By his own account, Bernstein grew up watching television in the late 1950s and early ’60s — that is, at the moment when a certain unabashed Jewish sensibility went mainstream. And Bernstein learned his lessons well. His choppy, chopped rhythms are both nervously, if not nervily, Jewish. He is, as everyone who has ever written about him has noted, a funny guy. But poetry is not supposed to be funny — it is about serious things, after all — and so it is tempting to dismiss Bernstein as something of a merry prankster, a man who is daring his audience to accept jokes and aleatory noise as real poetry.
Not so fast there, buddy. The genius of Jewish comedy — hell, the genius of Yiddish, if we follow Michael Wex — is that it puts linguistic invention at the service of a militant deflationary zeal. The wiseass Jewish waiter whom Bernstein sometimes resembles devotes his deadpan wit to exploding pretense and false comfort. When that waiter reads the papers, this demolition work can take on a markedly political edge.
Bernstein most definitely reads the papers. If “Girly Man” is both focused and approachable, it is, in large part, because it is sustained by the poet’s horrified reaction to the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. Here are some lines from “War Stories”:
War is never having to say you’re sorry.
War is the logical outcome of moral certainty.
War is conflict resolution for the aesthetically challenged.
Bernstein does not usually engage this directly, and in a section called “Some of These Daze,” Bernstein takes an uncustomary turn. In a short series of blogs and letters written on and after 9/11 (here Bernstein is obviously thinking of the diary entries that Whitman published as “Specimen Days”), he confronts the event more or less head-on:
Tuesday morning I rouse my friend Stu from a profound slumber to tell him what has happened to the twin towers. — “They’re ugly,” he says, after a pause, “but they’re not that ugly.”
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Bernstein Review at the Forward
Does anyone out there know David Kaufmann of George Mason University? He's living one of my alternate lives, reviewing Jewish poets in the Forward. A nice little piece on Charles Bernstein's Girly Man to be found here; money quote: