In some fundamental ways, and at this far-flung point along the literary timeline, it's hard to believe that this is the first Charles Bernstein collection issued by a mainstream press. After all, here is a poet and essayist who has been publishing steadily for thirty-five years, yet not only that, an academic of some renown whose reputation has only become greater over those almost-four decades. What perhaps makes sense of this delay in making Bernstein's poetry available to a potentially wider audience is his foundational role within the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school and his guilt-by-association with that movement's so-called “difficulty.” In fact, what All the Whiskey in Heaven makes abundantly clear is that Bernstein, anyway, is an immensely readable poet whose writing is varied, investigational, and quite often robustly hilarious.
Generally speaking, when compiling a selected edition, poets risk having their growing pains laid bare, or seeing dividing lines inscribed deeply between phases of their work. Picking up at random such a collection, readers may find themselves drawn to later, more 'mature' work, in lieu of earlier writing that plants the seeds for techniques, themes or ideas that eventually flower as the poet's career continues. Not so with Bernstein, who has been a rigorous and unflappable experimenter from the beginning. Just flipping through All the Whiskey in Heaven's pages it initially appears to be an anthology, rather than writing by a singular author, based solely on the amazing varieties of line lengths, stanzaic choices, and word movement/placement upon the page. More so, it's not as if Bernstein settled into one method of presenting a written poem at this juncture or that period – you're just as likely to find a poem comprised of, for example, single-lined stanzas, such as “War Stories” from 2002, as you would in “Dodgem,” from 1978. For Bernstein, what matters most is the words themselves, with conveyance secondary; which is not to say that such conveyance is an afterthought – a tic or a trick – to dress up the language of the poem, but an active ingredient that elevates the writing to a higher level of enjoyability.
Speaking of words, let's look at a poem from 1978, “'Take Then, These...'”:
Take then these nail & boards
which seams to lay me down
in perfect semblance
of the recognition, obelisks
that here contain my pomp
These boards come down
& stack & size me
in fact-fast struts
Take then, push then
as if these sums
sans propre, sans intent
This early work could stand intact as a random example of Bernstein's poetics. If there were to be some knee-jerk irritability by jaded readers to the impishness of Bernstein's punning, his deployment of ampersands, the slippery syntax, odd or contentious word choices (obelisks, pomp, propre), such complaining takes a back seat to the poem's overall effect, visually as well as aurally; listen to the locutionary beauty of “These boards come down / & stack & size me / proper, length-wise / in fact-fast struts / 'here' 'there',” then reread it as a whole, noticing how its “meaning” – for some the biggest bugaboo they'd cop to when criticizing (for lack of a better adjective) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry – eludes easy response. Like much of Bernstein's work, meaning is not so much nonexistent as in flux; and even if it were “nonexistent,” what at heart is the matter with that? Is an essential ingredient of poetry a fixed and stagnant “meaning”? Isn't one of its strengths the varieties of impressions it can conjure? I pity the reader who would limit themselves, and diminish their poetic experience by only seeking out poems that “mean something,” at least immediately.
Having said that, there would likely be detractors who would cite, for instance, the well-known poem “Lift Off,” included here, which Bernstein acknowledges as a transcription from the correction tape of an IBM Selectric typewriter. It begins:
HH/ ie,s obVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineocpcv i iibalfmgmMw
er,, me"ius ieigorcy¢jeuvine+pee. )a/na.t” ihl”n,s
What appears, at first glance, to be 'nonsense' takes on more and more “meaning” as one continues to digest it. Since computer users today casually familiar with backspacing may not know about (or have conveniently forgotten) the methodology behind utilizing corrective ribbon, once they consider the piecemeal or fragmentary nature of “Lift Off”'s typed figures, accumulating into an aggregate of nebulous possibility, they may begin to see a narrative beneath its facade – words suggested such as observe, dug, Seine, occupy, me, us, ignore, and pee tease out implications from the collective subconscious. Even if readers didn't have the benefit of Bernstein's explanation of the genesis of “Lift Off” – which reverberates further the hilarity of its title – upon closer inspection and patient reflection they would find much more here to consider.
“Dear Mr. Fanelli,” from 1999, seems like another example of a “found” poem, yet it's not. Bernstein's facility with tone and voice is marvelous:
I have to admit, Mr. Fanelli, I
think the 79th street station's
in pretty bad shape
& sometimes at night
as I toss in my bed
I think the world's
not doing too good
either, & I
wonder what's going
to happen, where we're
headed, if we're
headed anywhere, if
we even have heads.
If you've made it this far but are still on the fence regarding Bernstein, he may be a poet you will never enjoy, which is a shame, because, as All the Whiskey in Heaven bears out, his work is varied, vigorous, and above all, vivacious. This is a welcome and long-overdue collection; its capacity for surprise diminished only by a stubborn reader's impatience or need for instant gratification.