Stride Magazine -

  X= by Stephen Berg
[University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0252070917, 62pp]

Stephen Berg is the founder and co-editor of the esteemed American Poetry Review
, himself the recipient of several notable prizes and the author of many books of poetry and prose.

X =
is his most recent, a beautifully haunting and beautifully produced collection. The devices of the text are alluringly simple: firstly, of these 45 pieces, 44 have enigmatic one-word titles: ‘Death’, ‘Mind’, ‘Zen’ and ‘Mortality’ (the one with a notably plural title is ‘Satori, the Immediate Presence of…’). Immediately, we are located in ‘the big themes’. I like that. This is serious poetry, but serious poetry handled with a deft irony and a musical ear. The second device is the prose poem, or perhaps these may be read as lineated verses with long, paragraph-like lines. The third, and most obvious device, is that every line or paragraph begins with the word ‘He’, give or take a single ‘She’, several ‘Which’s and some ‘Physical’s. The whole book chimes with a focussed, almost obsessive, dedication to these poetic processes, but also to the processes of existential excavation. As a precursor to the idea, one thinks back immediately to John Ashbery’s early poem ‘He’: ‘He cuts down the lakes so they appear straight / He smiles at his feet in their tired mules…’, but Berg takes the form to book-length and intense ends.

Berg’s programme is assisted by the panache of his style, and the bravery of his existential philosophy. Taking it’s thrust from a letter of Henry James, in which James wrote, ‘…remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another’s, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own…’ these poems explore the pleasures and pitfalls ­ the ‘terrible algebra’ ­ of consciousness and sub consciousness. They do so in depth, variety, and shocking detail, using the composer’s skill of ‘variations upon theme’.

‘Biker’ the first poem in the collection, begins: ‘he gets on / he gets off he gets on / he rolls it out / he lifts it down the steps / he gets on / he wobbles’, this repetitive telegraphic
style soon spinning into a headlong bike ride, which transforms the locatives of the external world, and of the physical act of riding, into a tract on self-esteem, grief and despair: ‘he pedals non-stop / he hopes to improve / he gives up happiness / he feels his despair even when biking…’. ‘Biking’ becomes a metonym that beautifully sidesteps the obvious pitfalls of metaphor making (the banal ‘life’s a bike ride’ poem one might imagine a novice to write) in an unexplicit manner.

If the ‘He’ device sometimes makes the poems merge into a whole in which individual lines might exist elsewhere, this is surely part of the intention, and there are always moments of brilliance within each poem; moments of poetic reflection that sing through a veil of Shlovsky-influenced ‘estrangement’. For example:

    he has never drunk a glass of water when thirsty
    he has always done it minutes before he felt the thirst’
       (from ‘Thirst’)

or the delightfully troubling phrasing of: ‘the pure idiotic marrow of the sky’; ‘the sweet mild transitives of death blown everywhere’; and, my ornithologist-head-on favourite, ‘he hears words like birds trying to talk human’. Whilst these little gems sparkle on their own poetic terms, the philosophic and spiritual is always very close behind, as in, ‘he believed light was the speechless consciousness we seek’ (from ‘Mouth’), although reading this now, I’m not entirely sure it isn’t supposed to be ironic.

There are repeated references to ‘His Mother’ and the Oedipus complex; conversations with the shrink, and some aggressive sexualised poetry in several of these poems ­ Berg is to be applauded, in my book, for actually daring to go there; a less brave poet would not have dared tackle these, or would perhaps have tackled them in less subtle, more head-on ways. I am also intrigued by the philosophic and poetic reasons for adopting the ‘He’ device ­ here is an absolute negation of the ‘I’, in lines such as:

    he knew the anonymous third person would not save him

    he practiced for the day when it would happen by erasing himself by never using
       the word ‘I’…

    he told fragmentary stories that summed up battles between the I and the

    he had finally stood on the threshold of the I at least glimpsed its false promise
       of release…

    he had exhausted the philosophical approaches to identity

    he has crippled himself with oneness and being

which are all from separate poems. Given the post-structuralist analysis that the ‘I’ may simply be a linguistic illusion and that, in biological terms at least, the continuity of self is also illusory (the cells of my body today are entirely different from those ‘I’ was born with; the hormonal make-up of my body at the end of the day is entirely different from that at the start), ‘I’ am both edified and worried: I feel an ‘I’, but I cannot locate it. Berg knows these conundrums inside out and it is a pleasure to read them so deftly handled in such lucid lines.

         © Andy Brown 2003