May 18, 2010
feminist sentences take time and space / look new like this: | Soham Patel
Hundreds of millions of years ago, days were many hours shorter.
All things, sounds, stories, and beings were related, and this complexity was more obvious. It was not simplified by ideas of relationship in one person’s mind.
Paths of energy were forced to stay in the present moment by being free of reference, making it impossible to focus on two things at once, and showing by its quietness that energy of attention is as much a source of value and of turbulence as energy of emotion.
As lava bursts from the ground to cover the planet, it also freed water, which escaped as massive billowing fog, a contradicting ambition of consciousness to acquire impressions and retain strong feeling.
Fog is a kind of grounded cloud composed like any cloud of tiny drops of water or of ice crystals, forming an ice fog.(i)
There are six sentences here—the beginning of “Fog,” a poem by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Much like the sentences in “Resistance,” the poem Lyn Hejinian wrote and studies in her essay “The Rejection of Closure,” the sentences in “Fog” exercise a range of syntactic strategies that are working to connect statements and form conjunctions between ideas and things. Berssenbrugge begins by subverting the traditional subject-then-verb clause construction of a sentence and qualifies temporality first before arriving at the first sentence’s subject: “days” and already in eleven words, the poem situates in an intensely comparative moment of time without even having to utter explicitly many particularities of the temporalities being compared. That is to say readers might intuit that “days were much shorter” [than they are now], or that “complexity was more obvious” [“Hundreds of millions of years ago”], but Berssenbrugge is keen on keeping the sentences open and thus what Hejinian would call “maximally excited” by way of her subtle omissions. The second sentence continues on to coalesce on itself as a list of interconnected elements followed by a definitional inversion (complexity becomes obvious). Complexity returns as a pronoun, its binary opposition arrives in the sentence that follows and the poem nods to a collective readership by way of refusing the possibility of simplification ever taking place “in one person’s mind.” A passive voice then forces a stable notion of subject out of the poem’s moment just before a vertical burst of lava and fog erupts amidst the long lines many have noted are signature in Berssenbrugge poems after The Heat Bird (1983). What happens here that is also so awesomely Berssenbrugge is a turn towards a doubling-up of narration; an unfolding that becomes activity both in the poem and about the poem. As in, the “paths of energy” being “forced to stay in the present moment” force the reader to meditate as the poem becomes a meditation over turbulences and emotion within the moment of transmission the poem is holding now. It is as if the reader turns into the path of energy. The work continues to engage a reading that is both directive and generative allowing consciousness in within the realms of lyric emotion before returning to the scientifically narrative register that begins the poem. All while still the fog, through Berssenbrugge’s long sentences, retains its multivalence—omnipresent as water, as cloud, as crystals, as ice.
Since water is 800 times denser than air, investigators were long puzzled as to why fogs did not quickly disappear through fallout of water particles to the ground.
It turns out that the drops do fall, but in fog creating conditions, they are buoyed up by rising currents, or they are continually replaced by new drops condensing from water vapor in the air.
Their realism is enhanced by smoothing away or ignoring discontinuities in the fog, for images of what we really see when we travel. Beautiful, unrepeatable, fleeting impressions can be framed only within the contradicting ambition of her consciousness to acquire impressions and retain her feeling, a way of repeating a dream.
Large areas of the sky change from totally transparent to nearly opaque within a few minutes, although throughout a lifetime, the night sky appears remarkably constant.
Showing what they are without revealing what they are, paths of energy are transformed at the moment before their dissemination into an empty field, like dew you see on a spiderweb when the sun hits it, after there were spiders.(ii)
In a conversation with Arthur Sze, Berssenbrugge talks about how she found herself using the language of science, which she considers to be masculine, during “an early period” of feminism as an attempt at making masculine language feminine.(iii) The last six sentences that conclude the first part of “Fog” enhance realism and represent a narration that ceases to become a linear thing, it evaporates to become a thing of language explaining what fog is - and a thing of a modernist experimental lyric expressing the speaker’s desire to “[s]how… what [she is] without revealing what [she is],”. That is to say here the poem contains transparency by way of innovation that disintegrates the dichotomy between a traditionally considered to be masculine and a traditionally considered to be feminine concern with language: [what is explained by science/what is felt]. The identity formation of the poem accumulates a new layer once again by these gestures towards distancing and towards amalgamation.
Berssenbrugge persists with a seemingly detached (distanced) scientific language. Taking on a rhetorical stance that brings in the language of experts: “the investigators were long puzzled” as the poem begins to experiment with a conjectural exploration of fog’s phenomenology. The focus shifts to a subtle language of intimacy in the two sentence stanza that begins: “Their realism is enhanced…”. Here the poem throws feeling and emotion right in with the scientific language—discontinuity comes to be described as beautiful, fleeting, and “her” ambitions enter the poem along with a nod toward an oneiric ontology.
The first part of the poem ends with a return to the dynamic particularities of the temporal—making a phrasal addendum about time, “after there were spiders.” This final clause is both a demonstration of the poem’s own self-conscious moment of insistence by way of revision and a variance of a kind of repetition insistent on making one last expression on the way the poem thinks about how it will take up space and time before it ends as part one and moves to become part two.
In his book, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965, Timothy Yu situates Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge in a group of Asian American poets that include John Yau, Myung Mi Kim, and Tan Lin. One factor surrounding content building a categorization of these poets as experimental and Asian American includes the fact that they don’t write in the “familiar Asian American literary modes of autobiographical lyric and narratives of family history.”(iv) Berssenbrugge’s work also composes a lyric narrative that experiments by allowing her “I,” as Brian Kim Stefens acknowledges in “Remote Parsee: An Alternative Grammar of Asian North American Poetry,” to become “the site of all her narrative negotiations.”(v) The “I” in a Berssenbrugge poem is unstable, sure, it also expresses emotion and takes on a variance of language registers that do not prescribe agency over any of the objects in her poems—she finds a way to give voice without being chap or despotic. And that is easier said than done.
I looked to my right. Though sun wasn’t yet behind
them, it was bright near each tree at the top
of the ridge in silhouette. These were precise
too, on a closer edge outside time, being botanical
I mix outside time and passing time, across
which suspends a net of our distance or map
in veering scale, that oils sinuous ligaments
or dissolves them into a clear liquid of disparates
that cannot be cleaned. Its water glows like wing bars
and remains red and flat in pools. On the way
to that town there were green waist-high meters on the plain
There was a sharp, yellow line on the blacktop
In rain it remains sharp, but its dimension below the road
softens and lengthens through aquifers. The eagles’
wingbones began to stretch open with practicing, so
luminous space in their wings showed against the sky
giving each a great delicacy in turns (vi)
Berssenbrugge’s earlier stanzas manifest an identity-construction in a self-referential style of arrangement and rearrangement. The Heat Bird is a collection of four longer poems that come together through series to eventually to connect as one long narrative. Berssenbrugge directs the perpetual motion of the sentence as precise placeholders of time within each line through a heavy enjambment that often rejects end of sentence punctuations that might diminish the urgent need for the reader to fill in gaps/make leaps between sentences: “There was a sharp, yellow line on the blacktop/In rain it remains sharp, but its dimension below the road/softens and lengthens through aquifers.” Berssenbrugge’s reconciliation with the exterior/interior nature/culture question of perception occurs while their palimpsests remain visible with the image of paint and rain. Time suspends and a certain longing is uttered here in “The Heat Bird” but Berssenbrugge’s longing embraces itself as longing and cannot configure where desire ends and satiation begins because it is suspended on her “veering scale.”
For Berssenbrugge, a rendering sight of time’s affects over landscapes becomes a reminder of the importance and force of geography. Berssenbrugge’s longer lines quietly take up as much space as a Whitmanic yawp is loud. Devotion to the details of landscape through new uses of grammar compositions, collage work, and language leaps situate her work in a venue for a new kind of ecopoetry: an ecopoetry that moves beyond nature and place based writing to consider that matter(s) surrounding our ecological dilemma in a way that avoids didacticism and gloom and doom rhetoric—it sings instead. Her fragments and gaps are difficult but they also are dialed in on the reader, making sure for a referential pacing within the leaps. Her poetics is a mix of what’s mythic and everyday, urban and rural, tangible and philosophical—she is always mixing things, and perhaps a difficulty to make meaning or take her meaning(s) is what draws me in as a reader in to engage.
(i) “Fog” was originally published in Empathy (Station Hill Press, 1989). This version is from I Love Artists. (New California Poetry, 2006). 38. In an interview with Charles Bernstein, [http://www.artonair.org/archives/j/content/view/1339/131/] Berssenbrugge renders that “Fog,” a poem in twelve parts, is the only prose poem.
(ii) Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, “Fog,” I Love Artists. 38-39.
(iii) She also says to Sze in this conversation that her work is a “pragmatic response to modern life which fragmented and fast” and that she feels “committed to the sentence” and finds that in revision and writing she’ll “whittle away at the sentence” as “people don’t use sentences anymore.” Readings & Conversations: Reading by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge; Conversation with Arthur Sze. Lannan Foundation. Thunder Road Productions. 2000.
(iv) Timothy Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965, Stanford University Press (Stanford, 2009). 73.
(v) Brian Kim Stefans, “Remote Parsee: An Alternative Grammar of Asian North American Poetry,” Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s, ed. Wallace and Marks, The University of Alabama Press. (Tuscaloosa, 2002). 49.
(vi) Berssenbrugge, from “The Heat Bird” originally published in The Heat Bird (Burning Deck Press, 1983). Version borrowed from here is section 8 in I Love Artists 20-21.
Soham Patel: At the 2006, 2007, and 2009 Kundiman retreats, I had the honors of studying with Kazim Ali, Myung Mi Kim, Prageeta Sharma, and Staceyann Chin. On day one of every retreat, the organizers give each fellow a portrait of an Asian-American poet. The portrait is a representation of the fellow’s Patron Poet, someone the organizers consider to be an important poet for that particular fellow to read. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge was my Patron Poet at the 2007 retreat. My poems have been featured in Anti-, Foursquare, and Muse India. Some book reviews are in Boxcar Poetry Review and Arch. I am also one of the editors at A Joint Called Pauline.