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Gig Ryan

Topsy-Turvy by Charles Bernstein

March 2022, no. 440

Charles Bernstein, born in 1950, is a prolific poet and theorist of Language poetry, which arose in the 1970s in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War movement (or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it). As with similar movements in many countries, including Australia, this now semi-institutionalised poetry began as radical revolt against an established verse culture that preferred its poetry to be an easily palatable, Inauguration-worthy commodity. Instead, Bernstein and his colleagues variously practised a ‘multi-discourse text’ that chipped away at the boundary between poetry and critical theory. ‘Poetry is the aversion of conformity,’ Bernstein writes in an early essay, rephrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a site of perpetual enquiry rather than the expedient repose of fixed meaning.

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Oliver Driscoll’s note on his first book I Don’t Know How That Happened (Recent Work Press, $19.95 pb, 74 pp) praises the inclusive flatness of David Hockney’s still life paintings, and it is to this inclusiveness that his poems and prose pieces aspire. Droll reported speech creates a comic atmosphere but also moves into Kafkaesque alienation where nothing seems to follow any pattern.

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Where are my bay leaves and charms, my bowl with crimson flowers
while he inexorable
has gone from my bed like a dress
Distance: spells of fire wreathe you ...

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Two birds scoop white sky
into the lank pines behind your stone
as if to say we’re with you.
In front the road crofts and peaks.
You can’t pinpoint the sector
but it was adamantine
like your knowing to pull out ...

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Jennifer Maiden’s first books, Tactics (1974) and The Problem of Evil (1975), introduced a fantastically complex and enquiring poetry, with strangely fragmentary assemblages of character wrought from conflict. Both books were partly inspired by television’s gory nightly footage of the Vietnam War ...

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There’s plenty to crack onto, he says, a laundered Valkyrie stomps the DIY:
I reconstitute in the shed, my notes can hit the rafters,
no-one’s selfing over it, like upstairs
on their asbestos balustrade,
a tick-off at the slightest, though their kid
chatters and bounces on the planks.
At last summer rises on a blue cactus.
Without, it’s crumpled outside ...

As her to you, unhurried,
pair formations addle a skyline,
extrovert welcoming traffic, selfless despot on the inner.
Even so, his pin-cushioned face glues to the backdrop’s nest of wombats.
The city changes from one skyscraper and slate
to the creek’s bag-junked ripple,
decisive formaldehyde splitting a cloud’s anagram of discontent,
replacing slouched ...

(Idyll II, Theocritus)


Where are my bay leaves and charms, my bowl with crimson flowers
while him inexorable
has gone from my bed like a dress
Distance: spells of fire wreathe you

Shine on this spin or grave
As sight stunned me

leaves burn
Wheel of brass turning from my door

Now wave is still and ...

You long for night to push away injunctions and sodalities,
sky’s hexagon clouds,
as veins lined with velvet straighten the road and undone casket
and morning’s birds click through dream.

Rest your eyes on the road like an inn,
bundled rubbish a corpse on the nature-strip.
You take the waters.
You embrace a door.
Snaked fields welter through molecu ...

 I remember you as you were, polished and dismissive
now sawdust and spangles lie on cedar.
‘Insufficient funds’ responds to my favoured transaction
at the checkout’s dystopia, a green-haired maenad slices the machine.
You saw in the eyes the future going awa ...

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