However the image of the couple on the cover also reminded me, as I’m fairly sure I was intended to be, of the couple that Bernstein is a part of, with his partner, the artist Susan Bee, and of their shockingly unexpected loss at age 23 of their artist and art-theorist daughter, Emma Bee Bernstein, in 2008. Indeed, five pages in, the book begins with a epigraph page topped by a tribute passage by Bernstein’s friend and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry colleague, Bob Perelman, to Emma. Page 11 bears another epigraph from Emma’s own writings, one that seems uncannily to allude to the cover image: “ ... put your hands on the wheel ... look only as far as the blur of passing yellow lines to see the present .” The personal note that all this strikes is itself unexpected in a Bernstein book – a Bernstein who has repeatedly asserted that poetry is about itself, and about language. Was this also being recalculated? However, perhaps a reader should also remember that when the GPS voice tells you it is “recalculating” it’s not telling you that you are changing your destination – only that you are now about to take a new, and unexpected, route toward it.
The opening poem of the book, “Autopsychographia” – marked as having been based on one by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa – begins
Poets are fakers
Whose faking is so real
They even fake the pain
They truly feel
And for those of us so well read
Those read pains feel O, so swell
The lines suggest a familiar Bernstein understanding of the lyric as a futile attempt at self-expression and sincerity – that language is always a representation that we might act on but whose authenticity is impossible to demonstrate. Although far from reconciling poetry and “pain,” the lines do point toward the numerous
Despite the numerous references to Bernstein’s daughter’s 2008 death, Recalculating itself encompasses a considerably longer period than 2008-2013. One of the book’s earliest poems, “Talk to Me,” dates from 1999 and “the recent NATO bombing of Belgrade” during Serbia’s violent attempts to suppress the Kosovar independence struggle. In moving toward thoughts of that war and of his dialogue with Serbian poet Dubravka Djuric about her realization, during the earlier Serbo-Croatian war, that poetics – “what images mean /how language works
/ how representation works” -- truly is political, Bernstein writes lines that should engage anyone involved in open-mic projects:
In many ways the in-process writing through poetry is contained in
the performance of poetry, the different ways in which
a relatively fixed alphabetic work
is said differently, is performed
What, then, is recalculated in Recalculating? Well, this is the most international of Bernstein’s books – something quite interesting in view of the insularity of reference in most US poetry. As Bernstein writes in the above poem in another
amusing moment of self-insight,
That’s the problem with poetry:
I want other voices
but I want them always to be
My own other voice
Eleven of the poems here are translations from other languages, and a further six are derived from poems by poets who write in other languages. Of course one can see here the limitation of translation -- that's one of the implications, that it is usually into one’s own language, if not ones “own other voice.” One’s own culture is both a comfort-zone and a handicap.
For lyric poets, the pages 156, 157-9, 162-4, on which Bernstein presents writings, some precisely dated, which he did or seems to have done on days following his daughter’s death, should be especially instructive. I say “seems to have done” about some because part of the richness of these poems is that they signify far beyond reference.