Romanticism

Reviewed By

The poems in April Bernard’s Romanticism feel more complete, somehow, for the fact that they each align their focus on objects which, on multiple readings, still seem to have no particular connection other than that they’re all from Bernard.

I’ve spent more time with April Bernard’s Romanticism than I have with any recent collection of poetry I can think of. Weirdly, I haven’t been clear until recently why I’ve spent so much time with the book—it’s gorgeous, yes, and full of fantastic poetry, but so are a whole lot of books of poetry, and I haven’t spent time with them in the same way.

Before I get too far into describing why I’ve spent all this time with this book, let’s first just put one of the poems up so everyone can have a sense of the work’s shape and body and music—here’s one from the book’s first section (there are three total):

Greedy Thing,

we called the dingo bitch who hung around the camp,
mustard brown with black streaks and filmy eyes.
At night she ate the chickens, feet and heads.

Her ruff rose spiky when she menaced the children
until they gave her their sandwiches. We threw stones,
which she always licked, once or twice, in case.

That’s Romanticism‘s third poem, and its structure—two three-line stanzas—is sported in a majority of the poems in the section (there could be pages devoted to Bernard’s use of structure: the second section’s half-stuffed with 14 line poems [and at least one deceptive 12-liner], meaning one’s got to read them and consider how they’re using the sonnet form, or if, etc., plus there’s all this other structural magnificence going on as well, more in a second). The most compelling aspect of the poem, to this reader, isn’t the fantastic ease and speed with which Bernard sets the scene, or how absolutely she trusts the reader to follow her moves.

No: the thing about this poem—and the reason I’ve been so taken with and into and by this book for so long—is that it feels like a small part of some larger thing. It sounds flat to say it that way. What I mean is this: the poem that immediately precedes “Greedy Thing,” is “The Paper Goose,” which let me assure you doesn’t feature 1) any “we,” 2) any mention of the Australia the next poem’s (presumably) set in (google dingo), any clue or hint that “Greedy Thing,” is part of some larger narrative project or thing at all.

That may sound like really silly praise, but I mean it as the absolute opposite. For instance: name the last book of poetry you read—the last book of any genre, actually—which featured, back-to-back and not clustered together under little thematic umbrellas, poems vastly different in terms of geography, voice, and, for lack of a better word, “agenda.” Can you think of any? I cannot think of any. I will say one of the reasons David Foster Wallace’s first collection hit so hard was because each story was so radically different in just those ways, but that book was a stand-out and rarity—it was so appealing because it worked terrain so rarely touched.

Bernard’s Romanticism is great in all sorts of easy-to-categorize-and-understand ways: there’s lush musical phrasing, there are poems which all but demand a reader look anew at some object or idea which’s been taken for granted (for instance, a flute), etc. There are, in other words, things which Bernard’s doing which other folks are doing, and she’s doing them as well as anyone’s doing them, and for those things alone you should consider shelling out $14 for this collection.

However, there are two more things Bernard’s doing which, as far as my reading has shown me, no one else is doing, or even trying to do. The two things are related, but I believe they differ enough to consider separately.

First, and most impressively (to me), Bernard’s work chooses against grounding itself in the most common grounding devices for poetry. I had no idea who Bernard was when I started this collection, and I’ve no idea now, either, at book’s end. I’ll submit that this is genius-level great and interesting: count the number of poems you’ve read recently which attempt to suck some Meaning Nutrients from identity (either the author’s own autobiographical details or whatever). That’s not a knock against identity-based poetry—one of the best poems of the last 12 months was Hicok’s “A Picture is Worth 874 Words,” every inch of which depended on Hicok and his life and bio, in some way.

Ugh, this is getting messy. Look: the poems in Bernard’s Romanticism feel more complete, somehow, for the fact that they each align their focus on objects which, on multiple readings, still seem to have no particular connection other than that they’re all from Bernard. This isn’t some radical way to write poetry, of course: imagine reading Stevens’ first book and coming up on “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” and trying to square that with “The Snow Man.” Radically different, at least in obvious/overt ways, those poems are.

Enough of that stuff. The other thing Bernard’s doing is more interesting and more gorgeous and worth your time than that other point, anyway. Here’s what’s critical to know: in the book’s second and third sections, the poetry occasionally makes references to various art, books and operas, specifically. It takes nothing but a page-through to find, on the “Notes on the Poems” page, that the referred-to work is fictitious. However, the poetry which makes reference to these fictitious art is not merely playing some cerebral game, is anything but clever. It’d hard to describe the sensation that hits on reading these. Here’s “Early Days,” the first poem from a series of five, all part of a group titled “The Heroine in the Novel”:

Rucked-up knickers, standing in the pond
with a cheesecloth net. Frogs and the golden Japanese carp
she caught from the stock the groundsmen had added
that spring. And she fed them to her snake.
(She is Abigail, her novel is Under the Rose
by Langley Boisvert, published in London in 1886.)
Hair-tossing was a habit, the ringlets
pulled back under a blue straw bonnet. Oh, and that laugh,
a merry laugh it was, and her eyes often
danced, I am afraid. But
she had a chin like a prize fighter.

What’s so endlessly fascinating, to me, about the poem is how the reference plays out, how knowingness is toyed with: the reader hasn’t any clue about whom or what the poem’s overtly “about” for the first four lines, then is directly given that info, then the historical context of the book in question’s poked at and made slight fun of, and then that further knowing at the end, how the poem’s speaker knows more, and, the reader might hope, may tell us the rest.

And, perhaps, in a way, the other four poems from “Heroine” address Abigail, but not in any here’s-who-she-is way. What Bernard does through this trick is induce or open a sort of desire in the reader which ultimately doesn’t get fulfilled—but that’s where things get tricky again, because the reader’s ultimately hugely fulfilled, if not in the overt way she or he may’ve expected.

Go back to “Greedy Thing,” and consider the significance of this poem coming so early in the book. Now imagine that, maybe, the reader’s not among the “we” of the poem: maybe we’re licking the rocks, just in case.

This is an incomplete surface-scratch of a review of a monstrously thick and interesting and riveting book. There’s no way to stress enough how good this book is, how generous and rewarding to any patient reader.


Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →