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cyberpunk poetry found! plus a mezze tray

By Stephen Burt

The search for cyberpunk poetry, begun last week, has turned up a good candidate: Jasper Bernes’ Starsdown. I may have a lot more to say about it elsewhere, so for now and right here I’ll just say that it’s the poetry the world of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash would include if that world could include really good poetry (and I’m not sure it could). Bernes’ book is (like Stephenson’s) a Pacific Rim work too– it’s all about Los Angeles– and its closest analog within the poetry world is probably Joshua Clover’s last book; it has, I should add, very little in common with the science fiction poetry promoted by Suzette Hayden Elgin and others, though if you are looking for intersections between the genres you might also look there too.
Bernes has a blog, and the blog has some neat questions…


…OK, sometimes the neat questions are written in slippery neo-Marxist theoryspeak, but they’re still neat questions: I take the last sentences of the manifesto linked above (“On the Poverty of Internet Life”) to mean, translated into another dialect of English, something like “Is it time to stop trying to make poetic language slippery, and see instead whether it can help us imagine a place to stand?”
Bernes has also, he says, been reading Ange, presumably the Brooklyn-and-Manhattan poems of her cool second book. (While tracking something else down I came across a music blogger’s admiring take on that same book. Go Ange!)
This week I’ve also been reading… or looking-again-at… Carol Potter’s Short History of Pets; Mike Scharf’s For Kid Rock/ Total Freedom; Edna St. Vincent Millay; Forrest Gander’s essays (here’s another admiring review); Charlotte Mew’s Collected Poems.
Here’s a bit of Potter:
Two draft horses on the top of the green hill hold the hill in place.
Massive bodies, metal shoes.
The great weight-bearing bulk of the both of them
standing on a green dome against a clear sky.
This is the known world and they’ve got it pinned.
Grass coming in green is not a bell banging
beneath them. Smell of dirt being dislodged
as the grass grows is not a grave being dug.
Here’s a bit of Scharf, one of the multiple handfuls of really startling lyric or short anti-lyric poems in part 3 of his five-part book (the fourth part is a remarkable, challenging essay about power, systems, and complicity, the second part is a set of lists that are less like most poetry than like conceptual art):
The sound for the voice box has to be fantastic,
the playback perfect– you have to have
a place to physically put the past
to move it.
Here’s a smooth sestet from one of the later, not much remarked sonnets Millay wrote when she could no longer sound gaily Bohemian, and took long views instead– with its interest in geologic or astronomical time, it’s close to being science fictional poetry too, though of course it’s Shelleyan as well:
Safe in their linen and their spices lie
The kings of Egypt; even as long ago
Under these constellations, with long eye
And scented limbs they slept, and feared no foe.
Their will was law; their will was not to die:
And so they had their way; or nearly so.
Here’s Forrest Gander: “The thorn-bug and her nymphs clustered on a green stem, the woman at the nursing home stirring her tea with a frozen Charlotte, the fliight attendants deadheading back to Pittsburgh, the boy in the dog’s bed curled into a question mark, starlight bending near the limb of the sun, coffee cut with honeysuckle, lagoons of coal slurry leaking into an abandoned strip mine, the faces in foreign newspapers of those we have bombed, tomatoes ripened with ethylene gas, two 300+ pound men in a canoe fishing for allgator gar, fingerling birches, the thrushes already quiet by mid-morning, and my dead friend and his dog [named] Charlie Parker peeing together in the snow: these are the insurmountable a priori of my poems. Exposed, I close my eyes.”
And here’s some Mew, the whole of the poem “From a Window” (whose line-initial indentations I’m afraid I can’t figure out how to reproduce):
Up here, with June, the sycamore throws
Across the window a whispering screen;
I shall miss the sycamore more, I suppose,
Than anything else on the earth that is out in green.
[Notice the way she stops you, slightly, by throwing “out in” out in what would otherwise be another perfect pentameter.]
But I mean to go through the door without fear,
Not caring much what happens here
When I’m away:–
How green the screen is across the panes
Or who goes laughing along the lanes
With my old love all the summer day.
Non-academic Charlotte Mew fan site here; biography here. Is it any wonder Thomas Hardy thought her poems were very, very good?


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 15th, 2007 by Stephen Burt.