In Starsdown a reader will experience some of the densest work this side of a black hole. The poems that Bernes writes/constructs swirl and accumulate matter like a tornado sucking up anything of value manufactured in the 21st Century. It is one part witness, one part commentary, and ten parts whirling stimuli found at your local Wal-Mart Mega Mart. The effect is like having language spit out by a salad shooter:
In the shakeout, comes pesticide, comes polyester.
Chewing gum, detergent, mustard gas precursor.
Heart valves, condoms, contact lenses, synthetic thought. [“Tar Pits”]
In his hyper-driven collection of digital detritus and electronic age ephemera, Bernes uses language that is visionary, daring, and ultimately condemnatory. The eyes and ears and life that has put together the assemblage that is Starsdown seems to be both addicted to the pleasures of a capital-intensive society as well disgusted by its excesses.
This is much the same feeling I get when I visit my brother, Dante’s, basement in Chicago. Dante is the owner of an original Altair back in the 70’s back when most were still wondering how their FM radios worked. Since that time Dante has accumulated various kinds of electronic devices and gadgets of every imaginable stripe and color. He has a collection of cut-off power cords that are draped over a light fixture hanging from the ceiling, one (maybe more!) for every year of his life. While some might look at this as a pathetic attempt to horde useless material for a reason almost assuredly to escape the minds of most modern humans, I tend to look at this odd collection (and several dozen others like it in his basement), as an expression of extreme hope. My brother is hopeful that there are enough appliances out there with faulty power cords that all of these “parts” will be needed for resuscitation of dead bread makers or waffle irons or computer drives.
Bernes’s Starsdown makes me think that there also can be no sound reason to collect all these word-bits on the page in order to construct a vision of a hyper-digitized LA, perhaps a post-industrial-apocalyptic LA given the good number of images that suggest severe decay. As striking as the juxtapositions are and as attentive an eye as there is present, the barrage can oppress after a while; however, like with my brother’s basement (which is very hard to move around in and get to the washer and dryer) there is a certain grandeur and spectacle to the whole massive undertaking. Fortunately, for most readers, Bernes’s book will most assuredly take up less space than my brother’s stuff, and the book is quite the value when measured against a lifetime of collecting spare electronic parts and gadgetry. However, the question remains whether it will serve as well in case of economic collapse. I am quite certain that my brother will be able to barter his way out of any situation should we be staring down the barrel of a full-scale economic and financial collapse. It is much harder to barter with words rather than their referents.
But Bernes at times wants to be the reader’s guide to such a collapse. The stranded and disconnected items strewn throughout the book serve as guideposts in a land where readily-determined sense has stopped production. This reflects what some might refer to a constructivist impulse, that impulse which constructs a world out of words rather than just represents/misrepresents an accessible manifestation of reality as per mimesis. However, Bernes’s eye collects so much debris, and he hears so much in the airwaves that it is hard to imagine how Bernes’s construction could exist without his accumulationist impulse. Also, because it is hard to imagine what kind of new machinery could be built without using the spare parts of the language, it is hard to imagine how any kind of constructivist endeavor could be undertaken without some kind of accumulationist impulse.
Of course, I doubt whether it is part of Bernes’s grand plan to deliver any absolute glimpse of the future degraded LA. The book wants to be the sounding board for a reader to derive his/her own vision of LA’s next incarnation. It forces a reader to tinker, to synthesize thoughts out of a bucket of screws, hardware, electrical tape and a massive coil of solder.
The darting back and forth from various different language sets (and I cannot recall a book of contemporary American poetry whose diction is so varied) does produce what Stephen Burt’s review of Starsdown calls “[Bernes’s] jumpy, almost ADD poems.” However, what Burt fails to realize here with Bernes is that the two D’s in ADD stand in for “drift” and “détournement.” These may be terms plucked from the Situationist Bible, but they are definitely in play in Starsdown. The drift in the book is an exceptionally difficult one to pull off with any authority. This is not the casual drift across a group of tourists on the other side of a city street, glancing at what seems to be out of place and wryly commenting on it. No this kind of drift entails a much more concerted looking. It stares intensely at the labels on everything and then disengages them through a few hot, short lingual bursts. This is where the détournement comes in. By referring to so much of the baggage that we carry around on a day-to-day basis as part of the experience of contemporary city dwellers, and then distoriting so much of it through the techniques of rapid jump cuts and juxtapositions, nearly every stanza in Starsdown is disorienting, decontextualizing. It becomes the sole burden of the reader to place himself/herself within the mix without fear of also becoming folded in by the language taffy machine Bernes employs. So, Bernes uses the language of our contemporary moment to unhinge the reader from his/her experience with it. The total effect is like wearing freshly laundered clothes after one has previously worn clothes through a month’s worth of LA grime. Bernes freshens the power spots in the language.
I can’t remember a recent book where one reads lines just for the sheer pleasure of what will be invoked, what will be fastened together in the next daring phrase, the next measure, the next run of sixteenths. The music is complicated though. A reader should be warned that making it through Starsdown while deriving the most pleasure requires a well-practiced reader, one whose sight-reading skills are well honed.
Many lines conspire with rhythms that are easy to trip over. There are short staccato bursts and inverted melodic phrases — near perfect renderings of the previous passage except for the slip of a single syllable. I enjoy the musical performance of Bernes on the page, but I must admit that I suffer a bit of note fatigue upon extended reading. Living with the book as I have for the past several months, I find its presence most comforting when I need to remind myself to be more daring with my language. It’s probably not the right companion though if one wants to trot out a nice well-behaved narrative. Starsdown doesn’t aspire to that kind of project. Yet there are unmistakable moments of near-narrative thrust, for example, in the following piece that resembles a creation myth:
Desiderata on a Desert Island
Each island marks the limits of the sight,
Each prisoner the center of a prism, thousand-
Faced, wherein the vision of others
Drowns in confounded distances. This
Is our city, our archipelago of sprawl,
On self-love built: one long block out, as on
A ring of reef, the repeated, bleeding gazes
Founder and collapse, sun-bald, like waves
Under the overambitious topweight of a forward push.
The horizon is a second skin, seeing
Sheathed by being, swallowed whole.
It kings us eye for I. It brings what
Flings us far near, an myopia, a fat
Cataract where the ocean ours over
The edge into threshing, blent serrations, scales.
Retinal flotsam, rods and cones
Wash ashore—eyechart letters, blurs
That form no common language. We must
Build then with lack a private
Shack, a charm for the sharks, a diction
Wholly homegrown. We were allowed to bring
One word each. We were allowed to choose.
My sister, protectless now, and lost, picked
Justice. I hear her hear here, sometimes, in the waves
Just this, just this, the beach each day
Levelled in the steady bevel of the tides,
Its hall of mirrors. An old friend, in front of us
At the all-night processing center,
Whispered verdant to the guards. She must
Live then with, for scenery, the names of trees and flowers
She’s never seen, garden overgrown with unknowing.
Impossible to gauge the time it takes
To pen these notes with only the empty
Amphitheater of the ocean, with only subtle
Inflections to distinguish one thought
From another, blue from green, gulls from pelicans,
Where exactly and how the water becomes
Symbol of a common, consanguinous solitude.
Is that love? God? Justice? What I feel
Seems to name the others farther and more pure.
Inarticulable difference, loves without object.
Sometimes the palm, grown so familiar, so commonplace,
Disappears in the empty-scented tradewinds,
Winnowed by excessive adoration.
My glyph’s desiderata, a stiff wind or wand of wishes
Which no longer refer to any world I can recall.
In name alone. A hive, a Latin hum
Of what’s not here and never was.
And in this way Los Angeles is made.
Embeddded in this poem is the following credo: “We must / Build then with lack a private / Shack, a charm for the sharks, a diction / Wholly homegrown.” This can’t be too far from Bernes’s ars poetica. The reason I have gravitated to this piece over many of the other fine ones in the book is probably because I am drawn to the orderedness of the piece vis–à-vis the rather wild diction (though the varied invocation is somewhat more subdued here than elsewhere in the book). The tercets and capitalized word at the beginning of each line suggest older English verse. This tension between the archaic and the birth of the most postmodern of cities (Los Angeles) is appealing if only a reminder of the constraints of the old forms that creak at the seams trying to constrain the diction. So much of the book is futuristic/contemporary critical that “Desiderata” is a quaint reminder that cities are built upon the past (as any good Marxist knows).
The “I” that appears in Starsdown almost always appears as a contrivance. That seems appropriate for the kind of book that it is. As a reader one can feel the experienced eye bobbing through the cultural flotsam, but that experience is not borne as an individuated persona through which we see the world of the poem. What makes Bernes’s constructivist project all the more appealing in Starsdown is the total collaboration with the culture Bernes pursues. Thus, the constructed language in the book feels like it has developed through some sort of seismic pressure of the culture itself and is not the work of a dazzling linguistic inventor (even though we know that behind the curtain is Bernes himself masterfully assembling and rewriting and rescoring his symphony of the La-that-is-now and the LA-that-is-to-come.
At times I wonder if the I that appears isn’t so transparent that Bernes should just remove his name from the book altogether and put on the cover the author as a particular period of time, arguably the contemporary but not necessarily.
Though Starsdown is as supercharged a linguistic fantasy as I have seen and could imagine, I wonder if it does not share some of the same pitfalls as my brother’s house. In my brother’s house, what was once contained to the basement has slowly crept up through the rest of the house. I had not visited him in Chicago for nearly twelve years since I had been living on the West Coast. This month I arrived to find that the manageable mess he had constructed in the basement had migrated through the rest of the house. The living room was piled high with old electronic components that once served some important function but now had surpassed middle age and had their printed circuit boards hanging out. There was an industrial size garbage bag full of plastic peanuts awaiting their time of disembarkment should the eBay gods shine down on my brother’s house one day. Even the bathroom was supplied with various electronic thingamabobs. Open a cabinet for a towel and three battery-operated conveniences fall on your foot.
In short, the sprawl is contagious. It overtakes a house the way it overtakes a city, a city like LA. Perhaps this is Bernes’s purpose to effect a textual expression of the city as subject. However, all I know is that if one tries to live in my brother’s house for more than three days then certain synapses begin to fail. You wake up in the middle of the night and fear you are beginning to become a clutterer, that a massive stack of plastic storage boxes will fall down on you in the night and perhaps steal your virginity, again!
With Starsdown Bernes’s language presses down into the neuronal interstices and begins to wear away at the very fabric that holds everything together.