All the Whiskey in Heaven

Reviewed By

In short, [Charles] Bernstein is taking apart the structures of conventional poetry, and more generally of the language we use every day – and which in turn uses us – in order to return us to a more basic relationship with language itself, and with the social relations which language encodes and enforces.

If western capitalism is good at anything, it’s good at manufacturing a thousand different varieties of an item – toothbrushes, carbonated beverages, bedspreads, pop songs – and then ferretting out the consumers whose taste matches each obscure product. (Me, I’m a Peach Nehi guy.) And in the great literary Mall of America, there’re a whole lot of different flavors of poet on sale these days: the plainspoken but witty; the achingly vulnerable and painfully oblique; the thoughtful and earnest, working with furrowed brow to get across what you ought to know; the angrily political (almost always from the Left, since Republicans figured out a long time ago that poetry doesn’t pay); the nimble-tongued, virtuosic rapper-slammers; and so forth.

I think of Charles Bernstein as a Tinkertoy poet. You remember those masses of rods and wheels and whatchamacallits that you spent hours putting together in various Rube Goldberg-like imitations of a car or a steam shovel or a skyscraper? That’s pretty much how Bernstein approaches language in much of his work, except that he’s not interested in making the snazzy racecar or the dumptruck on the Tinkertoy box; he’d rather find out what sort of cool, interesting, weird combinations he can come up by sticking words, phrases, even letters together at random, or by deliberately frustrating all of what we think of as the “normal” poet’s impulses – you know, the desire to “express” oneself, to make something “beautiful,” to “say something.”

Bernstein’s Tinkertoy experimentalism will make All the Whiskey in Heaven, a comprehensive selection of some three decades of his poetry, rather heavy going for many readers. I wondered if this collection, Bernstein’s first with a major trade press, was going to downplay his more hard-nosedly weird work, but I needn’t have worried. Yes, here we have “Lift Off,” a two-page poem transcribed from a typewriter correction ribbon (“HH/ ie,s obVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineopcv i iibalfmgmMw”), “Asylum,” whose words and phrases are all collaged from Erving Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, and “A Defence of Poetry,” something of a poetics essay in the form of a lineated letter, reckless typos and all:

My problem with deploying a term liek
in these cases is acutually similar to
cirtique of the term ideopigical
unamlsing as a too-broad unanuajce
interprestive proacdeure.

Some readers will find such hijinks amusing but ephemeral; others (who’ll have little more patience for Bernstein’s marginally less radical modes of juxtaposing unrelated words, phrases, and sentences) will take them as an assault on the idea of poetry itself, at least as it’s been represented in mainstream American culture over the last couple of centuries. I think it’s safe to say that Bernstein would subscribe to that last description. His poems are to the conventional “well-formed” personal poem what Henny Youngman’s one-liners (“Take my wife – please!”) were to the anecdotal jokes of the 1930s, or what Andy Kaufman’s conceptual art (“T’ank you veddy much”) was to standup comedy of the 1980s.

In short, Bernstein is taking apart the structures of conventional poetry, and more generally of the language we use every day – and which in turn uses us – in order to return us to a more basic relationship with language itself, and with the social relations which language encodes and enforces. “Foreign Body Sensation,” for instance, cobbling together sentences from a variety of disparate résumés and self-descriptions, shows how the language of American can-do-ness melts the vocational, spiritual, artistic, and political into a single optimistic sludge:

I am especially interested in the treatment of depression. With my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at the center of my life, I have found real Joy and Purpose in dedicating myself to the Truth of His Teaching as Written in the Bible. What gives the job its excitement is working with Stan Richards, a nationally recognized creative wizard: Adweek recently named our agency among the eight most creative in the U. S.

Bernstein is maybe the best-known of the “Language Poets,” a loose coalition of left-leaning avant-gardists who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. The Language Poets combined a fearsome experimentalism (they read Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky, not Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell) with an implacable intellectualism (their essays and manifestos – lots of them – showed a disturbing familiarity with French and Russian cultural theory) and a snarling disdain for “mainstream” literary culture (the New Yorker, the MFA industry). It’s no wonder they were once regarded with fear and loathing in creative writing programs across the country.

Bernstein has the advantage over many of his fellow Language Poets of being pretty consistently funny. One of the best bits of the late 1990s series of Yellow Pages TV ads featuring Jon Lovitz as “The Man Who Wrote the Yellow Pages” was an interview with Bernstein as “The Critic,” comparing the Yellow Pages to Homer, Dante, and Pound (“a poem including history”), and leafing through a half-dozen pages beginning “Fence,” – “Amazing, that repetition of Fence!” I get the feeling he was improvising there, at once dead serious and aware of the ludicrousness of the moment – like the best comics.

I quoted Henny Youngman earlier, and Youngman is clearly one of Bernstein’s tutelary deities (as he puts it in “Of Time and the Line,” George Burns “weaves lines together by means of a picaresque narrative; / not so Henny Youngman, whose lines are strictly paratactic”). Sure, Bernstein’s a Marxist, but the Marx in question is as much Groucho, Chico, or Harpo as it is Karl. “Dear Mr. Fanelli” is a bravura piece of passive-aggressive standup, a long letter addressed to a New York subway administrator whose picture in the station invites comments from transit passengers:

Photo by Liz Trost

Fanelli – there are
a lot of people sleeping
in the 79th street station
& it makes me sad
to think they have no
home to go to. Mr.
Fanelli, do you think
you could find a more
comfortable place for them
to rest? It’s pretty noisy
in the subway…

Much of Bernstein’s humor falls in the category of the sophisticated literary in-joke, but in recent years he’s taken up a broader and rather more savage brush, attacking the more retrograde tendencies in American culture in a kind of mock-incompetent doggerel:

Daddy loves me this I know
Cause my granddad told me so
Though he beats me blue and black
That’s because I’m full of crap (“The Boy Soprano”)

Bernstein’s earlier work is among the most audaciously exploratory language-shaping I know. Lately however he’s been exploring the emotional potential of the oldest and most basic forms of meter and rhyme, the musical simplicities of the ballad tradition. In “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” he achieves a childlike, Seussian simplicity while touching the emotional mystery of the oldest ballads:

I’ve got a date with a
Bumble bee, bumble bee
I’ve got a date with a
wee bonnie wee
& ahurtling we will go

Bernstein’s latest works–in particular his admonition to his son, “The Ballad of the Girly Man,” and the collection’s title poem, “All the Whiskey in Heaven”–attempt to discover a real emotional immediacy in an idiom so bare, so mawkishly awkward, that they border on real doggerel. What’s most wonderful is that they succeed, giving us a kind of double vision of real passion shining through deliberately awful verse, like the brilliance and pathos, the simultaneous amateurishness and heroic aspiration that the closest watchers could read in Andy Kaufman’s lip-synced version of the “Mighty Mouse” song.

Mark Scroggins's poetry book is called Anarchy, and his big nonfiction book is The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky. He sweats in south Florida. He blogs at Culture Industry. More from this author →