Carl Watts on Felix Bernstein’s Burn Book
THE FIRST WORD of the first poem in Felix Bernstein’s Burn Book, just released by Nightboat, is “Charles.” The name both anticipates the opening poem’s blurry childhood memories and foregrounds the raw biographical fact of its author’s parentage. This is fitting; amid his YouTube performances, personas, and polemics, the younger Bernstein has made no attempt to hide or downplay the constant presence of his highly respected parents, artist and editor Susan Bee and poet and professor Charles, or the untimely passing of his sister, Emma Bee Bernstein. Similarly, despite sections named after Emma, Justin Bieber, and actress and filmmaker Eva Ionesco, as well as subject matter ranging from 9/11 to the museumification of punk, Burn Book never strays far from Felix Bernstein’s being a Bernstein. Which makes sense; his obsessive critique of a self-interested, networking-crazed, officially transgressive poetry culture also foregrounds the poet’s complicity in that culture. Burn Book can’t resolve this paradox. One has to commend Bernstein, however, for showing it to us again and again by zooming in on the details of daily life with dad.
Bernstein’s imposing heritage is perhaps what allowed his critical debut, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry, to be as outrageous as it was erudite. Critiquing a poetry scene shaped by “people who check how many Twitter followers a ‘poet’ has before they read their work,” Bernstein seemed mostly unafraid of offending anyone. It didn’t hurt that he showed a shockingly comprehensive knowledge of theory and poetics, tracing a progression from the dead author to the dead reader to the death of work itself. This move both answered and made irrelevant the frequently asked question of whether works of conceptual poetry—in which an overarching idea or method, or simply a mass of found text, takes precedence over conventional authorial manipulation—are “worth reading” in their entirety. Instead, Bernstein regarded such writing as symptomatic of a culture in which actually reading anything from cover to cover is missing the point. Still, he didn’t turn away from the fact that he was formulating these very ideas in a post-work utopia of benefit only to those who can live comfortably without working. Part of what made Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry so weirdly potent was that it openly displayed Bernstein’s privilege—in terms of both everyday economics and instant cultural capital—as much as it did his dizzying intelligence.
Just as his criticism both attacks and partially identifies with a post-conceptual moment, the poems in Burn Book employ some conceptual methods. Much of the collection, however, is more idiosyncratic and scattered, often even traditionally writerly. This may be a calculated move, considering that Kenneth Goldsmith’s infamous reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report has been the catalyst for a barrage of claims that conceptual poetry is callous, formally rigid, or just unable to engage responsibly with systemic oppression (at least when its practitioners have the convenience of ignoring the latter). But Bernstein is definitely not sticking with safe subject matter: “Diana Tive” begins by mentioning “my puny Jewish arms / That can barely pick up a weight let alone a / Jewish princess.” It ends with a torrent of brief statements that collapse lineated verse into prose while also blurring memories of his sister with the images of masturbation that appear regularly throughout the collection: “Enter the sunken dreams Can’t suppress any of them My sister’s corpse appearing each time I jerk Off an eternal Rerunning Cum hitting the TV screen We used to watch TV on together.” Many of the shorter poems’ strongest moments depend on such shifts in style and register, as well as their fusion of the irreverent with the deeply personal. (They don’t claim to provoke simply because of their ties to the conceptual movement.)
Several longer pieces, meanwhile, do include dialogue and found text. “Sexy” consists of film blurbs: “Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis, decides to turn his hectic life around....” A later stanza inserts the name “Eva” into a synopsis of My Little Princess, directed by Ionesco and inspired by her childhood; the next stanza blurbs Felix himself before the poem breaks into a confessional style, closing, “I’m just a striver—indifferent yet ambitious / frigidly waiting for the cum to spray my face / so I can smile and drip and pretend to care.”
Emma—whose welcome appearance prevents things from descending into post-everything flippancy at more than one point in Burn Book—is invoked most poignantly in “EBB.” The poem charts a course from mourning to self-obsession in a format that resembles a chat window or text-message conversation:
Yeah… I’ve thought: communicating with the dead. But that would be too creepy.
Why? Framing is always a way of killing. So no matter what it’ll be creepy.
Okay. But this is also corny.
So is a lot of this book. So is my death. Hanging in a museum.
Later, this conversation is mirrored by a dialogue with Ionesco, whose lawsuit against her mother for photographing her as a child resonates with Bernstein’s references to the auto-erotic videos of his childhood. Burn Book also includes the text of “Adonais or Bieber Bathos Elegy,” which was performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in January. Logically, this section stands apart from the other longer pieces, using its spectacle to cross boundaries in what Bernstein has described as a “queeronormative” arts culture—or, as the piece’s Introduction states, pushing “into another mode of the ecstatic, namely: self-consciousness.” It succeeds, largely by adding a living dimension to the book-publishing routine about which Bernstein already seems so jaded.
Charles’s most striking appearance is in “444 Mutual Friends,” a treatment of social maneuvering that begins, “Friend all of dad’s friends and students on Facebook, like all of their statuses, comment on all of their statuses, pledge allegiance to certain ones, distance yourself from others, trust nobody.” Other imperatives include “don’t do anything to get taken off the invite list,” which resonates nicely with the speaker’s asking why nobody in the ‘90s “spoke up against the bizarre dull trends in poetry and art.” The collection’s explicit references to psychoanalysis are here tempered with the question, “why are you so polemical, are you trying to merely one-up dad, or are you actually trying to do something different[?]”
Now to define “different.” It’s been a few years since Michael Robbins’s “Ripostes” ridiculed the notion that experimental poets are somehow outsiders, locating them instead much closer to the centre of the nebulous mass that is (however disapprovingly or oxymoronically) referred to as “mainstream poetry.” Rather than plotting himself somewhere on Robbins’s nearly circular Venn diagram, however, Bernstein repeatedly lays out the paradox of institutionalized transgression:
Isn’t punk. Lydia
Lunch is more punk
Than Andrea Fraser
Or Hans Haacke.
Now she should
Have a retrospective at
MOMA. In fact,
Give Lydia Lunch
Her own museum
Contained radicalism—the avant-garde of the academy—comes up again and again, as part of both comfortably ironized rants and attempts at transcending this quagmire. In what way does Bernstein transgress against the tenured transgressors? With references to child porn? Descriptions of socialization that resonate because of the self-loathing on virtually every page? Or just a disarmingly open acknowledgement that the avant-garde artwork may be merely a record of social events and networks?
It’s notable that, in “Conversation with SEG,” “FB” is “attracted to at least the romantic attempt to design an escape”: “I want to fall into the actual dysphoric of banality, of being raw, average, and lyrical . . . but I don’t want to write home about it.” These lines, along with other half-ironized statements about having, or wanting, “a kind of ghost friendship with other loners,” recall the thoroughly cheapened image of the lone genius at his desk, which in turn invokes another seldom-discussed element in Bernstein’s constellation of galleries and networks: meritocracy. We all learn at some point that meritocracy is a myth. But, leaving aside dirtbags and pathological cynics, most of us would agree that it’s also an ideal. Let’s be honest: meritocracy was never an ideal—an authenticity?—Felix Bernstein the emerging poet could truly aspire to. The encouragement (again from “444 Mutual Friends”) to “say hi to Prof. Gregg at dinner, he’ll help connect you to Leo Bersani” suggests that, unlike your friend who gets squeamish when you ask him exactly how he got his exciting and rewarding job, Bernstein has no interest in concealing his family connections or denying that the children of the upper-middle class are usually quite successful at staying there. For this reason, I think Burn Book would be important even if it weren’t made up of such smart, funny, harrowing, almost-transgressive poetry.
CARL WATTS is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University. His work has appeared in CV2, Canadian Poetry, Grain, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2014.