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The Yid and Yang of Poet Charles Bernstein

For Poetry Month, a series of encounters with the homely, octopuslike demystifier of verse

Jeremy Sigler
April 26, 2021
Original photo: Wikipedia
Original photo: Wikipedia
Original photo: Wikipedia
Original photo: Wikipedia

I first met Charles Bernstein at a loft party in Manhattan’s flower district on New Year’s Day, pre-Y2K. The loft, owned by Kenneth Goldsmith and Cheryl Donegan, was crawling with poets. I was aiming to refill my drink when I was introduced to the most famous and senior poet in the room, Charles Bernstein, who was with his wife, the painter Susan Bee. We fell right into a conversation, like pingpong. There were no right or wrong answers, nor polite pauses to let the better man verbalize—just a sustained rally, with backspin and topspin. I’d call it “Action Talking.”

At the time, I was in my 20s and employed as the associate editor in the New York office of the Zurich-based international art journal Parkett. Charles had no way of knowing that I was not qualified to actually make anything happen, but he was in pitch mode (see his recent collection of critical essays “Pitch of Poetry”).

“Perhaps Parkett would like to publish a review I just wrote of a new book by Lytle Shaw?” Charles asked, lubricating his lips the way a saxophonist moistens his reed.

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Frank O’Hara’s coterie.”

“His what?”

“Coterie—like clique, or club,” said Charles nodding with teacherly assurance. He was focused on feeding me the ball.

Monday morning arrived. I was back at my desk in Soho, where I discovered a kind email from Charles expressing how delighted he and Susan were to have met me. His book review was attached. I started reading the text immediately, sensing my duty not so much to Charles, nor to Lytle, nor to the legacy of Frank O’Hara, but to poetry. It was now on me to make the pitch to my senior editor, Bice Curiger (pronounced Bee-chay), who was not especially open to advice regarding content. Nor was poetry her “bag.” (Here I refer to a poem in Charles’ new collection Topsy-Turvy that pokes fun at dated hip jargon.)

Like, I mean, it’s not my bag, man.
You are bumming me out. 
[…] Can you dig that?
I’m telling you, man, you’re really chilling
my vibe.

By the end of the day, a short email came back from Bice: “Sounds great! Let’s include it in the next issue.”

My eyes lit up. And I got right to work.

As I continued editing Bernstein’s paper, I realized that the poets of the New York School (circa 1950s) had done something right—their avant-garde wasn’t dominated by a heavy-handed, pretentious manifesto (like that of the Futurists or Dadaists or Surrealists). There was something, less verbal and more relational, holding this network of minds together and allowing their ideas to coalesce into a movement larger than the sum of its parts.

I was beginning to feel the “Bern”—the Bernstein bern—as I embarked on a hunt to find the best images to accompany this project. I went to the photographer, John Jonas Gruen, who spent hours pulling out archived prints that he’d taken at summer gatherings in the ’50s at his cottage in Water Mill. There, O’Hara was surrounded by poet friends like John Ashbery and Jimmy Schuyler; painter friends like Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Willem de Kooning, and Fairfield Porter; theater friends like Stella Adler; and publishing friends like Grove Press’ Dick Seaver, who had just translated Samuel Beckett. Man.

The next time I ran into Charles was on an Amtrak, coming back to NYC from a day teaching in Baltimore. My train was rolling into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station when I spotted Charles on the platform looking professorial (he was also returning from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania). Charles came walking down the center aisle when I flagged him and invited him to join me and my friend and fellow adjunct, William Downs, at our table in the bar car.

Before long, there were nine empty beer bottles strewn across our table and we’d convinced the bartender to fire up the old convection oven and properly broil our hotdogs (a more labor-intensive process than just throwing them in the microwave). After a short while, out came perfectly broiled Hebrew National kosher franks on toasted buns with all the mini packets of Dijon mustard and relish we could have ever asked for.

So there we were, enjoying our picnic as the night whizzed by out the window, as we rocketed northbound towards Princeton Junction, Trenton, and Newark. Normally, when I heard the conductor announce, “Next stop New York’s Penn Station,” it was music to my ears. Not this time.

Meanwhile, we three bonded over our teaching experiences like folk, blues, or jazz musicians livin’ on the road and touring from gig to gig. Charles appreciated hearing from a couple of adjuncts who were still down in the trenches—he seemed pleasantly reminded of his early days shuffling back and forth to Buffalo.

But my bond with Charles also formed around the University of Pennsylvania. I told him I had graduated from Penn in 1991, where I’d studied early American lit with Dr. Elisa New, which was the spark that got me writing poetry. By beer four or five, I was on a regrettable roll—I brought up Bob Perelman, one of Charles’ oldest colleagues from the early days when Charles founded and edited the legendary poetry journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E with Bruce Andrews. Bob was teaching in the English department, and Dr. New had urged him to read my earliest poems, thinking there may have been a bit of Hart Crane in there somewhere. Months later, the batch of poems was returned to me with wimpy little checkmarks at the top of maybe five of the 30 poems and not a single comment. Not his “bag” apparently.

As Charles and William and I exited the train and rode up the escalator to the terminal, Charles was still conversationally hitting his stride, explaining that Penn had always been home to modern literature. Back in the day, he mused, it was less the school to get into and more the school to drop out of—which was certainly the case with Ezra Pound, who left abruptly without a degree to embark on writing The Spirit of Romance, which began as a tour through the South of France in search of the lyrics sung by the first medieval troubadours. It was Pound’s obsession to pin down the allusive source of poetry’s courtly oral tradition that preceded the dawn of the industrialized written page and the age of print.

Over the next decade, after the implosion of the Twin Towers, etc., Charles became deeply entrenched in academics at Penn—on the front line of the so-called poetry wars (presumably against prose), waving Pound’s revolutionary banner and demanding that poets continue to “make it new.” The job of the modern poet was to continue to fight the good fight against conventional, sentimental, truthful, metaphor-laden verse—and to remind readers that the poet’s voice was pure illusion, pure manipulation, a contrived representation, i.e., the carrier of a persona or an aesthetic, in much the way Magritte’s painting of a pipe in his 1929 The Treachery of Images is (as he says) simply NOT a pipe (Ceci n’est pas une pipe).

Charles, on the other hand, IS, or should I say WAS (now he is retired) a very distinguished professor! He was the Donald T. Regan professor of English and comparative literature, and he had joined forces with another Penn prof named Al Filreis to create an online archive called PennSounds, which effectively proliferated and consolidated language poetry—a movement precariously spawned by Charles and Bruce’s journal in the ’70s. There was also the emergence of an internet blog called Jacket2 (founded by John Tranter back in 1997 but hosted by Penn after 2010), that scrolls down and down, seemingly forever, with breaking news about the all-stars of the language school and its many discursive tentacles. Filreis was also instrumental in transforming an old Victorian frat house centrally located on Penn’s tree-lined Locust Walk into a perky clubhouse for creative writing and scholarly debate called the Kelly Writers House.

Together, Filreis—an indefatigable Boy Wonder deeply committed to pedagogy—and Batman Bernstein became the Dynamic Duo that transformed Penn’s lit program into an online rhizome of readings, seminars, lectures, podcasts, conferences, panels, conversations, essays, editorials, obituaries, and Zooms—as well as a carefully curated database of audio and video files documenting historic recordings and interviews given by important poets and other significant artistic and literary figures.

Charles’ reputation was now growing exponentially. Not just from the impact of his published books and lectures around the world, but also because of his position on the flowchart of a newly developing information age of poetic discourse, which was no longer only dominated by scholarly articles written by Ph.D.s and either published by university presses or stockpiled on and confined to JSTOR. You might say that Charles held the algorithmic key to the new web-based kingdom. Seemingly all Google searches, on subjects as broad as Mina Loy to Jackson Mac Low to Harryette Mullen to Leslie Scalapino to Robert Grenier to Larry Eigner to Susan Howe to Laura Riding Jackson to Hannah Weiner to George Kuchar and Charles’ own son, Felix Bernstein, led almost magically to Penn’s hub. And while this was leading to tremendous up-to-the-minute scholarship, many were beginning to feel disenfranchised and to see the language coterie as a language corporation, or worse, a language conglomerate.

Before long the next generation of self-mythologizing conceptual poets, many of whom had been Charles’ students over the years (his class up at Buffalo was once known to student groupies as “home room”), began to call for an even more radical Duchampian mode of readymade poetry (sampled, a la Grandmaster Flash). Discerning critics like Marjorie Perloff rose to the challenge, writing in her book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry By Other Means in the New Century: “Nothing quite prepared the poetry world for the claim, now being made by conceptual poets ... that it is possible to write ‘poetry’ that is entirely ‘unoriginal.’” Charles Bernstein was no longer merely the father of language poetry, but was now the grandfather (or grandmaster) of conceptual poetry.

But what really is a father? And what really is language? And why do these terms remain so slippery? It’s all about who you ask. Or who you don’t ask. Many so-called language poets reject the label outright, and even Charles’ work at times might seem to contradict some of the foundational guidelines. You might say language is just something for poets to bicker about.

My impression is that language poetry is a symptom of postmodernity: It is what remains after the curtain has been drawn back and the manipulator (formerly the writer) has been revealed. After the poem is depersonalized, and the realm of communication destabilized. After meaning is understood to be subjective (based on chance, context, local customs, nationalities, regions, tribes) but never universal.

Language poetry examines inflection, dialect, ceremonial speech—the modes and codes of (mis)understanding. Sincerity and emotion are suspect, while race and gender are always ostensibly at the center. In a nutshell, it is an assault on the official presumptions and convictions of the official authors of the official cultures.

Charles’ poetry, meanwhile, continued roving around in all directions—morphing from the gibberish of Dada, to the thingness of William Carlos Williams, to the serial repetition of Stein, the confessional masturbation of Ginsberg, the projective cadence of Charles Olson, the line breaks of Robert Creeley, the over-the-top polyglot of Pound, the sermon of Emerson, the sublime metaphysics of Hölderlin, the punchy skits of Sid Caesar, the courtroom pleas of Lenny Bruce, the logic of Ludwig Wittgenstein … this is not to mention his acquired taste for jargon, authorless signs, how-to manuals, and the strategies of coercive ad copy.

Charles remains a vacuum sucking up every kind of form into his giant opus. Game, you might say, for any word strategy, any possibility of assembling a new model, of indexing a new vocabulary, or coordinating a new word complexion, while dodging clichés by reflexlike obstacles in a video game. His work is a source of reinvigoration and is beginning to seem like common sense rather than a shrine to obscure avant-garde alienation. His polyversification has become Prêt-à-poésie. In a section from another poem in Topsy-Turvy, ZENO’S WAY, Charles pokes fun at the infinite trappings of reading and writing:

Three steps
ahead, knocked
to floor;
get up,
pushed two
steps behind,
knocked down
again; get
up. Two
steps ahead,
time out.

The inchoate underpinnings of Charles’ poetics can be found as far back as his college thesis from the late ’70s, written at Harvard under the mentorship of the legendary philosopher/aesthete Stanley Cavell. In this paper, (which can be linked to and read for free somewhere in cyberspace), Charles unpacks Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and none other than Bernstein, Charles. The dissertation starts from the two poles and works inward towards the center (ibid. Bernstein, Charles). On one pole, we find LW’s reductive often subtracted sentences, (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”). And on the other pole, GS’s turbo alto syntax. In The Making of Americans, Stein comes across like Charlie Parker:

Repeating then is in every one, in every one their being and their feeling and their way of realising everything and every one comes out of them in repeating. More and more then every one comes to be clear to some one. Slowly every one in continuous repeating, to their minutest variation, comes to be clearer to some one. Every one who ever was or is or will be living sometimes will be clearly realised by some one.

Stein does not just write to express her point prosaically; it’s as if she grafts language like a mad scientist in a laboratory. There was also her preoccupation with what she termed the Lost Generation—a concern for the deficit of new humans (i.e., future day Stein readers) due to so many breeders marching off gladly to get their reproductive organs blown off or worse in wars.

Charles’ parents did manage to procreate, allowing Charles (born in 1950) to attend Bronx High School of Science, live in an apartment on the Upper West Side, and claim a plot of the free verse to call his own. In the factionalized literary scenes of New York of the ’70s, Bernstein developed his chops as a polemicist, teacher, editor, writer, and quasi-performer—a poetry recitation could now come off more like a witty wedding toast than a solemn prayer or meeting-house confession. I’m reminded here that I once made a breakthrough toast at a wedding. It was a moment of visceral connection, during which several people literally fell off their chairs. I was approached afterward and asked politely “Who did I write for?” My response was “Nobody, I’m a poet. I write for myself.” But in the context of Bernstein’s poetics, I now see that I may have been mistaken. I was in fact a staff writer for the industry known as poetry. How was I to know?

Bernstein, however, is less the furloughed bohemian imagining that he is writing only for himself—not marooned, disowned, or marginalized. Instead, he is employed, populated, by poetry. He is well-read and plugged in. The company is all in attendance in his list-poem “My Father Would Be a Yarn Salesman.” In this half-sarcastic index, Charles nods with an air of faux superiority like a tremendously erudite critic with a major Faustian complex.

Giotto cannot be categorized
Petrarch is a conformist
Chaucer is misunderstood
Brunelleschi brought me to tears
Swift is too cerebral
Vico is emotionless
Watteau is racist
Handel is a fake
Bach is perfect
Scarlatti is dated
Blake is a careerist
Napoleon is a hooligan
Wordsworth is affirmative
Hegel is shallow
Coleridge is mired in fantasy
Jane Austen is cynical
Schopenhauer is cynical
Byron is uncompelling
Shelley is an intellectual thug

Bach, I agree, is pretty damn perfect!

Bernstein is often perceived as a gregarious guy who writes to hype the studio audience and push the laugh track. He’s not scribing coy confessions with a dribbling quill onto a ruled page nor glamorizing the clacking of his typewriter; he reads and writes in the technology of today’s ridiculous customs and ceremonies, prepared to game the language codes and show us not only who he is (what he has to say) but who we are (what we have to think).

In his “The Difficult Poem” (from Attack of the Difficult Poems, 2011) already something of a classic, he pretends to give free advice, like the host of a late-night call-in radio show for desperate poets and readers:

You may be asking yourself how’d I get interested in this topic of the difficult poem. Let me be frank about my situation. I am the author of and frequent reader of difficult poems. Because of this I have a strong desire to help other readers and authors with hard to read poems. By sharing my experience of over thirty years working with difficult poems, I think I can save you both time and heartache. I may even be able to convince you that the most difficult poems you encounter can provide very enriching aesthetic experiences.

Charles assures us that “Many other readers confront this on a daily basis.” And he then offers even more faux consolation: “You are not alone.”

Charles may be more alone than we think. And he can often be quite old-fashioned. As he writes in “CLOUDS AFTER RAIN” (another poem in Topsy-Turvy) “the happy are out of tune with their grief//a lost soul is at home in his homelessness.” Do these lines echo the old romantic ideal? Is he seeking comfort in the phantasmagoric terror of the open air? Is he singing of his yearning to be let out and then barking to be let back in again?

Allow me to think this through. The poem emerges “homeless,” though it may then charm the world and win over the hospitality of strangers. Shelley sent his poems up in cute little homemade hot air balloons, wondering if and where they would land. If all goes well, a poem will be discovered, and read, and absorbed, and uploaded into the collective taste of its generation—released from whatever breathy Gothic emotion and hallucinatory imagination, and moment of mad typing stirred the thing into existence.

In Topsy-Turvy, Bernstein speaks about being down-home in his homelessness. I should clarify here, before I go any further, that to my ear the word “down-home” is pronounced dayln-haowm. This would technically be known as Batimorese (Bawlmerese), a blue-collar accent that originated in East Butt Fuck, around where I was born. It’s significant in the context of Charles through his association to Ezra Pound, who in his late cantos began to pull a sort of Robin Williams, shifting dialects on the dime from Wisconsin-ese to the sort of Gaelic slender “r” sound we associate with Irish poets like Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats, to fake Mandarin. According to the Pound scholar Richard Sieburth, Pound had a “gift for mimicry.” The über-meshuganah’s polyglot can be heard in all its splendor on various recordings and on his infamously fanatical pro-Mussolini Italian radio rants during WWII. Sieburth actually goes deeper, proposing (speculating) what Pound may have had on his mind: Poetry’s sonic spoken origin was presumably disturbed by the stingy Jews, who were not only guilty of global financial corruption but were also to blame for being compelled to write it all down in their bulky Torahs.

Charles loves to role-play (perhaps with an ironic wink) the wandering bluesy poet, the archetypical, allegorical, homeless (certainly unpublished) protagonist, or as William Blake would have it, the shepherd. But unlike Blake, he dares the reader to question his sincerity and authenticity. In a poem simply titled “23” he writes: “You lead me from dark, turbulent waters//To sun-drenched meadows.” It appears to be a direct paraphrasing of the 23rd Psalm of David (“The Lord is my Shepherd …”). I didn’t have to Google that one or crack open a Bible to know it was coming directly from God.

If we, as readers of language poetry, feel we’ve been tricked by the emotion of this poem, we might choose to punish the poet by putting him on a boat without a keel, and sending him into exile.

In other poems, I can actually imagine Charles as the bardic cliché—as the legendary Chinese master, Cold Mountain, or perhaps even as the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (aka “Citizen of the World”), who allegedly lived in a wine barrel, forever free of domesticity.

In Topsy-Turvy, the stuttering Stein (“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”) gets snagged on a thorn. In the poem “I’S SONG,” Charles writes in dubious words that make one wonder from where they’ve been appropriated:

Dead to this world’s wrong
Dwells, still, I, in my song
In every thorn, at every morn

Is this poem influenced by Emily Dickinson’s lofty bedroom overlooking the trees? A section of Dickinson’s similar poem reads:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—

Or is Charles groaning from the gutter in Tin Pan Alley like Stephen Foster, a composer working on his last song?

Sounds of the rude world heard in the day
Lull’d by the moonlight have all passed away!

Another time that my path crossed with Charles was at an Ugly Duckling Presse board meeting. The board was like the Rat Pack scheming to rob a casino, forgetting that no one in poetry has a cent or a safe to crack. Across from me was Charles, working with me (and Edwin Frank and Matvei Yankelevich) to make the vodka disappear. How to raise enough money to keep Ugly Duckling afloat for one more season was the question. And then Charles delivered what could have been the last monologue in a Chekhov play. He admitted that he’d sat at so many board meetings of so many independent presses over the years and that he’d heard the same complaint so many times. The trick, he said, looking straight at me, was to find that one filthy rich Swiss art collector somewhere in Zurich (wink wink) willing to dump a few hundred grand on a little poetry experiment. “Or a few million,” I said, reminding Charles that most philanthropists are insulted if your ask is too puny.

That night Charles offered me a ride home. We zipped down Atlantic Ave, past the Barclays Center (which was still a giant hole in the ground), and finally into the vicinity of Brooklyn Heights. I was so engrossed in our conversation that I forgot to tell him to stop at my house on Hicks. Instead, we sped three blocks too far. As I walked to my stoop, he stretched across the passenger seat, rolled down the window, and yelled out that my house was only a few blocks from where Hart Crane once lived. Thanks, Charles!

One Saturday afternoon I was at the Bowery Poetry Club taking part in a whiskey tasting event. A bottle of very smoky Scotch was being passed around. I noticed right away that Charles was extremely drunk and a little off-kilter. The poet Tan Lin leaned toward me and whispered in my ear, had I had heard the sad news? “What news?” I asked. He then quietly explained that Charles’ daughter Emma had died in Italy, in Venice, earlier that month (at age 23, in the year 2008). She had taken her own life.

I looked around the room and realized I was a latecomer to the tragic news which had already spread like wildfire. It was now all too obvious that Charles and Susan were grieving, and that I had been swept into a quasi-funerary service. I felt all the hair on my body stand on end as my head dropped like a cannonball. My heart was in a freefall and so was Tan’s. We both had young daughters and were both in those early years of being proud fathers.

Charles wound up reading a poem that ended in what can only be described as a wail. The entire room was crushed. Then he made for the door with Susan and others in a kind of procession. And on his way past me, he stopped for a moment. No longer were there words.

In Topsy-Turvy, Charles has a line: “grief is tonic to despair.” Here I feel he is speaking from personal experience and with utter sincerity. I hear an old soul espousing some old-school wisdom.

Years have passed and time has had its chance to heal. But has it? Will it? Charles recently mentioned to me that Topsy-Turvy is the third book in a trilogy devoted to Emma. The book opens with the lyrics of a very old Delta blues song from the oral tradition (“Last Kind Words,” by Geeshie Wiley) as its epigram (conceivably the first time these lyrics have ever been written down.) “What you do—to me baby—it never gets outta me,” moans Geeshie.

Charles and Susan now live in Cobble Hill, within walking distance of my house. The other day, he informed me that he’d gotten his COVID shots and was up for some Action Talking. We had many laughs and impolite rallies and four hours later, I looked at the clock and realized I’d basically fallen under hypnosis. Perhaps he had too. I quickly gathered my belongings and we said our goodbyes, and knocked elbows. I strapped on my mask and walked down Smith Street. All I could remember from our talk was one thing Charles had said: “People don’t realize that I’m so homely.”

I decided to look it up. “at ease: comfortable and familiar like home.” I thought back to my meeting with Charles, remembering that he was actually dressed in his pajamas and slippers. That could be considered a little homely, I guess. “Can Charles be considered homely?” I asked myself, thinking he’s more bluesy than homely—a bluesy Jew, in the tradition that goes back to Brecht and Weill, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Benny Goodman.

Critics have argued in the past that Charles’ work may indeed have a basis in Judaism or at least in Yiddish, like the Objectivist writers Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, who were raised in Orthodox (or let’s just say very Jewish) families on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, and that he has created a kind polyglot form of poetry rooted somewhere deep in his origins. But is he a mutt (or, to quote Duchamp’s pseudonym, “R. Mutt”)? If not, just whose mutt is he?

Mina Loy once wrote a poem titled “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose.” And in an article originally written in 1998 in her book Poetry On and Off the Page—Essays for Emergent Occasions, Perloff engages in a lingo-tango with Loy, writing: “in this allegorical, parodic, often disjointed pseudo-narrative of the poet’s ancestry, birth, childhood, and coming of age, we have Loy’s most compelling representation of her ‘“mongrelization’—the ‘crossbreeding’ of the English and Hungarian-Jewish strains that produced, so the author herself seems to feel a form of mental and emotional gridlock that could be overcome, in life as in art, only by large doses of the transnational avant-gardism of the interwar period.” Charles is, in this regard, a little like Loy.

Bernstein’s Topsy-Turvy makes numerous homely references to Yiddish. We encounter the word “Alter cocker” (meaning crabby) and “cockamamie,” a word my father used growing up, though I still haven’t a clue what it means. In fact, come to think of it, the word may not even be Yiddish, it might just sound Yiddish-y … in which case it is more Yiddish than Yiddish. In the poem “BEFORE THE PROMISE,” Charles writes:

Morning on this pole
Midnight at the other
Slipping, slapping, sliding
On a cockamamie roll

Charles also cites the historic Yiddish of the Jews in his short poem “AFTER REZNIKOFF,” which reminds us of the tribe being cast out and/or perpetually enslaved or gridlocked:

How difficult, Yiddish, for me;
even father, the Yiddish for, Hebrew,
tongue’s foreign. Like home never had
or ones do.

Yiddish thus presents us with a paradox. As Charles indicates above, it is a “tongue’s foreign,” a “home never had” (as Sieburth says of Pound, “mimicked,” and as Perloff says of Loy, “pseudo” or “cross-bred,” formulated while in transit, on the fly, as a refugee). But at the same time, embodied in poets like Charles, it is homely, down-home, anchored as the days go by.

I’m reminded of another aspect of Yiddish: the obnoxious (difficult) cut-down artist known as the badchen. The late Yiddish scholar Mel Gordon (a professor of theater arts at Berkeley) explains that, going back to the pogroms, a kind of badass Jewish humorist emerged, a vicious court jester who mocked everyone with no sense of decorum. The badchen would show up at a wedding, insult the bride and groom, and venture shamelessly into inappropriate subjects.

I’m also reminded again of George Kuchar. In a documentary on the late filmmaker, “The Comedy of Underground,” Kuchar stands at a mic introducing one of his films, which he confesses hit too close to home. ”And some you may realize it, those who know me. That it came close to home. So, therefore, I had to change it. I had to make it sort of ambiguous. Make the plot line more like a dream. So it doesn’t tell that much.”

Charles is not, like Kuchar, a campy insider whose sordid humor hits too close to home. Nor is he the bad boy badchen with a limitless arsenal of tasteless jokes, or a descendent of borscht belt comics using double talk. (Bernstein properly examines this technique in an essay recently out from Station Hill Press that compares Dada sound poetry to Sid Caesar’s hilarious mimicked German accent. Even in ”WHISKEY ON RYE,” (not to be confused with Charles Bukowski’s 1982 semi-autobiography Ham on Rye) Bernstein writes a poem that is formally set up just like a joke, with a punch line and all. But the joke ends with an image that is in no way funny. It’s more like a punch in the gut, or a bleak statement of utter COVID fatigue. Here is the full poem:

A flailing poet came to the Alter Cocker Rebbe for advice on how to improve his art. “Stop cursing God,” Rebbe said defiantly. “I constantly praise God in my poems,” insisted the poet. “Stop disparaging your fellow man!” said the rabbi, his voice suffused with sorrow, contempt, and world-weariness. “My poems are filled with praise for my fellow human beings,” the poet lamented, his head deeply bowed. “Show some respect for the nonhuman world,” the Rebbe, now agitated, shouted. “My work is second to none in its engagement with nature,” the poor poet pleaded. “I am sorry,” the Alter Cocker Rebbe told the poet. “There is no help. You are like a sinking ship with nothing to throw off.”

Charles’ poetry is indeed topsy-turvy. Is he playing a game with our emotions? That is for the reader to decide.

But before we get to the book’s last kind words, he checks to see if we’ve consumed enough whiskey (or rye) to be drunk on poetry. In a two-line poem titled “HOW MANY FINGERS AM I HOLDING UP?” Charles writes:

No that’s wrong
You readers don’t have a clue.

Dare we mistake Bernstein to be a brain in a jar with an air-tight ars poetica? Or feel he’s pretending to be Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai who, according to legend, drowned while reaching from his boat in a drunken attempt to grasp the moon’s reflection: “I lift my eyes and see the moon,//I lower my face and think of home.” Is this, perhaps, where the Jew and the Chinaman finally merge, like Yid and Yang?

The last poem in Charles’ book reads:

If anything I have done
Cancels what I feel
Then put me on a boat
Without a keel
And I will row my way back to you
Whatever else I do
Whatever else I do

If we, as readers of language poetry, feel we’ve been tricked by the emotion of this poem, we might choose to punish the poet by putting him on a boat without a keel, and sending him into exile. But as the poem states, Charles is already there. And his predicament is ours, too.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.