Conjunctions:56 Terra Incognita: The Voyage Issue

You can’t be part of the problem if you don’t see how you’re part of the solution.
“For a poem is not the Poetic faculty, but the means of exciting it in mankind.”
—Poe, Drake-Hallek review


Information wants to be free—from personification.

As if all we are and do revolves around a hollow center. 

Every poem is a model of a possible world that only comes into being when reading is active, activated. 

The poem is a constant transformation of itself. 

As in the poem plays you or you play the poem. Aces are witches, clubs beat the rhythm, spades are queens, and kings rule! 

We didn’t have it when we needed it, but got it once we didn’t. 

Postmodernism: modernism with a deep sense of guilt. 

Language is an albatross, a sullen cross, a site of loss. 

I think of Emma climbing the icy rocks of our imagined world and taking a fatal misstep, one that in the past she could have easily managed, then tumbling, tumbling; in my mind she is yet still in free fall, but I know all too well she hit the ground hard. 

The hardest thing is not to look back, the endless if onlys, the uninvited what could have beens. I live not with foreknowledge but consequences; wishing I had foreknowledge, suffering the consequences of not. 

… how poems become sites for mourning—not in fixed ritual repetitions (prescribed liturgy) but as mobile and specific areas for reflection and projection, holding areas, havens. Not words received for comfort but works actively discovered in the course of searching. 

Not to “get over” (as a disease) but as a way of “living with” (as a condition). 

The nightmare reality that erupts in the daylight like burnt offerings at a pizza parlor. You say skeleton, I say: Can you say that again? That’s no phallus, that’s the election of my impotence, writ large. As in: Me transformo, you pale face. Me tranformo, you the unexpected product of a sudden revelation. 

I love art so much … but it never returns the favor. 

Poems are stuck in black and white, which means that every color connected to a poem is proof of the inner life of words. 

As surely as God invents the idea of God but also of godlessness. 

Angels brush against spattered brushwork, gory purple eyes loom out amidst hearts pierced by arrows. 

Every misfigured thought a dialect of its moment. (Say! Don’t you speak in a dialect too?)

Sometimes I am disturbed even by my ability to function. I feel, at times, a shell of myself; a shell of a shell of myself.

Each day I know less than the day before. People say that you learn something from such experiences, but I don’t want that knowledge and for me there are no fruits to these experiences, only ashes. I can’t and don’t want to “heal”; perhaps, though, go on in the full force of my disabilities, coexisting with a brokenness that cannot be accommodated, in the dark.

Right after Emma died I could not stand to look at the photos of her—and there are lots, because she made so many self-portraits. I felt each photo was a lie—flaunting her presence in the face of her being gone. Now I see that the photographs are what she left me—that she is present to me in the way these haunted and haunting works are present. 

Whale on beach like wolf at wedding: Bark is bigger than bite but insulates tree.
—For Yunte Huang, after Charlie Chan

Poetry should be silent, unread, invisible, inconceivable. The true poem can never be written or heard. 

Not ideas but the idea of ideas; not questions but the inadequacies of answers; not currency but against the tides.

Better a weak jaw than an iron fist. 

Stalling is my inspiration.

It’s what I’d like to undo that keeps me up at night. 

The problem with teaching poetry is perhaps the reverse of that in other fields: Students come to it thinking it’s personal and relevant but I try to get them to see it as formal, structural, historical, collaborative, and ideological. What a downer!

Orphaned by the world, with no home but there. 

If you don’t make a mistake thrice, how do you learn from it? 

If x is x, then y is y and o, o.

So much of what we can’t imagine we are forced to experience. And even then we can’t imagine it. 

I’ve got a chiasmus as big as all Detroit and as old as the Second Avenue el. 

He had the honeyed lips of someone who’d been in poetry too long, whose idealism had years ago become a manner of speech and whose only aesthetic aspirations were for a revival of the ideas he had rejected in his youth, as if you could get a second chance to bite the apple of the new and not come out smelling like a candied turkey in a slow dance medley. It was a fork in the road, but he had always favored spoons; and now, facing the music to which he had never dared to listen, he dove into the waters he has always reviled, ready to be eaten alive by the sharks of his proudly arrogant misjudgments. 

This is the difference between a sentence and paradise. A sentence comes to an end, paradise has no beginning. 

China export: “NOT MADE IN CHINA” T-shirts
U.S. export: “NOT MADE IN AMERICA” T-shirts

It was the kind of day you read about in the movies. 

What’s unseen but said’s as consequent as what’s apparent but unspoken. Words perform for inner eye we o’erlook at pleasure’s peril. 

Listening for inaudible songs in a sonic sea, I lost my bearings, falling, uncaring, into traps of my own despairing. 

Always treat advice with skepticism (especially this advice). 

Freedom from ideology’s ideology’s designer jeans. 

Ideology’s veils are imaginary; the freedom from these veils delusional. 

Universalism is moral; particularism ethical. 

(But every apple has a core, every horizon a philosophic song …) 

We are gathered at a site of dialogue. As chaotic as our discussion may sometimes seem, we are always making patterns with them. 

Most of those patterns are lost in the dark matter of the mystic writing pad.

When I say “we” I don’t mean everyone, or perhaps anyone else, just a sense of some collectivity beyond myself.

“We aced the shit out of that asshole.” 

My advice to young poets is always: Start your own magazine or press & publish your own work and those of your contemporaries whose poems seem most crucial for the art, as you perceive it. And respond as much as possible, through poetics and reviews, to this work. Articulate its values, value its articulations. The web certainly makes such publishing easier, but it does not solve the hardest part, finding a community of other poets that allows for active and intense exchange, not based just on location or prior friendship or like- mindedness, but on the qualities and quiddities of the work as it unfolds in time and space, on earth and in the heavens of our “image nations.” 

Our inalienable rights are inevitably alienated; in this way, capitalism seems to merge with destiny; or our fate, through a darkened glass, is projected onto the world of which we are sentient. 

So then it’s necessary to be reminded, from time to time, that hegemony is something to work for rather than only and ever to recoil against. 

I’ve grown so accustomed to the dark that I can hardly imagine anything more than shadows. 

The Jew is a textual construction.

You’re not there even when you’re there. 
You’re not gone even when you’ve went. 
You’re still near even when you’re gone. 

In poetics, nothing is new except the exaggerations. 

Beauty lies, I have always thought; a wonderful deception while it lasts. 

The Beach trilogy (a family saga over three generations): Seagull with Broken Wing, Rocks in Basket, Shadows in the Sand … 

Elliptical poetry: language poetry’s bark without its bite.

The absence of ornament is an ornament.

Robin’s “Wandering Jew or Nomad,” cut from the leather back of his family’s Salt Lake City rocker: valuable more for what it is than to look at it. But isn’t that true of all of us? (Something to touch amidst the loss.) 

Here’s the message: There is no message.

I’m talking to you, you motherfucker.

You want a message, go to a massage parlor. 

I hope I have your attention now. 

Your message has been scrubbed because of possible contamination by a virus.

“... a highly concentrated state of intoxication—a state which, like madness, frequently enables the victim to imitate the outward demeanor of one in perfect possession of his senses.”
—Poe, Pym

It’s always darkest at night. A darkness day can’t touch. 

But we learn to live with it or anyway it learns to live with us. 

Think snow and see Boca. 

Crane is not metrical so much as parametrical. 

My palsied heart and I agree …

It may be impossible but the concept is that we articulate our judgments, preferences, and beliefs while being aware that these are not universally shared; this holds a special problem for those whose beliefs include a belief in the universality of their beliefs. 

The cause of the cold is not the cold.

We live facing the blinding sun of the not-yet born, in the shade of the dead. Meaning is the liminal space where the dead live in us as we look toward the future.

“It is all very confused but more confused than confusing.”
—Stein, To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays

“Shadow, come, and take this shadow up.” 

Are we here yet? 

For now, I go hour to hour … 

If you are not part of the problem, you will be. 

Charles Bernstein is the author of Topsy-Turvy and Pitch of Poetry (both University of Chicago Press). In 2019, he was awarded the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry. With Tracie Morris, Bernstein co-edited Best American Experimental Writing 2016 (Wesleyan University Press).