All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux $26.00 (cloth)
Ralph Waldo Emerson once insisted, “this one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes.” A poet or artist also becomes, and the selected poems, much like the retrospective show, traces that becoming—the development of thought, imagination, and values. Indeed, the work continues to articulate what it tries to achieve, how it wants to be heard.
To read an entire career at once is thus to see the body of work as a body, constantly changing and developing, though one also hopes that the work is irreducible. As Charles Bernstein writes in “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” “We may be all one body but we’re sure as hell not one mind.” Here, “body” refers as much to a text as it does to a body politic or even to the singular, discrete corporeality each of us administrates. Any of us is singular, all of us are plural, and we are that way because language itself is so.
Bernstein’s All the Whiskey in Heaven surveys the last 35 years in the career of a poet most eager to theorize his own practice. Which is why the careful reader finds again and again that meaning is a made thing, a condition that, in being made, makes us into a community of readers, of active beings who share in determining what sense might be.
But this is decidedly not a community of consensus. Rather, Bernstein’s readers may be pulled together toward a shared sense of separation. At some level, interpretation reveals how multiply singular, how idiosyncratic all our meanings are. “This line is stripped of emotion,” Bernstein tells us in “This Line,” and later: “This line has no meaning; / its words are imaginary, its / sounds inaudible.” The poem makes claims that it immediately undermines with an irony that is not simply funny, but that indicates how sense and meaning are inescapable and that the means we use to insist on nonsense reveal nonsense as a kind of sense. These lines are a kind of nonsense in that what the words insist on is contrary to what they are actually doing: they do have meaning and are not “stripped of emotion.” But they also ask us to question how the lack of emotion or meaning they pretend to is even possible.
This is just one example of Bernstein’s insistence that poems bring the activities of writing and reading into dialogue. “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words,” Emerson would seem to concur. But more compelling than how Bernstein creates the conditions for active readers—a familiar thread in discussions of his work—is what lies behind that agency. The wager here is that we discover ourselves as texts in need of being read; we become active readers of our own actions not in stasis or passivity but through our efforts at making meaning, through negotiations of sound, sociality, and tradition. And these activities then become a measure of our distance or proximity to others and especially to those aspects of ourselves that always remain somehow other. Reading becomes the revelation of what we value in our values.
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Bernstein, who along with Bruce Andrews edited the seminal magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, was an initiating figure of what came to be known as Language poetry. Less than a school and not quite a movement, Language poetry was more like a set of elective affinities shared among a group of poets located primarily in New York City and San Francisco in the 1970s and ’80s, and while it may be understandable that it is this affiliation that situates Bernstein permanently in literary history, it also overdetermines how we read this poet nearly 30 years after the magazine shut down.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in All the Whiskey in Heaven, which gathers work that had largely appeared with fugitive avant-garde or university presses. Even the fact that this new selection comes from a major publishing house demands that we think about Bernstein’s work outside of the oppositional frame, to consider what the work does rather than what Bernstein is against.
At the heart of this work is not merely a tendency to estrange language formally, a reduction that is especially ironic given Bernstein’s efforts to disrupt conventions and habits of reading and to lay bare their mechanisms. Instead, these poems pay consistent attention to the pathos of the language that is always already around us. For Bernstein poetry is the fraught space in which words look to themselves. Or as he writes in “Amblyopia”:
Such is a space that, called
into being, or given,
transforms everything from what we
know it to be, mishandled by
the world, to what it never was, blessed.
(Or handled: but since there is
no correct way to handle, it amounts
continuously to the same.)
The complexity of Bernstein’s thinking here indicates that poetry ought not cede difficulty to philosophy and that there might be aesthetic pleasure in the working out of an idea. The poem argues that things are not intrinsically sanctified. Since there is no indisputably right way to go about our affairs, one is always doing things badly, and therefore possibly hurting others. But there is also hope for transformation, that an ethical way will be found. As Joel Bettridge recently wrote in his Reading as Belief, “The faith Bernstein puts in words’ ability to cohere through, not despite, their fragility and multifariousness guides his poetics up into the current moment.”
To say that Bernstein is merely a trickster is to be deaf to the profound ethical implications of his poetry.
Still, on what basis can we assess the claims made in a poem such as “Amblyopia”? For that matter, how do we ever assess the ideas in poems? These questions spill out from the poem’s implication that nothing is blessed a priori, and this is what the poem wants most urgently for us to know as we read further. Now that we are knowing subjects, we are more likely to do as we wish, and that is a kind of blessing, or at least a form of permission that cannot come from anywhere other than ourselves. And if we acknowledge such tendencies as our own, we can become responsible for—and to—our own responses. It is a transformation devoutly to be wished for. We find a distinct optimism in Bernstein’s work, which is predicated on the hope that we can own who we are rather than be what we own.
• • •
Bernstein’s poems often wear their poetics on their sleeve. (Even the title “Amblyopia,” the clinical term for “lazy eye,” implies the poet’s having diagnosed both a disease of vision and a moral failing of the subject.) He asks us to consider not only the idea itself, but to remain aware that thought is fashioned out of words, and words in poems and all forms of reading need to be tested with each step.
As an art form, poetry returns the process of interpretation, the fact that we are always sounding the pitch and haw of language. “Hollow words with a ring of truth / signet of sorrow. Not to reprimand is / to be remanded to the custody of those / escaped the tide of moral pull,” Bernstein suggests in “Reveal Codes.”
The multiplicity of language that he activates through frantic wordplay reminds us that poets are also reading language, revealing codes, as they write. The puns are dense: the rhyming of “remand” and “reprimand” indicates how words plucked from legal discourse can be poetic and how poetic devices are fraught with ethical significance, since one is remanded in order to be reprimanded. The same double edge applies to the ring, as both sound and hollow space, empty and meaningless, and to the signet, royal seal and sign, but also a ring one wears, always “empty” or “hollow.”
All the while the poem enacts its circular argument. To not question is to give oneself over to another’s authority. Even questioning Bernstein’s words, one becomes opened to—or by—his poetics and his politics of resistance. To ask what the words mean is the very task of the poet, and Bernstein reveals that words are always a plenitude of meaning. If they are not, they are not words. Poets are not unacknowledged legislators, as Shelley claimed. They are unlegislated acknowledgers. To say that Bernstein is merely a trickster, to see his poetics as simply or simplistically oppositional, is to be deaf to the profound ethical implications of the poems included in All the Whiskey in Heaven. It would be a failure of much more than the imagination.
“Originality in speech is the rediscovery of speech,” Stanley Cavell wrote of the Marx Brothers. Like the Marx Brothers, Bernstein is both profound and deeply comic, which is not the same thing as saying that he is funny, though he often is. The disruptions of sense and expectation that Bernstein’s poems produce are not marshaled solely for their own sake. If we read Bernstein as only a provocateur, we miss his commitment to the possibilities of discovering as wide a context as is possible for language, for all its meanings to be considered equal and available. The comic is the act of signaling our expectations by subverting those expectations.
In essence, Bernstein’s poems test the limits of language to find what its boundaries are. We are creatures of language, always to be found there, and Bernstein’s poems show us that love of language must be renewed daily, lest our attention slip and we take meaning for granted. Bernstein’s work reminds of the beautiful task left open before us at every turn of verse.