by Yi-Feng on 7/31/2021 at 12:00 PM

Yi-Feng is an English-Chinese bilingual writer, scholar, translator, and associate professor at Foreign Studies College, Northeastern University. Her recent publications are “The Unique Tonality of Language: The Acoustic Aesthetics in Charles Bernstein’s Poetry” (Foreign Literature Studies) and “Sound Poetry, Language Poetry, Conceptual Poetry, and Oulipo: An Interview with Professor Marjorie Perloff” (International Comparative Literature).