The mind is a smelly heap of compost comprising our greatest hopes, delusions and sexual fantasies about robots. We explain its function with analogies to computers or other machines, trying to impose a structure on a ghost. So when our bodies and minds start to fail, we panic. We grope about in the dark for a user's manual, a crossword puzzle or anti-depressant that will put our brains in the order that we suppose it should have. Seth Berg explores this dark space in his first book of poems, Muted Lines from Someone Else's Memory.
This struggle for control is mirrored in the structure of the book and Berg's tight dedication to line and syllable. The book is broken down into three sections that give clues as to how one might read the poems they contain. The first section, “Structural Encoding,” contains poems in familiar forms, especially couplets, that point one to the pleasure in carefully counted syllables. In “Phonemic Encoding,” this pleasure is enhanced by the invitation to roll around in sound, especially near-rhyme and internal rhyme: the “gnome-like” speaker of “In the Land of Giants” might gather “fennel and stinging nettle / to take to market and barter.” By the time the reader reaches “Semantic Encoding,” she may begin to wonder if Berg is re-wiring her brain.
Muted Lines is a space of slowness and nightmare, a silence where one can forget the number two or storms force a bird to fly “achingly in place.” Many of Berg's poems have a narrative quality, but all have a poet's carefulness with language. His keen eye and usually short lines train us to hone in on the minute: bugs dance a “surrendered ballet”; minnows become “jeweled relics”; corn snakes “collect mathematics”; pre-verbal, telepathic children laugh to appease stupid-faced adults. Through these tiny beasties and the often slimy and body-part ridden landscape they dance in, the reader can see a speaker in love with the body's disobedience, the mind's failure. When an old woman sets to weeding a garden in the narrator's cerebellum, instead of warding her off, he invites the process of alteration and memory to continue. This is not destruction, after-all but adventure, invention, and the lens through which Berg presents it to us is lucid and precise, transforming the terror of free-fall into synaptic leap.