Book Review


In early sections of William Carlos Williams’s 1923 masterpiece Spring and All, he advocates a radical method of reengaging the lapsed creative power of the imagination. The first necessary impulse, according to Williams, was one of destruction: “The imagination, intoxicated by prohibitions, rises to drunken heights to destroy the world.” In order to clear out the stagnant received forms that cluttered the literary landscape of the early twentieth century, Williams hyperbolically urges the imaginative extermination of civilization—and especially European culture—to create room for new literary forms and ideas. The poet rejoices: “Yes, the imagination, drunk with prohibitions, has destroyed and recreated everything afresh in the likeness of that which it was.” Williams’s gesture invokes a negative poetics that creates through negating and finds generative novelty in the rejection of poetic forms, conventions, and traditions. Through negating what has preceded him on the literary landscape, Williams finds that he can open a space for a new poetics that brings a new energy to the page.

Charles Bernstein’s most recent collection (and his sixteenth to date), Near/Miss, published last year by the University of Chicago Press, does not advocate for any continental annihilation. However, Bernstein does engage in a different type of negative poetics, one that is seemingly as linked to negative theology as it is to Williams’s destructive imaginative poetics. In Near/Miss, Bernstein defines the poem inversely, through evasive descriptions of what poetry is not, and a poetics emerges through contradictory statements and counterproductive dialectics. One of the clearest examples of Bernstein’s negative poetics comes from the poem “The Lie of Art,” which comprises only negative statements. A sampling includes:

I don’t want innovative art.
I don’t want experimental art.
I don’t want minimal art.
I don’t want exemplary art.
I don’t want mystical art.
I don’t want epic art.
I don’t want lyric art.
I don’t want familiar art.
I don’t want human art.

What, a reader may be inclined to wonder, could be left of art after so thorough of an evisceration? Bernstein anticipates the question and seems to answer it in a later poem titled “Me and My Pharaoh. . . .” He writes, “Poetry should not be in the service of art any more than / religion, ideology, or morality. Poetry should be in the / service of nothing—and not even that.”

Poems in Near/Miss seldom progress along the straightforward lines of argument, narrative, or description. Instead, lines, and the rhetoric that they contain, shuffle forward and back, make progress and contradict themselves through a series of non-sequiturs, leaps, and half-finished aphorisms. The poems feel deliberately cobbled together, as if crafted by lumping randomly associated thoughts and overheard phrases. At times, the collection’s aesthetic resembles that of John Ashbery, who sweeps together scraps and leftover bits of unrelated language in his poems. In a poem tellingly titled “Catachresis My Love,” Bernstein cobbles together a number of different rhetorical approaches. The poem, like many others in the collection, at once makes poetic claims and playfully—and ironically—retracts them in order to substitute new, often-contradictory, claims and statements. For example, Bernstein writes,

We who are not in control must always make do, use the materials at
hand as best we can.
My interests, ideological and poetic, are quite different than those of
most other poets, so my methods are necessarily particular, a swerve. . . .

Still water runs only as deep as you can throw it.

. . .

Omniscient I’m not, just plenty conscious.
                                                                  [ — Mephistopheles, Goethe’s Faust]

Don’t revise. Rethink.
I don’t know if I am anxious because I’m depressed or depressed
because I am anxious.
The tyranny of reflection is the gateway to liberation. The road to
freedom is paved with unanswerable questions.
Irony is as close to truth as language allows.

The final quoted line—“Irony is as close to truth as language allows”—can be read as something of a cipher for the entire collection, a line that allows access to many of the other heavily ironic poems. On a conceptual level, the poems avoid constructing a systematizing poetics because, as economic and political history have shown, systemization more often than not leads to prescriptive and oppressive modes of order. Or, as Bernstein writes, “—As if the cure for capitalism is more capitalism; the cure for theft, / more theft; the cure for misery, more misery.” So irony, for Bernstein, is a way around this political bind: rather than pursuing sincerity-ridden forms of truth, his poems approach irony as a less-problematic substitute that presents but doesn’t feel obligated to answer any “unanswerable questions.”

Bernstein also uses his new collection to engage a diverse community of visual artists and writers. These visual works and poems—many of which have been published prior to their inclusion in Near/Miss—help dilute the otherwise relentless irony that, at times, threatens to bog down the collection. Some pieces operate in a more or less ekphrastic mode. For example, in “Otherwise He’d be Dead,” the poem is preceded by a half-page black and white rendering of a cartoon-like drawing by artist Francie Shaw. In this poem, and others like it, Bernstein’s lines loosely reference the accompanying visual art. Here, the first line refers to the large rabbit-shaped outline that dominates Shaw’s image: “And I’d be in Mexico instead of looking at rabbits or reading the signs in the pictures. . . .” Other poems, like the ten-page sequence “Apoplexy/Apoplexie,” have a collaborative bent. This longer work, for example, features sequential short poems beginning with Bernstein’s 1983 poem “You.” Poet Norbert Lange translated this poem into German, Bernstein translated that work back into English, and so on until the translated poem exists in eighteen loosely-related versions. The poem becomes, in effect, a shuttlecock passed back and forth between the two poets in a wonderful example of a playfully imaginative and generative exercise.

Bernstein’s inclusion of visual art and ekphrastic poems in the collection feels like a gesture of inclusion and generosity. Although many of the poems in Near/Miss operate through line-by-line deferrals and reversals of apparent meaning, the works that have been paired with visual art or that were composed via collaboration feel optimistic and occasionally even impart a touch of sincerity to Near/Miss. Viewing the collection as a whole, these pieces impart a bullish air to the often-ironic, deliberately evasive poems. To return to the earlier comparison of Bernstein to Williams, perhaps Bernstein’s inclusion of visual art, collaborative projects, and ekphrastic poems permit a return of the imagination, an aesthetic mode that’s often driven away by the type of political and ideological systematizing that Near/Miss works hard to dismantle.

About the Reviewer

Connor Fisher lives in Athens, Georgia. He has an MA in English literature from the University of Denver, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is working towards a PhD in English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. Reviews and poetry have appeared in journals including Word for/Word, Typo, Colorado Review, The Volta, and DELUGE. His chapbook The Hinge was published by Epigraph Magazine in fall 2018.