About the Poems
by Jasper Bernes
“Riddle with Miniature Rooms Inside”— Most readers of this poem assume, at some point, that it only pretends to be an actual riddle. I’m interested in finding out what leads the reader to make this choice, to expect that the sphinx is going to strangle you any way you answer, because she can. Maybe I intended such surrender on the part of the reader, and perhaps this offers the richer reading experience. For what it’s worth, the answer is keys, and the poem began (uncharacteristically for me) as a series of visual observations on a pair of old, rusty keys I found in the apartment where I was living at the time. Quickly, however, I became more interested in what had happened to these keys once they no longer belonged to a particular lock. The keys, it seemed, had become answers to a riddle that no longer existed. Stripped of their use, they gleamed with a kind of aesthetic indifference—like Duchamp’s urinal. And so, like many riddles, this became a meditation on the genre of the riddle itself, the best examples of which (Dickinson, Dickinson, Dickinson) are unanswerable, and throw the mind back onto its own sublime paucity of resources. A riddle is also a kind of net for fishing, or a sieve, and as such it is a type of language-play designed to let certain answers pass through it (not tree, not bird, not me, not you) while catching the right one (keys!). Reading a poem can, I think, work in this manner, although there is generally, depending upon context, an infinity of “answers” which the poem catches. Eleanor Cook’s Against Coercion: Games Poets Play is a wonderful book on riddles and other species of wordplay.
“Autobiographia Literaria” alludes to, steals from, and prostrates itself before inimitable powers of Berryman’s Dream Song #14 (“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.”) I had come down with a bad case of blank verse at the time, and in the writing was reminded of O’Hara’s early college poem by the same title. Like many of my efforts, this is written via the supercollider method. I gather a few sources and smash them together at high energies and speeds hoping that a new sub-linguistic or sub-grammatical particle appears. I’m not sure whether I had seen my friend Karl Parker’s poems of the same title, or whether we came to the titles as independently as two people bound up in an ongoing conversation about poetry can. I owe nearly everything poetry-wise to the rigorous minds of the Karls Parkers, most of whom will very quickly get famous and make each other and the rest of us proud. I should probably pay one of them (if I only knew which one!) royalties. Let’s see—%10 of $0 is. . . .
“These So, These Irretrievable” is a phrase that ends the gruesome, cinematic “old-time sea-fight” passage of Song of Myself. Late-stage alcoholism and drug addiction, which I’ve seen claim, destroy and otherwise mutilate the lives of many basically good people, is a disease that devolves upon a narrative of inevitability, a narrative that leads continuously, by necessity and by a cruel determinism, to the next drink; that continuously defers the last drink by a process of perpetual penultimatization, destroying the ability of the sufferer to remember what has happened to him, who he is, where he’s been. . . . It is a self-consuming narrative, less a timeline than a lit fuse, and at a certain point a kind of implosion occurs, leading to death, incarceration or hospitalization. Because of the phenomenon of blackouts and the damage to short-term memory, the experience of this endpoint is really incommunicable, and as such correlates with the threshold at which the narrative of descent into a black hole becomes similarly incommunicable. A black hole is black because at a certain point, its gravity-warping and in turn time-warping powers, bend all emitted light, communication-signals, pain-speech, etc., back in on itself. And, because of the implications of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, what seems to take a mere fraction of a second to the observer will, to the person crossing into the black hole, take millions of years. Some people are lucky enough to forestall such an implosion, and Alcoholics Anonymous, the only really effective treatment for alcoholism, also depends upon narrative. One must continuously forestall the desired next drink, the event horizon, by repeating, and listening to others repeat, the narrative of their drinking.
“Installation for a Sick Body”— It feels good to have basically nothing to say about this poem.
“Not This Mouth” developed from an assignment my friend David Weiss gave to the both of us. We occasionally do this during the triage phase of the semester, as it tends to foreshorten the anxious thumb-twiddling stage of composition (at least for me). He e-mailed two quotes, the first from Randall Jarrell’s “A Sick Child”: “If I can think of it, it isn’t what I want.” The second was from D.W. Winnicott, who writes: “Animals can be tamed, but not mouths.” Both quotes seemed to speak directly to my experience of watching my son, Noah, enter into language, and with it enter into a contract with the world that was gradually separating itself from him. Noah would point at an object—a stuffed animal or ball—and utter its name, and then upon receiving it, express immediate dissatisfaction. As in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the object was a metonym, a vitiated substitution for what he really wanted, which could neither be named nor directly apprehended. I could relate.