May 2013

Erin Lyndal Martin


Hello, the Roses by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

"I want you to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it, but for it to become an integral part of your lives," Frank Lloyd Wright wrote to the occupants of his famed Fallingwater house. Like Wright, poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge is interested in the convergence of the natural and the crafted. Over several decades and a dozen books, she has perfected a poetic voice to this end that utilizes natural imagery while also leaving the architecture of writing exposed.

In Hello, the Roses, Berssenbrugge continues to utilize this voice. Her wording exposes glimpses of the nature she employs, but Berssenbrugge, unlike many "nature poets" (Wordsworth, Hass, Glück, to name a few and cut a wide swath through time) is not drawing her inspiration from nature but from the observation of it, a nuanced but profound difference.

Berssenbrugge becomes moved by words about nature, the way nature and describing it can "form a dimensional bridge to beauty, interacting between light and other world, i.e., intimacy can be a bridge," Berssenbrugge ends the first poem. Take, for instance, a line in the fourth section, "Animal Voices": "As shade trees grow and the orchid grows, space around reflects inspirative beauty." The beauty here is reflected, not shown off as an inherent quality of the landscape. "Plants grow. Their beauty inspires me," another poet might have written. But Berssenbrugge always chooses small, micromanaged motion (note the repetition of "grow"), and so her poems' architecture swallows the natural vistas that appear so often and yet so strategically.

Berssenbrugge is and always has been a poet obsessed with plants and with light, usually in conjunction with one another. A poem ("Health") from her earlier book Four Year Old Girl begins "I cut the stem of the amaryllis, and the water poured out so suddenly, I didn't know what to look at./ There's a blur of force at the cut and a white glaze on the table, before the silhouette coalesces./ Light pours out, collapsing the state of the vector of light-potential in the flower or arriving." In Hello, the Roses, the poem "Green" contains lines like "Light descends easily through horizontal leaves, and the shape of each is distinct/ in the multitude" and "Crossing a marshy place, so many lady slippers, each lavender holding a parabola/ of filtered June light." For Berssenbrugge, a rose is not a rose is not a rose. Rather, her copious lines where light and the natural world mingle seem to signify a sacred space for her speaker, a plane of endless possibility. The only drawback of this imagery is that Berssenbrugge uses it so much that it becomes rather predictable, and the book begins to drag a bit by the third section.

In the fourth section of "Green," Berssenbrugge writes "I'm interested in the resonance of disjunction, of one thing next to another." With that line, she is her own most pithy critic, for her poems, especially toward their endings, often suddenly seem to veer wildly in another direction. The fourth section of "A Placebo" contains such radical enjambments as "Fashion does that, giving shape and color to our inarticulate impulses./ I present the contemporary as liminal, transitions, transparencies." These juxtapositions work to support Berssenbrugge's unspoken hypothesis that all experience is many events happening concurrently, and it is simply a matter of where one focuses.

Often, critics cite Berssenbrugge's main inspiration as the New Mexico landscape in which she lives. While that doubtlessly inspires her, her studies of Buddhist guru, poet, and high lama Chögyam Trungpa seem to be the most formative factor in her writing. For Berssenbrugge, as it was for Trungpa, the mind is an experience all its own, a thing to be studied. In True Perception, Trungpa writes: "Phenomena as traditionally known are inspired purely by the five sense perceptions. We also try to piece phenomena together, to record and edit them in our mind, which in Buddhism is considered a sixth sense." In "The Lit Cloud," Berssenbrugge writes, "Because everything I perceive is in place in gold light, its relating to me is intrinsic." "I compare the first shoot of veronica to seeing it now," she writes in "Verdant Heart."

"So in order to develop a really freestyle work of art, you have to have the awkwardness of seeing yourself being awkward. That kind of watcher seems to be necessary, actually," Trungpa writes (again in True Perception). In an interview with Charles Bernstein, Berssenbrugge says, "A lot of my method compensates for my natural awkwardness." This awkwardness is likely comprised of Buddhist ideas of the self and the observation thereof. In an interview with Laura Hinton, Berssenbrugge says, "But also with inside and outside, woman and not-woman -- these don't necessarily need to be dichotomies. They can also be continuities." In the same interview, Hinton relates a conversation with Leslie Scalapino about Berssenbrugge's work:

So in my recent conversation with Leslie, I said to her that I do think there's something in both writings that's evocative, one of the other. Yet I couldn't identify what it was. Leslie told me that she agreed, that both of your poetries are interested in perception, and that they suggest an "inside and outside" existing simultaneously at once, that there was a sense of simultaneity in the writing and its object.

Further, Berssenbrugge's Buddhist ideas inform her choice of speaker, or lack thereof. The "I" in her poems is often transparent. We learn very little about the speaker, aside from the speaker's perception of the world. Such an empty "I" points to the Buddhist concept of the lack of a stable selfhood. In the same interview with Bernstein, Berssenbrugge gives a telling remark when asked about writing autobiographically: "No, I would like to try autobiography. But I don't have a succinct character that is an 'I' to work with. When I think of myself in poetry, it is multifaceted. It is inside and outside."

Several lines in Hello, the Roses point to this transient state, to the multifaceted observations of the world: "Any event has this invisible thickness, its other dimensions," she writes in "DJ Frogs." "I present the contemporary as luminal, transitions, transparencies," she writes in "A Placebo." Perhaps the pinnacle of her ability to observe as a polymorphous self is the succinct moment in "Winter Whites," where she writes that "an experience is not one experience."

In her article "Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's Four Year Old Girl and the Phenomenology of Mothering," Megan Simpson writes:

In her work Berssenbrugge challenges many assumptions of the American mainstream poetic style (the verse of inconspicuous craft, personal voice, clarity, closure) and shares with the language writers an interest in foregrounding the operations of language itself. Yet her emphasis on image, fluidity, and spirituality set her firmly apart from language writing per se. Her interest in hybrid states and fluid boundaries links her project to those of some other contemporary Asian American writers.

However, one must be careful not to reduce Berssenbrugge to a Buddhist perspective or situate her purely with an Eastern tradition. Not only was Berssenbrugge raised primarily in Massachusetts; she is also well versed in European philosophy that also informs her work. She has said that when preparing for a new book, she reads both a book of Asian philosophy and a book of Western philosophy and that she particularly likes Deleuze.

This makes it especially appropriate to turn to Deleuze to shed light on Berssebrugge's work, just as it also makes sense to look to Berssenbrugge to make Deleuze's work more vivid and poetic. The two writers especially share a unique perspective on the paradox of embodiment. Berssenbrugge has often discussed her own weak immune system and how it affects not only her observation of the world but also her very observation of that observation.

In "Matter as Simulacrum; Thought as Phantasm; Body as Event," Nathan Widder writes:

The material and the mental must relate to each other without a reduction of their divergence. For Deleuze, this indicates that sense and meaning must arise from within this world, even if they remain irreducible to the world's corporeality; they must delineate and organize this corporeal world, even though they do not change the latter's materiality. He puts the resulting paradox in the following terms: "How can we maintain both that sense produces even the states of affairs in which it is embodied, and that it is itself produced by these states of affairs or the actions and passions of bodies (an immaculate conception)?"

Note that there is nothing in Deleuze's ideas on sense and corporeality that contradicts Buddhist ideas of anatta, or lack of selfhood, another facet of Deleuze that makes his work palatable for Berssenbrugge. Widder goes on to write:

The body as an event is Deleuze's answer to the problem of traditional dualisms that his ontology of sense invites. It is neither one side of an insurmountable binary opposition nor a moment within a dialectical passage. It connects two multiplicities through a disjunctive synthesis and, as such, includes a difference that exceeds identity and representation. The body is the expression of this sense of difference, of the being of sense itself.

Berssenbrugge would likely add that the mind is also an event, or rather, many events. And experiencing the world through her mind, through her empty I's, is a wondrous thing indeed.

Hello, the Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811220910
108 pages