Ignore those who “don’t read Charles Bernstein” because of tired and tedious attitudes about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Charles Bernstein’s Recalculating is one of the most fascinating books of the year. Recalculating shows a wider range of tones, modes, forms, and political engagement than the anti-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E folks would have you believe. It uses slapstick, prose, fragment, aphorism, lyric invention, and artifice to do something fantastic. It forces the reader into an active position. Not content with a passive reader, the book demands reading become a creative act.
Recalculating is challenging in that it holds in contempt or ambivalence many of the sacred cows of contemporary lyric poetry, especially its aversion to received forms. It values thought’s struggle above all. It does not seek a poetics of a completed statement, or even of beauty, but of sustaining a reader’s engagement with difficulty, with intellectual challenge.
There are several, sometimes contradictory impulses at work in Recalculating. The first impulse is a series of profound prose-poem meditations on the art of writing and reading poems. These are written in the style of Kenneth Koch’s “My Olivetti Speaks” and are called “The Truth in Pudding,” “How Empty is My Bread Pudding,” “Recalculating,” “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links,” and “Unready, Unwilling, Unable.” These prose-poem ars poetica explorations are perhaps experiments with collage and are ways to overturn, in a legal sense, of lyric poetry clichés that we read everywhere. For example, ideas swirl, collide, and contradict: “I embrace a poetics of bewilderment. I don’t know where I am going and never have, just try to grapple as best as I can with where I am. The poetry that most engages me is not theoretically perspicacious, indeed it has a poetics and an aesthetics but not a predetermining theory; it is multiform and chaotic, always reformulating and regrouping.”
The second impulse are a series of Bernstein’s fresh translations of Baudelaire, Celan, Pessoa, Mandelstam, and others. The third impulse is elegy. Recalculating is, above all, an experience of the speaker wringing himself back from personal tragedy, the death of Bernstein’s daughter, Emma (1985-2008). By all accounts, Emma was a beautiful and challenging photographer, and, as the daughter of two artists, was raised to think and act as an artist. I can’t comprehend writing anything if either of my daughters died, and Recalculating is a testament to the strength and rigor of Bernstein’s mind and life.
The three seemingly competing impulses in Recalculating are unified by their attempt at “listening to the dead,” either by overturning dead ideas in poetry, by retranslating dead poets, or by listening to the energies of a dead artist, the writer’s daughter. In this way the book is most closely aligned not to the avant-garde or to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, but to the Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowksi (1530-1584) whose book Laments, are a series of elegies for his daughter Urszula.
The poems work. My favorite poem is also a prose poem, “The Jew,” which had me laughing out loud. Mysterious and muscular, the long-form poem in some ways is an addendum to the “Pudding” series scattered throughout the book. It traces threads of anti-Semitism, intellectual derring-do, aphoristic wisdom, and self-parody. The poem gives form to many angry and contradictory feelings I’ve had for decades. For example, “A miller notices that the grain is too coarse to sell and is advised to consult a Jew. ‘Cohen still owes me 14 dollars.’”
Other moments in Recalculating are also meant to be hilarious, but are shockingly tone-deaf. For example, the entirety of “Poem Loading…” is “please wait.” Like a cake that fell in the oven, falling from a profound and engaging poem like “The Truth in Pudding” to a lead one-liner is completely dissatisfying. Other moments that attempt to comment on either the digital era (“Dea%r Fr~ien%d,”), or on post-9/11 political economy (“I Will Not Write Imitative Poetry”) likewise read like padding the make the book longer, as in “Not on My Watch,” the entirety of which is: “Then on whose?” Other comedic timing is slightly better. In “Recipe for Disaster,” for instance, the ingredients include 1 brown pillowcase, 2 cans 20w20 motor oil, 2 pony tails, and 1 1854 edition of Leaves of Grass.
Indeed, at 189 pages, the book is too long. It seems one element of making poems that the contemporary lyric does better than Recalculating is the art of discrimination. Tone, as it is handled here, is its Achilles heel; it is perhaps an element of contemporary poetry we should not dismiss wholesale.
Beyond my feelings about these few poems, Recalculating insists that the poem begins with the reader’s active engagement. By demanding that reading become a creative act, the poems—like Emma’s self portraiture—are “haunted and haunting works” in the present. Their purpose is not historical or academic exercise, or an experience of someone’s tastes; they embrace shadow and confusion.
What works best for me in this book is its intellectual risk taking, imaginative leaping, and trust of the reader’s intelligence. Paintings are not done to decorate apartments, and poems are not written to decorate the subway car. It pushes the possibilities of what it means to read a poem in the most serious way.