Poetry News

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Haters Beware: The Rumpus Reviews Charles Bernstein's Recalculating

By Harriet Staff


Over at the Rumpus today, Sean Singer reviews Charles Bernstein's latest book, Recalculating. And for those of you who have been listening to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E haters, Singer urges you to drop any preconceived notions you may have about this book and just give it the ol' college try (i.e. read it). Singer begins:

Ignore those who “don’t read Charles Bernstein” because of tired and tedious attitudes about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Charles Bernstein’s Recalculating is one of the most fascinating books of the year. Recalculating shows a wider range of tones, modes, forms, and political engagement than the anti-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E folks would have you believe. It uses slapstick, prose, fragment, aphorism, lyric invention, and artifice to do something fantastic. It forces the reader into an active position. Not content with a passive reader, the book demands reading become a creative act.

Sounds right up our alley! Singer digs into the contents of the book and isolates three impulses in operation:

There are several, sometimes contradictory impulses at work in Recalculating. The first impulse is a series of profound prose-poem meditations on the art of writing and reading poems. These are written in the style of Kenneth Koch’s “My Olivetti Speaks” and are called “The Truth in Pudding,” “How Empty is My Bread Pudding,” “Recalculating,” “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links,” and “Unready, Unwilling, Unable.” These prose-poem ars poetica explorations are perhaps experiments with collage and are ways to overturn, in a legal sense, of lyric poetry clichés that we read everywhere. For example, ideas swirl, collide, and contradict: “I embrace a poetics of bewilderment. I don’t know where I am going and never have, just try to grapple as best as I can with where I am. The poetry that most engages me is not theoretically perspicacious, indeed it has a poetics and an aesthetics but not a predetermining theory; it is multiform and chaotic, always reformulating and regrouping.”

The second impulse are a series of Bernstein’s fresh translations of Baudelaire, Celan, Pessoa, Mandelstam, and others. The third impulse is elegy. Recalculating is, above all, an experience of the speaker wringing himself back from personal tragedy, the death of Bernstein’s daughter, Emma (1985-2008). By all accounts, Emma was a beautiful and challenging photographer, and, as the daughter of two artists, was raised to think and act as an artist. I can’t comprehend writing anything if either of my daughters died, and Recalculating is a testament to the strength and rigor of Bernstein’s mind and life.

The three seemingly competing impulses in Recalculating are unified by their attempt at “listening to the dead,” either by overturning dead ideas in poetry, by retranslating dead poets, or by listening to the energies of a dead artist, the writer’s daughter. In this way the book is most closely aligned not to the avant-garde or to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, but to the Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowksi (1530-1584) whose book Laments, are a series of elegies for his daughter Urszula.

Singer has more to say about Bernstein's latest, here, at the Rumpus.

Originally Published: November 8th, 2013