The question that has to be asked

Turning to Fiction, Donna Masini
[112pp, 13.95, W.W.Norton, New York]
Echolalia, Deborah Bernhardt
[74pp, $14.95, Four Way Books, New York]

In a review Sandra Tappenden wrote a while back for my Exultations & Difficulties website, she asked of a particularly prosy passage in a poem, 'How is this poetry?' As an editor, when I read that I hesitated slightly because it's the kind of question people who don't like 'modern poetry' often ask ..... but then, of course, I realised it was THE question that had to be asked, because what she had in front of her was, to her mind, a chunk of not especially interesting prose masquerading as a poem. It happens. And I remembered this while I was reading Donna Masini's Turning To Fiction.

There are different ways prose masquerades as poetry. One is where the writing actually
is prose chopped up, and if it was presented as prose you'd not bat an eyelid, it'd be as good or bad as it happened to be. What it won't have is any of the qualities I'd suggest are essential if something is going to be called a poem, among which I'd say were a definite inner and outer design, an unassailable sense of itself as something made and not to be broken or tampered with, and a complete resistance to paraphrase. Alternatively, what you might get could be neither one thing nor the other, to whit:

     It's a dingy shiver of longing in a cross of red leash,
     shrugged up to a parking meter, and I'm watching it -
     inside an unfamiliar Starbucks, waiting for my ride,
     notebook open, 7 a.m. - sort of sniffing around,
     yearning for a word, a rub, a scratch. I want to go to
     the curb and pat him but that would be immediate

Here you have a kind of fuzzy quasi-poetic first phrase (which must be poetry because it's difficult to figure out what it actually means) and a somewhat unusual 'shrugged', but then the information about the writer being in Starbucks (must be a writer: has a notebook) is not necessary to the poem, it's a prose manoeuvre, and of itself not interesting, and that last sentence, with its 'immediate gratification' is really leaden. If this is anything more than not very well-written diary then I'm on the wrong train. But now, here's your test: arrange this shambles into lines so it looks like a poem. Donna Masini does it thus:

     It's a dingy shiver of longing
     in a cross of red leash,
     shrugged up

     to a parking meter, and I'm watching it -
     inside an unfamiliar Starbucks, waiting
     for my ride, notebook open, 7 a.m. -

     sort of sniffing around, yearning
     for a word, a rub, a scratch.
     I want to go to the curb

     and pat him but that would be immediate
         (from 'St. Augustine's Dog')

I'm very interested in line-breaks, and Masini is quite big on them. For example, the first poem in the book, 'A Sign', has

     ........ I am
     thinking about sex, about the way we
     sleep - desire thrumming, the air

     thick with it, without coming
     across the borders of our yearning.

And I'm sorry, but that line-break at 'coming' is just SO obvious..... an obviousness made all the more cringe-inducing by the dreadfulness of the line that follows it ('The Borders Of Our Yearning' would make a great title for a terrible book). She does this kind of thing lots, presumably because along with chopping everything up into stanzas it helps make what she's doing seem more like poetry.

Masini's book is actually about what it says it is: it's about how we fictionalise aspects of our lives, and turn to fictions in our heads and on our bookshelves to make sense of things and to get through difficulties. It is also a book driven by loss, loss as in divorce, and also the premature deaths of what I take to be four of the poet's close friends.

Which is all serious and interesting, and which makes it all the more disturbing to have to say that this is more or less completely horrible as poetry. As something else it might be okay. It wouldn't be a barrel of laughs, but it could be insightful and
rewarding. But poetry? Give me a break. Take a look at the start of 'Attending':

     I want too much
     to help. There's nothing to do
     at the side of the bed, nothing

     I can say to change
     what has already begun to take place.
     To take
her place. Occasionally

     She gets thirsty.
Ice chips! I cry,
     finally useful, I
     strain to spoon the chips, sideways, into her

     mouth so I don't drip water on her gown.

Putting this stuff into little three-line clusters doesn't make it a poem. The trouble is, it's all so sensitive and caring and thoughtful, and so many of the poems tell about unhappy childhood memories and heartbreaking adult concerns that you can easily imagine a poetry audience lapping it up, especially as Ms. Masini appears, from the photograph on the cover, to be a very personable poet.

While Masini's book is full of stuff that looks like poems but isn't really, Deborah Bernhardt's Echolalia is full of stuff that doesn't always look quite like what you might call conventional poetry, but it has more poetry on one page than Masini gets into a hundred. Indeed, some of it is in prose, which proves my point. It is also bursting with wit and personality, something I neglected to mention Donna Masini's book was more or less completely lacking. And whereas Masini seems content to say things as ordinarily as possible, Bernhardt says what she likes in her own ear- and eye-catching fashion and revels in it. Here she goes, from the top of page one:


     on your sort-by-word setting, a book of poems.
     If you like words, you favor a kinda kind of words.

     Latinate - that could be a prediliction.
     Or Gen X Froot Loop Soho words. Or lots

     of esses, in general, could get to you, like
the suss
     of immense stockings
. Or maybe

     unfurling combinations: hybrid high bird, vis--vis, visa visa, arriba arriba.
     I think one of the addresses in this here poem

     might like
fire-fangled feathers dangle down. F-stop. F-forward,
     to the end of the mind, all the way up to preference Q,

     maybe even all the way up to R (no one ever knows a mind
     all the way to Z). (cf. V. Woolf).....

Bernhardt's way with language is playful but also careful. (Now I've said this I have to figure out what I mean. Hold on. I have to scratch my head. Oh right, this is it, maybe: (close brackets))

I really like a crafted poem (there really should be no other kind), but not all crafted poems. The thing is, some poems are crafted and look it and are often boring as a consequence. Other poems can at first glance seem like they've just been tipped on to the page from out of a bin and sometimes they have. Sometimes they haven't. But the art of working hard and shaping and choosing and making the crafted poem appear casual and spontaneous is a difficult one, and those poets and poems that pull it off are among my favourites, not least because that apparent casualness is usually an indication that the poet is not completely up themselves and the poems are readable and you want to read them again. (At this point I should point out that this is not a rocket surgery sort of scientific point of academic literary criticism, or even remotely provable; it's more along the lines of an I know I'm right kind of thing, but I also know there are exceptions, so let's move on along....and quickly.)

In the last couple of lines in the book, in the poem entitled 'Fax To E.E.Cummings' Bernhardt says

     I want random;
     i want i don't know

but there is nothing at all random about these restless and witty and often bewildering poems. There is nothing random about

     The isn't of art.
     Lose something every.
    Lost door, hour badly spent.

     Practice losing, losing.
     travel. None will bring.
         (from 'Her Lost Draft')

As with Masini's book, a sense of loss haunts this collection (a dead lover, I think) but it never approaches either the self-conscious or the mawkish. Instead, Bernhardt finds in words and language, with all their complexes of patterns and relationships of sense and sound, a way, perhaps only partial but a way nevertheless, of saying what it's like to be caught up in everything from loss to exuberance, from pain to joy. And since the distance between feeling bad and feeling good is sometimes a very long one and then sometimes not there at all, the poems are bewildering in a good way. Never mind the number of times you may flounder; it is equalled by the number of times things make sense, and made all the more interesting and pleasurable by the constant of Bernhardt's voice, which has charm and wit all over the place.

     Dear Search Committee:

     Since the death of a beloved
     my aesthetic has changed. My new work
     is perhaps traditional or epiphanic
     in its use of consistent narrative
     (the thread of my loved one's death).

     Dear S:

     Do your own narration.
          (from 'There Is No Towards')

I'm not one to look for 'key poems' in books, but perhaps a key poem here is 'The Urge To Say', a pantoum (of the less-than-rigid variety: not all the repeated lines are repeated exactly, but they're close, which is, of course, modern) and it's here that we find the echolalia of the book's title, and its next-of-kin palilalia:

     Doctor Carl Bennett has Tourette's,
     phonic tics: echolalia and palilalia.
     He hoots
Babaloo Mandel, Floyd Flake.
     All these railings.

     Phonic tics - echolalia and palilalia:
    the repeating of single words, ends of sentences (yours, someone else's).
    All these railings
    along the staircase of disorder.

    The repeating of single words, ends of sentences
    is something to hold on to.
    Along the staircase of disorder
    synapses of logic firefly.

    Something to hold on to:
    associations overlapping memory.
    Synapses of logic firefly.
    I try to control my breathing.

    Associations overlap memory.
    Which aspects of metabolism are controllable?
    I try to control my breathing,
    Then forget how to breathe entirely.

It's possible to haul a bunch of things from this, among them the play of 'phonic tics' (can you hear the echo there of phonetics?), the different meanings of 'railings', the necessity of finding 'something to hold on to' amid the wonderfully nervy 'synapses of logic firefly', and the roles of memory and association and control.

Not the least of Bernhardt's achievements in this book is to take the well-worn strategies of disjunction and word-play and found phrases and the lyricism and banalities of the everyday and make of them something eminently readable and worth returning to.

        Martin Stannard, 2006