"Your Face an Epiphany for Distance and Crossing" 

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new book, Hello, The Roses (New Directions, 2013)—a chiseled, epigrammatically exact triumph of her late style—ranges across varied subject matter. Her form remains the collage series: scaffold mediations, uncanny scrims, tense shifts, drifting moods. Playfully grief-bound to experiential time, this poetic phenomenology of perception is charged with settings, environments, characters, plants, fashions, and animals: no ideas but in these things. Dauntingly original, even the Mallarmé of multiculturalism’s heroic phase of writers, Berssenbrugge’s impersonal autobiographies are attuned to shifts and renewals of perception attained in provisional orders of language. One of the strongest poems in this new collection, “Winter Whites,” a meditative disinterment of memory, alludes openly to the fin de siècle Symbolist in longish lines that stylistically mark this collection:

      Between my experiences, memories, objects, are silent rhythms and intervals.

      I go over an event as it develops beyond anxiety at whether a blank is in mind

      and red rock in the world or whether transparency is landscape

      Sunlight, night, despair and gems or solitude, reef, star dissolving into

      names make eventless the poet’s experience.
      Your face before me is an epiphany for distance and crossing.

Each complete thought line above echoes “Solitude, récif, étoile,” a line from 1893’s “Salut.” Individual utterance marks out poetic latitudes in which all reality dissolves, that no-place of linguistically inventive connection between word and ordinarily reified thing. Here is symbolism disabused, abstract but without decorative stanza: “red rock” and “landscape,” emblems of a radical North-American sensibility, replace Mallarmé’s shipwreck amid lightning, winter waves. The lines continue, “It’s not a dialectic of self-other”; and the poem, like many here, is a studied examination of the interpenetration of phenomena and perceiver along that plane of immanence which Deleuze thought of as the matter of concepts, disjunctive fusions of the empirical and the transcendental; the soul is vegetal.

“Pure Immanence,” titled after a brief book by Deleuze, opens: “I don't feel connected to what I experience, and I speak about it with him.” The fuzzy antecedent of “him,” thoroughly Ashberyan, complicates the experience of disconnection (compare with “I underestimate the power of my connection with other people, with animals and events that are coincident,” the book’s opening line)—a pervasive experience in her poetic expressions of detachment in this supposed age of connection. She continues: 

       A mobile relation to perception precedes affect.

       Through it I experience from material a screen of surroundings I slice
       through, like sun through woods onto a golden pool

       Blue overhead deepens, the flex of an animal flank, the horizon line of
       the mountain darkens and lowers.

Some of Paterson’s “there is a war between the mind and the sky” is here. Idiosyncratic pleasures in the above include straining abstractions (“mobile relation,” “material,” “a screen of surroundings”) juxtaposed with language both illustrative and contemporary. In a lesser poet’s hands, this would all be merely vague, a description of feelings. Individual lines would accrete, both continuing and departing from their forbears, but never building by surprising leaps through void gaps of intellectual consternation. Like Deleuze’s theory, Berssenbrugge’s poems correspond to the looser, postmodern versions of several philosophers, including the Kant of the The Critique of Pure Reason: “Perception... is the sole character of actuality.” Equally object tilting and scientistic, her lines scoop up this world along the way. And even her memorialized phenomena are asubjective: “My so-called memory of my experience is an index.... That’s why environment can’t be identified by a consciousness that’s coextensive with it.” Horizontally expansive, multi-vocal, percussively allusive, her poems purposefully slow ordinary time down; objects fill consciousness in. Replete with a committed patience, Berssenbrugge’s version of what Stevens called “the much mottled motion of blank time,” is a rooted but open “perspectivism” à la the Nietzsche of On the Genealogy of Morals: “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”: and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing...the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be.” These recondite poems are the real’s collaborator. Modulated to different epistemological frequencies, they work against mass habits, automatism, and the solidification of routines. Often plainspoken metaphors clench perception’s unruly unities of subjective act and objective entity (the perceived).

There’s a wilderness of discernments at work, especially in the poem “DJ Frogs,” which leads off the book’s second section: “We stand in a vernal marsh surrounded by spring peepers so loud I feel like a tuning fork vibrating.” After a first, persona developing, and characterological group of poems, this second section’s situation describes a verdant, natural landscape, and internalizes weather, climate, and geography. A clangorous lushness challenges the reader:

       Unrelated cross-rhythms refract cricket creaks and peeper croaks onto
       a maze of mirror surfaces.

      Amplification of wind in leaves expands to shimmering surface

      How does music assimilating in my body induce tiny muscles at the base  
      of my hair to contract, alter consciousness?

Visceral with intellection, and with timely positive terms (“cricket,” “peeper croaks,” “wind in leaves”), the poem reads as environmental traveler’s guide to phenomenological studies, a project of a life. If this volume largely builds on previous concerns—content: from genetics to philosophical biography; form: a collage aesthetic, at once allusive in its borrowings yet immediate or totally happening—its cosmology seems a new and fuller terrain, one inseparable from the sublime landscape of New Mexico, her adult homeland, home as well to a certain Laguna Pueblo-derived spirit—and the situation of the book’s third and final section.

“You might say the poetics of the culture of Laguna influenced me,” the Beijing-born Berssenbrugge remarked in a 2002. “The idea of what a story is, what a culture is, what social fabric is, what origins are, what the nature world means, and so on.” Laguna native Leslie Marmon Silko has been a lifelong friend: “Leslie is a huge influence on my work. We were young together, in our early twenties, living in New Mexico. I grew from our conversations and time together, engaging with life and the various things that happened to us.” Laguna Pueblo provided then, and still does today, a radical historical angle on US colonization: it remains a resistant, non-European place, and reflection on inevitably brings out the fine grain of its suffering, resilient history. (No end in sight.) And indeed after many poems approximating a cutup but bemused and awakened stream of consciousness, attuned to that vast dialectic of immediate sense perception, there’s a welcome turn, here, to her contemporary home in New Mexico, presently beset by epochal drought.

“Turquoise Shade,” recalls Silko’s recent memoir The Turquoise Ledge:

      I hear quail murmur beyond the wall in Sonoran Desert luxe from rain.
      Leslie created this place dense with being, with shade, the progenitor, shade
      inter-being with light stepping down to matter as onto new leaves of an
      ironwood tree in the wash

Experience and sensation create the sacred condition of a place. Like Silko (to whom the poem is dedicated), Berssenbrugge explores the relationship with the natural and spiritual worlds on what she calls “my mesa.” Her themes in this concluding section recall a statement from Kant’s Beweisgrund: “As regards reality, we obviously cannot think it in concreto without calling experience to our aid. For reality can only relate to sensation as material of experience and is not concerned with the form of the relationship, whereas, if we so chose, this form could be made subject to a play of fictions.” This consciously chosen form of sensation as fictive play, Valéry’s ideal of a meticulous imitation of the indeterminate, imprints the book’s culminating poem, “Immortals Having a Party”: “You could be a person or you could be an immortal, a wave in the environment. // How to describe energy without matter, without dimension or gods.” The poem impishly evokes emotional figures of divinity. “Air in air,” part two begins, “my mesa comes into being in world, like love in divinity.” The fourth and final passage of the quartet-like organization synthesizes many of the book’s threads: 

         There’s an absolute, the sacred, which manifests in the world, making it real.
         Sacred means saturated with being.

These bluesy lines of paused breaths and ontology—alive with hope, but largely avoiding the disconcerting politics of our present—end:

          Prayer and memory share this sum unfixed, as in woods of “unbounded
          ambiguity,” of the potential to awe like timing when music shapes the
          voice of the immortal, magic time that reverses and recovers.

Here Berssenbrugge verges on idealism (“ ‘unbounded ambiguity,’” with cheeky quotation marks betraying some literary criticism source text), but in the manner of now’s eternal return. Such reversals and recoveries of the past in a capacious present might shake off this age’s late postmodern and desublimated gloom on the mesa of a Berssenbrugge poem. Riffing on Rimbaud, she has commented, “I don’t have an ‘I.’” With her we become someone else, in the manner of an estranging, freshening, and patient insight vivified by the desert lightning quickness of these poems, their “maze of mirrored surfaces.” 

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