Tuesday, May 22, 2007



Between the Room and the City by Erica Bernheim
(H_NGM_N Chapbook Series #4, Natchitoches, Louisiana, 2006)

A great one-liner is like a landing helicopter or a rolling horse--it clears a space for itself. When a line in a poem achieves a pithy truth, the rest of the poem seems to part around it. Wallace Steven's poetry, for instance, makes way for his epigrams by surrounding them with silence, or with lines that stylistically go an opposite direction. In Steven's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," the line "The death of one god is the death of all" is preceded by a line break and followed by a looser sentence that extends over three lines. This is just one example of one-liner etiquette in poetry. However a poet might manage it, the unspoken rule is that the more complex the idea, the more breathing room it warrants in the poem. This courtesy allows readers enough room to stroll around it, see it from all sides, and really figure it out.

Erica Bernheim's Between the Room and the City all but abandons this nicety. Bernheim's aphoristic lines are packed so tightly that there's no wiggle room for the reader to have a thought in-between. And the ideas themselves turn over so quickly--they're often negated or dropped by the next line--that it is unclear which ideas are purposely throwaway and which are central. While this quality might first read as a looseness or lack of control, the poems ultimately create the opposite effect. It's as if Bernstein is rushing us quickly past the poem before we can turn and gawk. The peripheral, half-formed impression seems to be her subject, and she makes certain that our experience of the poem matches. This passage from "Excuse Against Gravity" is one example:

Sleep is for those who need it.
The story I do not want to tell is here,
re-born, ragged, remiss, missing
people look for: they forgot there is no why.
There is no why. What ghost of who.
There is no ocean. There
is no more city. Nothing is missing that could swim.
The smell of guilt is overwhelming.

Sleep, guilt, stories, swimming--the reader watches each of these possible thematic footholds go under before they fully appear. Bernheim whizzes us past it all before we can truly tease out what a single one of these lines might mean. In some ways, this is an impressively intimate voice because it presumes an understanding without any need for the speaker to elaborate. It's like a mind talking to you in the way a mind talks to itself. Perhaps slowing down or elaborating would compromise the authenticity of these poems--when, if ever, is the mind slow or complete?

Such an approach asks a lot of readers, and it often pays off. Still, Bernheim's speakers are prepared to demand even more. In "Notes Left Behind for the Zookeeper," and several other poems, Bernheim uses the second-person address, rattling off obscure demands even the gamest of readers couldn't follow:

Do not ask me for anything
you'd want. Do not charm me
with your hint of rosemary, what that
meant once, and what it means
now is cold. Come to me exhausted
and missing another tooth; I will fashion
you something in a burlap pellet.

There is a great familiarity and trust in the speaker's confidence that we, or the "zookeeper" would understand this advice. Yet this sense of connection is undercut by the extreme specificity of the speaker's directions--the private language that keeps us out even as it assumes our sympathy.

Paradoxically, Bernheim's lack of regard for the reader--her tightly packed one-liners and inward language--is her way of keeping us close. Bernheim lets us in on a mind mid-thought, too absorbed to either universalize itself nor linger on its "good lines" Ultimately, the power of these poems might be in their ability to win our sympathy before our understanding. For the reader to understand completely, Bernheim seems to imply, the poems would have to compromise their inwardness, and thus their truth: "If you believed me,/I'd no longer be believable."


Monica McFawn is a writer living in Michigan. She also trains dressage horses and teaches humanities. She moderates Litandart.com, a forum dedicated to tracking the state of both visual art and literature.


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