Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Alan Bernheimer's gray apples

There are several interesting poems in Alan Bernheimer's new collection The Spoonlight Institute. One of them conspired especially to provoke an interesting sequence of ruminations:


Here for now a small wonder
tea's velvet tongue on fluted teeth

nobody's fault prevents the poor
from being born, with spectators

no wonder foreign objects
contrary to light
touch and go numb
possibly people or plants

half indoors, top half outside
seeing stars at the edge of insomnia
and gray apples at dawn

number, uneasy and underfoot
in some lifelong radio outskirts

The title of the poem is already a semantic riddle: what exactly are visible means? If it's a phrase used to describe the poor, who are often said to be without visible means, what are these means and why aren't they visible? If I am poor and have no visible means, is it permitted to have invisible ones? Is a bank account visible? Would rich people then be easy to spot and poor persons not? Indeed the phrase "visible means," originally perhaps some kind of juristical euphemism for "homeless," seems rather foolish from the start.

Maybe we should not try to analyze this poem in this fashion. After all, the standard semantic no longer applies here. The elements of language still signify, but the words and the images do not always connect or associate with each other to form or communicate thoughts, at least not in the same way that we use language in normal speech. Or do they?

Perhaps we should not think about the poem but just let it roll around our minds, as if were testing a new variety of wine in an oversized crystal glass. Or we could just listen to the music of the language. The word apple in English sounds sort of stupid, more like a hiccup, not at all like the more elegant Apfel in German. But put "gray" with its overlong vowel sound in front of apple and it sounds much better—how now gray apple?

There are a couple reasons why it's ok to look at the poem analytically. (One used to call this interpretation, until Susan Sonntag told everybody to stop doing it in her 1966 essay Against Interpretation.) The first is that Bernheimer's poems generally are well-ordered and make sense grammatically. A typical Bernheimer poem in the present collection consists of two or three declarative sentences, which might be seen as premises, followed often by a question, finishing with another declarative sentence (conclusion). The grammatic architecture, in other words, remains for the most part intact, and the sentences appear to progress dialectically, sometimes even syllogistically. It seems that structurally there is internal logic afoot.

Another reason which moves us toward interpretation lies in the nature of the language itself. When traditional semantics are abandoned, the result is that one struggles harder to detect the meanings of phrases or sequences of words, or else one more frequently gives up the attempt altogether. It's in the nature of language that words want to mean something, and then combine with other words to form larger meanings. It's rather like an electronic circuit board where all the connections are disrupted. What happens when you apply the juice? Blue sparks, little spots of blue light start flashing as the circuits scout around for others to interact with, and one imagines perhaps a lovely blue plasma cloud hanging over the whole system.

The title of Alan's poem suggests that the poem is about the poor, the awful inevitability of whose existence is suggested in the second stanza, and whom we feel uneasy about because they are underfoot, marginalized, locatable on the outskirts of our normal reception area. The poor are not like the rich who can enjoy "tea's velvet tongue on fluted teeth." The poor are only half in this world, and they are also half out of it, like we are when we lie half-awake nights, and observe how apples lose their color and become gray in the demi-light.

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The Spoonlight Institute by Alan Bernheimer is available at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, http://www.spdbooks.org/ .

1 comment:

  1. insightful interpretation! don't worry about sontag the closet zionist.